an online showcase curated by Maya Kóvskaya


by Michael Chin



The first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones offers a lens on contemporary American mass media, both in terms of the messages given and received. The opening shot of the series captures Jessica’s point of view through a chain-link fence, gazing at the New York skyline—an immediately narrow, obscured point of view, established to capture what the title character sees the world. Over the course of thirteen episodes, viewers come to occupy Jessica’s limited perspective, as a downtrodden, failed superhero turned New York City private investigator. Our occupation of this point of view is emblematic of the way in which the average citizens submits to the rhetoric of surrounding media. As we go along for the ride, we access a woman who no longer identifies herself as a hero, and thus faces the particularly onerous challenge of not only having to confront a challenging opponent, but to do so when she’s not in the hero business anymore.

The bad guy at hand, Kilgrave, is uniquely situated to represent the media. He literally controls minds—his every utterance a command. Placed within his contemporary context, it’s not a far reach to read him as reflective of real-world mass media, and particularly media in alignment with a particular political agenda. As Heather Hogan articulated in her smart and thorough takedown of Fox News, the cable news network leans upon a cycle of isolating viewers, casting carefully selected figures and entities as enemies, appealing to viewers’ fears, and facilitating an understanding of a divergent reality from the one we live in. There’s an irresistible nature to the voice of mass media—a voice so many Americans may not even think to question, but rather accept news as news regardless of the lenses of sponsors and political agendas of the people running the news business. Thus, Kilgrave becomes a heavy-handed stand-in for such networks and Internet news providers, literally commanding the full attention of his audience before it occurs to listeners they could (much less should) turn away. On the show, the premise of the character’s powers gives way to a fascinating thought experiment about how on earth one can fight someone who is literally irresistible—a foe whose every command is physiological mandate for anyone who hears him. The season’s story arc hinges on Jessica discovering that she can resist Kilgrave’s directives, thus empowering her to be the lone being with any hope of stopping him from controlling, hurting, and killing at will.

For all of the issues and angles that Jessica Jones explores, including the myriad ways in which Kilgrave deploys his powers, the show does not offer any explanation as to why Jessica is impervious to Kilgrave’s abilities, nor why she is the only person who can resist him. The prevailing answer from viewers seems to be that Kilgrave compelled Jessica to do something that was fundamentally unconscionable. This explanation is less than satisfactory for, as Mary Sue editor Dan Van Winkle opines, “The show featured people getting forced to slowly maim and kill themselves and others in gruesome ways, but a relatively simple and clean murder is what snapped Jessica to her senses.” Janey Tracey from Outer Places brings up similar concerns, comparing Kilgrave’s control to the pull of a drug, but sighting Jessica’s ability to suddenly break free as problematic, in part for its “potentially offensive implications about both rape and drug addiction.”

A series of clipped flashbacks inform us of Jessica’s past experiences with Kilgrave, and that these interactions are the source of her trauma. We learn Jessica was complicit in her own rape because Kilgrave asked for it, and that wasn’t enough to break her of his will. From there, we know that Kilgrave told Jessica to “take care of” the woman she killed. At first blush, with our experience rooted in Jessica’s point of view, we accept that Kilgrave ordered Jessica to commit murder. But was Jessica truly, unavoidably, just following orders? Her guilt is more complex than meets the eye. After all, the degree to which Kilgrave controlled Jessica, and when, is the subject of constant question throughout Jessica Jones. The responsibility-for-murder question grows even more complicated given that Kilgrave himself raises the important point—he told Jessica to “take care of” the victim. Going so far as to punch the victim hard enough to kill her (shattering her rib cage and sending her tumbling from the scaffolding of a construction site) was, if not Jessica’s choice, at least Jessica’s interpretation of her instructions. The show therefore demands that viewers question how much of her obsession with Kilgrave is a matter of protecting others and vengeance, versus a form of penance for a murder in which she may have actually been culpable. Regardless of when and to what degree Jessica is free of Kilgrave’s grasp, it’s clear that murder is a turning point—in the aftermath of it Jessica was able to walk away from a screaming Kilgrave, and she was also able to hold onto him despite his protests in the closing movements of the episode titled “AKA Sin Bin,” which is when she becomes cognizant of her own ability to disobey his words.

I must confess that I don’t have a cogent answer to the question of how or why Jessica breaks the spell, but I would suggest that it is a worthy thought experiment to consider whether Jessica truly is the only one who can resist Kilgrave. Yes, she does prove herself able to resist him, and no other character demonstrates that immunity. But does that necessarily mean that no one else in the world can defy him? Or has Jessica merely decided that she is the world’s only hope? Thus, is her sole responsibility to deal with Kigrave not arrived at through happenstance, fate, or any external cause at all, but rather that the character has insinuated it upon herself? Jessica believes she is the only individual capable of resisting Kilgrave, and does not meaningfully investigate if there might be others who share her abilities. Both Kilgrave’s ham-handed control of the populace and Jessica’s rejection of any point of view or plan of action but her own are reflective of dogmatic political extremes that pervade the contemporary American political landscape and associated media. If Kilgrave represents a ceaseless media that we cannot tune out, what is Jessica but the less than reliable individual who insists upon her own interpretation of current events and the world around her?

The crucible regarding the scope and potency of Kilgrave’s control arrives in the season finale, “AKA Smile.” Through all manner of science and sorcery, Kilgrave enriches his powers until we’re uncertain whether he will be able to control Jessica again. To indulge the Kilgrave-media metaphor, we might consider this tantamount to a powerful media conglomerate buying out another established network to increase the scope and magnitude of its influence. In the show, the stage is set for a showdown. Kilgrave gives up his position. Jessica comes for him.

As the climactic scene of the episode takes hold, we take a rare step away from Jessica to enter the point of view of Jessica’s longtime, trusted friend, Trish Walker. Trish is herself a talk radio personality who briefly runs afoul of Kilgrave by trying to expose his powers early in the season. For most of the season, however, Trish is most readily identified as representative of normal humanity. She has no super powers, and her trauma relates to an exploitative and abusive childhood relationship with her mother. She is a balance to Jessica, questioning her more aggressive plans, not to mention holding her morally responsible when she seems prepared to give up.

In the scene at hand, Trish walks with her head down, headphones turned up to protect herself from any order Kilgrave might cast. As she makes her walk, the audience and Kilgrave are led to believe that she is Jessica (dressed up like the heroine, she’s actually a decoy so Jessica might make her move), but her advance through the church is telling of Jessica’s rhetoric. Through the diegetic blasting of “Demons” by Sleigh Bells over her headphones, we come to understand how Jessica views this confrontation and how it might veer from reality. First and foremost, the song’s sheer noise—the wail of electric guitars, the shouted lyrics seem all but designed to overwhelm the senses and compel the listener to submit to the message of the song over any external sound. The opening lyrics intone, “You drink the wise blood.” Wise blood, from Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name, implies instinctual knowledge of what is right, which immediately speaks to a sense of superiority and dogged confidence in one’s own plans. This self-assuredness is evident in Jessica’s mode of decision-making throughout the show, including committing to a series of half-baked plans such as having herself convicted to bait Kilgrave into following her into a maximum security prison, and later doing her darnedest to contrive a situation in which a detective will observe Kilgrave work his coercive magic so that he might be convicted.

The bridge repeats the simple lyrics “taken down” twelve consecutive times, to the point at which sheer repetition strips words of meaning, converting them more purely into sonic effect—the sheer impact of hearing the same words over and over again until the listener internalizes them. The words themselves matter, too, in the implication of someone or something being taken down rendering images of, at the least, a defeat, and perhaps more fittingly notions of revolution. Beating back Kilgrave, for his potentially catastrophic ability to rule the world, feels like an analogously profound endeavor. Important, yes, but all the more so enriched by a moral imperative. Jessica rejects the notion that there is any meaningful alternative but to murder Kilgrave.

There’s another set of lyrics that earns near equal repetition on the outro to the song—the refrain of “you will answer to no one else but me.” These lyrics are the most vital of all to unlocking not only the scene, but the very heart of Jessica’s pursuit of Kilgrave. As articulated earlier, Jessica thinks herself the only person impervious to Kilgrave’s mind control. But are there others? Jessica is reticent to find out. That’s understandable given what’s at stake—that any potent ally can quickly become an equally powerful opponent at Kilgrave’s beck and call. But in this episode, the Marvel Universe in which Jessica Jones takes place draws in the specter of another Marvel property, Daredevil. Though the character does not appear on screen, a Daredevil character, nurse Claire Temple, does, and offers Jessica the not-quite-spoken suggestion they might draw Daredevil into the fight to help. Jessica declines. Ostensibly, Jessica’s afraid Daredevil would pose an insurmountable obstacle were he under Kilgrave’s control. But why is Jessica, herself, able to resist Kilgrave? And if anyone else were to possess similar immunity, might it not be other people of otherwise extraordinary abilities? There’s the inescapable added irony that, in Marvel’s original comic book lore, Daredevil was among the chosen few who could resist Kilgrave’s abilities.

I say all of this not to suggest that Jessica Jones is the true villain of Jessica Jones. Kilgrave is a bad guy and it’s problematic to lose sight of that. For the purposes of storytelling, the show highlights him at his most heartlessly violent—ordering his mother to stab herself once for each time she abandoned him and his father to carve his own heart out of his chest; sentencing another character to a particularly brutal thousand slashing cuts. In each instance, viewers witness the stuff of horror that is in no way ethically excusable, but that also does not happen outside of its context or purpose. Kilgrave makes inhumane choices, but does so in alignment with an agenda—largely for vengeance.

While Jessica Jones most obviously casts Jessica and Kilgrave as enemies and opposites, if we are to continue to read into the media metaphor at hand, it’s not unreasonable to read them instead as acting in concert with one another, or more exactly as a cause and effect of one another. To oversimplify but see the metaphor through, if Kilgrave were to represent Fox News, might Jessica be cast as Donald Trump?

Donald Trump has an uneven relationship with Fox News. On one hand, as the Republican nominee for president, Trump is the conservative cable news network’s de facto golden boy (not to mention golden goose given the volume of attention he has attracted as, if nothing else, a media magnet for his bold, outspoken campaign trail). On the other hand, the network has entered Trump’s crosshairs as he’s bashed the media at large, and more specifically engaged in a public feud with Fox News personality Megyn Kelly. In a column for The Ringer, however, political pundit Jon Favreau runs down the ways in which Trump’s campaign has direct ties to the culture of conservative media. Favreau writes of how Trump’s poligical features a bevy of right-wing media commentators (most notably, campaign manager Steve Bannon of Breitbart News fame), eschewing more traditional political advisors such as “party leaders, policy experts, political strategists, or even pollsters.” Moreover, Favreau draws attention to the parallels in Trump’s approach to his campaign and the ways in which these media outlets and their personalities “don’t spend much time discussing tax cuts, free trade, entitlement reform, or school choice.” Rather, Favreau writes, “They are entertainers. They sell conspiracy and innuendo. They sell outrage and grievance.”

Jessica, like Trump, is a product of circumstance. When Kilgrave poses a potentially devastating threat to the world, Jessica portrays herself as the only one who can counteract such a threat—a hero who demands that those around her fall in line with her plans that, frankly, don’t always make sense. But Jessica is the hero of the show, and as played by Krysten Ritter she’s an irresistible rogue hero we, the audience, want to root for. So, this show draws us in, episode by episode, until we no longer think to question Jessica as protagonist and de facto point-of-view character. We come to believe. And perhaps this is why the acronym “AKA” precedes the title of each episode. Maybe it’s not just an homage to the original name of the Jessica Jones comic books or the name of her detective agency in them, but a hint that there’s more than meets the eye to each given chapter of this story—layers of meaning that the viewer must reach past a passive viewing in order to access, just as critical thinking is necessary to dissect the bombastic, aphoristic rhetoric of the Trump campaign.

The final scene of Jessica Jones shows us a hero in the aftermath of profound achievement. Kilgrave is dead, the world is safe, and the phone at Jessica’s PI agency is ringing off the hook. She sits at her desk, a half-empty bottle of whiskey to her side, facing a busted out window on her door, looking more shell-shocked than triumphant. As the camera zooms from her, we catch our last sight of the character framed in jagged glass before receding farther and farther down her hallway. Might one liken this to Trump, win or lose, after his campaign has run its course? He’s a businessman who has taken a turn at the identity of politician. Ater the ballots are in, as we move forward from this election cycle, there will be those who look up to him in some form of awe, whatever his vocation, expecting that he might save the day.

In Jessica Jones, the title character gets the final word on the show in voiceover, stating: “Maybe it’s enough that the world thinks I’m a hero. Maybe if I work long and hard, maybe I can fool myself.”


Works Cited

Favrea, Jon. “Longtime Listener, First-Time Candidate.” The Ringer. 6 Sept. 2015.

Hogan, Heather. “This Is How Fox News Brainwashes Its Viewers: Our In-Depth Investigation of the Propaganda Cycle.” Autostraddle. 2 Sept. 2015.

Tracey, Janey. “Why Kilgrave’s Power on Jessica Jones Is an All-New Kind of Mind Control.” Outer Places. 25, Nov. 2015.

Van, Winkle, Dan. “6 Things That Bugged Me About Marvel’s Jessica Jones.The Betty Sue. 27 Nov., 2015.



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