Marvel’s Netflix offerings stand at a remove to the 4-colour heroics of their cinema offerings (and the connected Agents of SHIELD series). Drawing on modern iterations of street-levels heroes, the idea behind them was evidently to provide a darker and more complex take on superhumans than The Avengers. So far it’s working well. Daredevil was a promising beginning, and with Jessica Jones Marvel and Netflix kick it up a notch.
Spoilers for Jessica Jones below…
It’s quite hard to know where to start when praising Jessica Jones. The cast are strong across the board, with Kirsten Ritter commanding in the role of the angry, damaged title character. The plot and script are clever and thoughtful throughout, regularly wrongfooting expectations of clichés and allowing characters to make mistakes without ever employing idiot ball storytelling. Most of all, in the form of David Tennant’s repellent yet understandable* villain, Kilgrave, there’s an antagonist to match and perhaps even surpass Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk.
Perhaps the best thing about Kilgrave is that he’s very much a villain for our times. His power, to make people do what he wants simply by speaking to them, allows him to operate in a consequence-free environment, one in which everyone else is a two-dimensional target to be used and discarded. In the damage that he does, the way he lashes out at any kind of denial or disagreement, and his refusal to take responsibility beyond making excuses and casting blame, he’s very much an avatar of the worst tendencies of communication in forums like Twitter or Reddit.
The writers of Jessica Jones clearly understood this, whether or not they were aiming for it, and it’s to their credit that the parallels don’t tempt them into taking easy shots. Across the 13 episodes, Kilgrave the monster is revealed as Kilgrave the monstrous man, offering him both a chance to explain himself and even a shot at redemption, meaning that his failure to achieve the latter remains entirely on him.
In his most impassioned effort to explain himself, he claims that his power means that he never knows whether people are honestly going along with him or merely obeying his powers. However, this excuse quickly falls apart—he’s not looking for a solution (such as asking instead of demanding), just to worm his way back into the affections of the woman he’s fixated on. The one woman who managed to say no to him. His entire aim is to bring her back under his control, first by persuasion and then by brute force (amping up his powers in order to break her resistance).
The parallel with online “discourse” is easy to extend: we’ve seen it a lot in recent years, most notoriously in the form of the GamerGate movement. Commentators online had already been “defending” their turf, alternately belittling “casual” gamers and claiming that they were victims of marginalistation, but when they faced criticism the response was to construct the veil of “fighting for ethics in games journalism” as justification for upping the vitriol to previously unseen levels. Many of their targets, derided as “social justice warriors,” were women. Women who dared to fight back, such as Anita Sarkeesian (who didn’t like the show that much) and Zoe Quinn, invariably faced the worst abuse.
Kilgrave’s justifications for his actions and his refusal to take responsibility for their outcome, extending to victim blaming and refusing to acknowledge any worth in them beyond what contributes to his own gratification, could make him a very petty villain, but his power gives his toxic desires a terrible weight and removes the possibility of consequences. In a similar way, the anonymity and global reach of the Internet and social media give spewers of toxic opinions both a way to find one another and shelter from the social consequences of their actions.
Opposing him is Jessica Jones, an equally current protagonist. As depicted by Kirsten Ritter, she’s a traumatised survivor of Kilgrave’s abuse (the show rightly never depicts his rape of her, just its fallout) who runs through a gamut of responses in the process of dealing with his return: denial, fear-driven flight, anger, terror, and confrontation, leading up to the point where she takes responsibility for her actions and his fate, tearing down all of his carefully crafted self-justifications and victim blaming in the process.
Importantly, she doesn’t do so alone. Initially a loner, she gradually and reluctantly allows friends and lovers back into her life, and they play a key role in Kilgrave’s downfall. The writers go to some lengths though to make sure that this doesn’t negate her own agency though. The two main male supporting characters are shifted out of the final confrontation, one through injury and one whose his own refusal to accept that Jessica and her best friend Patsy Walker have the right to endanger themselves leads him to become an abusive danger** secondary only to Kilgrave himself.
In keeping the focus of the conflict on the personal duel between Kilgrave and Jessica, Jessica Jones avoids the problem that Daredevil had in its latter stages, whereby the protagonist and antagonist were philosophically opposed but lacked an emotional link to heighten the tension. Here it’s all about Jessica confronting and overcoming the damage that Kilgrave did to her, restoring her links to humanity, and ultimately taking the responsibility that he refuses to. At the last moment, she takes his obsession and uses it to bring him down. If that’s not poetic justice, I don’t know what is.
*”Understandable” may seem like too positive a word, so to clarify: the show goes to some lengths to show how Kilgrave has arrived at the mentality he has. That doesn’t make anything he does or thinks less wrong.
**I’ve seen plenty of Internet commentary about this character, some suggesting that his dark turn was unbelievable, others that it was down to the combat drugs he chose to take. To me, his turn was well signposted—he never took the female characters as equals, only following their lead reluctantly, and the drugs only heightened what was already there.