Jessica Jones: The Hell of Losing Control
Jessica Jones is a show about hell. It’s a show about hell and its reigning devil: a man called Kilgrave.
Kilgrave, a well-dressed, well-spoken psychopath, has the power to control anyone he speaks to, and do so for hours until the compulsion wears off. He fills his victims and his viewers with dread, not just because of his mercilessness, but because the hell he represents is a hell that postmodern humans fear more than anything. Postmodern life has at its center the significance of the individual self—a self-actualizing, self-determining, self-controlling entity whose autonomy is its most sacred possession. Threaten that autonomy, that ability to self-actualize, and the individual him or herself is threatened; possibly even destroyed. Kilgrave doesn’t just rape and control the self; he annihilates it by stealing its ability to command itself.
The show is full of examples of this kind of annihilation of selfhood. Hope Schlottman is perhaps its most extreme example, along with Jessica Jones; both women are controlled for prolonged periods of time, trapped in their own heads (Jessica later calls Kilgrave’s control a fungus she has to pry from her mind) and raped repeatedly. Jessica’s office is a wreck of ghosts and dead gods; being in total self-control is not worth much when you don’t know who that self is, or if the world is a place where a good choice can be made. Both are forced eventually to kill at Kilgrave’s command; Hope, her parents, and Jessica, Luke Cage’s wife. But there are others. Will Simpson, a NYC cop, is compelled to kill for Kilgrave too; his black-and-white way of viewing the world is severely compromised by Kilgrave’s control. To Trish Walker, Jessica’s best (or only) friend and adopted sister, Kilgrave says: “Put a bullet in your head”—a compulsion Trish can only break by placing a bullet in her mouth. Kilgrave forces Jessica’s neighbor boy, Ruben, to slit his own throat. He turns another neighbor, social work student Malcolm, into Jessica’s stalker and a drug addict; Malcolm, who genuinely wants to use his life to help others, is forced to destroy himself and actively endanger someone else.
Watching Killgrave on my computer screen; bracing myself in each scene, waiting for him to seize control and steal his victim’s selves away from them; I felt the characters’ terror at this annihilation of their identities, this loss of control.
But this postmodern hell of losing autonomy and self-control is not the only hell to watch and dread in Jessica Jones. Kilgrave deprives his victims of control and choice, but getting that control back is often not cause for joy and hope. Given back their ability to choose, his victims find themselves in situations where there is no good choice—where their control over their own lives becomes not liberating but another source of torment and despair.
Hope Schlottman, imprisoned for her parents’ murder, gets back control only to be faced with a destructive choice with no right answer. Midway through the series, Hope is badly beaten in prison and hospitalized. When Jessica seeks to stop what she believes is abuse, Hope tells her she paid another inmate to beat her, hoping to induce a miscarriage. Being controlled and repeatedly raped by Kilgrave has left her pregnant. Finally free of Kilgrave’s mind invading her mind and his body invading her body, she feels his presence still literally within her, growing. She tells Jessica that it’s like he’s still raping her. Hope is faced with the impossible choice of ending the life of an unborn child or existing as the vessel for the product of her own trauma. Further, her choice to abort indirectly allows Kilgrave, in a heinous act of comic book science, to expand his mind-control powers by injecting himself with a serum made in part by the stem cells of his own child. Hope is hardly responsible for Kilgrave’s depravity, but her impossible choice and its results show viewers a new hell: one in which even recovery of control and autonomy does not mean there are any right choices, or any clear path toward the moral or the good.
Jessica Jones’s impossible choice, one she makes in the final episode of the show, is one she spends most of the show avoiding. Jessica hates Kilgrave. While the show makes some attempts to allow viewers—uncomfortably, and in bizarre ways—to find some small amount of sympathy for Kilgrave, Jessica refuses to. In one of the strangest episodes of the show, “AKA WWJD,” Jessica and Kilgrave play an unsettling game of house, during which Kilgrave and Jessica live together in her family’s old house as Kilgrave tries to persuade her to choose him under her own power. It is in this episode that Jessica spells out in plain language that Kilgrave raped her, regardless of his protests. At the end of this episode and into the next, “AKA Sin Bin,” Jessica captures Kilgrave, puts him in a cell, and tortures him with electric shocks to try to get him to confess his manipulation of Hope. Jessica clearly sees him as a sociopath and finds him unforgivable; she’s willing to torture and degrade him. But if Kilgrave dies before confessing to controlling Hope, Hope will be convicted of murder. Jessica is using Hope’s case as a reason not to kill him; Hope herself recognizes this, and makes another terrible choice in another situation that seems to have nothing of the moral or the good in it: Hope kills herself, a last awful exercising of her own autonomy, telling Jessica that now she has nothing keeping her from killing Kilgrave.
Here, then, is Jessica’s terrible choice, the new hell created by Jessica’s renewed control of herself. Jessica is the only one immune to Kilgrave’s power. The fact that he forced her to kill Luke’s wife with a blow, an act antithetical to the hero she’s decided she can be, is what freed Jessica of Kilgrave’s control. Blackly ironic, however, is the fact that Jessica’s unique ability to resist Kilgrave’s control makes her the only one who can kill him. Jessica chooses to kill Kilgrave, but in doing so, she becomes again the worst thing Kilgrave forced her to be: a murderer. And her choice, like Hope’s, leads not to renewed hope or joy in her own life. Voiceover in the last few minutes of the show find her examining and re-examining herself, wondering if heroism is a choice anyone can make—if the world is even a place where good, moral, heroic choices are available to us.
So, Jessica Jones is a show about hell—two hells, in fact. One is the hell of losing control, a postmodern hell whose chief dread is the loss of autonomy. The second is the hell we find when we discover that even being able to control our actions—our bodies, our thoughts, and what we do with them—does not mean we will be able to make the right choices, or even that there will be right choices to make.
But I don’t think Jessica Jones leaves viewers in either hell. Glimmers of something else stipple the show, especially through the character of Malcolm, Jessica’s neighbor. Initially, Malcolm is dismissed as a crazy junkie before Jessica realizes he is another of Kilgrave’s victims. But it’s his response to being controlled that is noteworthy. Malcolm works on the sidelines of the larger action of the show. While Jessica desperately searches for some way to capture and get a confession from Kilgrave, Malcolm leads a support group for other Kilgrave victims. After Ruben’s death, Malcolm is charged with getting rid of the body; his ability to control the situation is limited, but he wraps the body and prays over it after sinking it into the river. In one of the support group meetings, Malcolm confesses that Kilgrave made him unsure of his identity—of the line between who he was, and what Kilgrave had made him be, but in episode eleven, “AKA I’ve Got the Blues,” Malcolm has a revelation; he finds a line he will not cross. In a confrontation with Robyn, Ruben’s twin sister, Robyn tells him that people are “at best…asssholes; at worst, they’re zombie assassins”; “No one,” she says, “can help anyone.” Malcolm stares at her and states: “If I believe that I’ll kill myself.” He doesn’t; he chooses to believe otherwise. In a move parallel to Jessica’s at the beginning of the show, he packs up to move home, defeated, intent on preserving himself. But like Jessica comes back to help Hope, so Malcolm comes back to help Jessica.
Jessica’s voiceover in the last episode, spoken as we watch her figure slumped in an office chair in her trashed apartment, speaks of uncertainty and defeat. Kilgrave is no longer alive to control her, but in killing him, she’s repeated the act that broke not only his control but also her idea of herself as hero. Jessica’s office is a wreck of ghosts and dead gods; being in total self-control is not worth much when you don’t know who that self is, or if the world is a place where a good choice can be made.
As Jessica Jones slouches in her chair, her phone rings with calls from desperate people who’ve heard about Kilgrave and want her help. It’s Malcolm who answers the phone with “Alias Investigations. How can we help?” Jessica can’t undo the past; she can’t undo the trauma she suffered at Kilgrave’s hands, and she can’t remake any of her subsequent choices—just as Malcolm can’t erase his months as a drug addict. Their control is limited. But what they can do—what we can do—is realize just what it is we can’t control, and understand that we can help.
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