Warning: This article will deal with the issue of domestic violence and thus has a trigger warning. It will also have some mild spoilers for the TV show Jessica Jones.
Angry, hard-drinking, gets into fights, has dysfunctional relationships, lives in a seedy apartment – these are the characteristics of the archetypical PI. You can usually add male to the list as well, which is one reason why the Netflix/Marvel show Jessica Jones is such a breath of fresh air. Here we have a familiar take on the New-York-based private eye, but this time the PI is a woman – and has super strength. However, what makes Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) enduring as a character is her personality: she is a savour, living in a dangerous and uncertain world, but she never gives up. Also, she had a habit of breaking doors.
Jessica Jones is part of the wider Marvel shared universe, but one of the strengths of the show is that you do not need to have seen any of the other films or TV shows to follow the plot. The story is entirely stand alone, and it also has a different visual style and narrative to the Marvel cinematic properties. Jessica Jones is a gritty, intimate, ground level view of life as a jobbing person-with-abnormal-abilities. It is nothing like the spectacle rich, epic action-scene-based films of Iron Man or Captain America. Jessica Jones digs deeper into its characters than the films, which is one advantage a thirteen-part TV show has over a two-hour film.
The conflict of the show hinges around Jessica's personal relationships and not big action set pieces. We sees Jessica arguing with her boss, who is going through a messy divorce (ably played by Carrie-Anne Moss). We find out about her childhood and her lifelong best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), and their friendship is dramatised with all the complexities of relationships we are familiar with from our own lives. Jessica and Trish have a deep bond of friendship, but Jessica's volatile personality leads to frequent falling outs. The show also develops in detail Jessica's relationship with the antagonist, Kilgrave - played by David Tennant on very good and very creepy form.
Kilgrave is another person-with-abnormal-abilities (we need better terminology for these people, anything better than hero or enhanced), although Kilgrave's power is that anyone has to do whatever he tells them. Free will does not exist around Kilgrave. If he wants you to stab your best friend, there is nothing you can do about it. Kilgrave uses this ability to manipulate others and enrich himself. He especially likes to use it make beautiful young women his play thing. One of these women was Jessica and at the start of the show she is still recovering psychologically from the experience of being under Kilgrave's control.
The show uses a sci-fi concept, Kilgrave's mind control, to explore an important issue in our world, the power dynamics of abusive and controlling relationships. Kilgrave's abilities are clearly a metaphor for the power abusers’ hold over their victims/loved ones and for how hard it is to break free from the control of someone who is abusive. Approaching this subject through the prism of science fiction allows the show to explore the dynamics of an abusive relationship with a degree of fantasy that makes the narrative less emotionally traumatic and easier to engage with than a more straightforward approach to the subject.
There are lots of films and TV shows that deal with domestic abuse in a sensitive and nuanced way, and stories based in our world that take a frank look at the nature of abusive relationships. Unfortunately, these films and TV shows do not find a huge audience, because of the depressing nature of their content. Tyrannosaur, directed by Paddy Considine, is one such example. Tyrannosaur is a brilliant film but sadly was not seen by many people because most audiences are not interested in social realist dramas set on a Glasgow council estate. The perception of science fiction as more light-hearted and entertaining allows these difficult to digest insights to slip under the radar and into the minds of the viewer.
Jessica Jones is a very good example of serious issues being smuggled into an accessible show with mass audience appeal. Jessica Jones explores the psychological toll that domestic violence has on its victims. Kilgrave appears as a shadow stalking Jessica, disturbing her sleep, distressing her, and appearing to physically assault her despite not being present. At first, the viewer is uncertain if this is a manifestation of Kilgrave’s powers, but later we find that it is psychological damage left by his hold over Jessica.
I like science fiction which tackles serious issues as much as I like escapist sci-fi, which distracts us from this world and appeals to our imagination. The Marvel shared universe has both, in Jessica Jones and Guardians of the Galaxy. Jessica Jones uses the concepts of the sci-fi genre to reflect our own world back at us in a way that we can easily comprehend. This makes it easier to understand how painful it is when an abuser holds power over their victim, and it also shows how difficult it is to escape from an abusive relationship. The use of a sci-fi concept as a key component of this relationship does not cheapen or belittle the psychological suffering of the victims, it merely makes it easier to understand how Kilgrave controls his victims.
David Tennant plays the role of Kilgrave very well. His usual, charming, likeable persona works well when playing a serial abuser. Often people who abuse others are outwardly charming and likeable. They hide the pain they inflict and force their victims to hide it as well. The character of Kilgrave was also abused himself during his childhood, by his parents’ researching his mind control abilities. This does not excuse his actions, but it does highlight an issue that abusers are often previous victims of abuse. Their own history of abuse colours their relationships with others. Pain and love are intertwined in Kilgrave's mind.
Kilgrave also does not see what is wrong about what he does. He sees himself as the real victim, and believes that Jessica genuinely loves him despite the way he has treated her. He blames his victims for his own actions, believes he acts in their best interest and tries to give up violence but always relapses. Kilgrave is entitled and believes he deserves the love and affection of Jessica, despite causing her so much pain. These are among the characteristics of abusive partners and the show explores how these traits appear in abusers who do not have a supernatural control over their victims. Jessica's best friend Trish has been abused by her mother, who believes she acted in her daughter's best interest, has a strong sense of entitlement and appears outwardly charming. Through the science fiction drama of the struggle to free New York City from the terror which Kilgrave inflicts, the show explores the nuances of abusive relationships.
Personally, I find this variety of science fiction more interesting than the escapist kind, although both suit different movies. It is also possible for science fiction to be escapist and to tackle serious issues, such as Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Jessica Jones is an example of a complex issue in our world explored through the prism of sci-fi concepts. I hope that the show is doing some good, that it illuminated some people to the nature of abuse or made[*therefore also present tense: makes] them questions their own assumptions. This is the power of science fiction to be a social good and shows that Marvel can come up with interesting new takes on their well-established characters.