The next post in my Marvel Doubles series looks at duality and mirroring in Netflix’s Jessica Jones.
After becoming obsessed with Netflix’s divine Daredevil series, I couldn’t wait to watch Marvel’s follow-up comic book show Jessica Jones. Although it’s part of the Netflix superhero brand, it’s the least comic book-y adaptation I’ve ever seen – surprising, but not an insult by any means. Daredevil – though introspective and unique – is still very much a comic book series, complete with secret identities, cool costumes and choreographed combat sequences. Jessica Jones is a different beast entirely; a hard-boiled, neo-noir psychological thriller starring a jaded private detective with super strength – Jessica is a modern-day super-powered Sam Spade, with shades of Dirty Harry, Serpico and Jake Gittes; an unreliable narrator with razor-sharp cynicism and a ruthless streak who just doesn’t have time for your BS.
Jessica as a character doesn’t fit into any of the boxes that many of her female predecessors have – she isn’t the two-dimensional badass chick/ sultry siren/ manic pixie dream girl, nor is she an embodiment of the stereotyped Strong Female Character trope – she is one of the most nuanced female characters I have ever encountered; not just in comic book adaptations, but in TV and film in general. Her super powers are secondary – instead, her vulnerabilities are pushed to the forefront, and we get to see her at her worst on a daily (episodic?) basis. In the pilot episode, she’s so close to unlikeable you start wondering how you can possibly root for her – and then, as the series continues, you become witnesses to her pain, her abuse at the hands of Kilgrave, and guilt complex the size of New York that Jessica carries with her wherever she goes. Most importantly, it’s Jessica’s choice to overcome her fear in order to protect others from suffering at the hands of her abuser that makes her a hero – perhaps not in her own eyes, but certainly in ours.
In addition to their reputation for morally complex heroes, Netflix has once again succeeded in making Marvel’s most magnificent monsters; the kind of villains that can garner (almost) as much – if not more – sympathy than their heroic nemeses. Or, at least, Kilgrave is so captivating and persuasive that he’d make you think that way. He’s probably the most insidious and grotesque character ever brought to life in a comic book adaptation, and yet David Tennant is so damn charming and effervescent that you can even imagine (if only for, say, 18 seconds) a redemption for the contemptible Kilgrave. This alone demonstrates the singular excellence of this show and all involved, and gives Jessica and the series as a whole the highest personal (and psychological) stakes in the MCU so far.
Using the same structure as my Daredevil review, I’ll be looking at the ways in which the show portrays the duality of light and dark, heroism and villainy, using the doubles aspect of my PhD as a lens through which to explore the characters of this remarkable series.
*Spoilers for Jessica Jones Season 1 to follow*
A rogue by any other name…
Jessica Jones, AKA Jewel: her gemstone-inspired superhero alias, alluded to in passing during a flashback (complete with a retrospectively corny costume), provides a stark contrast to the darkness of the world Jessica inhabits. Hell’s Kitchen is no place for a precious trinket – but it’s just the ticket for a jaded PI in search of absolution. Jessica was the name of Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice, deriving from the Hebrew name ‘Iscah’ meaning ‘to behold’. Jones, in addition to the Welsh connection (meaning ‘John’s son’), is also a noun that describes a fixation on or compulsive desire for someone or something, typically a drug; an addiction – which is eerily pertinent to her messed-up dynamic with Kilgrave, as well as her constant search for truth and justice.
Kilgrave, AKA Kevin Thompson: Kevin derives from the Irish Gaelic meaning ‘kind, gentle and handsome’, at least two thirds of which stand in stark contrast to Kilgrave’s character, whereas Thompson is derived from ‘son of Thomas’ – although his father is named Albert, much like Wilson Fisk, his very name ties him inextricably with his parent (and the complex dynamic they share). His first name aptly evokes the titular troubled teen of ‘’We need to talk about Kevin’, and he shares his surname with one of the children responsible for murder of Jamie Bulger. I don’t know if these examples were in the minds of Jessica Jones’ writing team, who chose to give the character a more ordinary name as opposed to his extravagantly titled comic book counterpart ‘Zebediah Killgrave’. Just as Jessica Jones is distanced from the rather frivolous moniker ‘Jewel’, so is Kilgrave’s name choice ridiculed – ‘Talk about obvious’, says Jessica, ‘was “murdercorpse” already taken?’
Imagery, colour, symbolism
Jessica is always dressed in shades of grey; her clothing is practical and ordinary, wearing only what she need to carry out her investigative work. Kilgrave, on the other hand, revels in fancy clothing and his presence in the series, whether metaphorical or literal, is always manifested by the colour purple (harkening back to his comic book alias ‘the Purple Man’, a moniker which – like Kingpin’s in Daredevil – isn’t used at all in the show, to great effect). Purple is associated with royalty, luxury, power, ambition and – crucially, for this series – madness.
Both Jessica and Kilgrave suffered greatly during their respective childhoods, although in extremely different ways. On a family trip, a teenage Jessica’s petty argument with her younger brother distracts her parents and culminates in a collision with a truck carrying toxic chemicals. Jessica, seemingly the sole survivor of the crash, carries the guilt of her family’s deaths on her conscience, and possesses super powers gained from the chemical spillage. She is adopted by the mother of Patsy Walker (later known as Trish), a teenage girl playing a superhero on a TV show (think Hannah Montana with super powers) and, after a rocky start, begins to bond with Trish over their selfish, domineering guardian. Trish is the one constant in Jessica’s life, and I’ll be exploring the dynamics of their relationship later on in this post.
Kilgrave, on the other hand, starts out as seemingly irredeemable. Halfway through, we learn that Kilgrave was brutally experimented on by his own parents, and the recordings of his torture are so horrific that you can’t help but pity the person who experienced such horror (especially as Jessica is essentially imprisoning and psychologically tormenting Kilgrave in order to get a confession out of him). However, when Jessica tracks down Kilgrave’s parents, she discovers that they experimented on him in order to save his life from a degenerative disease that would have left him brain-dead before he was 12 years old. Their experiments saved his life, but accidentally imbued him with mind control powers – and, scared of their son and his dangerous new abilities (which resulted in him disfiguring his mother’s face after a tantrum), they ran away from him and shirked responsibility for the creature they had created. You can see where Kilgrave learned not to take responsibility for his actions. As Jessica tells his mum and dad, ‘if your parenting didn’t make him a sociopath, your lack of parenting did’. Left to his own devices, he goes through life taking what he wants when he wants it, and not feeling an ounce of guilt about doing so – if anything, he feels entitled to it. Both Jessica and Kilgrave were deprived of their families at a young age, but whereas Jessica blames herself for something that was out of her control, Kilgrave erases the complexity of the situation and cannot see his parents as anything other than evil and himself blameless.
Conceptions of justice/ moral compass
The critical difference between Jessica and Kilgrave is perception of responsibility. Jessica sees herself as the architect of her pain and the pain of others, taking all responsibility even in situations where it wasn’t (actually or exclusively) her fault; Kilgrave, on the other hand, takes none of it, believing himself to be the victim even when he is overwhelmingly and undoubtedly at fault. Neither of these characters change their stances as they grow into adulthood – if anything, these beliefs have magnified exponentially and have become the axis on which each character turns, and conflicts with the other.
Jessica is a victim of rape (both physical and psychological), a survivor of abuse, and deals with the demons of her trauma every day – in many ways, she takes on the Dexter-esque ‘Dark Passenger’ of others’ guilt. In order to confront Kilgrave, Jessica is prepared to do dreadful things – like cutting off a dead guy’s head and walking into a police station so as to be sent to a maximum security prison, and imprison and torture Kilgrave in order to get a confession. She borders on anti-hero territory here – doing bad things for the right reasons – but her actions tip into heroism by the end, and whatever she did before then was her own special brand of fighting fire with fire. Against such an unstable threat, even the Avengers would have faltered (and already did, a la Loki’s mind-control sceptre way back in 2012’s Avengers Assemble). Marvel’s street-level heroes often have to get their hands dirty to save their city from corruption, and Jessica Jones is no exception – but the series never shies away from the grey area her actions often inhabit, and neither does it downplay her heroism: the reason she decides to confront Kilgrave and bring him to justice is in order to exonerate one of his latest victims – and that’s pretty damn heroic in my book. Krysten Ritter imbues the character with such a jagged, jaded charisma that even at her lowest moments we root for her to triumph over the myriad miseries infecting her life and the lives of others; she is the living embodiment of the Dire Straits song ‘Private Investigations’ – right down to the ‘bottle of whisky and a new set of lies’.
Kilgrave, a serial abuser, constantly makes excuses for his behaviour, and tries to legitimise what he has done because of how he himself suffered as a child (and which we later discover was more complicated and less overtly sinister than what we previously believed). Most dangerous of all, however, is that he doesn’t realise that what he’s doing is wrong (or, at least, that’s what he claims): ‘I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to do’. But how can he not know that what he is doing is wrong when, for example, he makes a person throw hot coffee in their own face? He’s a master rhetorician with a heady mix of charm, sadism and seemingly unstoppable powers – he literally emits a virus which forces people to obey him, whether he wants them to slit their throat or smile. That is his fatal flaw and the engine of his destruction – he could quite literally rule the MCU and the world at large if he wanted to, but he can’t get over the one person who disobeyed – or at least hesitated to obey – his orders. Perhaps if he’d been allowed to live, he would have become the Time Turner of the Marvel-verse – for purely practical reasons, a character with the staggering power of Kilgrave simply couldn’t be allowed to live longer than one season, if only for all the plot contrivances his existence would cause. But this is the crux of Kilgrave’s madness – breaking Jessica becomes his obsession, a quest for possession that he frames as a romance. ‘I have a conscience’, he smirks, ‘it’s just more selective’. His choices define his villainy just as Jessica’s define her heroism – and the episode in which Kilgrave and Jessica team up to fight crime is a perfect, bittersweet example of the potential Kilgrave has to do good in this world but that he wastes on wickedness.
Kilgrave has to mind control people to hang around with him, after which he disposes of them according to his latest whim. He draws people to him because/ when he wants them, but they aren’t there of their own will. Jessica, on the other hand, often alienates people due to her tough, often unsympathetic attitude – but those who do grow close to her (Trish, Malcolm, Luke) accept her for who she really is, and the connection that develops between them is authentic and genuine. Kilgrave can never know that kind of connection, because he can never tell if people want to be around him of their own volition or because of his powers.
Jessica claims throughout the show that she has no friends, but she has a unique way of inspiring loyalty to a select few despite her claims to the contrary. Her relationship with Carrie-Ann Moss’ lawyer extraordinaire Jeri Hogarth is spiky, singular and sublime. They kind of hate each other, but they respect one another’s particular set of skills – even if they don’t always agree on the best way of handling a situation. It’s the kind of unique relationship, one that doesn’t fit into traditional binary boxes, which is yet another testament to the brilliant writing of this show. Jessica also develops a strange but lovely bond with her neighbour Malcolm, a person suffering with his own kind of Kilgrave-related trauma, and there’s a welcome extended cameo from Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, a character with grounded strength and compassion whose ever-welcome presence binds all the Marvel Netflix shows together.
However, the major relationship in Jessica’s life is with Trish Walker, her childhood best friend, whose mother took her in after her family died in a tragic accident. However, the fact that this was a publicity stunt on Mrs Walker’s part only strengthened the bond between Jessica and Trish. Trish is far from being a perfect character – she often makes rash, impulsive decisions that have dizzyingly daft and dangerous repercussions from which Jessica has to rescue her (Will Simpson, much?) but one of Trish’s most endearing qualities is her love for Jessica. Jessica may doubt herself, but Trish never does: ‘you’re exactly the hero I wanted you to be’ Trish tells her, in one of the series’ rare sweet moments. These two are sisters in the truest sense of the word – they genuinely care for one another, they protect one another at the expense of their own safety, and they are the most important person in each other’s life – each other’s anchor, heart, cornerstone. Even when Trish, newly trained in self-defence, wants to help in the cause against Kilgrave, Jessica refuses: ‘I can’t risk you’, she says. In the climatic finale episode, this relationship culminates in an epic, beautiful way: preparing to face Kilgrave, Trish suggests a code word/ phrase they can exchange to demonstrate they aren’t under Kilgrave’s control, something they’d never otherwise say, to which Jessica solemnly suggests ‘I love you’. Later in the episode, Kilgrave gloats over a seemingly mind controlled Jessica by commanding her to tell her she loves him; to which Jessica looks into Trish’s eyes, tells her ‘I love you’, and snaps Kilgrave’s neck. It’s a uniquely empowering, epic and emotional moment.
It’s difficult to discuss the concept of romance in a show which centres on the dynamic between a serial rapist and his victim(s), but Jessica Jones certainly doesn’t shy away from such serious and sensitive topics – sex and sexuality is explored with the same dark, gritty edge as every other element of the show. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, a comic book power couple, meet onscreen in the pilot episode – and their connection is electric. Jessica and Luke’s first encounter is raw and graphic – especially for a comic book show; we are thrown into the role of voyeurs as these two super-powered people get it on in exaggerated, almost comical fashion. However, as their relationship develops and their feelings for one another develop, we see less and less of their bedroom antics, until the point where their interactions become tender and understated and delicate – a particularly poignant moment occurs where Luke is in a catatonic, coma-like state and Jessica lies beside him, resting her head on his chest. It’s a rare quiet, lovely moment in the grimy chaos of the rest of the show, and shows the beginnings of a beautiful dynamic that is achingly close to, and yet somehow surpasses, its source material. Luke is a source of calmness and comfort in Jessica’s chaotic world, and Mike Colter infuses the character with such warmth, strength and kindness that falling in love with him seems like the easiest thing in the world – and his chemistry with Krysten Ritter is so pure and palpable that it makes it all the more heart-breaking that Jessica killed his wife, Reva.
However, Jessica didn’t kill Reva of her own volition, but was commanded to do so by Kilgrave. Later, when she confronts him about this, he characteristically shirks all responsibility for Reva’s death: ‘I only said ‘take care of her’. not kill her. you chose to punch her’. This is Kilgrave at his most insidious – blaming his victim for carrying out an order she was mind controlled to obey. It reminded me of the infamous Derek Bentley case, where the interpretation of the ambiguous phrase ‘let him have it!’ was central to the conviction of a defendant who has since been posthumously pardoned. I wondered how the case of Reva’s killing would be treated by the law (or, at least, English and Welsh law, with which I am most familiar) – it could be treated as a case of (supernatural) duress, where the victim is forced by threats or similar actions into do something against their better judgment. It’s difficult to categorise, as Kilgrave’s commands forced Jessica into actions as a form of self-defence or necessity – but disobeying was not an option, so what was the threat? Kilgrave’s actions were definitely a form of coercion exerted on Jessica, compelling into committing acts – i.e. killing a person – that she wouldn’t otherwise have done. Kilgrave could be considered to fulfil the requirements of oblique intention, e.g. he foresees virtually certain consequences of his actions (Reva’s death), although he may not want to cause her death per se, but he goes ahead with his actions despite the risk (by telling Jessica, a person with super strength, to ‘take care’ of the situation). Perhaps his actions align more closely with the concept of gross negligence, a conscious and voluntary disregard to use reasonable care in the face of foreseeable harm to people and property.
It’s when Kilgrave forces Jessica to cross that line, the same line that Daredevil keeps firmly drawn as well – not to kill – that she is finally free of him. He is the engineer of his own undoing, and his forcing of Jessica to violate that last inviolable principle that separates hero from villain is the catalyst for her to break away from his control. And, in a moment of beautiful circularity, it is only through killing one last time – through killing the person who has caused herself and many more so much pain – that Jessica can stop the seemingly unstoppable threat of Kilgrave. In a strikingly mature move, Jessica must once again violate her principles – not to kill – in order to prevent a greater injustice; but this time, she chooses to do so. She reclaims her agency, her free will, her closure (as much as possible in such an awful situation) – she reclaims herself, but it doesn’t mean she’s whole again. Perhaps she’ll never be. But she has Trish and Malcolm and her work to arm her for whatever comes next.
This shocking change to the source material adds even murkiness and risk to Luke and Jessica’s relationship – one of Jessica’s least heroic acts (to say the least) is to enter into a relationship with Luke knowing that she was involved in the death of his wife. He is understandably angry when he eventually finds out, but he simply cannot understand that Jessica was mind controlled into doing it – until he himself is mind controlled by Kilgrave. Kilgrave feeds him forgiving words to tell Jessica, only to order him to kill her later. Jessica has to shoot him under the chin at point blank range to stop him, and though it doesn’t pierce his bulletproof skin, it leaves him catatonic. She leaves him in the care of Claire Temple while she goes to deal with Kilgrave, and when Luke awakens he leaves without telling her. So far, Jessica hasn’t shown up in Luke’s own Netflix series, so for the moment their relationship is in a state of limbo – Luke has yet to forgive her of his own volition, and so we will have to wait until the Defenders to see how their dynamic plays out after the events of this season. [A side note: the moment where Kilgrave encounters Luke for the first time, and finds out that he and Jessica were lovers, was hilarious – David Tennant’s expression of pure shock was a sight to behold, staring at Herculean Hottie Luke Cage and pettily spluttering ‘what was it, a pity shag?’ Moments of levity like this were few and far between, but really hit the mark when they were most needed].
In contrast to Jessica and Luke, Jessica and Kilgrave – thankfully – never share a sex scene; a kiss is the most we ever see them engage in – the majority of Kilgrave’s sexual abuse is revealed verbally through their confrontations after the fact. Many shows in the televisual landscape (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*) are more than happy to show explicit rape scenes in graphic and distressing detail, often for shock value. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg made a conscious (and mature) decision to omit such scenes so that all we have to go on are the accounts of the only two people who were involved – just like in a criminal trial. Jessica tells Kilgrave something which sums him up completely: ‘You saw what you wanted to see’. worse still, he doesn’t see himself as a villain, and vehemently denies raping Jessica (even claiming to hate even the word ‘rape’). This is how he justifies his actions; how he sees himself as hero rather than villain. Unlike Fisk in Daredevil Season 1, Kilgrave never has a moment of self-realisation or self-awareness where he admits to being the ‘ill intent’ rather than the Samaritan – to the end, he buys into his own myth, and ensures his demise.
Some final thoughts
I focused mainly on Kilgrave and Jessica in this post, but there was a moment between Jeri Hogarth and her lover Pam which reminded me of the titular hero and her nemesis. Throughout season 1, Jeri is attempting to divorce her wife, Wendy, who is reluctant to do so. Jeri is determined to get the paperwork settled so that she can be with her lover Pam; however, when Kilgrave gets involved, he allows Wendy to have her vengeance on Jeri via death of a thousand cuts. Jeri is saved by the intervention of Pam, who hits Wendy over the head with a vase, killing her. Later, in the police station, Jeri says ‘I didn’t force you to kill Wendy, that was your choice’, and a shocked and disgusted Pam replies by calling her repulsive – this follows almost to the letter the beats of an exchange between Kilgrave and Jessica mere episodes prior.
This show itself is like Kilgrave – I’m staying up all hours to watch just one more episode, and another and so on, growing tired and more emotionally disturbed, and when I go to blame the show for doing this to me, it’s all like ‘it’s not my fault, I didn’t force you to watch it’ – it presented an opportunity to play the next episode in 10 seconds, but didn’t force me to click it, I did that myself.
I’m making my way through Marvel’s Luke Cage series at the moment (with Iron Fist banished to the back burner for now), and hope to continue this burgeoning blog series with a discussion of doubles in Luke Cage once I’ve watched all 13 episodes. I won’t make any promises about Iron Fist, but I’ll be writing about the Punisher as Matt Murdock’s double in season 2 of Daredevil in the not too distant future. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!
Ideas for a Jessica Jones Playlist – Top 5 tracks:
- Private Investigations: Dire Straits
- Heart’s a Mess: Gotye
- Short Change Hero: The Heavy
- Shake it Out: Florence and the Machine
- Dark Shines/ The Handler: Muse