Ostensibly set in the same Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil but actually sharing very little in terms of tone, location or character, Jessica Jones comes with a solid noir atmosphere and is free of comic book hijinks, with its gritty tone, violence, sex, and themes of rape, abortion and survivor guilt. Despite this, the show avoids bleakness for bleakness’s sake, and is one of Marvel’s stronger productions thanks to a great cast and an originality that comes from focusing on women, and the experiences of women.
Where Daredevil was an origin story for both Matt Murdoch’s Daredevil and Wilson Fisk’s Kingpin, Jessica Jones starts long after Jones has burnt out. Krysten Ritter, so often saddled with the role of spiky/wry/ironic best friend of a blonde female lead, is note-perfect as Jones, a private investigator with super strength and speed yet resolutely unheroic. Like all of the best noir PIs, Jones is borderline-alcoholic, downbeat, lives and works in near-squalor and makes dubious decisions when it comes to sex. Noir box-ticking aside, Ritter’s portrayal of Jones avoids many of the cliches you might find in other female-led dramas: she doesn’t use her sexuality to get what she wants, she unapologetically has casual sex, and she doesn’t try to be likeable, that awful way of thinking that forgives shitty male characters but insists all female characters be fun to hang around with.
On the downside, there isn’t quite enough plot to fill 13 episodes, and a shorter run could have left out some of the dead weight such as Will Simpson, NYPD sergeant and former super-soldier, who provides some decent fight sequences even though his presence in the show wasn’t much more than padding. There also seemed to be some attempt at providing comic relief through the twin neighbours Robyn and Ruben but if that’s what’s happening, it misfires constantly. These are weird characters so far removed from the realistic tone of the main show that they never feel as if they belong. They’re not funny, but they’re also so odd that they don’t come across as tragic either. On the up side, Carrie Anne-Moss is perfect as a high-powered lawyer of dubious morality and Mike Colter has serious heft as Luke Cage, Jones’ occasional lover and himself the star of another Netflix series yet to air.
As established early on, Jones’ bad mood and depressive tendency comes mostly from the trauma she suffered at the hands of Kilgrave, a mind-controlling villain played by an oily David Tennant. The show doesn’t hide Kilgrave’s behaviour under euphemism or subtext: he’s a rapist, amongst other crimes, and is repeatedly called out as such. This is the show’s motif: that rape isn’t a titillating dramatic moment to throw on a female character to be forgotten an episode later, but a traumatic event with life-changing consequences: PTSD, alcoholism, depression, withdrawal from friends and family.
Midway through the series a victim support group is established for others used by Kilgrave, and it’s notable for its normalcy. Those present talk about the things Kilgrave made them do, ranging from the trivial — a man who gave up his expensive designer jacket — to the monstrous — a woman who was made to play her cello until her fingers bled — but the discussion of their reactions to that control is just what you’d expect at a rape support group: the humiliation, the unshakable sense of powerlessness, and the fear that they can’t tell their friends, family or the police because they wouldn’t be believed. All of this is normal. The man who lost his designer jacket isn’t mocked for having only lost a jacket; he’s supported as a fellow survivor because he, like the rest, had his self-determination taken away from him in a moment.
The first sign that Kilgrave is a monster is that he insists women smile for him.
In theory, Kilgrave could have been another Marvel villain whose company we end up enjoying more than the hero because his mind-controlling ability can easily be set up as wish-fulfilment: who hasn’t had fantasy arguments and conversations in which they’re always the victor? I’ve certainly spent many hours of commuting wishing evil and pain upon my fellow passengers. In Jessica Jones the nature of Kilgrave’s ability is taken to its logical conclusion: Kilgrave, having never learned right from wrong, doesn’t comprehend that other people feel anything. He’s a man without empathy, at one point describing Jessica as ‘a thing’ even as he tries to woo her, so has no qualms in ordering people to go without blinking for hours or to harm themselves or others. He could easily have been made comical, and certainly David Tennant has the charm to pull that off, but the show doesn’t aim for that.
What makes Kilgrave so horrifying is that if you take away his mind control power, he still has power. Not only does he still influence those he’s controlled in the past, through their fear and shame, but he’s still the entitled male figure that women encounter on a daily basis, exhorting them to smile. He’s the sort that wheedles, nags and pesters women into giving up their time and attention, subtly reinforcing their doubts and lowering their self-esteem, isolating them where possible. When he performs a good dead at Jessica’s behest, he immediately lords it over her: he did something good, and therefore deserves a reward in the form of her adoration. His character is so common in fiction that it’s startling to see him here presented as the villain without also making him into an appealing anti-hero.
Despite stalking Jessica, using her friends and family to get near her, and obsessing over her, he doesn’t believe he’s the villain; he doesn’t believe he’s a rapist because he treats his victims to fine food and wine, expensive clothing and fancy hotels. Furthermore, he doesn’t even believe his manipulation of women is entirely necessary, that on some level they want what he’s forcing upon them, and therefore it’s ok for him to use force. You can’t come out of Jessica Jones thinking that Kilgrave is sympathetic in any way. He is the worst of us, and, mind-controlling power aside, he’s also real.