How Marvel’s ‘Jessica Jones’ Uses Superpowers to Expose the Evils of Abuse
In Marvel’s best TV series to date, our superheroine suffers from PTSD and superpowers are the key to dissecting unprocessed trauma.
Over the last few years, Netflix has proven to be uniquely invested in shows that don’t shy away from the dark side of women’s experiences. But if its most celebrated series Orange Is The New Black is a survey course designed to explore a vast array of experiences, their new show Jessica Jones is a one-woman deep dive into a single facet of women’s lives—namely, the nature of abuse.
The post traumatic stress of private investigator Jessica Jones stemming from the violent end of an abusive relationship makes for much of the show’s dramatic drive, but she is not alone in her pain and confusion. In the world created by show runner Melissa Rosenberg based on Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias comic book series, no one makes it through life unscathed. There are action scenes, there are sarcastic quips, there are sidekicks and sex aplenty, but at its core Jessica Jones is a show about unprocessed trauma.
There’s Jessica’s best friend Trish, whose ass-kicking skills are hard won to restore her sense of safety after years of enduring her mother’s emotional and physical violence. There’s Jessica’s sometimes-love interest Luke, whose physical strength marks him as an outsider like Jessica and who is mourning a lost wife. There’s Malcolm, the junkie in recovery whose addiction makes him vulnerable to further exploitation. And even in Kilgrave, the mind-controlling villain who caused Jessica’s pain, there is a question if his sociopathy is the result of nature or nurture. No matter where you turn in Jessica Jones, there are remnants of the wreckage someone has left behind, and part of the anxiety for these characters comes from living with the knowledge that it will be impossible to save people from more trauma. Trauma in Jessica Jones is a tragedy, but also an inevitability.
Marvel has flirted with gloom before, but if The Avengers are almost always able to snap back to normalcy after life-threatening, world-altering darkness, Jessica Jones occupies a reality closer to our own, in which trauma doesn’t disappear the moment the bad guy steps out of view.
But if you’re going to base your entire show on your most traumatized character, you have to reconcile with the fact that trauma just isn’t always entertaining—there’s a reason it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not Faith the Vampire Slayer. It’s a credit to Jessica Jones that the characters are never softened in an attempt to make the experience of watching them more palatable—but that means what levity there is on the show weighs differently on the audience than in most popular entertainment.
There is banter on Jessica Jones, but it’s rarely the kind to make you laugh—more often, Jessica’s quips could make you cringe with the force of unprocessed hurt that seems to motivate her every time she speaks. The bitter and sarcastic gumshoe is a familiar and usually friendly archetype, but it’s a bit harder to get comfortable when you understand that familiar bitterness as a by-product of serial rape and manipulation and social alienation, and not just a devil-may-care affectation.
Jessica is a frustrating character for much of the show—she’s motivated by a sense of righteousness, but she can’t seem to stop herself from lashing out at the people who try to help her. She is recovering from a relationship based on manipulation, but she takes advantage of Luke’s trust in pursuing a relationship without informing him of her own connection to his past. She wants to help Hope, a fellow Kilgrave victim, but she can’t let go even when it becomes clear that her involvement only makes matters worse. Jessica has the powers of a superhero and the intentions of one too, but she just can’t seem to get a handle on how to take care of people, including herself.
It’s this emotional verisimilitude that makes Jessica Jones a fascinating show to watch, and it’s what makes it at turns exhausting, boring, and maddening too.
Rather than treating the show as the usual narratively driven action story, Rosenberg and her team of writers take their time building narrative momentum. It takes nearly three full episodes for the audience to meet Jessica’s mindfuck of an ex, Kilgrave, in the flesh. Instead, his presence invades the atmosphere through flashbacks, and through Jessica herself, as she fixates both on her past with him and on the possibility that he might return. By the time Kilgrave finally makes his entrance, the audience has spent the length of an entire Avengers movie submerged in Jessica’s obsessive trauma.
The show’s treatment of Jessica and Kilgrave’s relationship is complex, but what is most interesting about their dynamic is that it’s not static. Instead, Jessica Jones uses the conventions of genre storytelling to present perhaps the most thorough treatment of abuse ever seen on television. While at the start it seems that the characters’ superpowers might be ancillary to the emotional drama, what becomes exciting to watch as the show progresses is how those powers are used to flip the tables between Jessica and Kilgrave. The constant superhuman shifts make it possible for Jessica Jones to present different scenarios of abuse that might not have been feasible to explore were the show a straight drama.
In perhaps my favorite episode in the series, Kilgrave convinces Jessica to return to her childhood home with him to play out a version of their relationship in which she calls all the shots. For an entire episode Kilgrave willingly submits to Jessica, remarking how she makes him a better person, how it’s only with her as a guide that he is able to use his powers for good. The scenario is a perfect encapsulation of the techniques abusers use to woo back survivors, but one that’s been heightened by the inclusion of superpowers.
Likewise, the genre elements of the show complicate the moral, physical, and psychological dilemmas that the characters face. Can an abuser manipulate someone who is physically stronger than them? Does it constitute physical abuse if the abuser is convincing people to self-harm? If a survivor has the opportunity to get back at the person who hurt her, when is it your responsibility as a witness to step in? All of these questions and more find their way into Jessica Jones, and as the show progresses, the unique pleasure of watching becomes the accumulation of these moral dilemmas and Jessica’s continual refusal to resolve those dilemmas with easy answers. Even the characters we like don’t necessarily learn from their mistakes, and the show doesn’t always slow down to satisfy the audience’s desire to see the characters perceive their mistakes as mistakes.
It’s murky water that we wade into watching Jessica Jones, and it can be uncomfortable watching a show that’s so willing to let its punches land with full force. If you are in a moment in your life where your emotional resources have been depleted, it’s easy to see how a show like Jessica Jones might be too exhausting to submit to for 13 hours. But as a measure of solidarity to survivors and as an education for those who want to understand abuse beyond the statistics, it’s hard to imagine a better show. If the buzz around Jessica Jones is any indication, it’s a hit. And I imagine we’re all the better for it.