We just finished the first season of Jessica Jones on Netflix. Holy cow. Some observations:
- the developers played with nerd expectations all season – in the Netflix version Jessica and Trish mock the costume that she wears in the comic (Jessica instead goes for late 70s Ramones), Carrie Anne Moss is a gender-bending (at least compared to the comics) lawyer and of course most famous for Memento and The Matrix, there’s a choice between a red pill and a blue pill, and Dr. Tennant plays Killgrave (Purple Man) in the comic, straight off his incarnation as Dr. Who.
- the series is dark dark dark dark, and not just in Jessica Jones’s choice of wardrobe. The only humorous movements are often fairly cringe-worthy, as folks joke about their own weaknesses as often as not.
- It hints at the whole Marvel world of the New Avengers, as characters talk about dark times when the city was damaged severely, or about relationships with other superheroes.
- the vigilanteism is at the forefront (thanks again to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins for blowing up the superhero world with Watchmen), as all of these folks imbued with strange powers try to understand how to stay in a world of normal people.
The biggest anxiety this series explores is trust. It does that by using Purple Man’s (self-named Killgrave, a source of amusement for the show as well as characters mock the name in a joke that becomes a source of identifying who is trustworthy, i.e., who is severely cynical) power, mind control, in all the worst ways. I vaguely remember superhero comics that featured mind control used for good, but those feel milquetoast as hell now, and Killgrave is the first psychopath on tv whose death couldn’t come violently enough for me.
And I think that’s part of the point – his use of other people is the worst form of rape, and this show doesn’t shy from that. It is smart enough to not fall into the GoT trap (and the reason I will not watch that show) – at no point does it show sexual assault, instead talking about the consequences and aftermaths. It allows Jones to confront Killgrave directly (she has somehow become immune to the virus that he emits that allows him to mind control people), screaming at him that “you raped me” multiple times, and constantly reminding him of the ways that he has abused others. And it doesn’t shy from sex, but it shows all sex as female-dominant, with males as almost submissive partners, with women clearly in control.
It also, however, walks inside the mind of the assaulter, in ways that are uncomfortable even for me now to think about. Killgrave is allowed an opportunity to tell Jessica how their relationship worked from his side, and while what he says is almost textbook ‘no, you’ve got it wrong, you really wanted it’ it is no less powerful, perhaps because of Tennant’s acting.
And that, after all the positives, is what makes me so reluctant to endorse the series, to tell others that hey you have to see this. It can be cathartic, one would hope, to see a victim gain the power to tell her accuser to his face what he did, to reject all his own self-justifications, and to finally snap his neck and not have to pay for the crime of murder because we all know it was justified. And yet that is the sort of vigilanteism that Moore et al deconstructed in Watchmen (and which this show actively takes issue with) – Jones is a private investigator, the figure who negotiates this dark side for us so we don’t have to, with all the political and economic and social and cultural ramifications of that negotiation (not least of which is failure to know the Other). PIs are problematic by nature – see the villain in Heavy Rain for yet another incarnation – and yet Jones has all the attributes the cultural we want: superhero strength, a desire to do good, a position as a former victim that makes her aware of the limits of superhero power. Even then, something doesn’t quite feel right.
Perhaps, then, what I’m struggling with is the trigger that this sort of show pulls. I can’t imagine watching this series as someone who has been sexually assaulted – my character in a computer game was mind controlled once, and the person who did that had me heal his friends and then walked me into a bed of pixelated lava – and holy fuck that felt horrible. As a character in a game. I wanted justice – hell, I wanted him to feel pain, and I yelled at the teevee when Killgrave escaped a couple of times and I let out a satisfied ‘yes’ when Jessica killed him. Even at that moment the show did it right – we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing her dance on his corpse but instead watch her reunite with the one person she loves unconditionally, and then we watch her at least get have to go through a court proceeding until it’s clear that too many people were affected by Killgrave to ignore what he did to people. Still, this stuff seems too raw and potent for film…
Postscript: I wonder if I’m not being fair to the series. The fact that it is a series, not neatly wrapped up in two or two and a half hours, is important. The fact that it will continue next year seems powerful. It does indeed spend a lot of time showing people trying to work through the traumas of their lives, and it shows the responsibility of us for taking care of each other through characters like Malcolm. I guess this the mark of powerful art – it perhaps enables catharsis, it perhaps exhibits cultural anxieties, and it perhaps performs the important cultural work of providing us landscapes in which we can figure out how we keep living together despite the deceit, misery, and pain.