This post will be less of a lesson and more of a reflection or analysis. Contains spoilers.
Jessica Jones wins the prize for the most thematically focused tv show I’ve ever seen. Throw in movies, and it’s near the top. Hey, add books to the mix, and this superhero Netflix show is still in the running.
You wouldn’t expect that if you knew what Jessica was like. She’s hard-drinking, bad-tempered, and terribly selfish at times. But above all else, Jessica Jones emphasizes personal responsibility.
The very first episode opens with Jessica describing her work as a private eye. Once her clients realize their suspicions are real, they’re faced with a choice. “One, do something about it. Or two, keep denying it.” This is repeated at the end of the episode, after Hope kills her parents and Jessica realizes that Kilgrave is back. She runs outside to grab a taxi, to get as far away as possible. But then she stops, turns back around, and makes her choice. She’s not going to bury her head in the sand, she’s going to do something about it.
To me, that was a pivotal character moment. That was the choice that made me decide I could root for this messed up, selfish, broken woman. I’ll talk more on her character in a later post, but that was the moment I saw the glimmer of ‘hero’ in her ‘antiheroism.’
Later on, in episode 4, Jessica runs into a woman who has a vendetta against all ‘gifted’ people because her mother was killed in the battle of New York. She tries to kill Jessica. Jessica is no Captain America, so she gets pissed off.
In the ensuing furniture-throwing fit of rage, she shouts, “You think you’re the only one with pain? You think you can take your shit and dump it on me? You don’t get to do that. So you take your pain and you live with it!”
Screw your tragic backstory. Yeah, pain is real but that doesn’t mean you get to mess up other people’s lives because of it. In an era that loves its sympathetic villains, this is a much needed message.
And speaking of tragic backstories: Kilgrave. He was experimented on by his own parents when he was little. Although they did it to cure him of a rare disease, he was ten. He couldn’t fully understand that. Then, after his powers developed, his parents left him. He blames his lack of moral compass on that and his powers, his inability to know if people really want to do something or if he’s just controlling them.
It’s almost tempting to sympathize with him. But Jessica reminds him, “You’re not ten anymore.” (Cue sad Doctor noises). She doesn’t excuse his actions- he was the one who did those things.
But then she finds his parents. She reproaches them for leaving- they had a responsibility to raise their child, and if they couldn’t, they should have done something about it instead of just disappear.
In my experience, this emphasis on shared responsibility is rare. Most often the villain is portrayed as a tragic figure and it’s the parents’/mentor’s fault. Otherwise, the villain is to blame while the parents were saints who are completely out of the picture. In real life, though, it’s often more complicated. A person needs to take the ultimate responsibility for their actions. However, there are almost always other people who could have stepped in along the way.
I’m not done with Kilgrave yet, either. In a show that emphasizes personal responsibility, it’s perfect to have a villain who can take away choice.
Kilgrave isn’t hesitant about using his powers. But even he understands the importance of choice, of having personal responsibility for your actions. Not that he respects that importance, but he understands what it means. He knows there’s a difference between Jessica kissing him when under his control and when free. That’s why he tested her, in the yellow dress flashback, to see if she ‘wanted’ it.
And after he knows he can’t control Jessica, he keeps coming back to her. The logical thing would be to stay far away, or to kill her. But he wants her to want him, all by herself. She’s the only person in the world who can make that choice, and in his own twisted way, he wants her to choose him. That need for the personal responsibility of her choice is a large part of his motivation.
The theme of personal responsibility is woven throughout Jessica Jones. It’s explored through so many angles, from the responsibility you have to “do something” about evil in the world, to the responsibility you need to take for your own actions, to the messiness of blame, to the acknowledged worth of a choice.
And that’s not all. This theme is repeated again, when little Jessica steps in to help little Trish. And again, with Hogarth’s willingness to cooperate with Kilgrave. And again, during Malcolm’s struggle with faith in humanity.
Never before have I seen a superhero show, or any show, deal with such a focused topic and go so in-depth. I never expected to see it from Jessica Jones and her broken, screwed up life, but I hope that other shows take their lead from it. We need more shows like this one.