Looking at character arcs By M.Schinke
Take a shot right from the bottle, Opinionnerds…
I’ve been trying to process my feelings in regards to the second season of Marvel and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Based on the Marvel comic Alias, Jessica Jones tells the story of Jessica (Krysten Ritter)who, after an accident in which she loses her family, is granted super-powers that she neither wants nor knows what to do with. Her adopted sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child star and recovering addict working as a radio show host in New York, wants her to use her powers to help people. Jessica, however, has not fully processed the trauma of her loss after 17 years of avoiding the pain. She drinks, she fights, she fucks; anything to avoid dealing with that hurt. Season 1 focused on Jessica’s unfinished business with a former captor who controlled her and used her powers to kill someone against her will. Season 2 picks up the pieces of what that means for the character, as well as spending a healthy amount of screen time on the lives of her supporting cast including sister Trish, her P.I. assistant Malcom Ducasse (Eka Darville) and attorney Gerri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss).
From here on out there will be mild spoilers. If you haven’t watched Season 2 of Jessica Jones, or even Season 1, before reading this, turn back now. You have been warned.
Some Go Up, Some Go Down
Character arcs are fun to play with. Like real people, a fictional person needs change or they risk suffering negative effects on their character. Without this growth or change there is no story to tell. I came across a really nice piece by writer Veronica Sicoe (@VeronicaSicoe) that outlines not only some of the different types of character arcs but really digs into the structure of how they are implemented in a piece of work. (The 3 Types of Character Arc – Change, Growth and Fall – April 29, 2013) The reason I bring this up is because recognizing characters arc is something that is vitally important to properly assessing any story be it on film, television or any other form. As I discussed in my What Was That All About? on Blade (1998), one way to find the conceit in a film is to look at the protagonists arc and the choice they make that leads them to completion of their story. Whatever that choice may be is typically the films conceit, or at least closely related to it. This is one of the many good reasons for developing a solid tool set for evaluating a character arc because if you don’t understand how the characters journey works you will never understand their story.
As outlined in Veronica’s article, the three major types of character arcs are The Change Arc, The Growth Arc and The Fall Arc. To quote Veronica;
The Change Arc — this is our good old “hero’s journey”, which basically has the protagonist change from an unlikely fellow into a savior and hero. This transformation is quite radical, and despite some inner strength that was “always within him”, pretty much all else about the protagonist changes drastically by the end of the story.
The Growth Arc — in this character arc, the protagonist overcomes an internal opposition (weakness, fear, the past etc.) while he faces an external opposition, and as a result he becomes a fuller, better person. He’s still pretty much who he was, just upgraded to Protagonist 2.0.
A common yet often overlooked variant of the Growth Arc is The Shift Arc — here, the protagonist changes his perspective, learns different skills, or gains a different role. The end-result is not “better” or more than the starting point, just different. The protagonist has not overcome a grand inner resistence or anything, he simply gained a new set of skills or assumed a new position, maybe discovered a talent he forgot he had, or a different vocation.
The Fall Arc — commonly known as a “tragedy”, the Fall Arc follows the protagonist as he dooms himself and/or others, and declines into insanity, immorality or death.
Thanks to the over-reliance on the monomyth, or the heroes journey, as outlined in Joseph Campbell‘s book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, most audiences are far more quick to recognize a story with a Change Arc than any other. This puts audiences at a severe disadvantage as a good number of films, most especially the franchise films that we are all so enamored with, will feature one of the two other types of arcs. In his video essay, DC Film’s Character Problem, essayist Patrick (H) Willems (@PatrickHWillems) describes what he feels is a weakness in the current DC films by saying it’s characters have no arcs in theirs stories. He points out that in Man of Steel since we don’t see Clark go through a change, we never learn why he wants to help people. As his examples of what constitutes good arcs he cites both Christopher Nolan‘s Batman Begins and Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man as we see a clear progression of change over the course of the film. I would argue this is true only in the case of Raimi’s Spider-Man. As a solid origin tale this movies exemplifies the Change Arc – the character begins the story one way, and by they end has become different in a tangible way. The character of Peter Parker has been altered on a fundamental level by his experiences. In the case of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is not fundamentally changed by his experiences. At the start of the film, Bruce knows who he is and he knows what he wants. By the end of the end of the film he has developed the means to achieve that goal; but the story has not changed who he is. The issue I take with Patrick is, like many are apt to, he only seems to recognize the Change Arc as being a valid character vehicle. Part of the reason is because of the cultural profusion of the monomyth, but part of it is also because the Change Arc is an affecting one. We recognize a character that endures a struggle and grows as a result. The problem with that kind of arc is a matter of practicality – you can really only do it once with that character. How many times can a character endure an event that alters them in such a fundamental way? This might be a reason why people have a tendency to dismiss sequels as not being as good as their preceding films; they can’t recognize the value in any arc that isn’t a Change Arc. That’s a shame too as I feel that there is much more value in these other arcs that goes criminally un-recognized by those outside the community of writers and critics.
Jessica’s Long, Hard Fall
At the end of Jessica Jones’ first season, Jessica finally faces down the devil that has haunted her for so many years. By understanding that she was never really free of him and, in finally becoming so, the ending of Season 1 was to signal a new beginning for Jessica. This was not a Change Arc, as Jessica ends the season as pretty much the same person she began. Rather she experiences a Growth Arc – she faces her situation and becomes a fuller, better version of herself. At least, that was the idea it seemed. The beginning of Season 2, however, takes all of that, throws it into the nearest nuclear reactor, incinerates it and then spits on the ashes.
Season 2 follows Jones as she, Trish and Malcolm begin to unravel the mystery of where Jessica’s powers come from. Jessica has clearly gained nothing positive from having snapped Kilgrave’s (David Tenant) neck in Season 1’s finale and the after effects have driven her deeper into her darkness. Each step on the journey the characters take will present them with choices and each one, in turn, will make the choice they know is wrong. One by one the characters will make choices that will send them spiraling downwards, outwards and away from one another. Of course Jessica’s road wil be the hardest, as it should be seeing as it’s her name on the marquee. Jessica will discover her mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer) survived the accident that took her family much the same way she did, powers and all. Her mother suffers from a blinding, uncontrollable rage that leads her to great violence and one of the questions of the season is to what degree those monstrous acts are truly out of her control. Jessica has to face this not only as a reflection of herself but also a challenge to the thin, chocolate frosting of morality that she desperately clings to. Her mother is a monster that she has sworn to bring in; but she is still her mother. Jessica must contend with the fact that she knows well and good the only way to stop her mother is to end her but, out of fear of what that means for the kind of person she is after Kilgrave, as well as for the fact that if she does her family will truly be gone, Jessica will continually make choices to avoid that which will complicate her life and lead her away from what she knows is right. In the process, her friends will react to her choices questionably as Trish looks to gain abilities to defeat her own feeling of powerlessness and Malcolm will look to occupy himself in the face of his own addictive nature as Jessica marginalizes him. Each of these characters, along with Alisa, is on a variation of the Fall Arc and the show, to it’s credit, doesn’t let any of them off the hook by the end.
While watching the season play out I had trouble connecting elements of Jessica’s story together properly because I was looking for the character to be on either a Change or Growth Arc, as one would expect from what is billed as a, “Superhero” program. I should have known better than to assume and, because of that, my initial viewing experience was less than satisfying. For example, I couldn’t properly connect what Jessica was experiencing after killing Kilgrave, and what that meant to the greater story concerning her mother, in anything more than a superficial way. Until I realized that I was watching a Fall Arc at play I was waiting for the character to break out of her funk and finally, “do the right thing”; whatever that meant for this story. What I came to realize was that this fear she was carrying was preventing her from doing what was right and, as she could not resolve that inner conflict and bring herself to do what was necessary, she continued to make choices that drove her further down that rabbit hole. The character herself would often remark at how she was well aware of what the right choices were but she would continue to choose poorly resulting in further, deeper damage to her character. This would be more or less true for all the characters in the show; though they all knew better, their situations made those, “wrong” or, “bad” choices seem logical and even desirable at the time. Each of them is presented with choices and each one chooses options that end up blowing up their lives. This is the Fall Arc – the characters comfortable status quo is disrupted and each comes out of the story in a worse position than when they entered it.
Audiences often misunderstand what a Fall Arc means for a character or story. We have a tendency to think that any tragedy must ultimately resolve with the death of the character or characters and that everything in their world will end in misery; and no one wants to partake in a date night viewing that ends in a complete bummer. While this can often be the end result of a Fall Arc it doesn’t always have to be. A Fall Arc means that a character is, for whatever reason, making choices that they (and we) know are the wrong ones. While this can lead to the ultimate destruction of a character, it can also lead them to the opportunity to find a greater truth. Such is the case with Jessica by the end of this season. She has lost the family she built in the first season and she’s even come to find that the coveted memories of life before her accident may not be what she believed. However she’s given the chance to take these experiences and apply them to a new relationship as she knows herself and her limits better as a result of this journey. That, if handled correctly, will continue to inform her character going forward. While this can technically be considered as a Shift Arc, this shift doesn’t occur until the very end of the last episode of the season; so we can set aside that definition for now. In fact, every character is allowed a fresh start or sorts; opportunities to make good on lessons learned. Going forward they will be offered new challenges and new choices. How they react to those is a story for another time.
Bring It Back To Me
In my humble opinion, Season 2 of Jessica Jones has some issues that prevent all this great story work from solidly landing. The main issues holding it back are a lack of an adversarial dynamic as interesting as Jessica’s and Kilgrave’s in Season 1, and the productions desire to see that all the shows secondary characters are given their own story line to follow. While I can appreciate the work done on the story between Jessica and her mother, the story lines for the secondary characters (most noticeably the Hogarth and Malcolm stories) don’t add much to the plot that’s very necessary or interesting and can be somewhat redundant. The season also take a little while to find its footing and doesn’t end with much of a climax. So while there is some intensity, there is also a feeling of great flatness. However I urge you not to let my opinion sway your interest as there are some great, shining moments of performance from the cast. With some true menace at times coming off of McTeer, the elder Jones is sometimes a frightening figure of feminine rage. And while Ritter is allowed to let Jessica be more vulnerable I never really felt she was effectively reaching the breaking point the story was pushing her towards. Maybe this is a matter of holding a little something back for the next go around but I honestly can’t imagine a more emotionally intense experience for the character that doesn’t involve making her sit by helpless while the writers make her watch all her friends die slowly. I really think that’s where they would have to go to drag her down any further. This season saw Jessica fall far and hit the ground hard but, as anyone who’s seen the show knows, Jessica is a tough lady to keep down.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.