“Feels good, doesn’t it? Being in control.”
Having just finished my re-watch of the Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, I am reminded of all the things that made me love it so much the first time around. Like any good “genre” story, it communicates real world ideas and conflicts using the lens of fantasy. The main themes throughout Jessica Jones are shown in a variety of ways from larger-than-life superpowered metaphors, to sometimes simply saying it outright with dialogue. This show covers a lot of ground some of which I’ve touched on in my earlier write-ups, but now, looking at the series as a whole, I want to focus on the concepts of power, control, and accountability.
SPOILERS AHEAD, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
The interplay between power and control is the driving thematic force in Jessica Jones. Virtually every character is struggling with control in one way or another. Sometimes it’s an obsessive need for control of others, as seen with Kilgrave, Jeri Hogarth, or Trish’s mother. For others, it’s the desire to regain control of one’s own life after a trauma. This is seen in Jessica, Trish, and Malcolm. And then in the case of Will Simpson, he has his control taken from him by Kilgrave, but then over-corrects hard in his attempt to regain a sense of power, risking his own control and the safety of those around him.
“As long as he has your attention, as long as you care, he’s in control.”
Jessica’s biggest struggle in this series, especially in the first half, is trying to piece together her life after losing herself to Kilgrave. Even though she thought he was dead, he was still on her mind. And in this way, he still had power over her. This is clearly mirroring the effects that happen in real life when we suffer trauma or heartbreak at the hands of someone else. It makes it hard to move past it and make your life wholly your own again. We see in Jessica an interesting juxtaposition between her massive physical power, and the fact that Kilgrave can still hold sway over her. No matter her physical strength, or even Luke’s, it’s not enough to keep Kilgrave from affecting their mind. It’s hard for them to feel so powerful and yet so powerless at the same time.
For Kilgrave, he sees in Jessica her impressive physical power and it intrigues him. He relishes in having control over somebody so powerful and it makes himself feel more powerful as a result. Likewise, when Jessica finally escapes his control, he becomes obsessed. Not because of anything to do with her as a person, but simply because he couldn’t control her anymore. He craved having that power again. This is why he went through such great lengths to win her over, to reclaim the control he once had over her. Without her, he feels less powerful, and for a narcissist like Kilgrave, this is unacceptable.
“I think he’s out there. This sick, perverted man preying on the hopeless so he can feel powerful, probably terrified of his own weakness.”
This need for control extends to the supporting characters as well. Trish’s mother Dorothy (who is also Jessica’s adoptive mother) is shown throughout the series as being controlling to the point of being abusive to Trish in her life as a child star. It’s not until Jessica makes a show of her super strength that Dorothy starts to back off, though she still tries to control Trish whenever she can. And Jeri Hogarth, a high powered attorney, is used to having control, but can’t get her wife to sign divorce papers. This lack of control makes her envy Kilgrave and eventually attempt to use him to get what she wants. Will Simpson goes so far to regain his former power that he resorts to using experimental superdrugs. These cause him to be more physically powerful, yes, but at the cost of his self-control. He becomes driven by rage, paranoia, and impulses, causing much more harm than good, despite having the goal to stop Kilgrave.
It’s not just the antagonists that value this absolute control, it’s even seen in one of the most truly good characters, Claire Temple, the nurse who seems to always be in the right place to help our superpowered main characters. Claire at one point states: “I want everything to be my fault, good or bad. Means I have some control. It keeps me dreaming I can change things for people.” She wants to have control so that she can better achieve her noble goal of helping people. As someone who works in a hospital, she has seen first-hand the never-ceasing march of people that come into the ER from all the horrible things in the world that cause people harm. She knows that the world is uncontrollable and cruel, and she wishes she could make a bigger difference.
“I was thinking the other day about accountability. Because when Kilgrave was in control, I wasn’t accountable for what I did. Even though at the time, I really wanted to do it.”
Which leads to another topic that Jessica Jones explores wonderfully. And that’s accountability. Who is at fault? Who is responsible for actions that are taken when control is compromised. The series makes us really take into consideration some tough questions. Kilgrave is a fantastic example. It seems pretty clear cut that when Kilgrave compels someone to do something that Kilgrave is the one who is accountable. While the law in the show struggles to deal with the concept of “a guy who can control minds” and arrests people for the crimes that they committed under his control, we, the audience, know that it’s true and don’t judge these victims for what they’ve done. So, after spending time showing us Kilgrave only through how he uses his victims, we take another step deeper into the question once we start to get to know who he really is.
In my last post I talked about how Kilgrave is id-ridden. He’s driven almost entirely on impulse and never got a proper upbringing to allow his superego and ego to form completely. So, if this is the case, and he is developmentally stunted, how much accountability does he carry with himself? Imagine a 7 year old finds a gun and shoots somebody. And not on accident, intentionally points the gun and shoots them because they’ve seen people on tv do the same thing. While their intent was there, their ability to rationalize their actions and have empathy to realize they are taking a life, was not. So then who is to blame? We don’t lock away the 7 year old in prison. We look towards who was responsible for the child or for the gun. In the case of Kilgrave, this responsibility would rest on his parents. His parents tried to cure their son of a brain disease, and inadvertently gave him these abilities. Then, after being slaves under a 10 year old’s control, fled in terror the first chance they got. When they were finally brought back together Kilgrave’s father explained why they left, that Kilgrave had almost killed his mother in an incident involving a hot iron and her face. But Kilgrave responds:
“I was ten! I had a tantrum, like a normal child! I didn’t know what I was doing! You didn’t explain to me, you just left.”
Now, it’s easy to dismiss Kilgrave’s deflection onto his parents as the same sort of projecting that he’s done before. How he’s insisted that he’s never killed anyone. How he hates the word “rape”. He’s gone as far as to try and play the victim saying: “How am I supposed to know? Huh? I never know if someone is doing what they want or what I tell them to!” And even on top of that, Kilgrave isn’t 7 years old, surely he must have gained some sense of right and wrong in his time growing up. But what sets apart the confrontation with his parents is one key moment, when Kilgrave’s mother does something that only heroic characters have done on this show. She takes responsibility. Not only in words, but in action as well. She attempts to kill her own son in order to stop the atrocities he’s caused.
So, yes, the question of “who is accountable?” is subjective and hard if not impossible to answer. There are whole philosophical debates to be had about accountability and blame. But what’s more important than “who is accountable” is who is willing to step up and take responsibility. This is something that Kilgrave never did. Neither did Dorothy, or Will, or Jeri.
“But what if the devil actually did make you do it? Even if you could prove it, would people ever forgive what you did?”
On the flip side of that coin, Jessica was the kind of person who took responsibility for the things that she did under the control of Kilgrave, and it weighed on her. The reason why Jessica feels so much guilt over what she did even in comparison to other people who committed horrible acts under his sway, is not because of her lack of control in the moment she killed Reva, but because she didn’t take her chance to leave Kilgrave’s control earlier. We see in flashback that there was one moment, a mere 18 seconds that Jessica had free will during her time with Kilgrave. He hadn’t given her a command in 12 hours, which was the time limit on his powers at the time. And in this moment, she thought about killing herself. She stood on the ledge of their balcony and contemplated ending Kilgrave’s sway with a sense of finality. But she was unable to. She didn’t make the decision quick enough before Kilgrave brought her in off the ledge and back under his control. To Jessica, this wasn’t just a moment where she could’ve escaped, but where she could’ve been out of the picture before being tasked to kill Reva. In her mind, Reva would still be alive if she had taken the chance to end things first.
It’s one of the most powerful realizations I made during my most recent rewatch. It shows why Jessica is taking things so hard, not just because she lost control, not just because she killed someone while under Kilgrave’s command, but because she could’ve stopped it.
“There was a kind of freedom to being under Kilgrave’s control. You’re not a slave to guilt or fear or even logic. You just… do what you’re told.”
Jessica is dealing with a lot during this series, and we see her cope with guilt and trauma in a variety of ways. Drinking. Violence. Sex. Pushing people away. What’s great about this show is that it doesn’t shy away from this aspect of dealing with trauma. So often we are shown heroic figures who can just deal with the stress easily or after one good brood session and then jump back into saving the day. But with Jessica Jones, it’s a struggle, it’s real and it’s ever present in Jessica’s day to day life. By the end, she is starting to heal, but only after being so affected for the entire run of the series, which is a bold move by the writers and one I applaud them for. They never glorify suffering, they just show it like it is, and how people really deal with it, both bad and good. In the very beginning of the show, Jessica talks about what cures Kilgrave’s control. And really it applies to all sorts of real trauma:
“Whatever it is, it wears off. But it takes time and distance”
When I first watched it, Jessica Jones was one of the best seasons of television I’ve had the pleasure of watching, and that holds true, maybe even more so with this re-watch. While it can be hard to watch sometimes, and for some people potentially triggering, it’s one of the best showcases of trauma that’s been put on screen. I can’t rate it highly enough.
Now I move onto my next series, Season 2 of Daredevil. I can’t wait to start talking about that one. And I also can’t wait to see more of Jessica Jones in The Defenders later this month. I hope you enjoyed my write-up, and feel free to let me know what you thought of my writing and of the series in the comments below!