A hard-drinking private investigator dead-set on catching a man with mind-control powers who nobody believes exists. An incident a year ago that left her recovering from the world-changing effects of his influence. A blunt-force battle through trauma that rings true with the real world. Jessica Jones, released in full last week on Netflix, is a show that packs a serious punch and refuses to apologise for it.
The setup is thus: A year ago Jessica Jones, left with super strength after an accident, decided to become a superhero and put her powers to good use. But on her very first outing, she was taken captive by Kilgrave, an ‘invisible’ supervillain who has the power of mind control, and who took a liking to her beauty. He held her under his powers for a long time, enough to break her mind, and when she finally escaped, she gave up the superhero idea and became a private investigator, a fitting field of work considering her paranoia that followed the incident. Now she self-medicates by withdrawing from society and drinking a hell of a lot of whiskey. Up to this point the backstory has followed the events of the comic series Alias. But a new case Jessica’s working on brings Kilgrave back into her life, and when another young girl is affected by his influence, she decides to stop running and do something about it.
Despite what it sounds like, and despite the similarities that many have drawn to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, this show doesn’t push a vigilante-style revenge narrative. It’s a lot more honest to actual emotions; yeah, people feel the need for revenge, but there’s also the desire to just run away, and the need to just get on with their lives. The people and their motivations are complex, and stay so throughout the entire series. Like all good superhero shows, it uses superpowers to explore real-life issues, but Jessica Jones treads the line with reality and cuts much closer to the bone. I cannot recommend it enough. It starts off strong from the very first episode and maintains the pace throughout. There are thirteen episodes in all, and it feels like as much stuff happens in just thirteen episodes as it does in entire sets of seasons in other shows. I feel like the writers for this show would be excellent editors: they would probably have the skill to condense the events of three seasons worth of Orphan Black, for instance, into one season and make the narrative a lot more concise and strong.
But back on to Jessica Jones. This show has succeeded in making an interesting and multifaceted protagonist, along with one of the most terrifying and realistic villains ever, neither of whom fall into a trap of stereotypes. Jessica (played by Kristen Ritter) is traumatised, but she’s not a quivering waif, and neither is she a strong-female-character stereotype. She’s rude, she messes up, she’s an alcoholic, she’s averse to being called a victim, she immerses herself in her detective work, she tried therapy and gave it up, she still gets emotional, she does value her friends, she doesn’t know how to cope with some things, and she enjoys the odd one-night stand (and may I just say how fantastic it is to have a character who has been abused but still has sexuality, portrayed unapologetically on screen).
Kilgrave (played by David Tennant), in contrast, is overwhelmingly ordinary. He has expensive tastes, and he has zero megalomaniacal urges, instead using his incredible power to do the sort of things that many ordinary people would be tempted by – get amazing free meals in restaurants, listen to good music, and go on dates with pretty girls. We’ve all asked each other that question for a laugh down the pub, for sure: ‘What would you do with this superpower? Don’t lie – of course you’d use it to get free stuff, or get into a club for free, instead of thinking about taking over the world.’ Kilgrave is just an ordinary person with pickup-artist leanings, presented with too many opportunities where he gets away scot-free. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone’s met someone like him in real life.
There’s an even more terrifying subject covered here. Jessica has been taken through hell and back, but she can’t tell anyone about it. How can she when she’s up against a man that can change people’s minds? He has the power to make them believe that her allegations are false and, as made evident in some episodes where folk talk about other victims of Kilgrave, and how sick they are of hearing people use others as excuses for their own behaviour, it’s obvious that Jessica’s world is very much like our own, and that she wouldn’t be able to speak up unless she had solid evidence. Ironically, this makes a good character motivation for her and she actually becomes quite ruthless, to the point of being abusive herself, in her search for such evidence. Plus, the fact that while under his influence she was made to seem as if she enjoyed it makes it even much harder to argue against. Jessica’s experience is the experience of millions of people around the world today, people who are not in a position to speak up.
It makes me think about the realities of abuse. It’s not always someone screaming ‘Stop!’ in a dark alley with a knife against their throat. People can be coerced in a million different ways, and many of those ways might just look like an ordinary date to anyone else. Forced pleasantries in public to hide the threat of harm to loved ones stuck at home. Quieting down and apologising instead of raising your voice to say no for fear of being hurt even worse. Or, sadly (and often as a result of behaviours like gaslighting), genuinely believing that you deserve whatever’s happening to you, or that you must do what they say.
But the saddest thing of all – and the thing that allows this behaviour to continue – is that Kilgrave has even confused himself with his own rhetoric, growing to believe that Jessica, and all the other women he had influence over, wanted it. His adamant hatred of the word ‘rape’ shows the clear cognitive dissonance he experiences about what he does to people, and is almost pitiable. He is a product of his situation – never being able to know if someone is saying something from their hearts or just doing what he says. It’s conflicting, for sure, and in no way an excuse, but it’s an important point because Kilgrave’s issues are about more than just him being an anomalous psychopath. He is cruel precisely because of the complex problems that arise from the nature of his power; the dominance and control he naturally has compared to others, and the way he was taught (or the way his parents failed to teach him) how to use that power. It’s not something he alone can necessarily fix. He would need others by his side to guide him, and a hell of an environment change – and this possibility is fantastically explored in Episode 8: WWJD (What Would Jessica Do?).
But one great thing about this show is that it doesn’t shy away from reality. Kilgrave hates the word ‘rape’ so Jessica talks about it bluntly. And when Jessica starts hiding from the truth, washing it down with yet another bottle of whiskey, her friend Trish reacquaints her with reality. Characters in the show make clear mention of what is happening without denying humanity or emotion to either the perpetrators or those affected. Everyone has agency in this show. However, not shying away from reality means the bad things are not underplayed. When Trish apologised to Kilgrave and fed his ego live on her radio show, just so the attempts on her life would be called off, it made anger rise in me. When Jessica was forced to take phone pictures of herself daily to keep Kilgrave away from her drug-addicted neighbour, and you see him smiling at the candid, fake-smile selfies, it made my fists clench. Everyone has agency, but the show also makes it abundantly clear that that can be taken away. At times it’s too real.
This talk of agency brings me on to the side characters. Trish (played by Rachael Taylor), with her childhood star alter-ego ‘Patsy’, is clearly a Miley Cyrus / Hannah Montana analogue, but she brings a lot of feeling to the role. I usually detest characters like this, but I found myself loving Trish. She’s a good friend, and a more interesting person than I expected. I see someone who’s dedicated when she puts her mind to something, whether it’s becoming physically more capable so she can fend off her abusive mother, or helping Jessica sort out the shattered glass in her front door. I see someone who beats herself up far too much for being weak. I see someone I can empathise with.
And then there’s Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter), destined to become a superhero in his own right (he will be the subject of a new Marvel – Netflix series soon). Cage has a sort of on-off relationship with Jones in this series, and it’s awesome to see two superheroes with super strength play off each other – both intimately and otherwise, as later on in the series, Kilgrave mind-controls Cage, which leads to an utterly epic fight between him and Jessica. He’s a fantastic character who values truth and justice greatly, and athough he demonstrates a lot of anger and confusion at the circumstances surrounding the loss of his wife, he is a much-needed slice of goodness amidst the overwhelming presence of Kilgrave. Plus, he and Jessica have a great dynamic together.
Finally I want to discuss Jeri Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss). Hogarth is a refreshing character, largely because of her complexity. She’s a bit of a bitch at times, but is also dedicated to her job, and despite her cold attitude she does help people out. However, she’s also subject to her own deep desires – namely, getting the divorce with her wife she’s been waiting for so she can continue living with her new girlfriend – plus a forward-thinking and practical attitude to some of the laboratory stuff they have uncovered regarding Kilgrave. This leads to her making morally dubious decisions, and at points, to her outright backstabbing the people whose side she’s meant to be on. So, even though I probably wouldn’t like Hogarth if I ever met her, I do consider her actions to be very human indeed, and that adds extra believability to this show.
Apparently Carrie-Anne Moss was only given her lines on an episode-by-episode basis, so she played the character very naturally, having no idea of what was going to happen in her character’s life in the future. I like this approach, and it does mirror real life.
Onto the cinematography, now. I appreciate the attention put into colour palette on the set. In the comics, Kilgrave was known as the Purple Man, because in his backstory, the hormone condition that gives him mind-control powers also makes his skin quite literally purple (of course, he still gets by in society by using his powers to make people believe he looks totally normal). But this series detracts from the comics, making Kilgrave’s power backstory one of a viral infection rather than due to hormones. So in this series, instead of making his skin purple, they use the colour in the background almost constantly throughout the series, and it gets sharp and strong whenever Jessica’s experiencing a flashback or when Kilgrave appears. It ends up functioning as a subconscious prompt for the audience, and it was highly effective: I started feeling uncomfortable when it crept in at the edges without even realising at first.
It reminds me of The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s landmark novel about the abuse of black women in 1930’s America. Aside from obvious connotations of the colour of bruises, the book gots its name because of the ‘little things God does to let us know we are loved.’ In the novel, Shug Avery says “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
There are clear parallels with Jessica Jones there, and all take on a rather unsavoury tone. But aside from the use of colour, the camera work is also interesting: a lot of unusual angular shots and framing of people’s faces that breaks the rule of thirds by having them in the extreme corners of the frame and suchlike. And the fights – oh, the fights! I didn’t think much of it at first until the first barfight broke out. I honestly think it’s the best barfight I’ve ever witnessed on television. And it just got better from there.
So, in short, cinematography is masterfully done, and the audio work is great too. Worth a mention are the title sequences, which, in their washed-out and fractured watercolour strokes, pay homage to the comic book art for Alias.
Krysten Ritter excelled as Jessica. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her casting at first, but she outshone all my expectations. She obviously studied hard for the role, for how to play someone going through what Jessica has gone through. And David Tennant continues to impress, moving on further from the depressing role he played in Broadchurch, on to even darker things, and doing it all expertly, continuing to prove he’s going to be remembered as more than a whimsical Time Lord – however impressive that alone may be. I have a feeling I’m going to look back on this series in ten years time with the same fondness I feel for the electric interaction of characters like Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling.
Also there are the easter eggs. Sly remarks about Kilgrave choosing his own bad-guy name (“Was Murdercorpse already taken?” asks Jessica in Episode 9), references to Loki’s alien invasion of New York in The Avengers, passing kids dressed as Captain America, and finally, wonderfully, Kilgrave intructing his housekeepers not to blink until Jessica returns. You Doctor Who fans will get that last one.
The characters are great. The visuals, the sound, the archetypes – all great. But hands down the best thing about the show is that it is completely satisfying. The ending totally pays off. They don’t scrimp on anything – battles, anticlimactic scenes, final showdowns, justice. If it’s a tough show to watch, rest assured that the ending makes it worth it. Catharsis might be a good word to use here.
I dearly hope there is no second season. Jessica’s story is complete – the work is done, and she should be left alone to do whatever she wants to do next. It’s strange how fiercely protective I feel of her, although by now I know protection is the last thing she wants or needs. But I do feel the story should be left at that, because I like to imagine she doesn’t get hurt this way again, and I like to imagine she goes on to have a great life as the best PI in town. Marvel will be focussing on Luke Cage next, and eventually going on to creating a show for The Defenders. It would be nice to see Jessica cameo in these shows, but overall I’m quite content to let her get her wish and get on with living.