Jessica Jones' superpower is surviving

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Jessica Jones
Created by Melissa Rosenburg
Staring Krysten Ritter, David Tennant & Rachael Taylor
Released by Netflix

Jessica Jones is the second instalment in the fruitful Netflix-Marvel TV collaboration. Like the fantastic Daredevil before it, it is ruthlessly grim, dark and bloody, superbly well-acted and gorgeously produced.

The gore and thematic material may not be for everyone. Viewers who have been looking for a dose of Daredevil's grittiness with compelling, complex female characters at its centre have found their poison.

Ostensibly a neo-noir, Jessica Jones uses the conventions of that genre to its advantage without being overly bound to them. The show's cinematography constantly positions us as a voyeur, looking at characters through windows and doorways, spying on them the way its protagonist does for money and its villain does out of obsession.

Jessica, an ex-superhero turned private investigator, speaks to us in voiceover and works/lives in an apartment with an old-school frosted-glass “Alias Investigations” sign on the door. But she is not so much hardboiled as she is broken.

If Daredevil is, at its core, a show about doing violence, Jessica Jones is about surviving it. Central to the first season is the relationship between Jessica (a brilliantly caustic Krysten Ritter) and her superpowered abuser Kilgrave (a phenomenally creepy David Tennant).

Kilgrave is a villain whose mind control abilities allow him to compel anyone to do what he wants. That what he wants is not world domination but domination over an individual woman, with whom he is obsessed, is in itself part of the show's commentary on the nature of evil.

Many reviews and commentary pieces, many written by survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, have already commented on the accuracy the series brings to its depiction of abuse, stalking, rape and post-traumatic stress. Kilgrave is himself the product of an abusive childhood, and while the show allows us to understand how he got to be the way he is, it never tries to excuse his behaviour.

As with the best speculative fiction, the superhuman in the show works as a metaphor for the human. Kilgrave's power is the literal embodiment of extreme male entitlement — being able to bend the entire world to his will while still feeling sorry for himself.

He keeps Jessica prisoner in an abusive relationship, then stalks her when she escapes his control. But he reacts with genuine outrage when she calls him a rapist. In his mind, this is true love — and Jessica is the one hurting him by refusing to return it.

And while Jessica is strong enough to stop a car, she found herself powerless to disobey Kilgrave's commands, and is still dealing with the psychological aftermath. It is precisely her superhuman strength that throws into relief the self-blaming thoughts of many survivors of violence — I should have been stronger; I should have fought harder; I can punch through a wall so I should have been able to get away from him.

Ultimately, what makes Jessica strong is not her superpower, but her willingness to track down and confront her abuser when she realises he has hurt someone else.

When we meet Jessica, she is clearly struggling with PTSD. She is traumatised, angry, fearful, guilt-ridden, self-isolating and probably an alcoholic — barely holding together a life as an underemployed freelancer, working at night or getting blackout drunk because she is afraid to go to sleep.

Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones is not shy about depicting violence (although the sexual violence that underpins so much of the story is left off-screen). But while Daredevil's fights took place in dark alleys and abandoned industrial spaces — the places we are taught to expect crime and violence to be lurking — Jessica Jones repeatedly stages its set-piece fights in domestic spaces, particularly characters' homes.

Arterial blood splatters penthouse apartment walls; a stereotypical suburban neighbourhood becomes the site of a grisly bomb blast; and Jessica's apartment gets trashed beyond any hope of reclaiming her security deposit by the season's end.

The perpetually broken state of Jessica's apartment door is both a running gag and a commentary: she does not care about it, because the threat of violence is not “out there”, and a locked door will not keep her safe.

The fights in Jessica Jones are styled to look messy and unchoreographed, and they have a relentless quality that makes them downright terrifying to watch.

An early fight, between Jessica's best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) and an NYPD cop who hss been sent by Kilgrave to kill her, is an important tone-setter for the series. Trish has been trained in self-defence and has a weapon, but her attacker is just bigger and stronger than her and refuses to stop.

Jessica herself is stronger than a normal human, but she is not invulnerable. She can get shot, stabbed, bruised, knocked unconscious and just plain overwhelmed — and she does. The net result is a show in which multiple characters have superpowers, and yet you still feel genuinely scared for our protagonists in a fight.

There are plenty of other refreshing nuggets in the way the show treats its female characters. Arguably the most important relationship of the season is the friendship between Jessica and Trish. A plotline involving abortion is handled with enough unapologetic aplomb to make you cheer.

By gender-swapping a character from the comics, cutthroat lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Cary-Ann Moss), the series gives us another female character and two lesbian relationships, which are handled pretty much exactly as they would be if Hogarth were a man.

The show's women have a lot of sex, much of it casual and none of it portrayed as shameful. Jessica's relationship with fellow superhero Luke Cage is not exactly healthy — but what is unhealthy about it is not that their idea of romance is getting cart food between rounds of bed-breaking coitus.

Rather, it is the emotional masochism Jessica puts herself through due to an entanglement in their pasts only she knows about at the start of the series — and the fact she keeps this information from Luke when revealing it would have dramatically changed the way he interacted with her.

And it is to the show's credit that the tension in their relationship is not neatly tied up by the season's end — if you get to an episode where it looks like it is going to be, just wait for the twist.

And this is a show with some truly wild twists. The show's writers embrace chaos and unintended consequences in ways few do. At multiple points, secondary characters who seem like amusing (or annoying) distractions suddenly end up interacting with the main plot in unpredictable and sometimes shocking ways.

A particular character chooses, of their own free will, to aid Kilgrave at a key moment, setting in motion a horrific chain of events that comes back to haunt them. A random interaction with a side character who mostly seems there for comic relief leads to Jessica not being in the right place at a key moment.

Some twists are more effective than others, but the overall effect is a tremendous amount of destructive instability that radiates out from the key conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave and touches every recurring character on the show — and plenty of unlucky bystanders.

The first season of Jessica Jones, which has now been renewed for a second season, is a truly original story, about a character overcoming her demons in the most literal way after a life-altering trauma.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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