Jessica Jones Gets Real
On November 20th, Season One of Marvel’s Jessica Jones launched on Netflix. I admit I was fairly ignorant of the character and I didn’t know how the beginning of this series would play out. Even though it takes place in Hell’s Kitchen, and Daredevil on Netflix more than proved itself, I’d only known about Luke Cage in passing — and only realized he would be in the series by the second episode — and I knew a whole lot less about Jessica herself.
But there is an advantage in that. First, I had no preconceived notions about Jessica Jones as a character. I was allowed to see how her adventures would play out in a realistic, gritty cinematic version of the Marvel Universe. And, second, I find there is something creatively liberating about reinventing or reintroducing characters who aren’t necessarily “top-tier superheroes.” There are so many stories inherent in their struggles and in themselves that you can tell in a distinctly modern fashion: and this is definitely the case with Jessica Jones.
And from the very beginning the series creator and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg recreates an uncomfortable reality for Jessica. Jessica Jones is a former superhero and current private investigator. She possesses superhuman strength and the ability to leap far distances. At the same time Jessica is an orphan, former abuse victim and survivor. She copes with this through copious amounts of alcohol, disillusionment, and biting sarcasm. Her dual rundown apartment and office’s constantly broken front door says a lot about her personality. Yet while Jessica’s persona is brittle and often unpleasant, underneath it she is a good and decent person that wants to save people’s lives.: who ultimately still wishes to do the right thing. It this combination of physical and emotional vulnerability and strength at play with one another that makes her so captivating. The fact is: Jessica doesn’t always have to be a likable person, but that just makes her more human.
In addition, Jessica Jones has symptoms of post-traumatic stress: from flashbacks to her abuser and interrupted childhood to having to constantly repeat street names to remind herself of something material and concrete to hold onto when her panic attacks set in. She is an abused woman in the process of coping with the events and trauma that led her to this point in her life. Krysten Ritter portrays this well in how these facts affect Jessica’s behaviour and relationships. And she isn’t the only one.
Jessica’s friend Patricia Walker, or Trish, is a radio talk show host who became Jessica’s adoptive sister. She was abused constantly by her mother, physically and emotionally, as a child star. This has led her to adopting a friendly public facade while letting few people into her private life: an existence made up of a high security apartment and intense Krav Maga martial arts training. Whereas Jessica protects herself with superficial abruptness, Trish does the same with a literal fortress. Jessica doesn’t want, or have to smile to please anyone. Trish wears her smile as another shield.
It is just one more thing the two women both have in common, but it’s not the main element that brings them together. Both of them protect one another as much as they can and, even with Jessica pushing Trish away, they are the closest people to each other that they have. Jessica herself tries to remain emotionally detached from the other people she knows, while Trish tends to call her lover by his last name. And even so, both try to do good with power they have: and cope with their surroundings.
And then there is the antagonist of the first Season. Kilgrave.
Imagine a man who has the power to mind control anyone he wants by simple verbal commands. Consider the fact that for his entire life he is used to being obeyed: that his every whim never goes unfulfilled. Consent doesn’t matter to a being like him. People are barely sentient beings in his eyes. For the most part, they are objects for his use and nothing more. Kilgrave casually violates the free will of his victims and leaves shattered lives in his wake. What makes his villainy even more terrifying is how David Tennant plays him. Consider the whimsy and man-child demeanour of the Tenth Doctor, with his gentle British accent, and his razor sharp intelligence except it’s warped by sociopathy, psychotic temper tantrums, and a tremendous sense of self-entitlement. He even goes as far as dressing in a purple uncomfortably close to the blue suits The Doctor used to wear. Kilgrave also wears pajamas.
Even if you disregard the dissonance between Tennant’s role as The Doctor and Kilgrave for the Whovian fans out there, there is this sliminess underneath all the flair and brilliance — this lack of personal responsibility and even the shunting the blame on his victims — that just makes you ardently wish for his imminent death.
And he is the one who violated Jessica Jones. He is her abuser and he has come back into her life. Kilgrave claims that she and others actually wanted or “asked for it.” And no one in law enforcement or society would believe her or his other victims. It becomes Jessica’s mission to save another victim, that of a young woman whose life Kilgrave ruined, prove what Kilgrave can do to the world at large, bring him to justice, protect her loved ones, and bring closure to her demons. It is no tall order for a woman, even with superpowers, to confront her abuser and the insidious systems that surround him, as well as the expectations around her to do what she must to survive and save the lives of others.
Jessica Jones is a series about a group of flawed characters, some completely selfish and others wanting to make a difference: even achieving the bare minimum goal of living another day and maintaining a broken and ramshackle apartment building in the worst side of New York. But, among other things, it is also a narrative arc about superpowers almost being secondary to the true nature of evil — of separating and silencing, of not being believed — and, most importantly, the strength decent people have when they are allowed to speak out and when they can stand together: if only for a time.
It is definitely a show that bears watching.