(Slight spoiler warning for all three seasons of this show, and a trigger warning for the discussion of this show’s sexual and violent content.)
Jessica Jones, as with Marvel’s other Netflix shows, is much darker and covers much more adult topics than the more broadly-known Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Speaking as an about-to-be college sophomore and having grown up in a fairly conservative home, it’s safe to say that this time last year, the thought of watching a show like this would have been repulsive and undesirable. After all, what kind of world is this where you have to shove violence and profanity down people’s throats to get them to like your story?
At least, that’s how I saw it. And after I left home and moved out of state for school, I mostly still adhered to that philosophy. I did start watching and reading material that I otherwise wouldn’t have, branching out into some slightly darker and more thought-provoking stories.
But I maintained the view that any show as dark as I had been hearing about was nothing more than an attention-grab, and not something I wanted to feed my developing mind with.
So I stayed away.
Around the same time that I was preparing to leave home, however, I fell in love with another, very different show: Doctor Who. I loved the clever storylines, I loved the emotional pull, I loved the energy and enthusiasm of the actors, and more than that, I fell in love with David Tennant.
When I discover an actor that I genuinely love, I immediately start rummaging through their work, looking for other things they’ve done so I can see them in as many different roles as I can. And I started doing that for David. So I watched Broadchurch, and Spies of Warsaw, and The Escape Artist. All amazing shows that I recommend. But I hadn’t seen him as a villain yet (except for his role as Barty Crouch, Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and when I heard about his role as Killgrave in Jessica Jones, I cracked a little.
One night, after class, I pulled up Netflix and hit play on episode 1.
And halfway through, I was disgusted.
What kind of a hero is Jessica supposed to be? Alcoholism, one-night stands, violent tendencies, profanity left and right. She makes a living taking pictures of people cheating on their spouses, pushes away everyone who tries to get close to her, and spends more time in a bar than her own home, and yet she’s supposed to be the hero in this story? She’s got nothing in common with the heroes I’m familiar with — in fact, she has a lot of qualities you would usually find in a villain.
So twenty-five minutes into the episode, with no interest in the main character and no sign of David Tennant, I turned it off and watched something else.
But it still haunted me in the back of my mind because I’d never seen a hero with so many un-hero-like qualities. It begged the question: If the hero is this bad, how bad must the villain have to be to top that?
I managed to shove the question into the back of my mind for the next few months, but eventually, I decided to try again.
I resumed the episode where I had left off, sort of halfheartedly because all I really wanted was for them to cut to the chase so David would show up already. But a couple episodes in, I realized why he hadn’t officially shown up yet. They were teasing his appearance. In flashbacks, in purple light, in a general feeling of unease. His reputation preceded him, and by the time I started episode 4, I was genuinely worried.
Now, usually, when I’m watching a TV show, I get comfy. I get back to my dorm at night, slip into some loose pajamas, microwave a bag of popcorn or some other snack, and snuggle up in bed with my laptop so I can be undisturbed.
Episode 4 came and went, and Killgrave finally appeared, and when the credits started rolling, I let it autoplay instead of getting up to take a break between episodes like I usually do. I watched probably three or four more episodes before I realized that it was 3 in the morning and I had class the next day.
So, reluctantly, I went to shut down my laptop and realized I hadn’t moved for the past two hours at least. I was stiff. I was tense. I hadn’t eaten any of my snacks. And not only that, I was curled up in the fetal position. And I knew that I was going to have trouble falling asleep because Killgrave had terrified me more than any villain had ever terrified me before.
I managed to make it through all of my classes the next day, but I can’t say I paid any attention to them. And as soon as they were over, I headed back to my dorm to watch the rest. Forget homework. I couldn’t concentrate on it anyway. I had this weird feeling that I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else until I watched Killgrave die. Was he even going to die? I suddenly had the strangest pit in my stomach and distinctly thought, If Killgrave doesn’t die at the end of this season, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Which is ridiculous, of course. He’s a fictional character. He can’t hurt me. And yet I had this compulsion, this need for his story to end in order for me to feel safe.
I won’t spoil the ending of the season, in case you’re coming from the same place as I started and have been avoiding it. But I realized, after reading some reviews and commentary, that the main idea of the season was rape and consent on a superhero level. The reason I felt unsafe was because Killgrave literally represents all the reasons women don’t travel alone at night or leave their drinks unattended, or accept rides from strangers.
And he also represents all the excuses that predators tell themselves to justify their own actions: “I can’t help being the way I am!” “How am I supposed to know whether you wanted it or not?” “I’m the victim here!”
There’s a poignant example of this in episode 8, “AKA WWJD?”, where Jessica confronts Killgrave and accuses him of raping her:
KILLGRAVE: We used to do a lot more than just touch hands.
JESSICA: Yeah. It’s called rape.
KILLGRAVE: What? Which part of staying in five-star hotels, eating in all the best places, doing whatever the hell you wanted, is rape?
JESSICA: They part where I didn’t want to do any of it! Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my goddamn head!
You see throughout the show that Killgrave is one of the biggest influences on why Jessica becomes the kind of character she is. The trauma she went through at his hands is enough to make anyone become a relationship-avoidant alcoholic.
The season is a brilliant social commentary on the topic of sexual abuse — a topic that deserves a lot of attention.
In my opinion, season 1 was the best out of the three, and my interest kind of trailed off during season 2. There were some interesting story arcs, and things to think about, but I wasn’t nearly as interested as I had been. However, when I started on season 3, my curiosity was piqued once again.
Again, no spoilers, since this season only came out in June, but though this season’s villain was formidable, there was one other character that I was completely fascinated by because the show does something with this character that I have never seen before: shows you what a villain’s origin story looks like from their point of view. After all, in the words of Tom Hiddleston: “Every villain is a hero in their own mind.”
But we always seem to meet villains after they’ve become villains, and their backstory is always in the past. With this character, their backstory is the story — and it’s fascinating.
This character’s story brings up some hard and thought-provoking questions and insights. What is the true difference between a hero and a villain? Where is that line? It’s scary how someone can start out with such good intentions and yet somehow become the very thing they swore to destroy. How far do you have to go down that slippery slope before you’ve fallen too far to be pulled back, and when should those around you stop trying to rescue you? Or should they stop trying at all?
Some villains are redeemable. In my mind, I would say that every villain is redeemable — it’s only a matter of circumstances including who is willing to try and save them and what the price is for doing so. But Jessica Jones introduces the concept that maybe the moral gray area surrounding heroes and villains is a) definitely not black and white and b) encompasses a lot more than maybe we tend to think that it does.
How do we define the term “hero”? How do we define “villain”? And how close are the two definitions to each other? Who do you root for in a story where every single character is morally reprehensible for something?
I want to pause and comment on the character of Malcolm for a second. Malcolm is introduced in season 1 as Jessica’s neighbor, a drug addict whose life is falling apart. I’m going to spoil the story enough to say that Malcolm turns out to have been under Killgrave’s control for quite a while, and Jessica rescues him.
Interestingly enough, or perhaps not, Malcolm is the one character in the entire show whom I have genuinely liked since the beginning. And I liked him more and more as the show went on, and I think I know why.
Malcolm himself admitted that he was an addict waiting to happen. Even if Killgrave hadn’t come into his life, he probably would have still become a messed-up druggie. But after Jessica rescues him, he takes control of his own life. He uses the second chance she gave him and makes something of himself out of it. He cleans up, starts making better life choices, and stubbornly sticks to Jessica to try and help her out in return.
Malcolm could have just as easily gone the same way as Jessica did. Hide behind drugs to avoid dealing with the pain like Jessica does with alcohol. It would be not only natural, but expected of him, especially in a show like this. But he doesn’t. He takes his experience as his wake-up call and resolves to use his life to benefit people. And yes, he makes mistakes, and yes, he starts going down the wrong path again at one point, but as soon as he realizes it, he turns himself around once again. His story in season 3 directly mirrors that of the other character I was talking about, and I think this gives us an idea of where the line is.
Malcolm makes bad decisions, but when confronted with his mistakes he genuinely repents of them and resolves to change course to avoid making them again. Conversely, the character I’ve been talking about is confronted with their bad decisions but instead stubbornly insists that they are in the right, even when those decisions are directly hurting people. I think this is the subtle difference that this show is pointing at to define what makes a hero.
I’m not going to call this show “feminist” as so many other reviewers have called it. I honestly think that’s not only too broad of a term, as there are many different types of feminism (some I agree with and some I do not). Instead, I’m going to simply state that this show brings up a lot of questions and redefines several terms that are not only intriguing, but also important for us as a society to consider.
I personally have decided that I enjoyed Jessica Jones. Not because of the dark topics or violent storylines, but because of the realistic and thought-provoking way that the show portrays human nature and forced me to look at the cultural definitions of heroes and villains differently. The old black-and-white fairy tale story may be classic and enjoyable, but sometimes I think we need a viewpoint that digs a little deeper and makes us think about the world in a completely different way.