(Content Warning: Discussions of rape, sexual assault, etc.)
Confession time: Originally, I had very little interest in watching Jessica Jones.
After all, the show was focusing on a Marvel character I barely knew anything about. And on the surface level, all it seemed to be doing was riding on the coattails of the Daredevil aesthetic.
Well, except with an even less known character.
Then again, here’s my review of Jessica Jones and I’ve never written such a full-treatment of Daredevil.
So point: 1 for Jessica Jones.
AKA The Boring Part (Spoiler Level: Low to None)
Jessica Jones is a psychological thriller/noir crime drama/drama/super-hero show. It’s a show about surviving, dealing with guilt and remorse, it’s about regaining ones own autonomy and control over their life.
It’s a show that dedicates itself to the darkest inclinations and pursuits that we have in our lives. Those impulses or feelings that we should do something even though we know it’ll likely have terrible consequences.
Those actions that we think about even though we know it’d be awful to do them. Those times we use even the smallest measures of social control via intimidation, manipulation or abuse of some kind.
When we use small white lies, speak half-truths, say something a little too flippant to a loved one. When do that and when we do those other things, we sometimes see the worst in ourselves come on in these microscopic ways. These capacities to do evil and these capacities to do good are things that can both drive us in similar, opposing or even intersecting paths along the ethical diagram of your choosing.
What Jessica Jones does is show us what would happen if someone blatantly said, “Nah, fuck it.” and just used all of the emotional, psychological and social manipulation they could to get their way.
Kilgrave (David Tennant of previous “Doctor Who” fame) is a character who has the ability to control others with a simple command. From killing oneself to simply giving you his coat, Kilgrave can make someone do it.
This power doesn’t just extend to normal people though. Certain “gifted’ (as the show repeatedly refers to them as) individuals have also been controlled by them. This includes one Jessica Jones who had the misfortune to fall under Kilgrave’s spell for a total of eight months before she finally broke free.
This period of her life has left Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter) has left many scars on her. Specifically a nasty case of PTSD that she’s gone to therapy for and tried to use coping mechanisms to help her survive her traumas more effectively.
We join Jessica as she’s still trying to do so and outrun her past with Kilgrave, awhile affording the rent in her barely kept together Private Investigator office which doubles as her apartment. If you’re curious, Jessica, much likes Daredevil, lives in a place called “Hell’s Kitchen” which is a part of the NYC in the Marvel Universe.
And in this cozy little suburb, grit is the color of the day, robberies often happen and most people seem happiest when they’re stuck in their homes than outside.
So we have a very pleasant set up for what Jessica is, a bitter, cynical and jaded antihero who doesn’t even seem to feel comforting saying the H-word at times.
As other reviewers pointed out, this show feels less like a Marvel story and more like a really dark CSI drama that’s has sprinkles of superpowers in it. Whatever the case is, whatever the genre may be and whatever category you’d like to fit Jessica Jones in, it has definitely hit all of the right notes.
AKA The Mildly Exciting Part (Spoiler Level: Low to Mild)
As we go along in the story Jessica Jones encounters many characters who challenge her, aid her (or try) and do everything in between.
We have former best friends, lovers, junkies, loan-sharks, shady people of all shades of shady and much more. The character roster here is diverse but the main cast is typically filled with women which is another refreshing part of the show.
Even more refreshing is that the characters gender doesn’t feel forced upon us as if we must care because they are women. Instead, they are (mostly) well-rounded individuals who are strong, manipulative, caring, weak, charming, sadistic, possibly evil and possibly good.
There’s a lot going on with Jessica’s supporting cast and especially with her on-again and off-again best friend Trish Walker (played by Rachael Taylor).
Taylor’s character is a charming talk show host, who also happened to grow up with Jessica. Like many things in this show, this past isn’t a very happy one. Instead this past is filled with physical and emotional abuse on the part of someone Trish no longer wants to associate with. I’m speculating here, but this abuse and her fame seems to be all the reason enough for her to act like her apartment is her personal fortress.
Her door has an some serious locks on them, her apartment has a safe room and her door also comes with a screen where you can see who wants to come in. Did I mention Trish does some Krav Maga training throughout the show? Because she does, and she even takes Jessica by surprise once or twice.
Trish is just one of the many female characters who responds to this need to not be abused by others. She certainly takes an overly-guarded approach but it’s perhaps preferably to other approaches. Such as the approach done by Jessica’s main clients Jeri Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss).
Although Hogarth is a fun character to watch, she’s also manipulative. She’s what Kilgrave might be if Kilgrave didn’t have his “gift” (which is more akin to a virus) and instead ran a massively wealthy lawyers firm.
Hogarth excels at reveling in power, making others submit to her power and figuring out the best way to get power. She’s doesn’t have much going for her in the ways of being good, but that’s not something unique in this show. The balancing act of “good” and “bad” make those lines often times much more blurry than we’d like to believe they are. Hogarth is another solid character acting within this theme.
Though, as a side note, it’s slightly frustrating to have Hogarth play the stereotypical “controlling woman” and especially as a lesbian. I’m not sure how prevalent this stereotype is but from what other friends have said it’s a trope that needs to have the brakes put on a bit more. Then again, although I understood some of the frustration, overall I enjoyed the character and didn’t feel like her sexuality consumed her whole identity. Or that her tropish role was overplayed.
Besides all of these characters there’s of course Kilgrave himself. Or “Kevin” as we soon find out and he’s our main antagonist. The central opposing force of the narrative that really holds the story together.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: A Marvel super-villain who is not only good (i.e. Kingpin) but is central to something Marvel has done being good?
Yeah, I was surprised too.
AKA His Name is “Kevin”, Not Kilgrave (Spoiler Level: “Fuck it, we’ll do it live!”)
Kevin Thompson was a lab experiment.
Or, at least that’s what “Kilgrave” would want you to think.
In the latter-half of the series Kilgrave pulls out all of the stops:
- He remodels a house to look like Jessica’s childhood home
- He endlessly stalks her, threatens her, even blows up someone right in front of her
- He uses people as bait, uses them as shields, uses them as means of blocking her escape
- He targets anyone and everyone she loves as much as possible or is convenient
- He constantly tries to reverse narratives on her about their former relationship and create his own
That last one doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s actually possibly one of the worst offenders here. The real benefit of Jessica Jones is its personal touch. No one is trying to save the world here. Hell, Jessica isn’t even trying to save Hell’s Kitchen let alone NYC. She’s trying to save herself and her sanity, if possible.
So that makes this a much more centered and character-driven piece (as opposed to The Avengers films, which, I still appreciate) that also benefits from having a great supporting cast around Jessica.
And for better or worse, Kilgrave is one of those characters.
I struggle to even say he’s not the best character on the show. There’s almost without a doubt no character on the show who is so well-acted, written and shown in all of the ways that Kilgrave is. His manipulation, plays on other people’s fears, callous use of other people and a lot more all contribute to him being an excellent villain.
Kilgrave’s great characterization is only part of why he’s such a solid villain. It’s the believably of his evilness. You could easily believe that anyone or anything would be afraid of Tennant’s character. From the way he dismisses the pains of others, to how he refocuses pain he has suffered by replacing that with his own suffering. Suffering, by the way, that’s more often than not framed how he wants it to be.
And yes, Kilgrave is a rapist.
But don’t tell him that because he hates the word “rape”. And that makes sense, given there’s been at least one study on how men will more readily admit to “forced intercourse” than they will to the word “rape”.
The show makes no bones about Kilgrave and raping Jessica. Whether we’re talking mentally or physically, what happened between Kilgrave and Jessica was clearly non-consensual and the show repeatedly stresses this through Jessica herself if not another supporting character.
I don’t have PTSD, so I can’t speak to how accurate of a representation Jessica Jones has of it. But from what little I’ve seen and know Jessica uses a common tactic used by PTSD-affected individuals. Namely the one where she lists the streets she was born around. This is a method usually used where triggers cause a sense of separation between the individual and reality. They are used to recenter the traumatized individual and get them to reconnect with whatever is going on.
We see this break happen with Jessica a few times in the show and when it does, her re-centering methods are usually not too far behind.
One of the main themes (if not the main theme) of this show is about reorienting your life and figuring out where you should be accountable or shouldn’t be. This show tackles themes of autonomy, responsibility and guilt. All of these themes are ones I relate to on a person level and I think (sadly) many others can relate as well.
As someone who suffers from low self-esteem, depression and general antipathy towards myself as an individual, it wasn’t hard to see myself in this show sometimes. Whether it’s dealing with guilt or personal responsibility for mistakes or trying to take back your life so you can stop beating yourself up and everyone around you. Especially when the blame doesn’t even fall on your shoulders.
Then again, sometimes the blame does fall squarely on our shoulders and that’s an even tougher lesson to learn. But it’s also a lesson Kilgrave couldn’t learn which shows that he wasn’t very interested in becoming a better person. Sure, there are times where you may feel bad for him. There’s an episode that has a brief part of the episode dedicated to Jessica actually seeing if Kilgrave can be used for good.
But in the end, people who abuse others and then take little to no steps in accountability, responsibility or personal blame aren’t going to be won over. They’ve shown who their allegiance is to and it’s to power. Jessica wanted to change her damaged psyche so she did what she thought was best for herself and went to therapy to deal with her PTSD. And in the end these steps gave her more power over herself and her environment. It helped give her the strength to confront Kilgrave and the haunting memories he gave her.
Sure, even after those steps, Jessica still ends up (mostly) alone and tries to scare off anyone else who’d get near her. But she at least gave it a real shot to come up with coping mechanisms so she can better deal with the real world. It’s hard to say the same for Kilgrave.
There’s another thing I loved about Jessica Jones:
It’s reversal of power-based narratives.
Kilgrave is constantly trying to impress a narrative on Jessica. He hinges on 18 seconds where he didn’t have control over her and she “could’ve” left of her own will, but chose to stay. He tries to rationalize his use of coercing her with his powers by claiming ignorance. He claims he doesn’t know when people are doing things of their own free will or just doing it because he wants them to.
And when Jessica finally breaks down these narratives and asserts her own narratives, he falters. He tries to recenter the conversion unto his own past that he claims made him evil but this too eventually falls apart.
Especially amusing and empowering for Jessica is when she learns of Kevin’s backstory. She sneeringly calls him Kevin a few times just to reinforce that she’s taken control over their conversations. To impress upon him that she knows who is he and it’s no one who has even the capacity for good.
And so when all is said and done and Kilgrave’s neck is snapped, we have much more than a superhero story. We have a story of a survivor who took back her agency and reasserted it with the help of her friends, a mean right hand, and a bitter remark.
Jessica Jones as a show has literally helped rape survivors.
My hope is that the success of Jessica Jones can help pave the way for future empowering and enthralling shows for people who struggle with just about anything. Whether that struggle is with PTSD, survivor’s guilt, depression or something else. Having more stories that help more people out with compelling and relatable themes and excellent writing can only be a good thing.
Thank you to Jessica Jones for being such a show.