How 'Jessica Jones' gets it right
Two weeks ago on a Friday evening around 5:30 p.m., I sat down in the East Quad lobby with my computer and a red anti-Christmas Starbucks coffee and pressed “play” on the first episode of Marvel’s new “Jessica Jones.” I was slightly skeptical of the premise, intrigued by the trailers, and worried that people would walk by during a sex scene and assume I was watching porn in a lobby.
But all of those emotions faded away after 30 minutes in (except the sex scene thing — that may have happened).
A couple hours later, I figured I had watched enough for one night, so I closed my laptop, tossed my coffee, walked upstairs to my room, sat on my bed, reopened my computer and pressed “play” again.
So now, having watched the entirety of “Jessica Jones” in less time than may be considered “normal” or “healthy,” I feel confident saying that it isn’t just Marvel’s best show — like I believed after watching the first five episodes — but one of the best shows of the year.
It’s also one of the most feminist shows on TV right now.
We so rarely see female superheroes in TV that aren’t fighting inherently misogynistic tropes. Jessica (Krysten Ritter, “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23” ) stomps all over those cliches (wearing the same pair of jeans almost the entire time, I’m convinced). The show destroys not only the idea that women can’t be interesting superheroes, but that women can’t be complex anti-heroes. Jessica isn’t always likable; she makes selfish decisions and often treats the few people close to her very rudely. But her unlikability isn’t force-fed to us, and is coupled with a vulnerability that we viscerally feel. Though she is complicated, none of her complexity is contrived.
Half of the show’s strength is found in its representation of the abusive relationship which Kilgrave (David Tennant, “Doctor Who”), the villain, held Jessica captive in — a relationship that we see only through flashbacks and its current effects on her.
For reasons best known to himself — though we catch glimpses of them when his composure cracks, which happens more often as the season progresses — Kilgrave is infatuated with Jessica. Though we see right away how scared Jessica is of him, it takes the whole season for us to fully comprehend their history. It’s presented with much more nuance than just “emotional manipulation plus sexual assault equals abuse.”
Their relationship is one of the most realistic portrayals of abusive relationships that I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s not exploitative, gimmicky or victim-blaming. The effects of Kilgrave’s emotional and psychological manipulation and isolation of Jessica from her friends are given just as much screen time and discussion as his actual sexual assault. Jessica organically cycles through periods of fight, flight or freeze throughout the whole season. She struggles to recapture her agency throughout the 13 episode arc, and has more success at some points than others.
Our disgust at how Kilgrave treated Jessica and our understanding of his backstory grow and deepen simultaneously. But the reveal of Kilgrave’s own rough childhood isn’t utilized as an excuse for how he treats Jessica — the writers forcefully make that clear. There’s a very obvious, easy possibility for a redemption story with Kilgrave, but the writers refused to write it that way. The atrocity of how Kilgrave treats her is highlighted by the disbelief we feel when we realize he doesn’t see the relationship as abusive, but as complicated and potentially loving.
There are so many other aspects of “Jessica Jones” that I could talk about (again) for hours; Lesbian representation on TV, a near perfect score, beautiful cinematography, Tennant’s hypnotic performance as Kilgrave and Ritter’s nuanced portrayal of Jessica. While those are all important, the gritty and realistic portrayal of an abusive relationship is what sticks with me the most. In a TV world where sexual assault and rape are so often used as gratuitous plot-drivers or for shock value, “Jessica Jones” explores these difficult topics with an eye and ear for subtlety and empathy.
Women on TV in general are still overwhelmingly given flat, two-dimensional roles that, in the words of my eloquent roommate, “could be played by a broom with a blonde wig and balloons that look like tits taped on them.” We need more shows like “Jessica Jones” with unapologetically feminist vibes.
Until we get another one, we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed for a second season.
If you haven’t jumped on the “Jones” train yet, you really should.