makes its final bow with an imperfect but ultimately powerful and thought-provoking third season. The series finale—canceled before it even started streaming, along with the rest of the Marvel/Netflix Defenders series—expertly explored conflicting notions of justice, the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, and what it really means to be a hero through the lens of Jessica’s fractured relationship with her adoptive sister, Trish Walker.
(Spoilers for all three seasons below.)
Along with the first season of in 2015, helped launch the Defenders shared universe on Netflix to broad critical acclaim. The show earned praise for its gritty tone (perfectly captured in the main title sequence), complex characters (shout-out to Carrie-Ann Moss’s Emmy-worthy turn as Jeri Hogarth), and unapologetically frank depiction of a woman struggling with PTSD in the wake of an abusive relationship. It’s hands-down my favorite of the Defenders series, although s arch-villain Wilson Fisk will always hold a special place in my esteem.
Krysten Ritter packed on ten pounds of muscle to play the hard-drinking, promiscuous private investigator with superpowers and a tragic past. She’s forced to confront that past when her ex-lover Kilgrave (David Tennant), comes back into her life. Gifted with the superpower of mind control, he once used it to control Jessica, forcing her to be his girlfriend and commit crimes on his behalf—including murder. When he returns to try and “win” her back, the bodies start piling up, and she must figure out how to take him down once and for all, without coming under his thrall again.
Jessica and Kilgrave’s complicated, twisted relationship is what made that first season so exciting and suspenseful, but it was Jessica’s deep love for her adoptive sister Trish (Rachel Taylor) that gave it a heart. Trish is a former child actor turned talk radio host, whose mother and manager Dorothy (Rebecca de Mornay, in another Emmy-worthy turn) took Jessica in when her family was killed in a car crash. She both admires and envies Jessica’s super powers, and naturally becomes entangled with the quest to take down Kilgrave.
Spoiler alert: Jessica succeeds in taking down Kilgrave in the season finale, and season two finds her uncomfortable with her newfound fame as a vigilante hero. Trish puts her reporter instincts to good use, investigating Jessica’s past—specifically, how she came by her powers, thanks to a mysterious corporation called IGH. It turns out Jessica’s mother, Alisa, is still alive, with superpowers of her own and very violent tendencies. Long story short: an increasingly erratic Trish ultimately shoots Alisa in front of Jessica.
Season two came in for harsh criticism in some quarters, but I genuinely enjoyed it and appreciated how it further developed the core relationships of the series. In season three, we find Jessica and Trish estranged, since Jessica understandably finds it hard to forgive her adoptive sister for killing her mother, who may have been on the verge of redemption. Trish has come by her own (limited) super powers, thanks to IGH, and throws herself into fighting crime at night (a nod to the character’s stint as Hellcat in the comics). Jessica must track a serial killer, Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb), who has a penchant for photographing his victims at the moment of death to capture their “truth.” When Trish horns in on the case with her own ideas of justice, it sets the sisters on a collision course.
As we’ve come to expect with the Defenders series, the season is overlong and starts out slow. The first two episodes are solid, giving us Jessica’s and Trish’s perspectives in turn on their deteriorating relationship. They’ve always been each other’s mirror to some extent—a major theme of this final season. Alas, the show then meanders around for the next few episodes, struggling to find some forward momentum. For instance, Jessica is stabbed and loses her spleen, which is supposed to be a big deal. Yet it’s pretty much never mentioned again in later episodes, so—what was the point?
Honestly, much of the material in the episodes three through seven could have been condensed significantly while still doing justice to the overall arc, serving to trim away the fat and unnecessary detours. But just when I was tempted to throw in the towel and give up on the season entirely, the show delivered a truly shocking twist at the end of episode eight. And that slow-burn approach paid off handsomely in the last five episodes, letting the material breathe as various characters deal with the fallout.
( spoilers below. Stop reading now if you haven’t finished the season.)
A major criticism of season two was the lack of a compelling arch-villain to match David Tennant’s brilliant turn as Kilgrave in season one. Salinger is no Kilgrave either, just a garden variety psycho-killer, despite his delusions to the contrary. He’s primarily a catalyst to push the development of the real arch-villain for this season: Trish. It’s his brutal torture and murder of her mother, Dorothy— his release on a technicality following his initial arrest—that sends Trish into full-on vengeful Hellcat mode. The system is broken, she reasons, and Jessica won’t step up and do what’s necessary. So Trish will become the “hero” she thinks the city needs, meting out vigilante justice by bludgeoning evil-doers to death.
It’s difficult to draw comparisons with Daenerys Targaryen in the final season of , whose character arc also ended up with Dany breaking bad and becoming the villain, while still convinced she was just and good. That twist enraged disappointed fans and launched a thousand think pieces about how her arc went so terribly wrong. Like Trish, Dany’s fall from grace had plenty of foreshadowing. It was conceptually brilliant as a plot point, but poorly executed, in large part because its development was over-rushed, with none of that essential fleshing out that helps make this kind of surprising turn resonate emotionally with viewers.
That’s not a charge one can level at . Series creator Melissa Rosenberg told Deadline Hollywood that she viewed the three seasons as three acts in a play. She knew cancellation was inevitable as she saw the axe fall for all the other Defenders series. That freed her writing team from having to tee up a fourth season, focusing instead on how best to bring the main characters’ journeys to a satisfying conclusion. While Davids Benioff and Weiss almost shoehorned Dany’s heel turn into George R.R. Martin’s planned ending in , Rosenberg and her team let the characters dictate their creative decisions. “Each character kind of told us in some way where they wanted to go,” she told Deadline.
“Each character kind of told us in some way where they wanted to go.”
Trish has always had a dark side, despite being the golden girl who literally has it all when we first meet her. She wants to be a superhero, convinced she’d be better at it than Jessica, and her sense of entitlement is her ultimate downfall. In season one, we see her taking unnecessary risks and deriving way too much pleasure from them. In season two she becomes addicted to an experimental drug intended for super-soldiers, with serious side effects. In season three, her addiction is the adrenalin rush she gets from delivering her brand of justice.
“It’s been there all along,” a visibly pained Jessica tells Trish in their final confrontation. “I saw it when you shot my mother.” But Trish herself can’t see it until she’s in police custody and hears all the felony charges against her—including the attempted murder of her own adoptive sister. “I’m the bad guy,” she says, almost in wonder, as the last of her delusions are stripped away. She has become the thing she hates the most.
Jessica’s character arc, in contrast, is more one of redemption. She’s always been a reluctant hero, giving up entirely on the role for awhile after her traumatic experiences with Kilgrave. Her flaws are legion, and Salinger definitely hit a nerve when he taunted, “You’re terrified your family died for nothing,” because she doesn’t measure up to the heroic ideal. But when the time comes for her to sacrifice the person she loves most in the world for the greater good—”What do you do when someone you love becomes a monster?”—she does it, with a little encouragement from Luke Cage. That’s heroic.
There has been speculation that Mike Colter’s brief cameo as Cage in the final episode, as well as a voice-over by Tennant’s Kilgrave, might be setting up a continuation of this sector of the Marvel universe at some point—perhaps on Disney’s new streaming platform. Nobody really knows what Marvel has in store for the Defenders. Rosenberg hasn’t ruled out the possibility in her public comments, but she told Deadline Hollywood this final season completed both the narrative and character arcs she wanted to explore. Ritter has said that, while she’s proud of her work on the show, she isn’t especially interested in reprising the role in the foreseeable future. It’s hard to conceive of an incarnation of without her; Ritter’s brilliant portrayal has pretty much defined the character for a generation.
And that’s just fine by me. Will I miss and the rest of the Defenders? Of course (some more than others). But not every television series needs to run for umpteen seasons. Season three isn’t even trying to serve as a coda for the Marvel/Netflix Defenders series as a whole—another wise decision by Rosenberg. For all its flaws, this final season of stayed focused on its own self-contained universe to bring its three-act story to an emotionally satisfying and fitting end.