My husband dubbed this show “Trigger Warnings: The Musical,” and apart from the complete lack of song-and-dance numbers, it’s very apt. The central premise is that Jessica Jones, the super-strong protagonist, spent an extended period of time as the captive of a guy whose power is the ability to control people’s minds. Now she’s an alcoholic who does her level best to sabotage her dealings with everybody around her. If you’ve ever been raped, or trapped in a controlling relationship (sexual or otherwise), or gaslighted, or addicted to anything, or had panic attacks, or suffered parental abuse, or I could keep going, then this will probably not be a comfortable show to watch.
But . . . I wound up liking it anyway. Even though it does a tap dance on a whole array of grimdark elements, which would normally be very off-putting to me. It isn’t just that the show is good — though it is; that on its own isn’t enough to make me sit through thirteen episodes of characters’ lives being miserable. (I can’t watch The Wire.) It somehow manages to tell the stories of those things in a way that doesn’t remotely softpedal how dreadful they are, without making me feel like I can’t take it any more.
And I finally figured out why. This show is about the survivors of trauma, rather than the victims.
By which I mean the narrative is one of survivorship, not victimization. It’s about how people cope with trauma — not always well, not always in a healthy fashion, but their lives keep going afterward and that, to the show’s creators, is the interesting part. We get very few flashbacks to Jess’ time with Kilgrave: one innocuous-seeming restaurant scene, to establish that he was mind-controlling her. Another whose purpose is to show the difference between Kilgrave’s perception and Jessica’s. The night she escaped. The night they met. But no scenes of him demeaning her in obvious ways, no on-screen rape. Instead we infer those things from what we see of Jessica afterward, the scars that trauma left on her, and from her own statements on the matter. Showing us what happened would have a damned hard time avoiding voyeurism. Showing us what comes after dodges that bullet, keeps the focus on the horror rather than the titillation. It makes this a story about a survivor, rather than a victim.
Jessica isn’t the only character the show handles through this lens. Partway into the series, a support group forms for people who have been controlled by Kilgrave. Even if individual moments within it sometimes seem awkward or silly to those of us on the outside, the overall sense is that this helps the characters, gives them a way to process their trauma and deal with its effects on them. We see characters using psychological techniques to reduce anxiety and ground themselves in reality. We see them asserting their boundaries against people — not limited to Kilgrave — who have trampled on those boundaries in the past. Jessica Jones very accurately depicts not only gaslighting, but how to defend against it. It explores the narcissistic rationalizations of rape apologists, and refuses to accept them. Watching this show, it’s clear how shallow the “realism” espoused by a lot of equally grim narratives is. They forget this part of the story — the part where the story keeps going.
And my god, the female characters. Not since the first season of Revenge have I seen a show so willing to tell a story about women who are unapologetically themselves, warts and all. Jessica Jones is a problematic person, not always sympathetic, possessed of mostly-good instincts but occasionally cruel to those around her, on purpose (to push them away) or just because she doesn’t care enough about their feelings to think before she says something hurtful. Jeri Hogarth, the lawyer played by Carrie-Anne Moss, is a reprehensible human being: initially I kept waiting for the revelation of her squishy compassionate center, but after a while I figured out it just isn’t there. Robyn the unstable neighbor, not entirely in touch with reality but not totally disconnected from it either, screaming at people in the hallways of her apartment building. The women of this show are allowed to be unlikeable. They’re allowed to be the kinds of abrasive, broken, complicated people male characters get to be all the time, without the story hastening to reassure us that really they’re nice after all, or demonizing them and kicking them out of the story. As one of the pieces I just linked points out, Kilgrave often compels women to smile for him — a command many women in the real world receive from men all the time, because if we aren’t smiling then we don’t look pretty and nice and don’t we want to be pretty and nice? Fuck that, says this show. These women don’t have to smile unless they want to. And mostly? They don’t want to.
Their relationships matter. Jess and Trish, her adoptive sister. Jess and Jeri, a combative boss/employee power struggle. Jess and Hope, the young woman she sets out to save in the first episode. Trish and her abusive mother. Jess and Trish’s abusive mother. Jeri and her soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jeri and the secretary she’s having an affair with. Robyn and Reva and Louise Thompson. I find it telling that when, late in the season, the show acknowledges that it exists not only in the same universe but in the same city as Daredevil, it does so via a female character from that series. Having Matt Murdock wander through would have been massively distracting, but it could have been Foggy; instead it’s a woman (I won’t spoil who), reminding us that she has a life outside of her role in that show. Heck: when Kilgrave wants to make the ultimate threat against Jess, it isn’t Luke Cage he goes after, the man Jess has fallen in love with. It’s Trish, the friend who’s the closest thing to family Jess has in the world. When the chips are down, that’s the relationship that matters most.
Jessica Jones is still a very uncomfortable show to watch, full of triggering content and characters not always dealing with it in optimal or admirable fashion. But it cares about its subject and its characters in ways that are, in my experience, rare for stories this grim. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be in the mood to watch it a second time — but I can’t wait for the next season.