This unprecedented new series exploring rape culture—with our Marvel superhero forever locked in battle with the insidious villain who violated her—is needed now more than ever.
A little more than midway through Netflix’s new hit show, ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones,’ Kilgrave—the series’ villain—entices the title character back to her childhood home. He has creepily re-created her house exactly as she left it, thanks to a helpful real-estate agent, who provided photos for his reference. In her bedroom, complete with her old Nirvana poster, Kilgrave has left a slinky purple dress in a gift-wrapped box—purportedly so Jones can spruce herself up for the evening. But Jessica Jones was held captive by Kilgrave before, and has no intention of doing what he wants ever again, and rips the dress into shreds. He will not dictate her behavior, her thoughts, her acts, or her wardrobe. Jones’s struggle with Kilgrave is a battle of wills, a drama of consent: He may have powers that force people to do what he wants. But Jessica Jones has powers, too, including the power of refusal.
In Jessica Jones, multiple dramas of consent are played out through the relationship between Kilgrave—played with charm and cunning by David Tennant, who has taken The Joker’s purple sport jacket, and redefined it for a new era of bad guys—and his victims, who include Jones (Krysten Ritter). Kilgrave has the power to rob people of their free will, to use them to carry out his nefarious plans, which can be as simple as a robbery or as gruesome as a mass murder. It’s impossible to tell if someone has been “Kilgraved”; and after his control has worn off, his victims are left with the memories of the horrible crimes they’ve committed, but are powerless to change them.
By the time we encounter Jones, she is suffering from PTSD, working as a private investigator while being lost herself—though she has super strength as a result of a childhood accident. Her singular mission is to kill Kilgrave, as if by eliminating the man who stole her consent she will be restored to the person she was before he took her and forced her to live with him as his “girlfriend” (i.e., to have sex with him and, worse, to feign love) and, more disturbingly, to murder a woman called Reva who had vital information about Kilgrave’s past. He is equally obsessed with Jones: Yes, her superhuman strength comes in handy, but her real appeal to him is her defiance. She is the only one of his victims who has had the guts to tell the world what happened to her, to refuse to simply be a victim, and the only one who is out for his blood.
Ritter is extraordinarily believable as Jones, not only in appearance, with her ghostly pallor, exaggerated features, and who-gives-a-shit uniform of leather jacket, boots, and jeans. She is moody, fearless, and very expressive, as her furrowed brow quickly gives way to the punch of a wall. Jones lives and works out of a crappy apartment in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen: Her door, stenciled with “Alias Investigations,” is broken more times than a viewer cares to count. Her self-proclaimed life of “mediocrity and underachievement” post-Kilgrave has become a kind of triage, and she is planning to save herself last.
The dynamic between Kilgrave and Jones is disturbingly closer to Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century, deeply unsettling epistolary romance novel, Pamela, which depicts an older man who tries to rape a young woman, before wooing (and eventually marrying) her, than to your average Cameron Díaz rom-com. Jessica Jones comes with a supernatural twist, though. At first, she spurns his advances, as feisty heroines are wont to do. Under his control, though, she does as he commands: While he sees this as victory, she experiences it as imprisonment and torture. There are limits, though, to Kilgrave’s powers: He has to be in the same room with his victim in order for his powers to work, and the effects wear off after 12 hours. Jones and Kilgrave’s relationship is encapsulated when both remember a time when she was with him and she was not under his control. We see her in a pretty, long yellow dress, dining with him in his rooftop garden. He remembers her kissing him, and acquiescing to follow him inside, therefore voluntarily remaining his prisoner. But she pictures herself stepping onto the ledge of the building, willing herself to jump, to fall—to escape. As far as Jones is concerned, she never granted him her consent. She only bided her time so she could leave him, alive and somewhat intact.
There are compelling counterpoints to the Jones-Kilgrave drama of consent throughout the series. Several of these have to do with parents asserting their will over children. Jones’s best friend and surrogate sister, Patsy, was forced into being a child star by her overbearing mother, who now acts as a talent agent for other kids. In the culmination of Patsy’s rebellion, spurred on by Jones, Patsy refuses her mother’s attempt to force her to make herself throw up. When information about Kilgrave’s childhood comes to light, it looks like his scientist parents were conducting experiments on him against his will. Though it turns out his parents are trying to diminish or eliminate Kilgrave’s powers so he cannot harm others, he does not remember it that way. He chooses to see them as abusive, and himself as an unwitting guinea pig (a parallel to how Jones remembers being with him).
The relationship between women and consent, or control, is complex for people other than Jones. In the subplot that sets events in motion, a girl named Hope who has been under Kilgrave’s control kills her parents and is sent to jail. Jones is determined to free Hope and expose Kilgrave, and enlists a high-powered lawyer named Jeri Hogarth (a hard, cool Carrie-Anne Moss) to defend Hope. But Hogarth is also playing romantic mindgames of her own: conducting an affair with her pliable young female assistant while divorcing her wife because she no longer satisfies Hogarth’s need to be admired. What is a breakup, after all, but one person forcing another to bend to her will?
There is also Malcolm, Jones’s neighbor whom Kilgrave turns into a junkie and uses as a spy. Once Jones helps him shake his habit (and regain his free will), Malcolm heads up a support group for Kilgrave’s former victims, hollow people who meet in sad diners. The parallels to self-help groups are obvious, but what’s different about this group is their inability to steel themselves against being violated again: it’s not a matter of learning to avoid drugs or not buy cigarettes, it’s about protecting themselves from a monster. They can’t, but Jones, who has become immune to Kilgrave, can, and therefore must eliminate him entirely.
That Jones succeeds in killing Kilgrave should make the series end on a hopeful note, but it doesn’t. There are still a lot of people roaming around haunted by their memories of being Kilgraved, including Jessica Jones. But what can she do? Fix the door at Alias Investigations again and try to steer clear of guys who can’t take no for an answer.
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