The Fractured Hero

So, I finished Jessica Jones this week. Rather than binge, I dined on an episode or two each night: chewing each morsel of the show’s twisted diversity, savoring the experience. And what an experience it was. Not since Penny Dreadful, and recently Daredevil, has a show so thoroughly engrossed me with its themes, characters and script. I’m sure that you’ve heard a lot about the content of the show, or formed your own opinions: it’s an examination of rape culture, it’s about substance abuse more than super heroes, it’s not your typical “origin” story. I’d agree with most of the aforementioned opinions to an extent and with caveats. Here’s my take. (Note: I’m going to talk as if you’re already familiar with the show and have watched it to completion—spoilers abound and will not be flagged.)

It’s about rape culture. Indeed, the discussion of sexual assault arises, repeatedly, throughout the show. Including a few powerful lines where Jessica insists to her nemesis—the whingeing and waifish Killgrave—that he raped her again and again. The message is pretty clear that she was abused, sexually and otherwise, during her months of imprisonment with Killgrave. We never see any of this abuse, though it’s often referenced. We see plenty of Killgrave’s current atrocities, however, which paints a strong enough picture of what sort of villain he is. Still, and perhaps the show’s biggest failing, was that it didn’t really set up that backstory of abuse enough—not even with a hazy flashback. We don’t need another Sansa GoT moment; Mr. Martin’s characters are all mostly reprehensible and hard to commiserate for anyway. However, a stronger barb between Jessica and Killgrave would’ve been nice.

There was one fantastic flashback, where Jessica has a moment of freedom from Killgrave’s control and contemplates leaping off a building to either death or freedom. She hesitates, though, and Killgrave re-enslaves her will before she does anything rash. The consequences of her near-rebellion are chilling, and he commands her into an act of self-harm. I wish we’d seen a little more of that tasteful yet heinous, sexual tension and torment that he’d inflicted upon her. Nonetheless, even without a fully established foil, the dynamic between Jessica and Killgrave is electric. Killgrave’s comeuppance, too, and that final send-off-to-Jesus-line (well, Satan, for him) that Jessica gives him, left me fist-pumping and hooting-and-hollering at the screen. An utterly satisfying conclusion.

All that said, one of the most powerful scenes in the show for me, was when Jessica revealed to the man with whom she’d developed a sexual relationship (Luke Cage) that she’d killed his wife. Wow. Even though Killgrave had commanded her to do it, and she was under the effect of his mind-mojo at the time, her guilt and culpability were palpable. “I was inside you,” Luke—the victim in this case—said to her, with horror. And Jessica had no reply for him, for she realized the cruelty of what she’d done, which was similar to what Killgrave did to her. That scene was an astoundingly clever and subversive switch of the jargon and stereotypes commonly associated with rape. All throughout the show, really, you see a lot of this mutability in expectations and roles: from swapping cannon character genders (Hogarth, who’s a man in the comics), to the example I cited a moment ago. The show proves that motivations and trauma aren’t tied to gender.

It’s about substance abuse. Sure, this is another prevalent element to the series. I mean, Jessica is basically a high-functioning alcoholic—driven to the bottle by what she’d endured. Her neighbor Malcolm is a junkie, and also a sometimes willing spy for Killgrave; work that gives him a steady stream of narcotics. Luke is addicted to the memories of his departed wife. Hogarth is addicted to power. Trish is addicted to helping people. In one scene, where the survivors of Killgrave’s influence have gathered to discuss their trauma, the now ex-junkie poses the question of whether Killgrave’s suggestions are entirely propelled by the mutant’s power and not also by an individual’s latent weakness—Malcolm’s want to be high and to forget, in this case. The complexity of personal darkness and its effect on addiction is rarely explored so profoundly in shows, let alone what’s supposed to be a gumshoe, superhero drama (admittedly, I don’t have many of those with which to compare Jessica Jones).

It’s not your typical hero origin story. Well, it’s not the sort of Hollywood pap that we’re used to, that’s for sure. In Jessica Jones, there’s no clear cut sense of good and evil. Many of Jessica’s actions are questionable, and wouldn’t survive moral scrutiny. The plot progression is messy: plans fall apart, things fail—just like the people in the tale. Jessica Jones portrays a world filled with broken, struggling people. Persons who aren’t heroes, and yet, who will be defined by perceived selfless actions that have a root in trauma. I write characters like this. I know people like this. I am a flawed and aspiring-to-be-better human, myself. That’s why the show struck such a chord in me.

Brilliantly acted, meaty, complex and brutally beautiful, Jessica Jones is a show that can’t be missed.