Netflix's Jessica Jones Is a Complex Portrait of a Woman Undone


Jessica Jones, the second of Netflix’s original series drawn from Marvel comics, is the smartest entry into television’s already crowded cast of superheroes. Created by Melissa Rosenberg, best known for writing the Twilight movies, and starring the sardonic Krysten Ritter, the show is a slow unravelling of a familiar genre, featuring a heroine who struggles to maintain control after it’s been stolen from her by the villainous Kilgrave (played to chilling effect by David Tennant). At its heart, Jessica Jones is a simultaneous exploration of how power and strength are exerted, all the while gently acknowledging that those are both deeply gendered terms.

The premise of a former superhero-turned-private eye after a physically and emotionally catastrophic encounter was established in the comic book Alias, which introduced the Jessica Jones character in 2001. And Netflix’s adaptation generally follows Alias’s story arc: the show begins in the present, where Jones has already left her days as a crime-fighting superhero far behind her. By the time we meet Jones, she is already traumatized by her encounter with Kilgrave.

She self-medicates with alcohol, deflects intimacy with sarcasm, and struggles to simply to hold herself together. She cries, but apologizes for it, and the expression of anger—her inability to contain it—is what makes Jones deeply unlikable. But then, being unlikeable is part and parcel of being a woman on the edge. The emotional expression of anger has always been coded as an indelible marker of trauma and of difference.

“Birch Street, Higgins Drive, Cobalt Lane,” Jones repeats almost on loop throughout 13 episodes. The phrase serves as a kind of Greek Chorus in the first season, its repetition a technique provided to Jones by a therapist whom she now refuses to see. It’s the street on which she grew up and the street behind that and the street behind that. It’s a grounding mechanism that Jones relies on to pull her back to reality, to quell the trauma that still haunts her. Yet it’s also a persistent reminder that she’s a woman who has unwillingly come undone and Ritter plays her with the cruel mix of defiance and vulnerability the role needs. In the repetition of the phrase, the show reminds you that it’s as much about the interplay of power—of the way power is employed by men—as it is about superheroes.

Jones’s techniques and general disdain for law and order are a familiar trope in the superhero universe, and the noirish feel of the show, replete with a gritty city and schmaltzy jazz music, conjures up Daredevil, Jones’ angsty Netflix cousin. Beyond scenery, though, the show has little in common with Matt Murdock and his scrappy team of crime fighting friends, and little interest in the usual building blocks of the superheroes’ backstory.

While it’s quick to establish that Jones has super strength—she lifts a car in the first episode—it remains deeply disinterested in the hagiography that often consumes the superhero genre. Both Daredevil and Arrow, for example, expend hours on flashbacks, recreating in often painful detail the necessarily important origins of the hero. But the origins of Jones’ superpowers are almost beside the point. Instead the show dispatches with the entire origin story in a single conversation with fellow superhuman and love interest Luke Cage (Mike Colter). “Experiment,” Cage explains to Jessica, “You?” “Accident,” she replies. In the course of two simple words, a subplot generally central to the superhero genre is completely dispensed with.

That’s, in part, because Jones’ powers—her super strength and a type of flight she self-deprecatingly calls “guided falling”— are explored with a complexity rarely found in the genre. Trauma usually sparks men to become superheroes (think of Daredevil’s troubled childhood, or Batman’s murdered parents). For Jones, trauma forces her to question her control, thus eroding her physical and emotional strength. Even further, her powers are rendered meaningless by Kilgrave, the principal antagonist whose own power is mind control.

Kilgrave isn’t your typical villain. He is neither interested in world domination nor the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. He has no great nefarious plot, no plans to control mankind. He is no Lex Luthor. Luthor at least could be laughed at—his kitschy villainy was comical. But Kilgrave is something else: the mundanity of control he exercises over Jones, over nearly every woman who crosses his path, is what makes him so evil, even more menacing than the typical villain. Kilgrave is every woman’s worst nightmare: he is a rapist, an unrepentant stalker, a man who, at any moment, can exercise his power and does.

Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a lawyer who was originally a man in the comic book, best remarks on the terrifyingly familiar pettiness with which the villain wields control when she says, “Kilgrave wanted a leather jacket, cello music, and the smile of a pretty girl. What a waste.” That sentiment is echoed by the two other women who band with Jones: her foster sister Trish, a child star turned talk-radio host (Rachael Taylor); and Hope (Erin Moriarty), another of Kilgrave’s victims. “Men and power, it’s seriously a disease,” Trish says in Episode 4.

It’s that play between the power of men and the strength of Jones (and her female compatriots) that drives the show. Strength here is explored in all of its complexities, both physical and psychological, in a manner that’s unusual for the superhero genre, typically underpinned by the idea that both control and strength are the domains of men. Jessica Jones is an unraveling of the stereotypes that form the genre. Control and strength here play with and against one another; their possession is survival. Though Jones has strength, control has been seized from her by Kilgrave, thus undermining her power. It’s the reconstituting of both that fundamentally drives the narrative.

If Jessica Jones is a feminist show, as many critics have said that it is, it’s not simply because it presents a complicated woman, but rather because it understands how strength and control play out in the lives of women. And it explores that with a depth and sensitivity that’s rare for television and even rarer for its genre. Jessica Jones doesn’t shy from away from rape or its aftermath, and it’s unafraid to confront the trauma and victimization of the protagonist without falling into a pit of bad stereotypes. There’s no perfect way to handle the casual brutality the show depicts, but Jones’s navigation of that is a mythical presentation of something all too familiar: the often invisible, adversarial forces that operate in the lives of everyday women.

Video/Image via Netflix.

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