The tragic failure of Jessica Jones

No one could accuse Netflix and Marvel of not making an impact with Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter’s heroine is already widely loved, David Tennant’s mind controlling villain Kilgrave is praised as Marvel’s best ever, and its bold challenge to rape culture and foregrounding of the experience of an abuse victim have drawn justified praise. It is also impressively stylish. Indeed, I could so easily now be writing a fawning review.

Instead, I am going to say Jessica Jones doesn’t really work. Its great elements are compiled haphazardly, and its good ideas get swamped by its dull and indifferent ones.

At the root of these problems is the show’s attempt to fill 13 hours. For all its thematic complexity Jessica Jones actually has quite a simple plot. Part of what makes Kilgrave menacing is how mundane he is. He doesn’t want to rule the world – just one woman. That is a clever conceit but it creates problems when stretched. To see why contrast Jessica Jones with Daredevil, the previous Marvel/Netflix team up. It was a more conventional superhero story. So there was plenty to watch as the hero peeled back the layers of the villain’s organisation and plan. In Jessica Jones there is just Kilgrave. And the writers don’t know how to create enough variety and structure into this confrontation to fill a whole series.

So they wind up derailing their own story to prevent it reaching its climax in under 13 hours. That results in a lot of repetition, contrivances and filler. Points that were made effectively – such as Kilgrave’s cruelty to strangers – are remade for no good reason. At various point characters do things which are explicable only as ways to extend the proceedings, which robs them of plausibility. And a lot of space is given to uninteresting sub-plots that leech momentum out of the main story. Really who cares whether a lawyer who Jessica sometimes works for is divorcing her wife? The result of all these efforts to stop the series reaching its crescendo too early is that it never does. Tension ratchets up and down more or less at random, and there’s precious little forward momentum. Indeed I spent the final chapter waiting for rather than anticipating the end. Or put another way watching it became a chore.

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NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 10: Krysten Ritter filming “Jessica Jones” on March 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)

Most of this could have been avoided if the series had been eight episodes long like Agent Carter. Even trimming it back to ten episodes would probably have made a sizeable difference.

There may well be some merit to Oliver Sara at Vulture’s suggestion that the show should swim against current trends and adopt a ‘case of the week’ structure. It would be possible to have Kilgrave gradually emerge from these individual cases in a way analogous to how Moriarty hovers in the background of Sherlock even when he is not the main antagonist. You could avoid episodes full of dead space if they each had their own arc. That in turn probably would have allowed the series to expand to the network TV standard run of 22 episodes. Either way, Netflix dropped the ball by commissioning 13 episodes.

I would incline to trimming the series because expanding it would not solve the show’s other major problem: its supporting characters. Many of whom would have been best left out altogether. The most obvious candidates for the cut are Jessica’s comic relief neighbours, who jar with the tone of the rest of the show and whose inclusion seems to mystify even critics who gave it otherwise glowing reviews. Fortunately, they occupy a modest amount of screen time. A bigger problem is Sgt Will Simpson. He’s depicted by someone who’s been to the Brett Dalton School of delivering one-note tough guy performances yet the writing of his character is all over the place. I think he’s supposed to be aggravating and winds up being so. Just probably not in the way the writers intended. Removing all his lines and all the scenes centred on him would have been a good step towards getting proceedings moving more smoothly. Of course the deficiency of the secondary characters is made all the more obvious by how good the hero and villain are.

That’s the tragedy of Jessica Jones. There’s an excellent show buried inside the limp one that’s currently showing on Netflix. The first hour gripped me sufficiently hard that even as grew disgruntled with the rest of the series, there was no question of not finishing it. And the episode where Jessica faces the dilemma of whether to try and change her abuser is one of the best hours of TV I have seen this year. But these glimmers of greatness are too few and far between. The show meanders its way into a rut it is unable to escape from and ultimately winds up as Marvel’s weakest TV project to date.

I don’t understand the Labour Party anymore. Can you explain it to me?

For six months now I’ve been misreading what is happening in the party. So it’s time I fessed up to what I know I don’t know.

Until a few months ago I thought I got the Labour Party. I’d spent the best part of a decade fighting elections against it and therefore had by necessity developed pretty good instincts about what it would do. Then Jeremy Corbyn was elected its leader.

That I’m not such a great Labour watcher is with hindsight not much of a surprise. I don’t know that many Labour Party members and those I do are a rather unrepresentative subset. And while I’ve made a habit of reading Conservative Home, I don’t do the same with any media specifically targeting Labour supporters. Which is I suppose a gap I should probably fill.

Given my limited sources of information I have found it hard to get a read on how things are going to pan out within the Labour Party next. In particular, I have no real sense of the following:

1) How different are the new members of the Labour Party from the old ones?

If I got talking to a random person at a Labour event, what if anything would let me know whether they had recently joined the party? Assuming their views differ from those of old-timers, is that simply because they are new or are the new members joining post-GE2015 noticeably different from the people who joined before?

2) Are these new members becoming activists?

My prejudice is that people who join parties when something exciting happens to that party are disproportionately likely to stay grassroots members. Does that apply in this case? Are lots of these new members going to start showing up on local party execs, in council groups and ultimately as MPs?

3) Is Momentum a big deal?

Or is it a modest deal the media is getting excited about because it’s new?

4) Are issues of foreign and defence policy as divisive in the wider Party as they appear to be in the PLP?

5) How cohesive are the Labour right?

If Simon Danczuk thinks something is it safe to assume Tristram Hunt agrees? Do Alan Johnson and an armchair who dislikes Corbyn have a similar viewpoint? To what extent are the various actors who are seen as being on the right of the Labour Party actively co-ordinating with each other?

6) When anti-Corbynites dream of replacing Corbyn, who do they dream of replacing him with?

I tend to assume Chuka Umunna or Alan Johnson but I fear that means I’m a bit like the journalists who used to tout Danny Alexander as a potential future Lib Dem leader:  I think of them because they are the people I know about rather than because they are the most likely candidates.

7) Could Corbyn continue as leader after a General Election defeat?

The normal rule seems to be that if a party loses a General Election, its leader will either step down or be forced out. But many of the normal rules seem to no longer apply. Is this one of them?

8) Is there a potential Corbynite leader besides Corbyn himself?

Can he pass the leadership onto someone with a similar ideology? Might that person appear more primeministerial?

9) Does all this stuff affect the ability and willingness of the Labour Party to campaign to stay in the EU?

Should I be worried that Corbyn seems so equivocal on the subject? Are supporters of withdrawal anymore than a fringe within the Party? Will the increase in Labour Party membership translate into more activists for the ‘remain’ campaign? Can I stop worrying about my nightmare scenario of Corbyn being deposed and then campaigning to leave?

10) Has the Labour Party permanently changed?

One could look at what’s happening and conclude that Labour is turning into a British Podemos. Or one could conclude the situation is more like the Tories electing IDS and then thinking better of it shortly thereafter. The fact I can’t decide which comparison is more apt is what has driven all my other questions. I am trying to work out if Corbyn’s election indicates that something fundamental in the nature of the Labour Party has changed? Or is it just a freak event the effects of which will progressively dissipate?

I’m not qualified to answer that question, so am looking to you dear readers for guidance.

Is Serial in bad taste?

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The massively popular podcast turns real life traumas into potboiler mystery stories. I’m all in favour of that.

What is Serial? One the one hand the show deals with serious subjects – in the first series the murder of a young woman and in the one just started with the capture of an American soldier in Afghanistan. Yet both its creators and its audience treat it as a mystery, the unravelling of which is supposed to be entertaining.

Indeed, the show has became sufficiently baked into pop culture to be the subject of Christmas themed parody on SNL.

The events documented in the first season are real and you can discover them independently of anything to do with Serial. Yet if after listening to the first episode, I told you what ‘happens’ in the thirteenth, you’re probably going to lose interest in listening to the episodes in between.

So as weird as it seems when writing about the reporting of real life I am going to include a spoiler warning. From here on out I will write on the assumption that either know or do not mind finding out how the first season of Serial plays out.

Making errors along this boundary between entertainment and journalism risks leaving one acting in poor taste. It probably was out of line for Best Buy to try and use its prominence in the first season to let potential customers know “We have everything you need. Unless need a payphone.

And the family of Hae Min Lee – the victim of the murder around which the first series revolved – seem to dislike the whole enterprise. During the first season, her brother wrote on Reddit:

TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck when she got the news that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup… you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.

It’s a fair point. Clearly those are not events that the Lee family would not want to relive. However, Serial is not unearthing them without purpose. It is public interest journalism rather than merely journalism that interests the public. Koenig and her team were ultimately unable to determine who Lee’s killer was. But they demonstrated at least to my satisfaction that Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend who was convicted of her murder – should not be in prison. Between finding a witness who appears to give him an alibi and providing an alternative explanation for the call records that were the centrepiece of the prosecution’s case, Koenig makes it hard to argue that Syed’s guilt is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. These developments have led the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to reopen post-conviction proceedings relating to Syed, a process that might eventually lead to his release.

And along the way Koenig raises broader social themes. The sections on Syed’s original trial does not paint a flattering picture of American justice. And it indicates that Islamophobia in America did not begin with 9/11. The new season seems to be in even deeper as the mystery is intimately tied to the War in Afghanistan. We’re only one episode in and we’ve already had an account of an outpost so dire that soldiers have to stir their own shit as it burns – a fitting metaphor for the hell of war.

I suspect much of the negative reaction to Serial is about its style rather than its substance. Koenig’s delivery and the soundtrack are discordantly jaunty. Information is consciously withheld to build up tension – hence why it’s a rare piece of non-fiction it’s possible to spoiler – and like a pot-boiler detective story, each episode ends on a cliff-hanger. But focusing too narrowly on these elements gives a false impression of the show’s tone. It is sensitive rather than sensationalist. Koenig uses the space afforded by devoting an entire series of podcast to a single case to see everyone’s point of view and allow anyone who will speak to her to have their say. The show is also notably short on the shouting and finger-pointing.

Serial does therefore have the virtue of honesty. It acknowledges that it is wringing entertainment value from real life traumas. But that doesn’t prevent it treating its subjects with respect and decency. Pretty much the opposite of what the news media usually does:

Prime examples would be the British tabloids whose coverage of child murders is as mawkish and incessant as it is debased. The journalists behind it will, for example, print innuendo about grieving parents, posthumously rename a victim or even hack their voicemail. If a balance between entertainment and information has to be struck – and human psychology being what it is then it usually must – I would rather it was done by someone with Koenig’s integrity.

The coverage of the Bowe Bergdahl case up to now has featured its share of awfulness too. A low point of which may have been one of CNN’s main anchors interviewing the executive producer of Homeland about the supposed similarities between the (fictional) Nicholas Brody and the (real) Bowe Bergdahl. So to say I’m confident that Serial will manage to raise the tone is rather faint praise.

Iraq is not the only war

The 2003 invasion of Iraq is a poor metaphor for the campaign against ISIS. Our thinking needs to be informed by a wider range of historical precedents.

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It’s not clear exactly who said “he doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it” nor in fact whether that’s exactly what they said. But the sentiment is clear enough and indeed sensible enough. For example, there’s a good case that it was an advantage that when the 2008 financial crash threatened to tip over into a depression, the man running the most powerful central bank was a historian of the Great Depression.

However, ignorance of history is not the only danger. A short or selective memory can be as dangerous as no memory at all. To see why consider the case of General William Westmoreland. In January 1968, he was commander of American forces in Vietnam. And he had a good idea of what the next phase of the War was going to be.

A decade and a half earlier the Vietnamese Communists had been fighting not the Americans but the French. The climactic battle of that conflict came at a remote base called Dien Bien Phu. The French allowed the base to be surrounded – it was fortified and they could resupply it by air. And they hoped that it would provide the opportunity to draw the guerrillas out into the open. However, the French were to fall into their own trap. The communists had managed to drag artillery guns up the steep slopes of the surrounding hills. The resulting defeat convinced both the French public and government that they had to get out of Vietnam.

General Westmoreland assumed the Communists were attempting to re-enact the same script only this time with the Americans playing the part of the French. So he interpreted a Vietcong offensive against Khe Sanh, an American base near the Laotian border, as the first stage of a ‘Dien Bien Phu II’. And he began sending his troops to reinforce Khe Sanh and other outlying bases.

But the attack on Keh Sanh was not the main event but a distraction. There had been recasting on the Vietnamese side too. The Communist leadership from the time of Dien Bien Phu had been replaced by more dogmatic communists. They sought not a simple military victory but to start a mass uprising. Therefore, they were planning to target not outlying bases but the cities of South Vietnam – the very cities from which Westmoreland was transferring troops to prevent another Dien Bien Phu. So when the Viet Cong launched a offensive across South Vietnam during the Tet holiday, the Americans were poorly prepared. The spectacle of Communist guerrillas managing to breach the gates of the US embassy in Saigon helped to convince a large chunk of the American public war was unwinnable. In its way the misguided parallel with Dien Bien Phu would eventually have the same result as Dien Bien Phu, a western power retreating from Vietnam as the communists spread their influence.

Psychologists have an expression for what afflicted General Westmoreland. It’s called ‘availability bias’ and involves:

“The giving of preference by decision makers to information and events that are more recent, that were observed personally, and were more memorable. This is because memorable events tend to be more magnified and are likely to cause an emotional reaction.”

That creates a tendency to focus on historical precedents that are recent and emotive even if they are not necessarily relevant or informative. I fear it is beginning to afflict many of those debating military action against ISIS.

In recent days it has been common to hear it said that ‘bombing Syria shows we have not learned the lessons of invading Iraq’. But the lessons of the Second Gulf War are probably not the right ones to be applying to the present situation.

That’s not to say the 2003 invasion is not important for understanding what is happening now. The chaos that resulted created the conditions for the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the group that has now mutated into ISIS. But that’s context – it doesn’t follow that the invasion then is a good analogy for the aerial campaign now underway.

For starters, Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2015 are not the same place. There are of course important similarities: they are/were Arab nations in the same region ruled by vicious Ba’athist governments drawn from a religious minority. But there are also pretty important differences. For example, the majority of Iraqis are Shia, whilst most Syrians are Sunni. And crucially, for all the horrors of Sadham Hussein’s Iraq there was a modicum of peace and stability, and jihadis were largely unable to operate. That evidently is not true of Syria today. We cannot push the country into civil war because it’s already embroiled in one.

The two operations are also substantially different. The current campaign is not about taking over Syria and trying to reshape it into a liberal democracy. Its objective is more modest and essentially negative: degrade and ideally destroy ISIS and its capacity to kill people. Therefore, there is no plan – a handful of special forces aside – to send in ground troops. We will not therefore find ourselves once again acting as the quasi-imperial rulers of a chunk of the most volatile region in the world.

There’s also a defensive element to our actions in Syria that was absent from the Iraq War. We face not the theoretical possibility that we might be attacked with phantom WMDs but a terrorist organisation that is actually trying to carry out attacks in the UK. More importantly, ISIS is attempting to conquer territory in Iraq and Kurdistan. In that regard what we are seeing is less like the Second Gulf War and more like the First – which was fought in defence of Kuwait.

So what historical precedents would be more apt?

In a recent interview with Vox, Stathis Kalyvas a Yale professor specialising in insurgencies suggests a number of parallels for ISIS. He points to among others the Tamil Tigers, Shining Path and the Algerian FLN.

Looking more broadly, we could locate a number of parallels for the Syrian civil war. The conflicts that ripped apart the Congo and the Former Yugoslavia involved sharp sectarian divides, horrendous abuses and meddling regional powers. The Balkan example is the more encouraging in this context: wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were quite quickly brought to an end once Western air power was applied. By contrast, despite the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, it took years for the violence in the Congo to abate – indeed it has never fully done so. There’s no consensus about how many people have died as a result but it appears to be millions. The difference may be down to Congo suffering from a variant of  ‘the resource curse’ – its mineral wealth allowed gave rebel groups both the means and the incentive to continue fighting. Extractive industries are a less important part of Syria’s economy than Congo’s but any solution will need to work out what to do about its oil. And as Iraq has larger oil reserves it might actually be the harder country to stabilise.

Another worrying precedent is the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. This is perhaps the best illustration of the difficulty of eliminating a terrorist group from the air. Rather than destroying Hizbullah it wound up broadening its base of support within Lebanon. People rallied to the group as they appeared to be the ones defending the nation from the hated aggressors.

One piece of recent history that is surprisingly absent from the debate about Syria is the last time ISIS was defeated. Back in 2006, chunks of Iraq was under the control of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the group was routinely killing coalition soldiers. Then the US shifted strategy. They focused on winning the confidence of the Sunni tribes. They were eventually persuaded to turn on an AQI and the group faded to the margins. That was until the Syrian Civil War gave the group – now renamed Islamic State – the chance to return.

None of these examples is a perfect analogy for the present situation – no precedent ever is. One could well suggest others or query the conclusions I have drawn from them. But that is the point. If one is doing that then you are thinking about the dilemmas we face more deeply than somebody whose only reference point is the Iraq War.