Just before Thanksgiving, the much-anticipated Marvel series Jessica Jones released in full on Netflix–and it lived up to every expectation. The show follows the critically-acclaimed spring release of Daredevil (the two heroes, as well as Luke Cage and Iron Fist, will come together eventually to become the Defenders).
But Jessica Jones stands firmly on her own two feet, offering her own narrative that is as good, if not better, than Daredevil. The shows have wildly different protagonists, but both explore complicated moral and psychological quandaries.
Daredevil’s Matt Murdock, a blind, justice-loving Catholic lawyer with heightened physical senses, takes it upon himself to right the corrupt wrongs of his own neighborhood—through his law practice by day, and by putting on a mask by night. He’s not saving the world. He’s just trying to make a difference in his corner of the city.
Questions of morality, God, and the devil swirl at the center of Daredevil, with a rendering of faith that’s uncommonly honest and respectful, that paints doubt as valid and involvement in social issues as necessary. The show continues a long tradition of onscreen Irish priests and gangsters (think On the Waterfront) who hold an expansive view of personal responsibility. Daredevil’s villains are political, but the protagonist makes them his personal problem.
Daredevil is saturated with biblical and religious references, from victim-turned-corruption-investigator Karen’s assertion that “if there is a God, and if he cares at all about any of us, Fisk will get what he deserves” to crime lord Wilson Fisk’s own denial of prayer and embrace of his role as the “ill intent” in the story of the Good Samaritan. In one of his (many) conversations with his priest, Matt wrestles with the idea of taking the life of another—is it just to kill someone who does evil? “There is a wide gulf between inaction and murder, Matthew. Another man’s evil does not make you good” Father Lantom tells him. Each of the Defenders walks this line between inaction and murder.
But Jessica Jones is not Matt Murdock.
Matt is so desperate for justice for his community that he pushes himself farther than he can go in order to be a hero—or a martyr, if that’s what it takes. Jessica, on the other hand, is reluctant to become a hero of any kind. That’s mostly because of where we meet her in her own arc.
By the time the series opens, Jessica has already tried and abandoned the whole superhero gig, turning instead to opening a private detective agency in a shoddy Hell’s Kitchen apartment. If Daredevil drew on Irish gangster films, Jessica Jones pulls its vibe from the mysterious, hard-drinking private investigators of noir.
But the heart of the series lies elsewhere: Jessica hasn’t so much abandoned her heroics as she has been violently derailed by the series’ villain and abuser, Kilgrave, who controlled her for six horrific months.
Daredevil is (rightly) labelled as mature, and it’s potentially triggering, but it’s straightforward in its presentation of violence. The violence in Jessica Jones is much more insidious and psychological. For me, this made it much more difficult to watch. Its villain is not political but deeply and unsettlingly personal; Kilgrave gets under your skin. He can control people’s minds, and so the self-inflicted or other-inflicted compelled acts are that much worse to watch. Every act is a violation, on multiple levels.
Early in the show, Kilgrave’s extended control of Jessica seems like it will act as an effective metaphor for an abusive relationship—but the show surpassed this baseline in its rendering of the situation, making it very clear that Jessica is a survivor of abuse. She suffers from PTSD, and in an outburst in the middle of the series, she names her trauma: “Not only did you physically rape me, but you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my g*****n head.”
Kilgrave is an abuser to his core, taking every opportunity he can to control others for his own ends. Even when he isn’t using his powers, he lies and manipulates. He inches his way into Jessica’s life so fully that he tries to lay claim to every part of her, even taking the spaces where she feels safest: her childhood home, her apartment, and her mind.
The most unsettling part of Jessica Jones comes in the middle of the season, where Jessica considers living with Kilgrave to try to use his powers for good. “I can’t be a hero without you,” he says, in a textbook abuse technique. It’s only when Jessica—and the viewer—leaves the situation that Kilgrave’s true nature reasserts itself; he tries to take in the viewer as well as Jessica.
Jessica Jones takes the narrative of abuse seriously, coding small things into Kilgrave’s character to shed light on contemporary issues. It’s telling that the public blames Hope, a rape victim, for her situation, that Kilgrave can seem charming, and that his classic command toward women is a sinister “Smile!”
Jessica Jones’s abuse and PTSD are rendered sympathetically, but there is so much more to her story than being a survivor. She’s an investigator, a brawler, a high-functioning alcoholic; she’s slow to love but dedicated to her friends and unbelievably brave. She’s a fully-developed female character, which should not be as rare as it is. I have craved a female (anti)hero for years, my own version of a Hamlet or Raskolnikov who is complex, messy, and real. Growing up, I couldn’t understand why the women I saw in literature so poorly mimicked the women that I knew in real life – women who were smart, dedicated, doubtful, intellectually curious, brave, and multi-faceted. I struggled with doubt and the weight of existential questions as much as any philosophical teenaged boy protagonist; I, too, craved a purpose in the world but didn’t know what that looked like. So why couldn’t I find myself in the books that I was reading? So many people have interpreted the phrase “strong female character” as “woman who physically fights people” while still relegating her to a role with no emotional depth meant to serve the plot of the story, not her own development. A “strong female character” is one who has been thoroughly developed as a real person, not a prop.
Jessica Jones has finally given me my female existential hero. Jessica’s pain is not a catalyst for anyone’s development but her own. She’s been through hell, and she fights tooth and nail to reclaim what has been taken—her ability to write her own narrative, to make her personal experience political, and to do something instead of ignoring the problem.
Toward the final arc of Daredevil, I found myself wanting more from its female characters, whose plots began to fade in the third act. Once again, Jessica Jones comes through, especially with the relationship between Jessica and her childhood friend, the scrappy and steadfast Trish Walker. Although female friendships have been the most rewarding, challenging, and encouraging of my life, I haven’t seen them represented in a similar way in most forms of media; instead, the norm is to tokenize or pit women against one another. Trish is brave and rash, like Jessica, and the two support and love each other when they need it the most. Although the romantic relationship between Luke Cage and Jessica Jones is introduced this season, Trish and Jessica’s friendship is the one that grounds Jessica and provides the show with its true emotional core.
Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones also wrestles with questions of morality, and the most pervasive question is clear: who shoulders the blame? When the villain can control minds, whose hands are stained with blood?
Kilgrave doesn’t take any of it, repeating that he’s “never killed anyone.” And although Jessica knows that what happened was not her fault, she can’t help the guilt, the self-loathing, and the shame that it has brought. Malcolm, Jessica’s addict neighbor turned ally, has trouble figuring out what he’s responsible for, too—“I don’t know if it was in me to begin with,” he says, “or if it’s a part of who I am now.”
That’s an excellent discussion of sin and, more importantly, how to atone for it, but Jessica Jones can’t settle on a clear answer. “You still get points for doing good,” Luke suggests, but Jessica dismisses it. Kilgrave sees it as simple math: “How many more lives do you think I’d have to save to get back to zero?”
“Saving someone doesn’t mean un-killing someone else,” Jessica replies.
Jessica Jones is a tough show to get through, especially the trough of near-despair that I experienced around episode eleven, the heavy, Dostoevskian inevitability of the consequence of events. Both shows have thrown the characters into a crisis that seems too large to solve, and the stakes are high in the same way they’d be high for any one of us—against corruption, an abuser, and sin itself.
“No one can help anyone,” the show spits out at this point.
“If I believe that, I’ll kill myself,” Malcolm answers honestly, clinging desperately to the worldview he learned from his parents and his church.
It’s hard to understand the necessity of dark stories, but we need them as much as we need every redemption arc that comes after. We need desperate stories because they’re where we start from, in our lives and in the arc of the gospel. Falling is sometimes the only way to realize which way to build—or to be lifted—toward recovery and life.
Daredevil’s first season is an origin story; Matt puts on his suit in the final episode. Jessica’s psychological and emotional healing, on the other hand, is only just starting by the time we finish the season, the seeds of an unattended support group and dedicated friends only just beginning to sprout.
Humanity is really the most underscored theme of both series, something that diverges from the classic superhero narrative. It’s not about saving the universe in Daredevil or Jessica Jones. It’s about saving your corner of the world and the people who inhabit it, and for a story about super-humans, it’s an incredibly human story.
The presentation of the powers themselves indicates this—the Defenders characters don’t have flashy, CGI abilities; instead, Matt, whose internal state is reflected in his deteriorating physical state, looks more and more like Saint Sebastian with every fight, and Jessica her uses super-strength to throw her shoe at the noisy neighbor’s apartment when she’s hung over. It grounds us and helps us stay connected to them.
“There’s us and there’s them,” says a non-powered character early on, but the story’s final assessment proves him wrong: “Don’t need powers to be of use . . . maybe that’s what they need most from us. Connection.”
For characters that try to isolate themselves and strip themselves of communal ties, both Matt and Jessica build up a strong community of friends and fellow survivors. Jessica and Malcolm, especially, deal with the reality of being controlled for months by Kilgrave—Jessica in an abusive relationship, and Malcolm in being forced into addiction. “She saved me, and I saved her,” says Malcolm simply. “We’re not [victims] anymore. Not if we help each other.”
This is where Daredevil and Jessica Jones leave their protagonists, then: bruised and bleeding, but beginning to heal with the love and support of their communities. The lone-hero trope is attempted and abandoned for this: we need one another, and when these protagonists fall, there are people to help them up again, just as they help others (willingly or reluctantly). It seems like a good model for us, too.
Kristen O'Neal (@Kristen_ONeal) is a New York City-based writer whose power is analyzing stories and telling her own on the internet. You can find more of her work in publications like BreakPoint and Relevant.