Trigger Warning – abusive relationships.
The goal with this blogpost is to build on the post I wrote the other day about the importance of themes in fiction. I’ll be exploring the themes and thematic importance of characters a particular work of fiction and their relation to the real world, in this case the first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones is the story of a superpowered private investigator in the superheroic world of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ – the world of The Avengers. The scale of the story is smaller, making the tone more grounded and noirish. The first season covers Jessica fighting against her abusive ex-boyfriend Kilgrave.
For the purpose of this analysis I’ll be focusing on the following key themes:
- Abusive relationships
- Entitlement and abuse of power
- Trauma, PTSD and guilt
- Female solidarity and empowerment
- Male allies and ‘nice guys’
and the following key characters:
- Jessica Jones – a superpowered private investigator
- Kilgrave – her superpowered, abusive ex-boyfriend
- Trish Walker – Jessica’s closest friend
- Jeri Hogarth – Jessica’s lawyer and employer
- Hope Shlottman – Jessica’s client and a fellow victim of Kilgrave
- Will Simpson – Trish’s love interest, a cop and an ally to Jessica and Trish
- Luke Cage – Jessica’s on-off lover and ally
- Dorothy Walker – Trish’s mother, a TV executive
- Albert and Louise Thompson – Kilgrave’s parents
- Malcolm Ducasse – Jessica’s neighbour
- Dr Wendy Hogarth-Ross – Jeri’s wife
- Pam the Secretary – Jeri’s secretary and girlfriend
- Guy in the Jacket
- Guy at the Bar
Jessica Jones functions most obviously as a metaphor for abusive relationships, told on a grander scale. On a literal level Kilgrave is Jessica’s emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, who wrapped his fingers around her and made her reinvent herself during their relationship. The supernatural twist is that Kilgrave has the ability to compel everyone around him to do whatever he says – which in Jessica’s case was even to compel her to kill an innocent woman. Kilgrave appears to have been fascinated with Jessica since first meeting her (ep5). A combination of this interest in a fellow superhuman and the novelty of a “yearning” for someone who’s rejected him (ep7) drive Kilgrave on to win Jessica back. This reaches its high point with a declaration of love in a police station, whilst an entire precinct have guns at their or each others’ heads (ep7). It’s a scene that’s Shakespearian in the way it takes a very complicated human situation and plays it out on an epic scale.
Kilgrave and Jessica is just one of a series of unhealthy relationships. Jeri Hogarth is embroiled in an affair and subsequent divorce with her secretary. Trish Walker, on the surface the healthiest of the main cast, was a child star forced to throw up by her own mother (ep11). Dorothy Walker has no supernatural abilities, but is psychologically manipulative to both her biological and adopted daughter (Jessica). She’s important to the story because she establishes Jessica and Trish’s deep history of abuse, and connects the metaphor of Kilgrave’s abusive behaviour to real-world non-supernatural abuse. Through the course of the series Will Simpson goes from a “nice guy” happy to play a subservient role to a manipulative, violent and paranoid killer, all of which (as I’ll explain later) stems from his self-image as the guy who rescues others. And most abstractly Jessica uses Luke Cage, withholding information from him through their brief relationship.
Entitlement and Abuse of Power
Kilgrave uses his mindwarping ability as a heavyhanded cudgel. He orders a cop to kill a well-known radio host (ep3) then jump from the roof of Kilgrave’s own building. He orders the other players in a million dollar card game to go all-in then immediately fold, and tells the sole objector to “put your head through that post” (ep6) while others watch. He orders a cello player to play until her fingers bleed (ep4). He makes a man place his infant son outside of the car, then act as Kilgrave’s chauffeur for a week. (ep4). The lack of subtlety, the brazenness with which Kilgrave acts makes his actions even scarier, because it implies that there’s no possibility of stopping him. Kilgrave’s cruelty is often not strategic cruelty, but cruelty on a whim – out of momentary irritation or boredom, utterly uncaring that the minor pleasure it gives him is counterbalanced by ruining the lives of others.
Trauma, PTSD and Guilt
When the series begins Jessica is alone in the world, despite believing Kilgrave to be dead for roughly a year. She has driven away Trish, her closest friend, and seems to interact only with the clients at her detective agency, and neighbours she dislikes. She literally hears Kilgrave whispering in her ear, and several times during the first episode uses a trick – repeating street names of her childhood neighbourhood – to ground herself during panic attacks.
Jessica’s trauma isn’t just over what was done to her, but over what she’d done. Under Kilgrave’s orders she had killed an innocent woman – Reva (ep3) – and enters into a relationship with Luke Cage, who she later learns is Reva’s widower. Though Jessica learns after their first night together of Reva and Luke’s connection (ep1), she doesn’t tell him until it’s necessary to prevent a death (ep6) Understandably Luke is furious at being used in this way (“You touched me with the same hands that killed my wife!”) and it’s ambigious whether Luke forgives Jessica at the end of the series. While some of Jessica’s actions are under Kilgrave’s compulsion, she also makes bad choices all of her own, moving away from a place of healthy growth.
When Kilgrave reemerges and forces Hope to murder her own parents, Jessica appears to feel guilty over not making sure Kilgrave was dead. Keeping Kilgrave alive to clear Hope’s name and free her from prison is a major motivating factor for Jessica, and Kilgrave overtly refers to Hope as Jessica’s “guilty conscience” (ep10).
One area where Jessica Jones is in more traditional superhero territory is in its exploration of the nature and cost of heroism. Flashbacks (ep5) show Trish trying to persuade Jessica to use her superstrength to become a superhero, complete with silly costume and mask. (This will presumably have been after Tony Stark outed himself as Iron Man, and “the big green dude and his crew” are mentioned elsewhere in the series.)
Will Simpson, as a cop with a Special Forces background, debates the nature of heroism with Jessica and Trish. While lacking the superhuman powers, Simpson has experience that Jessica lacks. Simpson forces himself into Jessica’s team against her initial wishes, and this appears to be at least in part down to a need to be in control.
Simpson is critical of Jessica’s demand that they keep Kilgrave alive to clear Hope, instead arguing that he’s too dangerous to be allowed to live. Simpson’s position is very reasonable, and he is initially willing to be a good soldier and go along with Jessica’s plans (ep5). This doesn’t last – he lies to Trish about not being able to track down Kilgrave (ep7) and puts together a team of his old army buddies, with the result that Jessica and Simpson get in each others’ way (ep8). Appearing to believe that he needs to become a superhuman to defeat Kilgrave, he rejoins a ‘combat enhancement’ scheme he’d previously been on (ep9), immediately ignoring doctors’ orders by taking excessive stimulants. This results in him killing an innocent cop (ep10) and trying to kill Jessica (ep11). Though his intention is always to kill Kilgrave, Simpson’s vision becomes so warped that he becomes willing to casually sacrifice lives of the innocent. Simpson’s blinkered thinking has a parallel to crimes committed at My Lai and Ferguson in the name of good causes.
Trish is, like Simpson, a potential hero who goes in search of her ‘powers’ hiring a personal trainer to help her better handle herself in hand-to-hand combat. While she does take one of Simpson’s stimulants it’s only in an emergency situation, and this results in her almost dying (ep11).
Female solidarity and empowerment
Jessica Jones has a very female-dominated cast and the male characters are mostly isolated from each other – Kilgrave and Albert are the only major male characters to interact repeatedly. This means that the struggle to deal with a powerful and abusive man is largely dependent on how well women work together.
The series begins with the female characters fractured – Jessica hadn’t seen Trish for months, and the relationship between Jessica and Hogarth is an aggressive and transactional relationship between employer and employee. This begins to change when Jessica rescues Hope from Kilgrave’s hotel bed (ep1) – iconography similar to a fairytale prince rescuing a passive damsel. Jessica and Hope’s shared history with Kilgrave seems to encourage Jessica to break away from her self-imposed isolation. SHe shares with Hope a psychological coping trick that she’d used herself earlier in the episode, but mocked when talking to Trish.
The building of female solidarity is contradictory and messy. Jessica convinces Hogarth to defend Hope in her murder trial (ep3), but she does so by claiming that Hope is delusional, which provokes Trish into publicly calling out Kilgrave, which puts Trish in harm’s way. Hogarth is the most individualistic of the female characters, behaving heartlessly towards her wife in favour of her new girlfriend.
Conflicts between female characters leaves them vulnerable to Kilgrave’s manipulations. Hogarth’s desire to use his powers to compel Wendy to sign divorce papers directly resulting in his escape from captivity (ep9), and her research into Kilgrave’s aborted child allows him to expand the reach of his power (ep13).
Trish is Jessica’s first and most reliable ally, offering Jessica encouragement and practical support. She encourages Jessica to make the most of her abilities (ep5), makes what she knows is the risky choice of consuming a stimulant to help Jessica defeat Simpson (ep11) and acts as the distraction and sidekick in Jessica’s final attack on Kilgrave (ep13).
Male allies and ‘nice guys’
Viewed as a metaphor for recovery from abuse, Jessica Jones is the story of Jessica rediscovering agency and control over her own life. In this kind of situation it can be tricky for friends to know the best course of support, especially as male friends of a female victim of a male abuser risk setting off negative associations in the victim’s mind.
Will Simpson offers an interesting variation on what’s known as “nice guy syndrome”. He first bonds with Trish by telling a story about how as a child he acted out saving his sister’s dolls with his own GI Joes (ep4) before going on to act this out in the real world with Special Ops and as a cop. On the surface he’s very much the archetypal, clean-cut hero. In some ways he is a better choice to lead the mission to take down Kilgrave given his background, and he’s the first to reach the conclusion that Kilgrave needs to die. The two times Simpson and Trish are shown together sexually, Simpson plays a submissive role (ep5 & ep7) so he appears deeply comfortable around female authority. He’s initially willing to play a supportive role and accepts Jessica’s authority even though he disagrees with her decisions (ep5). But he becomes manipulative – he lies to Trish about not having found Kilgrave (ep7) and organises a mission to take out Kilgrave (ep8) that conflicts with Jessica’s plan, resulting in Kilgrave blowing up a team of Simpson’s ex-army buddies. And this is before his drug use, which results in him locking Trish away for her own protection, and attempt to kill Jessica (ep11). It’s fair to say that he’s a complicated character.
Luke Cage is a more reliable ally than Simpson, not just because of his super-strength but because of his patience. The time Jessica and Luke spend together as a couple (ep3) is the happiest she is outside of the pre-Kilgrave flashback (ep5), and even though Jessica dumps him without explanation, he’s civil to her when they later work together (ep6). Whereas Simpson takes control of Jessica and Trish’s life for what he sees as their own good, Luke is patient towards Jessica’s slightly flaky behaviour, offering support but not judgment.
Malcolm is a sensitive man, whose idealism seems to be linked to his heroin addiction. Compared to Luke and Will he isn’t much use in a fight, but he does become the effective leader of a support group for Kilgrave’s victims.
Thematic Importance of Characters
It’s often tempting to think of minor characters as unimportant, and little more than filler. While sometimes this can be true, in a well-constructed work of fiction even the lesser characters who don’t impact heavily on the main plot serve a thematic purpose.
Jessica Jones is a tough, prickly intelligent protagonist…but is still vulnerable to a manipulator, as tough as she is both mentally and physically. And even though her inclination is to deal with problems alone, she needs allies to defeat her strongest opponents. Every fictional text has a thesis – the moral lesson implicit in its worldview. The fact that even a protagonist as tough as Jessica needs the help and support of friends and allies to deal with her abuser and her trauma sends the message that there’s nothing wrong with struggling to deal with deep trauma.
Kilgrave repeatedly deflects responsibility for his violence away from himself onto the people he gives compulsions to, like an emotionally abusive boyfriend vehemently insisting his innocence based on the fact that he never raised a fist. He is emotionally volatile with no sense of restraint – even calling in to implicitly threaten the host of a popular radio show on the air (ep3), before ordering a cop to murder her, and then jump from the roof of Kilgrave’s building. It’s not merely that Kilgrave chooses to go further than most of us would do – Kilgrave has never learned the need to deny himself what he wants, or to consider the desires of others. He’s an abuser who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of boundaries.
Trish Walker Jessica’s closest friend and adoptive sister is the idealistic voice on her shoulder. A child star who dealt with abuse and drug addiction, she’s in no way naive, but is nevertheless insistent on ‘doing the right thing’ and challenging the misuse of power. It’s Trish who pushes Jessica to do something with her abilities (ep5), encourages her to see a counsellor (ep1) and insists on being a part of the initial team to capture Kilgrave (ep5).
Jeri Hogarth While Trish is a ‘whitehat’ (idealist) and Kilgrave is a ‘blackhat’ (outright villain), Jessica and Hogarth represent different ‘greyhats’. As the story opens Jessica is trying to keep her head down in an imperfect world, while Hogarth tries to meddle with dark forces in pursuit of power. At times she helps the weak and innocent, while at other times exploiting the power she has over them. This doesn’t apply just to her career but her love life. Hogarth is cheating on her wife with her secretary – an old generic convention made fresh by having the three sides of the triangle all be female. The comic version of the character is male, but by gender-swapping the character Jessica Jones places more women into positions of power. It also means that, whereas Trish is a female characters who believes in female co-operation, Hogarth often actively works against other women for her own personal desires, and does so very coldly.
Luke Cage, like Jessica, is emotionally distant at the start of the series. Whereas she seeks solace in alcohol, he seeks it in one-night-stands (ep1). Luke later reveals that he also has powers (ep2), and there’s a kinship between the pair (ep3) which sees Jessica at her happiest. Luke is also Jessica’s victim – she dates him for a while despite knowing that she killed his wife, justifying her selfish behaviour to herself by saying that she’s bringing happiness into his life. Unhealthy coping mechanisms bring more pain.
Dorothy Walker is – or at least has been – abusive and controlling towards Jessica and Trish. Dorothy forced her child star daughter to throw up in order to lose weight, and adopted Jessica as a publicity stunt to detract from Trish’s tabloid scandals (ep11). She also establishes, within the world of Jessica Jones, that abuse and manipulation is not only something that powerful men do towards powerless women, but something that all sorts of powerful people can do towards the powerless. Interestingly she might actually be trying to change her ways – she is more willing to submit to Trish’s will when her gestures are rebuffed (ep12) than Will is (ep11). The show leaves the truth open-ended, underlining that it’s difficult to know that a former abuser has changed their ways.
Albert and Louise Thompson Kilgrave’s parents experimented on him as a child, apparently in order to cure a degenerative brain disorder. Video of the pain young Kilgrave was put through is the first thing to cause Jessica to feel empathy for him (ep7). The Thompsons appear to be honest that their intentions were good, but they resulted in what appears to have been a mutually abusive household. Kilgrave wasn’t taught how to contain or control his powers so appears to have felt neglected and confused (ep8), while what Kilgrave describes as a “tantrum” resulted in him forcing his mother to burn her face with an iron. There is a “he said, they said” quality to this, especially as events are described but never seen – a reminder that sometimes in abusive relationships both sides can be at fault.
Malcolm Ducasse In a world of larger-than-life uber-macho characters Malcolm represents the importance of sensitive masculinity – he is able to offer support to Kilgrave’s victims and a neighbour whose brother has died. The sense of hopelessness clearly gets to Malcolm at times (ep12) but his skill is just as important in his way as Luke Cage’s.
Dr Wendy Hogarth-Ross Hogarth’s wife finds out about her affair, and although she apparently screams at Pam over the phone (ep2) she later seems hopeful of patching up their marriage (ep3). She seems mature and reasonable…until Jessica threatens her (ep7), and Wendy believes Hogarth ordered her to. Wendy then blackmails Hogarth (ep8), demanding 90% of their assets, or else she’ll ruin Hogarth’s career. Although an extremely moderate and reasonable-seeming woman, Hogarth’s actions bring out the worst in her.
Pam the Secretary begins as wide-eyed and trusting of Hogarth (ep1), seeming quite naive about it. This trust erodes gradually – beginning when Hogarth takes Pam to a restaurant where they run into Wendy, and Hogarth refuses to “give it up” to the woman she once loved, with Pam instead being the one who makes the compromise. (ep4) It’s only after Pam kills Wendy in order to save Hogarth’s life and she realises that Hogarth tried to use Kilgrave, that Pam turns against Hogarth, spitting venom in the jail cell (ep10). This is another relationship between a manipulator and manipulated, a reminder that unhealthy relationships can occur outside the bounds of heteronormativity.
Guy in the Jacket When Hogarth and Jessica comb through the fantasisers and alibi-seekers to find true victims of Kilgrave (ep4), the group is female-heavy. One woman was ordered to play the cello until her fingers bled, another was forced to smile until her face hurt. The first male victim was an unnamed man who was ordered to hand over his jacket. Although the contrast is played for laughs, it makes a thematic point about women being more vulnerable to abuse by powerful men, who’ll be more likely to make demands that cut to the core of female victims.
Guy at the Bar In a bar scene Jessica and Trish are interrupted by a fan of her TV show (ep5). Despite making it obvious that she doesn’t want to talk, the guy continues forcing himself into her orbit, singing her theme tune and telling her that he masturbated to her. Obviously his annoyance is nothing compared to Kilgrave (who Guy at the Bar would probably be shocked at) but this kind of thing contributes to a society where women feel cautious of rejecting men, and fearful of the consequences.
All of this is my analysis, my own personal reverse engineering rather than absolute truth. And as themes bleed into one another, it’d be possible to draw different key thematic boundaries. Hopefully my analysis gives a good sense of how themes interact with each other, and how fluid a well-written series like Jessica Jones can make the whole thing seem.
At the time of writing I’ve seen both seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Of the four, I found Jessica Jones the most compelling and satisfying, and Luke Cage the least compelling and satisfying. In my view this was because, of the four, Jessica Jones had the best control of its themes, whereas in Luke Cage there’s often the feeling of things happening for the sake of a twist or to delay confrontations. In other words, theme is subordinate to the needs of plot. To me at least, Luke Cage felt like a loose series of things that happened, rather than having differently plotlines contrasting each other and drawing parallels to each other. But by contrast Jessica Jones is a show that excels in this area.