'Jessica Jones' Confronts Women's Rage, Trauma, and Survival Like No Other Show
The first season of Netflix's Jessica Jones departed immediately from the popcorn formula of Marvel's previous series, Daredevil. The show chased purpose, turning a superhero arc into an unvarnished, uncompromising reflection on surviving sexual assault and cultural misogyny. Jessica's nemesis, Kilgrave, the mind-controller who abducted and raped her -- and, even more devastatingly, convinced her that she asked for it -- wasn't just the platonic ideal of an abusive creep, but rape culture personified in an artful sneer and a purple suit. Her super-strength metaphorized the fortitude that any woman needs to survive, or overcome, her own abuse. And Season 1 ended in a cathartic moment of violence: Jessica takes Kilgrave's jaws in the vise-grip of her hand; she wryly drawls his favorite command, the catcaller's old refrain of "Smile," then breaks his neck. Jessica Jones was the #MeToo show before there was a hashtaggable movement (though #MeToo's creator, Tamara Burke, first developed this concept of survivor solidarity over 10 years ago), an early augur of a broader, more pervasive reckoning around issues of sexual assault and harassment, and toxic masculinity.
Nearly three years after its 2015 debut, Season 2 arrives with a similar, and no less potent, prescience: "Time's Up" isn't just a cartoon heroine's witty retort as her left hook connects with a bad guy's jaw -- it's a cry of raw-boned rage, of bitter determination to stop bad guys everywhere from hurting other people with impunity; a call for all women to harness their anger and become "sodding heroes" (to paraphrase Kilgrave). If Season 1 was about the power of knocking down the iron-hinged doors of suppressed trauma, then season two is all about facing the darkness inside the room. Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is now infamous for murdering Kilgrave -- some new clients specifically seek her out not only to snap photos of their philandering spouses, but to snap their necks. Any triumph (or, at least, relief) she might've felt at seeing her rapist's body, crumpled, and broken like so much street litter, has been supplanted by a thickening dread that she'll only, and always, be known for the worst moments in her life.
Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg tells Thrillist that Jessica's "dark victory" over Kilgrave forges an emotional through-line for the show's starker, and often startling, depictions of women's rage. "We come into Season 2 with her not really having dealt with that issue for herself," Rosenberg says. "Who am I? Am I a killer? Am I a rage-monster? [These] questions dig down deep to her very DNA." Seeking answers, the private investigator goes on a mission to uncover the shadowy medical organization that, during her teenage years, "saved" her from a car wreck and turned her into a powerhouse who can lift SUVs and toss grown men through walls. Through its comic book narrative, Season 2 threads in strands of grief and fear, body horror and spiritual revulsion, and unfathomable anger at being so thoroughly violated, so many times, by so many people.
"That's really the exploration this season," Rosenberg explains. "[Jessica thinks], I have all this anger. Is that what they made me into? Does it make me a monster? Her issues are really dealing with rage, and with the fear of her anger -- but, ultimately, sort of embracing it."
If Jessica's blunt act of survival was the narrative crux of Season 1, then her righteous and terrifying rage at being made, and unmade, by the shadowy cabal, by Kilgrave, by a society that still can't fully understand or accept "gifted" or powered individuals (at one point, a woman cop derisively refers to Jessica as one of "you people") is the force that propels Season 2. In the Alias comics that the series is based on, the Kilgrave arc ends with Jessica pregnant, confessing her feelings to the baby's father, Luke Cage. The rest of Jessica's story, throughout myriad of other comics and crossovers, is devoted to her marriage and motherhood. This approach seems a bit too sweet, a bit too simple, given the depth and complexity of her traumas -- and suggesting, perhaps, that these cornerstones of conventional femininity are the best palliatives for a woman's pain. The Netflix series goes to far darker places: It treats Jessica's accumulated grit as fertile ground to excavate women's rage from a society that has never taken traumas recent and ancient -- or their hopes and ambitions -- seriously.
At one point, Jessica ends up in anger management group therapy -- something the show plays for pathos and for laughs in a fine, yet successful, balance. As Jessica tosses the therapist's little rubber ball against the wall, Steve McQueen-style, she lists the reasons for her anger ("My whole family was killed in a car accident; someone did horrific experiments on me; I was abducted, raped, and forced to kill someone. And I'm in here bouncing a goddamn ball.") until she drives a dent into the hard plaster wall, scaring the hell out of her fellow patients. This is not a riot grrrl's punkish snarl, but a woman testing the boundaries of her own powers, sometimes drowning in the wild undertow of her emotions. Watching Jessica stalk a smug rival PI who sabotages her business down a hallway, punching the I-don't-take-no-for-an-answer tough guy through a plate-glass door, is a riveting bit of wish fulfillment for women who've had to scrape and smile before inferior, even abusive men, for eons.
Though Rosenberg says that her creative team doesn't sit down with a specific thesis at the onset of each season, they were writing during the electoral chaos of 2016, which catalyzed the current movements to burn down the boys-will-be-boys ethos that has always normalized sexual harassment and abuse, and elevated a self-confessed "pussy grabber" over an eminently more qualified woman. "All of us in the room were dismayed, repulsed by the way in which Hillary was pilloried, [by] that sort of rampant misogyny," she explains. "We were channeling a lot of our outrage [into the show]."
Outrage can be constructive: In real life, the election prompted protests, increased donations to women's causes, and has motivated record numbers of women to run for office (including one of Donald Trump's accusers). On the show, outrage fuels actress Racheal Taylor's Trish Walker, who continues her crusade to drag the shadowy medical cabal that tortured Jessica (and many others) into the daylight and end it forever. Season 2 turns Jessica into a combat-booted avenging angel, at one point pinning a lecherous film director against the hood of his fancy car, smashing her fist through layers of metal and inches away from his face -- giving him a brackish, sweat-mixed-with-tears taste of the terror he inflicted on many a teenage starlet (including poor Trish, back in her "It's Patsy!" days).
Yet, that same consuming anger can warp one's spirit like steel cratered by a superpowered punch. The most insidious aspect of Kilgrave's abuse is that he never bested her physically; he never had to, because he could break and bend her will from inside her mind. This intense, prolonged gaslighting singes the soul long after it's over: Jessica isn't scared that anyone could glut themselves on her body again; she's scared that Kilgrave coaxed out a toxicity that was always inside her. She can't trust her own intentions and instincts. Jessica is genuinely afraid of what she's capable of. "You don't feel physical vulnerability as much and yet you are still a human being," Rosenberg says. "[Her story is about defining] what power is, and what [she] can and can't control."
One of this season's new Big Bads is a convex mirror for Jessica's fears about herself: She's a former patient at the same hospital that took her in after her car accident, and subject to the same experiments -- except she's stronger now, and far more savage. The Big Bad functions like a gristly Ghost of Christmas future, reminding Jessica who she could become if she gives into rage and remains isolated from her few friends and allies (a real possibility, given how many times she fires and re-hires her ever-loyal, ever-patient assistant, Malcolm, in the first episode alone). Despite her many sardonic, whiskey-dripped protestations to the contrary, Jessica does care about being a good person -- or, at least, a better person than everyone who has hurt her.
The mystery woman is, conversely, exactly what they made her to be -- a vicious, remorseless killer. She murders a man in the back of a van parked outside of Jessica's apartment, rips him apart in a way that only a superpowered person with a lot of rage could ever be capable of. So, of course, the police suspect Jessica. The officers force Jessica to the pavement, hands behind her back, and the camera pans to the opened van, an abattoir of Pollock-styled blood spatter and scattered limbs. As Jessica takes in the scene, her face becomes a rictus of shock and horror. "That's not me," she says, over and over, her voice getting more tremulous and less certain each time she repeats it. And yet that is her, a brittle woman who is finding the work of holding her broken places together almost unbearably hard -- and she's terrified that she's one last call, one bitchy client, one man who doesn't take no for an answer away from snapping another neck.
Women characters on television have rarely grappled with, harnessed, or embraced their anger and inner violence because women in reality have rarely been allowed to grapple with, harness, or embrace their anger and inner violence. Jessica Jones is remarkable because she is heartrendingly vicious and vulnerable; her greatest feats of derring-do aren't just killing the bad guy or taking down the evil organizations. She's a hero because she walks into that dark room of trauma and memory and stares down the demon-red eyes glowing back at her. She returns to our screens at a time of cultural and political reckoning. So many women walk into their own versions of that space -- which holds centuries of systemic misogyny on top of personal histories of harassment and abuse -- and they're not tightly smiling through any of it any more. They're finding the power, and the truth, in Jessica's Season 1 axiom: "Knowing it's real means you've gotta make a decision. One, keep denying it. Or two, do something about it."