Jessica Jones: Feminist Noir

jessica-jones-netflix-poster

In my line of work, you gotta know when to walk away. But some cases just won’t let you go…”

Jessica Jones, Marvel’s second outing with Netflix following Daredevil, arrived on November 20 at 3am EST. Needless to say, an hour later I had finished the pilot, and a day later, I dried my eyes as the credits rolled on episode thirteen.

There is a lot to unpack here. Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is the culmination of almost a century of noir detective stories. She’s a hard-boiled, keen, alcoholic sleuth, giving monologues about cases over the sounds of smooth jazz and a glass of whiskey in the dead of night in New York City. Even the opening lines, “New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure sleeps around,” would have felt at home in such films as The Maltese Falcon or, indeed, City that Never Sleeps. But this is more than a classic detective story.

For one, Jessica has superpowers. She’s super strong, a little bit fast, and can fly (badly, or as she calls it, “controlled falling”. This works to the advantage of the show’s budget). Jessica isn’t showy with these powers—she isn’t dressing up in a costume and beating up thugs, but she isn’t really hiding either. She uses these gifts when the situation calls for them, and that’s it.

But her powers are of secondary importance to the show. What is given the real emphasis is her relationship with her adopted sister Trish (Rachel Taylor), love interest and fellow defender-to-be Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and her neighbour and friend Malcolm (Eka Darville). Each of these relationships are nuanced and interesting, particularly the chemistry between Jessica and Luke. It has the benefit of neither one ever really being in a true position of power over the other; it fluctuates as needed. You know, like it would with real people.

However, it might not be her friends, but rather her enemy that this show will be remembered for. Kilgrave (Doctor Who’s David Tennant, looking like he’s having the time of his life), is the most terrifying villain Marvel has ever given us, topping Daredevil’s Kingpin and leaving Loki whining in the dust. The fact that Kilgrave is so compelling and frightening, coupled with how magnificently David Tennant plays him, is essential, considering almost the entire show is focused on the villain’s story.

From episode one onwards, Jessica is almost entirely focused on finding and stopping Kilgrave (with the occasionally side step to set up Luke Cage’s story).

With Jessica Jones, we get the first conflict between hero and villain that is truly a personal fight since Loki in the first Thor movie.

Before she was a P.I., Jessica was kidnapped and held against her will by Kilgrave. The show doesn’t say for how long, but it is implied that it lasted for months. Kilgrave has his own power: mind control. People are forced to do whatever he asks. He forced Jessica to be with him, just as he forces others to commit acts of violence or even murder or suicide if he feels like it.

Jessica escaped from Kilgrave, and this is how we meet her in the show. She is a survivor of rape and abuse, of having her agency stripped away from her, and of having her mind and body violated. Jessica suffers from PTSD because of her time with Kilgrave, and more than anything, this struggle is what the show is about.

Kilgrave is used to force a discussion on serious issues. Through his evil, the show explores the issues of consent, agency, and male entitlement. What might be most genuinely upsetting about his character is that Kilgrave doesn’t think that he’s done anything wrong. He takes no responsibility for the things he makes other people do.

Kilgrave, who repeatedly forces people to kill, genuinely believes that he didn’t kill anybody—they did it themselves. When, in episode eight, he is directly confronted by Jessica about her rape, his first reaction is to say, “I hate that word,” and claim that it wasn’t rape.

In fact, after everything he put her through, Kilgrave really believes that he loves Jessica and that he can make her love him back. He believes he’s done nothing wrong. One of the most unsettling moments is where he attempts to be considerate, telling her: “You were the first thing, excuse me, person, I ever wanted that walked away from me.” It’s terrifying, because you really know how proud of himself he is for that tiny consideration, even while threatening to kill a building full of people if Jessica doesn’t do what he says.

Kilgrave is the embodiment of a type of misogynist that has long gone unchecked in society. A man likes or is attracted to a woman, so she must reciprocate this attraction. Kilgrave wants Jessica, and so in his mind she has to want him back. It’s this unnerving sense of entitlement that carries the character and his understanding of the world, and it is terrifying.

Jessica Jones rejects that this is a normal or a forgivable way of thinking. Instead, it puts it front and center as evil, and on the way it creates the most terrifying on-screen presence since Heath Ledger’s Joker. When Jessica finally wins the day, you have to cheer just a little, because this battle was so personal, and her victory is completely earned.

Which is good, because Jessica focuses on almost nothing else. While the supporting cast is strong, and several secondary characters have their own plotlines, none of them manage to compete with the interest in the main story. This is unfortunate, because not every episode can be centered on the main villain. Jessica spends several episodes hunting Kilgrave without him ever appearing.

The only secondary character with a satisfying arc is Luke Cage. Apart from this also turning out to be about Kilgrave, and being defined by his relationship to Jessica, this sets up Luke’s own Netflix series for next year.

Jessica is an amazing character, and she’s put sharply on-screen. It’s just a pity that in thirteen episodes, Kilgrave is the only real case she focuses on, and everything else falls to the wayside. It would have been nice to see her take on some more P.I. work, to stop the show from focusing almost entirely on Kilgrave.

But that is one complaint in a sea of compliments. If you haven’t seen Jessica Jones yet, go and do so. You’re in for a wild ride.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

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