Monday, January 18, 2016

'Jessica Jones' Finally Gets Trauma and Recovery Right on TV

How good is Jessica Jones, chickadees? So good. So amazingly wonderfully impressively good. Not only does it show that a superhero show with a female lead can succeed, reinforcing what we've learned from Agent Carter and Supergirl, it also gives us an idea of how a show can be dark and gritty and brooding without falling into the obvious tropes of noir fiction. Jessica Jones is not a femme fatale, not a damsel in distress, and not even a plucky down-on-her-luck type, but neither is she one of those female characters who is essentially a male character in disguise. 

No, Jessica Jones, both the character and the show, are committed to creating a world and a story that remains wholly based in the female experience but no less kickass and developed than any of Marvel's other properties. And that's seriously fantastic. Well done, Jessica Jones crew. You knocked this one out of the park.

If you've read any editorials on the show in the past few months, then you already know a bit of what I'm talking about. Jessica Jones, the second of Marvel's Netflix shows, is a runaway hit that follows a darker story than even Daredevil managed. And that was a show where the second episode had the hero rescuing a little boy from human traffickers. 

Jessica Jones, based on the comic series Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, asks the question of what happens to superheroes after they've battled a supervillain and lost. In so doing, it takes a really timely look at trauma, PTSD, and recovery, making this one of the most interesting shows of the past year.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is, to quote another character, "a short-fused, hard-drinking mess of a woman". A private detective who makes her money delivering subpoenas and looking into clients for a shark of a lawyer, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Ann Moss), Jessica is determinedly bitter, angry, and alone. Sure she has superpowers, but she's much more likely to use them to spy on her neighbors and terrify uncooperative clients than she is to save someone. 

No matter how hard people try to reach out to her, she bites their hands and tells them to get lost, whether it's her heroin junkie next door neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville, and more on him next week) or her best friend in the entire world up until recently Trish (Rachael Taylor). Jessica Jones hates everyone but especially herself and has no interest in rejoining the human race.

Naturally, since this is a television show, something happens to change that. Only instead of something good happening in Jessica's life to show her that life really is worth living, it's something really awful. Jessica gets a case about a missing college student, Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty). A promising athlete, Hope is definitely not the type to fall off the grid, max out her credit cards, and terrify her parents. So Jessica takes the case. In looking into it, however, she realizes that this isn't just another case of a nice girl getting hooked on drugs or going in with a bad crowd. Hope has been taken by none other than Kilgrave (David Tennant), the psychotic mind manipulator who ruined Jessica's life and still gives her flashbacks months later.

This is where the story takes off. Jessica tries to save Hope but can't use brute strength to over come the mind control that Kilgrave has used on her. Instead of saving her, Jessica plays right into his hands, and Hope is forced to kill her parents then turn herself in to the police. In other words, this was all a trap for Jessica, a trap to make her scared and isolated and to drive her back into the arms of the person who "knows her best": Kilgrave.

Well, that's what Kilgrave thinks anyway.

Jessica, however, would rather die than go back to the living hell that was life with Kilgrave, being trapped inside her body while he ordered her to kiss him, clean up after him, smile when he wanted, spread her legs when he commanded it. Jessica Jones is no one's puppet anymore, and she's sure as hell going to make sure Kilgrave doesn't hurt her again.

The show, then, is about Jessica's attempts to take Kilgrave down, at first legally (though how do you prove that someone is a mind controller when the person is literally a mind controller and can negate anything you say?) and when that fails she goes to extra-legal measures. Kilgrave goes to extraordinary lengths to get Jessica back too, targeting her loved ones and even the people she desperately wants to save, like Malcolm or Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the bar owner whose wife she killed under Kilgrave's control.

But I'm not here to give you a rundown of the plot. If you really want to know what the show is about, I highly recommend watching it. It's a rough road but very satisfying. No, today I want to talk about how Jessica Jones deals with trauma recovery and how, for one of the first times, I feel like television is really getting it right.

I've talked about this before, but one of my biggest beefs with television right now is in how it deals with rape. While a precious few shows like Hannibal or Agent Carter make a point of never making rape a plot point or showing female characters being violated, the vast majority of shows, well, don't. And I will admit that some shows do a good job of portraying rape, like Outlander or Orphan Black, but the vast majority, again, don't. 

Rape these days is generally used as a plot device to show how "bad" a character is and how much they need to be taken down by the good guys. Rape on television is used far more to tell us about the perpetrator than it is about the victim, and even the storylines that deal with recovery are focused much more on what happened than on how to get past it. If you don't believe me, just watch the most recent season of Game of Thrones. Yuck.

Jessica Jones, however, is a breath of fresh air that completely shifts the view. Not only does it never actually show Jessica or Hope being raped - the only sexual content in the show is clearly and enthusiastically consensual - the narrative is intensely focused on how Jessica and Hope recover from it. We learn about Kilgrave and his motivations as a side plot, not as the main storyline. It's the rare case of a show that cares more about the people recovering than the person who did this.

So that's good in and of itself, but what really works for the show is how it explores actual recovery. In Jessica Jones there are no magic bullets. People don't talk about their pain and then magically become better (sorry, Outlander, but you know that was a little too easy). Jessica recounts what happened to her several times and never does it seem to really make her feel better. It's just painful, constantly tearing at the wound and never letting her move on.

But ignoring it isn't the solution either. When we meet Jessica, she's deeply in denial and drinking to forget. This obviously hasn't made her happy or made what Kilgrave did to her any easier to bear. In actuality, the drinking just makes her hallucinations more vivid and harder to break out of, while her anger makes it impossible for her to connect with another human being. Denial really really doesn't work.

Well, then, what does work? Instead of a lot of shows that would leave Jessica there and demand that we love her as she is (like, say, House MD, which was pathologically afraid of the titular character feeling better), the show reminds us constantly how awful Jessica is and how much she needs to change, then gives her a storyline that helps her change. That storyline? Helping other people deal with their trauma from Kilgrave.

Jessica gets no real emotional catharsis from just telling people what happened, except when she's telling people who have been through the same thing. As the show goes on, Jessica manages to find a whole group of people who have been "Kilgraved" or made to do things without their consent. These things vary from the horrific to the mundane. One man is incredibly angry because Kilgrave made him fork over a jacket he really liked, while a different character struggled with the heroin addiction Kilgrave forced on him. So, different levels of trauma.

Despite being the one to bring these people together, Jessica struggles to really talk through her issues with them, but when she does, it clearly helps. Her conversations with Malcolm become a central point in her recovery, as do her talks with Hope. Most of all, though, it's Jessica's relationship with Trish that brings her back to the light.

Trish, who more than deserves her own article and will totally get it sometime soon, is Jessica's adopted sister, a successful child star and now radio DJ whose family background makes the tabloids seem tame. Raised by a domineering and abusive stage mother, Trish spent her childhood doing drugs to forget about her problems and then going home where her own mother would put her fingers down Trish's throat to make her throw up that pizza. The fact that Trish is now a functional and sane adult is in no small part thanks to her relationship with Jessica, and now she wants to return the favor.

See, what I love about Jessica Jones is how it emphasizes the healing power of emotional connections. It's not only true - recovered drug addicts released into supportive family or community environments have a phenomenally lower rate of using again - it's also a storyline we rarely get to see.

Television heroes are almost always pushed off by themselves. Either by choice or by default, they live lives of lonely separation, never allowed comfort or human connection or for anyone to know who they really are. Jessica Jones turns that on its head by showing that not only does Jessica really really need human connection, she's also far more effective with it than without.

When Jessica and Trish work together, they can make incredible progress and push further than they imagined. When Jessica shuts Trish out and goes it alone, she gets nowhere. Moreover, she feels worse, because there is something important in not letting this eat her alive. Trish functions in the story both as Jessica's sister/friend and also as her connection back into the world. Trish is the one who reminds Jessica that it's okay to care about other people, and that helping others will make her feel less alone in the world.

The climax of the show actually comes when (mild spoilers), Kilgrave chooses to target Trish rather than Jessica, forcing Jessica to come out of her own fear and frustration and anger to save the person she loves most in the world. In other words, this show does a very good job getting at how important human connection is to recovery and how Jessica needs to reengage in the world in order to want to save it.

I also think it's worth pointing out how different this show is in the type of relationships it shows Jessica having. Because while, yes, Jessica does have a love interest in Luke Cage, most of her interactions as the show progresses are really with Trish and Malcolm. They are the ones who help her through the majority of her trauma, which is an unusual privileging of familial and platonic relationships over romantic ones. 

The show never tries to dance around their relationship either. It's not any man's approval that Jessica longs for, it's Trish's. One of the most moving scenes of the show involves Jessica sadly telling Trish, "I'm sorry I'm not the hero you wanted me to be."

Trish's response is pure affirmation, the kind that we almost never see in a show like this: "You are exactly the hero I wanted you to be." It's this moment that cements in our heads the understanding that Jessica, for all of her massive screwups and issues is a hero. She is no less heroic for having been beaten. Her heroism lies in how she chooses to go back in against a villain she has no real hope of defeating because she needs closure and wants to keep him from hurting anyone else. That's important.

I have so many more thoughts on this show, but this is what most stood out to me. It's why the news that Jessica Jones is, in fact, going to get a second season is so exciting. It's a show that isn't afraid to really focus on the ugly side of recovery, on characters who need to be loved in order to appear lovable, and on the idea that the best heroes ask for help. It's what I've been wanting from a superhero show. A hero with flaws and faults who does the right thing anyway.

That she's a kickass lady hero is just the frosting on top.

Hope Shlottman breaks my heart though.


  1. Jessica Jones is not a femme fatale, not a damsel in distress, and not even a plucky down-on-her-luck type, but neither is she one of those female characters who is essentially a male character in disguise.

    Though she takes in shades of all four as she goes. There's a bit of the first in how she treats Luke: she deliberately doesn't tell him things she shows she should, because of what she wants out of him. Killgrave makes her feel like she's the second, even when she's left that role far behind. The third, well, she's hurting for money. And the hard drinking, troubled PI is a very male trope in the noir genre the series takes it tone from. Of course all that lot means is that Jessica's layered, and all those layers tie back into trauma.

    Well, then, what does work?

    Everything works. It's just that nothing works very much. The things that help Jessica be functional aren't the same things that help her care, which aren't the same things that help her connect (different from care, and yay on the show for realising this). Jessica needs a cocktail of healing.

    The climax of the show actually comes when (mild spoilers), Kilgrave chooses to target Trish rather than Jessica, forcing Jessica to come out of her own fear and frustration and anger to save the person she loves most in the world.

    And this isn't just the loved-one fridge-threat we usually get. We see it foreshadowed over and over: in their normal course we see Jessica use Trish then push her away, when Trish is upset Jessica flat out says she can't do the make someone else feel better thing; and while we see Trish call Jessica on her shit, and state boundaries, she never really enforces them. But then we see flashbacks where we can see the kind of relationship showing why Trish stubbornly sees Jessica as worth it. And when Trish is hurt or in danger, we see Jessica's devotion reassert itself. All culminating in "I love you" as the signal phrase Jessica "would never say." And all that's before this climactic bit.

    What I'm hoping for in season 2 is Jessica and Trish mentoring each other in heroing skills. Jessica's a good investigator, but her superstrength means she's never really had to learn to fight the way Trish has, which is something Trish can teach her. Leads up to Hellcat of course, but can maybe also lead back to the friendship we saw in their flashbacks.

    1. I guess that's more of what I'm getting at - thanks for pointing it out. Because Jessica is all of these characters in herself without being conflicting, she is functionally none of them. She's much more complex for how she mixes and matches attributes and attitudes.

      Agreed. Even the things she hates help her a little bit, but it seems to me that Jessica's eventual recovery is really based around her ability to build relationships more than anything else.

      I do really appreciate that Jessica's "one weakness" thing is not actually a romantic love interest. Luke is basically fine and while Jessica will be sad if he dies in this fight, she won't be devastated like she will if Trish gets hurt. The idea that her true love is her adopted sister is so wonderful, as is the fact that the story doesn't actually hurt Trish. Instead of the typical superhero storyline where Trish's death is what brings Jessica to overcome everything and get to Kilgrave, it's just seeing Trish in danger.

      I just want more of Trish and Jessica in general. More banter and silliness and more badass teamups because they are awesome together. Just more of them.

    2. Definitely, on relationships. Everything else is ultimately a stopgap, but as long as she's alone, there's a void that Killgrave's memory always slips into. (Typing that sentence felt icky).

      Luke offers a way for Jessica to forget who she is. Trish offers a way for her to remember it.

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