On Jessica Jones

I recently binge-watched Netflix’s Jessica Jones. It was terrific. The recent renaissance of superhero movies and television shows has mostly passed me by. This is not out of any principled objection to them, but my comic book days were the 1980s, and I am in a different place now. I clicked on this one in an idle moment, based on vaguely having read good things about it.

The show is centered on a Marvel character from the 1990s, which means I was unaware of this incarnation. Looking at the Wikipedia article, the comic book version seems to have been a fairly standard superhero, teaming up with other superheroes in the Marvelverse in fairly standard ways. The current television version is far more interesting.

The thumbnail setup: Jessica Jones is a private investigator from Oklahoma City, of the classic hard-boiled noir sort but with a more goth affect. She also has superpowers, but these are almost incidental, at least superficially. Her powers run to strength, ability to take and recover from physical punishment, and pseudo-flying (jumping, and safely landing). In all three cases the limits are not fully clear. As superhero powers go, these are fairly modest. (I wholeheartedly approve of superheroes of modest power. I am in the “Superman is boring” camp.)

We need a supervillain, of course, and this is where the show really shines. Kilgrave is an absolutely wonderful villain. His power is mind control. It too has limits of range and duration, but within those limits it is nearly absolute. Kilgrave isn’t a take-over-the-world villain but he is selfish and emotionally stunted, completely lacking empathy. He isn’t going to take over the world, but he will casually leave a trail of death and destruction behind him, barely taking notice..

The setup is completed by the show beginning in media res, with Kilgrave obsessed with Jessica for reasons that are revealed gradually. Wackiness ensues.

The acting is generally solid to excellent. The standout is the sheer brilliance of casting David Tennant as Kilgrave, essentially reprising his role as The Doctor, but as a sociopath with mind control powers. I get tingly all over just thinking about this.  Speaking of reprising roles, the only other actor I recognized is Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon on The Wire. I am sure that my not knowing any others is mostly a reflection of my limited viewing habits.

I have two critiques, neither major.

SPOILER ALERT The next two paragraphs discuss stuff that is revealed mid-season.

Kilgrave’s powers are explained as being due to a virus, with it being at least strongly implied that the virus goes from him to his victims. This is taken more seriously than the usual hand-waving about reversing the polarity of the plasma phase inducers and the like. Plot developments are based on this. But how is the virus spread? Presumably airborne, but wouldn’t that mean that someone standing upwind of him should be unaffected? And his orders are invariably transmitted verbally. How would this work with a deaf person, or someone who doesn’t understand English? No one in the show seems to wonder about this, while it seems to me a pretty obvious dodge to try. That being said, in practice the show treats his power pretty consistently, which is the important thing. It seems to follow rules, even if these rules aren’t really in line with the explanation.

Then there is the question of why Jessica doesn’t simply take him out with a high powered rifle midway through the season. She is given a motivation to reject this solution, but the motivation is sadly lacking, given even a weak sense of utilitarianism. In fairness, everyone around her agrees with me. So it isn’t that the writers haven’t thought of the problem. It is more that their workaround doesn’t seem really in character for Jessica.

END SPOILER ALERT

Emily Nussbaum wrote a review of the show in the New Yorker where she compares it with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and specifically season 6. Reading that review made it click in my head why I liked Jessica Jones so much. It shares many of the same virtues as Buffy.

In Buffy the metaphor famously was made literal. High school is hell? Sunnydale High is literally atop a hellmouth. Rape is sex without consent, but short of physical constraint, consent turns out not to be an entirely straightforward concept. In Jessica Jones Kilgrave’s mind control usually acts as constraint, but not always. Gray areas slip in. As with Buffy, this can make for gripping television.

We also get an answer to the question about the common juvenile fantasy of controlling the world through sheer mind power. How would that work out? Poorly, it turns out. Who knew?

A second season is in the works. The first season gives ample hints that the second will further explore the origins of Jessica’s power. I look forward to this, but I suspect a missed opportunity. I would love to see her get Kilgrave’s mind control powers, and how she would deal with it. Apart from large quantities of alcohol, of course. That part is understood.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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11 thoughts on “On Jessica Jones

  1. I was with you right up to the end. Jessica’s powers should be her own. If she got Kilgrave’s powers, she’d become Boring Superman by virtue of being too powerful for any credible challenge.

    What made Kilgrave work was how logical and understandable his evil was. Realizing those powers, at that point in life, with that background… The rest of the world may be glad he never took an interest in politics.

    What makes Jessica work is that she’s damaged goods and she knows it. Should she ever heal, I fear she’ll be less interesting. But I’m on tenterhooks to see what the writers cook up for her next.

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    • But think of the opportunities for self loathing! This is very much within her skill set already. My scenario would put that on overdrive. The season arc could be her efforts to get rid of the mind control power, in tension with all those oh, so compelling reasons to use it.

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  2. But how is the virus spread? Presumably airborne, but wouldn’t that mean that someone standing upwind of him should be unaffected?

    Depends on the level of virus needed to do what it does.

    And his orders are invariably transmitted verbally. How would this work with a deaf person, or someone who doesn’t understand English? No one in the show seems to wonder about this, while it seems to me a pretty obvious dodge to try.

    ? Yes they do. They try wearing headphones with loud music so they can’t hear, which does work. It would be interesting how *long* it would work, though, if he motioned to take them off.

    The problem with Killgrave is not *how* to deal with him, it’s *what* to do with him. It is perfectly possible to contain him with a little bit of work on your part, if you *don’t* mind hostages dying. Then what do you do after you contain him?

    Now, there is one solution that JJ seemingly missed, that when she was living with Killgrave and they left the house, and Killgrave told his ’employees’ to kill themselves if they didn’t come back…the show ‘missed’ the obvious solution of JJ calling someone to send in a team of people to sedate them, which is what I was thinking she should do. OTOH, she *wasn’t* planning on killing him at that point, so hardly needed to do that, and taking his hostages would just have resulted in him taking others.

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    • One thing that’s interesting is that even though it’s not QUITE 1:1, another MCU TV Show does imprison a villain with similar powers. The Russian Doctor Ivchenko in Agent Carter can hypnotize people into doing his bidding; unlike Kilgrave, the mesmerism isn’t immediate, and it only appears to work via one-on-one interaction, whereas Kilgrave can control multiple people. But they still stick a ball-gag on that guy and throw him in prison.

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  3. Meta-note: Can we just declare this whole discussion “spoilery”, and dispense with the blackout? The show has been out for a while, and the original post provides ample warning.

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  4. UNCENSORED SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT

    Then there is the question of why Jessica doesn’t simply take him out with a high powered rifle midway through the season. She is given a motivation to reject this solution, but the motivation is sadly lacking, given even a weak sense of utilitarianism. In fairness, everyone around her agrees with me. So it isn’t that the writers haven’t thought of the problem. It is more that their workaround doesn’t seem really in character for Jessica.

    This is an interesting discussion. I thought it was in character for Jessica. Or rather, I understood something about Jessica’s character through those actions.

    She’s not rationally trying to help people, or crusading for any kind of principle. Even protecting people from Kilgrave is pretty far down her priority list. She’s trying to process her own trauma. She wants to protect herself, but then Hope becomes a proxy for Jessica herself.

    Jessica has this plan to free Hope – and it’s a ridiculous plan, even within the show’s world. But she can’t let it go because that would be losing control again, and leaving “herself” in the clutches of Kilgrave. So she pushes on beyond all reason.

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  5. For me it was the “18 seconds” part — which look, that was the exact moment I said, “A woman wrote this.” So I Googled, and yep. That was such a predictable moment with the threat of stupid melodrama, of shallow romance. But nope. They got it right. He was exactly an abuser, exactly the monster. We see through him.

    Smile.

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  6. I was highly impressed with this show (although I also agreed with the “sniper rifle” recommendation; I think Tim’s point as to why Jessica rejected it is correct). Characters, themes, all very well done.

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  7. The show is centered on a Marvel character from the 1990s, which means I was unaware of this incarnation. Looking at the Wikipedia article, the comic book version seems to have been a fairly standard superhero, teaming up with other superheroes in the Marvelverse in fairly standard ways. The current television version is far more interesting.

    In this understanding, Wikipedia has served you poorly, as nearly all articles on comic-related superheroes are want to do. Remember, Wikipedia articles about superheroes are almost always written by thermians who are unable to recognize that fiction is fictional.

    Jones wasn’t a standard superhero from the 90s. She was instead created in media res in 2001 as a character who had spend some time superheroing in the 90s. In her own books, she was always Jessica Jones, Private Investigator–Though she mellowed out and got more emotionally settled after the original book ended.

    The really big difference is that the 21st century Marvel comics universe is a lot more developed that the MCU. Jessica Jones of the Comics actually did wear that goofy costume and fight crime for a year before Killgrave instead of doing it for one time. Instead of Killgrave making her attack Reva Conners, he made her punch Thor. Her best friend is a celebrity with a costumed identity instead of a celebrity with a radio persona.

    Her ordeal in the comic books was traumatizing, but it was never isolating in the same way that we see in the TV show. On netflix, the weirdness of her experiences stands out, but the comics have too much weirdness for that. The real innovation that the show made was in the character of Killgrave. While JJ in the comics and JJ on the small screen have clear and close links, Killgrave in the comics is just a horrible and evil supervillain. The show, though, turned him into a metaphor, and the interaction between Jessica and that metaphor is what made the show sing.

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    • Wikipedia has served you poorly

      This is unsurprising. The Wikipedia entries on baseball history are absolutely appalling. (And no, I am not going to go singlehandedly fix them. The problem is systemic.)

      The next question is whether I would be well served to go track down the relevant JJ comics? This is assuming they are available in reprint editions.

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      • They’re pretty standard gritty Bendis. If you read and liked his Daredevil run or Powers, then you’d probably like Alias and Pulse. They’re good books, but they lack that “18 seconds” perspective that Veronica talks about above that just made the show sing.

        Also Whereas the show is all Killgrave all the time from episode 1 to episode 13, the comics are the characters and their interpersonal drama and noir tone, but with mostly forgettable plots as far as her actual PI cases.

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