Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” and Characters with Psychology (a.k.a., people)
Jessica Jones is not an invulnerable show, though it does have a super-powered capacity for awesomeness. It is incredibly, unnaturally strong in a lot of ways, but it still gets a cut above its brow during every single fight scene. I remember catching early promos for the show and thinking, “Oh! Jesse’s dead girlfriend is a superhero now!” (Don’t worry, without of context, that sort of isn’t a spoiler). But, you know, we can’t all think about things in relation to other media like I do.
If you’ve spent much time on this blog then you’ll know that I have a hard time taking things seriously, especially in my Internet shout voice, and though Jessica Jones can be really funny at times, it is the furthest thing from a comedy. It’s a dark noir, complete with its alcoholic, wiseass lead PI, a sexy dame as a budding love interest, a complex and notorious villain, and a wide array of intriguing supporting figures.
Yes, I’m calling Luke Cage a sexy dame here, because in all ways but the glorious gender reversals at play throughout Jessica Jones, this show is a truly successful, articulate, and intelligent modern noir, which is far from saying that those two things are mutually exclusive. Brick comes to mind as also coming close to great modern noir, but whereas the dour noir tone of that film was forced upon the odd scope of high schoolers in what was a really great pastiche, Jessica Jones bleeds noir. But rather than a man as our lead, it’s a superpowered, tormented woman who rescues her damsel in distress a few times (even when he doesn’t need rescuing). And Jeri Hogarth, Jessica’s tough-as-nails lawyer ally, was originally a man in the comics. The deliberate choice of gender-swapping that character and making her gay adds a really wonderful element of diversity to the show, and a wholly necessary amount in the greater MCU.
The intro sequence is worth the price of admission alone: so astutely and self-aware and oozingly noir that you almost expect the whole thing to suck. But it doesn’t. It’s the best thing Marvel has done outside of the big screen. (Side bar: if there’s some sort of connection between the opening credits for Daredevil and Jessica Jones, please, give that person some sort of award).
I could write a whole, lengthy essay about how great Jessica Jones is, not just in itself, but for the greater MCU. Finally we have a strong (thematically and physically) female hero. Whereas every film has straddled that PG-13 line, and SHIELD is about as gritty as Gossip Girl, this show is downright groundbreaking for the broader universe. It’s only fitting it appears alongside Daredevil both plot-wise and contracturally. Marvel has incorporated interracial relationships, homosexual characters and relationships, and a roughly equal ratio of female to male characters. Maybe its absurd of me to point it out and get so excited about this, but it’s a big deal. Maybe we are finally growing as a society, guys.
I could also write an entire essay about how, diversity in the broader franchise aside, Jessica Jones is a deeply articulate, thoughtful, subtle, and important entry in the canon of modern, fictional feminists. But these are essays for another day. Today, I want to talk about something very specific.
A lot has been said about Jessica Jones recently. It only just came out, and despite its new-ness many of us have already plowed right through it. It’s easily within Netflix’s top five exclusives when it comes to programming. I would honestly say it might be No. 1 if it weren’t for Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. In a time when superheroes are so ubiquitous that they’ve had to bring someone called Ant-Man to the silver screen, it’s incredibly hard to show the public something fresh. So I’ll get right to it.
I don’t think I have ever seen a show that is so psychologically self aware, which is to say that its psychoanalytical depth is unparalleled. Over the course of the season, you don’t really get a single supporting character that is a waste of space. Each one gets their just due screentime, to pan out their arc or at the very least reveal their inner workings and motivations. The one exception to this is the very obvious season 2 setup with Dr. Koslov, introduced very late in the game and set up as a tease. But let’s do it; let’s break down each character.
**Warning: FULL SPOILERS AHEAD**
Early on, before Kilgrave becomes a regular appearing character, Jessica experiences these really interesting PTSD-infused flashes of Kilgrave and we wonder: is he consciously exerting these in an active way as a long-distance extension of his “power” or are these actual hallucinations Jessica is experiencing. More importantly: are “actual hallucinations” an oxymoron?
Either way, it is perhaps the earliest instance of the complex psychology at work in the show. The very premise of the show has nothing to do with the origin story of our titular hero. Instead, we’re dealing with a weathered and retired veteran, who’s been manipulated and abused, and her only outlet for dealing with trauma is one of the most classic responses in the book: rage-fueled alcoholism.
This plays off the noir style of the show brilliantly, where rather than have our hero drink to excess and smoke like a chimney as a symbolic way to fill an archetype, Jessica’s behavior is logical. Jessica is a victim, and as things occur throughout the show, her fixation on Kilgrave changes. At first, she is more than willing to flee, but then gets entangled with rescuing Hope. But then, by the time Hope has died — indirectly by Kilgrave — her motives pivot to wanting to kill Kilgrave as revenge for Hope’s death. She’s normally very against killing, but she makes an exception in this case.
Hope herself spends much of the season in a sort of trance, an almost PTSD state of shock and disbelief at what had happened to her. Even her concerned parents, despite being a bit on the goofy side, legitimately are concerned for their daughter. Even Hope’s roommate, who is bitter and dismissive, has every right to act the way she does, assuming that Hope was just going boy-crazy about some rich guy.
You look at Patsy and her sisterly affection for Jessica, and you can really understand why she gets so intense about her self-defense training. She spent much of her adolescence being protected by Jessica and in every instance, Jessica was overwhelmingly more powerful. How defenseless must she have felt under Jessica’s shadow? It explains why she works so hard. It makes it almost devastating when she can’t really stand up to Will Simpson. Her eventual Stockholme syndrome relationship with him is creepy, but he comes to her because he himself is a bit devastated about his assault on her at the hands of Kilgrave’s mind control.
Luke strikes another interesting figure from a psychological standpoint. The real attraction between him and Jessica has to do with some measure of genuine chemistry, but even moreso is the interesting dynamic of two super-powered individuals going at it. Her strength is a liability in the bedroom, and with Luke, she doesn’t need to be concerned about that. These two people who spend a lot of time and energy avoiding the limelight so as to keep their secret powers secret can finally and fully be themselves. That’s why, in the final episodes when Luke is comatose and Jessica speaks to his unconscious body, she honestly says that he is the only person she could ever imagine herself having a future with. It all just makes sense.
And it’s easy for a show like this to accurately portray the psychology of its central characters, because, well, if you’re not then you’re doing it wrong and your show probably isn’t any good.
But where Jessica Jones really thrives is the complete nature of the characters. Even supporting and tertiary characters have arcs and complex psychology. Kilgraves parents are initially implied to be mad, heartless scientists who experimented on their son. But then we realize that they were trying to save him, and then, when he gained his power, they lived in fear of him before they were able to get away.
The more characters you look at, the more it all makes sense. Pam, Jeryn’s assistant and lover, loves Jeryn’s assertiveness and strength. And Jeryn just loves the attention and adoration. Jeryn’s ex loved her because despite being mean to everyone, Jeryn was nice to her. So many of these relationships that are less important to the central story often go underexplained in most shows, or are just glassed over. They don’t really matter do they? But it’s nice to encounter a universe in which every dynamic matters, and care is taken into the scripting to make all motivations and relationships clear.
Jessica Jones excels in a lot of things, but this is perhaps the most standout example of what makes the show work.