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The Real Draw of 'Jessica Jones' Is Its Complex, Flawed, and Nuanced Characters

Daniel Rasmus

The stark, urban beauty of Jessica Jones draws the viewer into the world and the stories of broken people that’s nearly impossible to stop watching.

Jessica Jones

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Will Traval, Erin Moriarty, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Tennant
Network: Netflix
Air date: 2015-11-20

There’s no other way to put this: Jessica Jones is a series about rape. Yet the show mesmerizes in both execution and intention. I was only going to watch a couple of episodes and then write down a few thoughts, and then watch a few more, etc., etc. But I was sucked in; I found myself compelled to watch until I was eventually disgusted and uplifted, horrified and comforted, shocked and enlightened.

Jessica Jones could easily be cut into a continuous tone poem of humans broken by great gifts bestowed not by beneficent deities or beings from another world, but by a universe churning the expression of genes wantonly and randomly, to those deserving and capable, to those too weak to leverage their powers, and to those strong and ambivalent, strong and evil.

In Jessica Jones, Marvel and Netflix don’t just present a world of super humans with the sugar coating of Saturday morning removed; they deliver a world where the sugar is systematically extracted, along with the memory of the sweetness, and all of it melted into a heap of black that wreaks of despair and decay. And in some sense, if the super powers were removed, the world of Jessica Jones would still feel all too familiar, which makes the darkness even more an insatiable draw.

This New York, the same one that hosts the shining, if sometimes dinged-up, super heroes of The Avengers, is also the home to an emergent underworld of anti-hero heroes that refuse to don capes, but rather work behind the doors of private investigation offices, which are often the scenes of crimes themselves, as they are fonts of information for needy clients.

The heroine, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), is broken. Somehow broken has yet to become a cliché in the Netflix Marvel universe. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox)/Daredevil, is also broken, physically and emotionally, but not nearly as broken as Jones. With Jones we get not only a superhero who doubts her efficacy as a hero, she also doubts her value as a human being. Sex, cheap whiskey -- more often cheap whiskey then sex -- relationships with other humans kept at arms length until needed to be used for a moment, apologized to, and used again.

All of the lead women in Jessica Jones are powerful and strong characters. These women hold the kind of jobs real women leaders suggest that young women aspire to, such as television stars who have matured into insightful talk radio hosts, a stunning lawyer of conviction, talent, and connections. Yet, each of these women finds themselves fractured over the course of the series, their self-illusions, and eventually their public personas, swept away.

These women need each other. In some ways, it takes three broken women to create one personality powerful enough to overcome the threat of the antagonist, Kilgrave (David Tenannt). The goodness of a former junkie (Eka Darville) and an invincible man, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) also help, but it’s the superhuman, yet very flawed, humanity of Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and their bond with Jones, that facilitates the triumph over evil.

And that evil is pretty much as evil as any evil that’s made it to any form of "entertainment". I would argue that Kilgrave is even more detached, destructive, and orders of magnitude more manipulative than Silence of the Lamb’s Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Kilgrave can make anyone do anything. He emits a virus that produces complete complicity, not just for individuals, but for groups of people. In his most awful moment, Kilgrave forces his father, who first created his "gift", to enhance it so that it can be deployed on an even wider scale. Kilgrave is obsessed with Jones, a former lover, whom he believes is his soulmate. Unfortunately, Kilgrave has no soul. He wantonly kills, but never associates the actions with himself. He believes that inducing people to do in themselves or others isn’t really a crime perpetrated by him either directly or by association.

The lead up to Kilgrave's death is excruciating -- it's as if the writers and producers have discovered a way to reach through Netflix and pull the viewer’s fingernails from their nail beds. Yes spoiler, he dies. He has to die. I know this is a comic book-based world, one in which multiple incarnations of Doctor Doom and Ultron find defeat and resurrection, but in this gritty, oil-soaked canvas of a television show, there’s no room for soap-operatic reincarnations. Kilgrave can’t continue to exist, or the show would go so off the rails of agony and cruelty running into a narrative ditch that would become unwatchable.

In all of these broken shards of humanity, in the torture and death, maiming and manipulation that is the narrative of Jessica Jones, there’s a very stark, urban beauty, a kind of Western of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom of human-on-human fight for survival, a documentary "red in tooth and claw", where the future’s determined not by might or by physical or mental prowess, but by the ability of people to hold on to the most precious human attributes, like kindness and compassion.

Don’t get me wrong. There's nothing sentimental about Jessica Jones. Good does triumph over evil. The protagonist survives, learns, and grows. Her little band of broken humans survives to fight another day, like scarred and battered Scoobies, but where they go from the death of Kilgrave into the future feel like a jump from one crumbling precipice to another slightly less crumbling one. Earthquakes are coming, and our heroes are wearing the wrong shoes. The relative safety of the moment could be sacrificed with nearly any breath or word or movement.

Did I enjoy Jessica Jones? Immensely. It made my heart beat in ways that an addict knows only after unexpectedly encountering a conquered substance. It pulled me in, not because of any longing for any particular character, but because the entire world yearned to be watched. The images, the plot, the music, the actors, all formed a kind of psychic glue that adhered to my consciousness, forcing me to watch like a subject in some alternative-universe version of the Stanford prison experiment. I was an inmate with the authoritarian power of art and story forcing me to descend into world of psychological torture that waved itself off as entertainment. Yes, I was Kilgraved by Jessica Jones.

IMDB summarizes the show as "A former superhero decides to reboot her life by becoming a private investigator". That phrase is only a cursory hint at the depths of Jessica Jones. It should read "An ambivalent minor superhero decides to hide behind the life of a private investigator while a former lover who mind-fucked her systematically turns the entire city of New York into a network of surveillance, and a weapon of torture, in order to obtain love from the women with which he is obsessed". Isn't that a show you want to watch? Come on. Isn't it a show you want to watch? You do. You really do. Just watch it for a minute and you will believe me. Really. Trust me. Just a minute. If you don’t like it you can turn it off. Really, you can. Well…I said watch it.


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