Some Thoughts on Jessica Jones

December 1, 2015

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Spoiler Warning: This post discusses events from season one of Jessica Jones in detail.

The new Netflix series Jessica Jones has so much potential, and I watched it in the hopes that it might deliver on that. Unfortunately, the show reminded me of something I learned through a series of failed relationships in my 20s: on its own, potential doesn’t mean much of anything.

I was intrigued by the first episode, which introduces Jessica as a tough, flawed private investigator, and in so doing flips the male archetype of the haunted, hard-drinking noir PI. At times, Jessica Jones reminded me of another show about a young female investigator, the cult favourite Veronica Mars (which is amusing, since star Krysten Ritter played a supporting role on that show). It’s not just the fact that they’re both investigators that makes the two women similar. Just like Veronica Mars and many other “strong female characters,” Jessica Jones’ rough edges, the aspects of her character that fuel her internal conflicts and make her tough, badass, and emotionally wary, originate in her history as a survivor of rape and psychological abuse. Of course, we need stories about survivors, models of women (and men) who do the heroic work of putting one foot in front of the other and trying to heal after suffering traumatic experiences. But too often, a history of abuse is used as part of a female hero’s origin story, part of what gives them their strength.

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To its credit, as one critic observed, Jessica Jones conveys the horror of Jessica’s past without ever depicting it. In this way, it avoids sensationalizing sexual assault, acknowledges that trauma leaves a lasting impact on people, and relieves the audience of the burden of having to bear witness to the worst of what Jones has endured. By doing this, it demonstrates that as the audience, we can believe in the horror of what she has suffered without needing to see it. This is significant, considering that we live in a culture that still far too often dismisses the accounts of women who have suffered rape and assault. And as writer Arthur Chu noted, the particular brand of psychological abuse the show’s villain Kilgrave employs is also noteworthy for the striking similarities it bears to the online abuse many women suffer; Jones can’t trust anyone, can’t feel safe anywhere. At times, it feels as if the entire world is out to get her.

On the other hand, the show shuns the opportunity to depict something akin to a genuine attempt at recovery in favor of portraying Jones as being above such things. A support group is formed for people who have been violated by the villain, Kilgrave, but Jessica never participates. In reality, many people who have been traumatized carry around a tremendous amount of shame and do avoid opportunities for help and support. However, having the show’s hero be the one character who doesn’t ask for help suggests that it’s stronger and braver not to seek help, when it’s actually just the opposite.

In fact, Jessica’s neighbor Malcolm might just be the most heroic character on the show. Also one of Kilgrave’s victims, he’s the one who maintains the support group. Recovering from the abuse he suffered under Kilgrave, he resumes his plans to become a social worker, and he has a genuine interest in helping Jessica. The long-form nature of television has the ability to show characters growing and changing over time, and I hope that future seasons of Jessica Jones find her bravely seeking the support that someone who has endured the kinds of abuse she has suffered might need.

Further undermining the show’s handling of trauma recovery is the fact that the support group of Kilgrave survivors is easily whipped up into an angry mob misguidedly seeking revenge against Jessica. It’s a contrived scenario that makes the group function primarily as a plot device that exists to generate tension and conflict rather than as an opportunity to explore the show’s characters and themes. This sacrificing of character development to ratchet up the tension in ways that feel implausible and manipulative repeats throughout Jessica Jones. The character of Simpson veers unbelievably from seemingly sweet, trustworthy guy to murderous psychopath. We become invested in sympathetic characters like Hope and Wendy, only to see them methodically killed off when they’ve served their purpose to the plot. The evolution of these characters and their struggles could have given future seasons of the show more complexity and depth. This focus in later episodes on absurd plot twists and contrived deaths over character development is also unfortunate because the relationships between characters are the most engaging aspect of the show.

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Jessica’s relationship with her adoptive sister Trish Walker, for instance, is fascinating because of the contrast between them. Jessica drinks way too much and her apartment (and her life) are a mess; Trish is successful and seemingly has her life together. Jessica is emotionally distant and unreliable as a friend; Trish is loyal and dedicated. This relationship is, in the end, at the heart of Jessica Jones; it’s here that we see Jessica growing as a person, slowly learning to express her feelings for the people she loves.

It’s understandable that Jones would have trouble trusting anyone; the way she was treated by Kilgrave is nothing short of horrifying. And in the all too rare moments when Jessica Jones shows Kilgrave using his powers of mind control to peel back people’s psychological defenses and hit them at their most vulnerable, it’s frightening to observe, in part because it’s such a clear reflection of actual psychological manipulation and abuse. The most chilling display of Kilgrave’s power may be in the scene when Kilgrave and Jessica are visited by her childhood neighbor, and Kilgrave forces the woman to reveal her own desperate need to feel important.

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This is also one of the rare moments in the series that lends some complexity to the character of Kilgrave; as horrifying as his actions are, he’s doing what he’s doing because in his own deeply twisted way, he believes that he genuinely cares for Jessica. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Kilgrave is that he actually believes his own sick rationalizations; he believes that on some level, Jessica wanted what he did to her. When Jessica reminds him of the fact that he repeatedly raped her, Kilgrave is shocked and genuinely confused. His delusion that she had consented when in reality she had no ability to do so is frighteningly similar to the tales of rapists who don’t believe that their sexual encounters constitute assault and abuse.

Unfortunately, Kilgrave’s powers are more often presented as a kind of sadistic carnival trick than as anything approximating real psychological abuse. And while the show doesn’t depict the worst aspects of Kilgrave’s abuse of Jessica, the show is self-indulgent in depicting his sadistic manipulation of victim after victim. Initially, some of this serves to establish Kilgrave’s villainy and the extent of his powers, but it quickly becomes too much. These displays of Kilgrave’s power ultimately lose whatever horrifying impact they may have had at first and become sensationalized as the show keeps trying to raise the stakes and outdo what it has done before. They become something we’re meant to look forward to with grim anticipation. What gruesome and horrifying thing is Kilgrave going to force someone to do next?

He makes people do things like toss hot coffee in their own faces or impale themselves on large gardening shears. Yes, this encourages us to hate him, but as a being of pure evil rather than as someone we can understand in human terms. Played expertly by David Tennant, Kilgrave radiates charisma, as do many real-world purveyors of psychological abuse, but while their actions may be monstrous, those people are human, and we need to understand that if we’re ever going to examine the cultural and environmental factors that contribute to their behavior. Being able to write off such people as purely, intrinsically evil doesn’t get us anywhere. I saw a bit of promise when, late in the season, Jessica Jones seemed to introduce an attempt to humanize Kilgrave by giving us a look at his painful past, but the show then drops this, explaining that Kilgrave’s parents were trying to help him, and lets us return to seeing him as ultimately a one-note embodiment of pure evil.

However, as I said, I did see glimmers of potential in Jessica Jones. In its final moments, we not only see Jessica express her love for Trish, but also show some interest in the idea of teamwork. Perhaps next season she can still learn that sometimes asking for help is more heroic than going it alone.

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