For the second series in their celebrity team-up, Marvel and Netflix produced Jessica Jones, based on the character from the comic series Alias and, later, The Pulse. Created by Brian Michael Bendis, Jessica Jones is portrayed as a pretty damaged woman: she lost her family in a car crash when she was young, but gained superpowers in the deal, and suffers no small amount of survivor’s guilt because of it. She’s an alcoholic and abuse survivor, two facts which are not unrelated: in the comics, Jessica (inspired by Spider-Man) had previously tried her hand at superheroics under the moniker of Jewel – and even met the Avengers once – but gave up after a failed attempt to thwart an attack by the mind-controlling Zebediah Killgrave (known by his supervillain identity The Purple Man, due to the fact that he is a, uh…purple…man…) led instead to her being taken over by Killgrave’s powers, controlled and tortured by him for months, until she was defeated/rescued by the Avengers and freed from Killgrave’s control through intense psychic therapy by the X-Men’s Jean Grey. Thereafter, she quit superheroing and opened a detective agency.
That’s the short version. In Bendis’s comics, the overriding theme of Jessica Jones’s adventures was heroism: what it means to be a hero, how to be one, what kind of person even wants to be one, and how to know whether you’ve succeeded or failed at it. And that theme still exists in the Netflix adaptation. But much as the previous Daredevil series focused thematically on the moral value of suffering, whereas its source material is more interested in issues of fear and the responses to it, in Jessica Jones the theme of heroism has taken a backseat to the more dominant theme of the series, which most responses to the show has identified as related to gender politics and sexual abuse, but which actually is the relationship between freedom and responsibility.
Now, gender politics and sexual abuse absolutely are part of what the series is concerned with. That’s not hard to notice (it’s obviously what the whole recurring “smile” motif is about, for instance), and we can see how these issues were made more prominent in the series by one important change that showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (formerly head writer and executive producer for Dexter and screenwriter for the Twilight series of movies) made in adapting the comic series for Netflix: in the comics, Killgrave never actually sexually assaulted Jessica during the time that she was under his control – at least not physically. What he did was, at least according to Jessica’s description of the events, even more sinister: he made Jessica believe that she was in love with him, and then forced her to watch while he had sex with other women (whom he also, of course, had caused to believe that they were in love with him). He was much more interested in her emotional suffering than in violating her body. In the Netflix series, Jessica is a survivor of literal, physical rape by Kilgrave (although, of course, he doesn’t see it that way – he even tells her how much he hates “that word” when she lays out for him precisely what it was that he was actually doing to her for all that time), which maybe makes the abuse more immediately relatable to the audience but also ultimately an abuse-and-recovery story. That’s also why the show includes so many (at first seemingly gratuitous) sex scenes – which I admit baffled me at the beginning – between Jessica and Luke Cage, and between Jessica’s adopted sister Trish and fellow victim of Kilgrave, NYPD Sergeant Will Simpson: it’s extremely important narratively to establish that not only can enthusiastic consent exist between heterosexual couples in a world that has monsters like Kilgrave in it, but also that Jessica in particular is still perfectly capable of wanting and enjoying sex despite everything she’s gone through.
So it is about gender and sexual abuse, but that is not its core. Rather, the series locates issues of gender and abuse within the larger framework of freedom and responsibility. In the same way that Bendis’s comics raised the question, What is a hero and how do we know? Melissa Rosenberg’s Jessica Jones asks: To what extent are we free, and where can we ultimately locate moral responsibility?
The series opens with Jessica being hired by the parents of a young woman, Hope Shlottman, who has disappeared after getting into a relationship with a strange new man; it doesn’t take long for Jessica to determine that this man is Kilgrave, who had victimized her in the past, but whom she believed was dead. Jessica finds Hope, but Kilgrave has programmed her with a kind of trigger in the event that this happens: when Jessica leaves her alone, believing that she’s saved her, Hope pulls out a gun and murders her parents.
Much of the rest of the series is devoted to Jessica trying to track down Kilgrave not only to stop him, but in order to prove to a jury that Hope, now charged with murder, was not in control of her own actions when she shot her parents.
Real life is full of court cases where the defense, rightly or wrongly, argued that the person on trial was not responsible for committing the crime – from Battered Person Syndrome to sexsomnia to affluenza to gay panic. In a world where New York City is still recovering from the time a bunch of superheroes fought off an alien invasion, you wouldn’t think that “a British guy in a purple suit made me do it” would seem so ridiculous. But reasonable doubt is a vague concept, and what does it really mean not to be in control of your actions?
That’s the question that Jessica Jones persistently asks. What Melissa Rosenberg has done is framed Jessica Jones as a thirteen-hour meditation on the philosophical idea of moral luck.
Thomas Nagel, who famously asked “What is it like to be a bat?” and who more recently gave the philosophical establishment a case of collective intellectual rabies by daring to claim that the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, categorized four types of moral luck, the specific variety that’s in play here being causal moral luck. This is the idea that a large proportion of our moral decisions are determined for us by external circumstances over which we have no control whatsoever. That is to say, our choices are not indeterminate events that emerge at random from fluctuations in the ambient quantum field, but constrained not only by the circumstances at the time and place that the choice is being made but also by all the events that contributed to the formation of our decision-making process. Taking care to differentiate between the legal burden of proof for criminal responsibility and the metaphysical implications of how free will can even exist in a seemingly physically-deterministic universe, how exactly are we supposed to assign moral responsibility when everyone acknowledges that decisions are not made in a vacuum but occur within a chaotic network of childhood traumas, societal expectations, and neurochemical imbalances? The concept of agency – of the capacity for a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision – is vital in every sphere of human life and civilization; but what exactly constitutes coersion? Who determines whether or not an individual is rational?
For instance, we know, and Jessica knows, that while Hope pulled the trigger, Kilgrave is the one who really murdered Mr. and Mrs. Shlottman. Similarly, when police sergeant Will Simpson is sent by Kilgrave to kill Jessica, Jessica refuses to use lethal force against him, even to defend her own life, because she knows that it isn’t really Simpson who is trying to kill her. When Simpson comes to his senses and dedicates himself to helping track down and eliminate Kilgrave, he knows that he can’t possibly match Jessica’s superhuman strength and endurance, and so he acquires pills from a secret military experiment to augment his own abilities; the pills, though, also have the effect of greatly increasing his levels of aggression. Now, when he goes after Kilgrave, or when he eventually goes after Jessica and her adopted sister (and his own love interest) Trish Walker for getting in his way, who or what is actually responsible for his actions? When Kilgrave was controlling him, the answer was fairly cut-and-dried, but now – is it the pills? Is it Simpson, who, after all, voluntarily took them? Is it the doctor who gave them to him? The government that just won’t stop with the supersoldier programs?
These kinds of complications proliferate all throughout the series. Jessica Jones is indisputably the “good guy,” although she not infrequently makes bad choices. She’s an alcoholic, for one thing, and alcohol is a contributing factor in a lot of people doing a lot of inadvisable stuff. Similarly, her neighbour Malcolm Ducasse is a junkie, and while Jessica goes out of her way to help him, we also get the sense that she (and other characters) have more than a little contempt for him. Whether or not you subscribe to the disease model of addiction, we know right off the bat that Jessica Jones is a woman in tremendous pain who is using alcohol to self-medicate. First she lost her family in a car crash, was emotionally abused by her narcissistic adoptive mother, only to be systematically violated by a superpowered madman for more than a year. Who wouldn’t want a drink after all that? Yet we look down on Malcolm for how he’s let heroin destroy his life – until, that is, we learn that it was Kilgrave who got him hooked on the stuff in the first place, so that he’d have someone to keep an eye on Jessica even while not directly in Kilgrave’s thrall (his powers don’t work long-distance, and only persist for an average of twelve to twenty-four hours without direct contact). All of a sudden our sympathies come roaring back: Malcolm isn’t just some junkie. He’s a victim, just like Jessica.
But when Sergeant Johnson gets himself hooked on Reds, it’s also a direct result of the trauma he suffered at the hands of Kilgrave. Despite Jessica and Trish’s protests, Will needs to feel powerful again, needs to be powerful enough to help take out Kilgrave and make sure that nothing like what happened to him – and to Jessica, and to Hope Shlottman, and countless others – ever happens to anyone again. He makes the choice to take the Reds, in the sense that nobody forced him, but at the same time, was that decision really totally free?
Everything seems to be able to be laid squarely at Kilgrave’s feet, right? All the horror is his fault. Although, as he loves to point out, he’s never personally killed anybody, lots of people are dead because of him. Lots of people are suffering because of him, even though, as he says (truthfully, even), everyone who ever did anything that he told them to do fully wanted to do those things at the time. But Melissa Rosenberg is much too smart a writer to let the moral hot potato come to rest so easily in Kilgrave’s purple palms.
Kilgrave, we learn (real name, the utterly generic Kevin Thompson), was subjected as a child to long-term and extremely painful experimentation by his neuroscientist parents. These experiments were the source of his powers and also, presumably, of his absolute refusal ever to be out of control. So that’s easy, right? Kilgrave’s not really such a bad guy, he’s a survivor of trauma, just like Jessica. Except, no. When we actually meet his parents, we learn that Kevin suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that that would have left him brain-dead by the time he hit his teens. His parents, rather than torturing him for fun or for science, were trying to cure him, to save his life. Their success had horrific consequences, of course, but they thought they were doing the right thing. They knew they were making their child suffer, but they believed that they were justified in doing so. Were they? Isn’t it every parent’s responsibility to protect their child no matter what? If you can’t blame Hope Shlottman for killing her parents because she was being controlled by Kilgrave, and you can’t blame Kilgrave because he was tortured as a child by his parents, and you can’t blame his parents because they were actually trying to help him, then whom can you blame? Anyone? Ever?
(This is a fairly major departure from Kilgrave’s origin in the comics, by the way. Zebediah Killgrave (his real name, and with two L’s in this universe) was a Croatian doctor-turned-spy, accidentally exposed to a chemical that turned his skin and hair purple as well as giving him mind-controlling pheromone powers and a superhuman healing factor. The change from Zebediah into Kevin for the Netflix adaptation was not only for the sake of realism (the Netflix Marvel series, while set in the same world as the Avengers, would be less forgiving of some lavender motherfouler wandering around Hell’s Kitchen), but for legit narrative reasons – i.e. investigating these here themes – proving, just like the earlier Daredevil series (and so, I have reason to be confident, with the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist series), that Disney/Marvel/Netflix really know how to choose the right showrunners for their projects, which is quite possibly the single most important factor that can make or break high-stakes, high-concept adaptations like these. Anyway.)
“We’re not so different, you and I” is a cliché that runs through pop culture anywhere you care to look for it, and while of course Jessica Jones draws lines of moral force between its heroine and its villain, and constantly problematizes our ideas of free will and moral responsibility, it never goes for the seductively nihilistic view that since our circumstances influence our choices, we can’t be blamed for anything we do, so there’s no real way to distinguish between good guys and bad guys. Though Jessica is a victim, she’s not solely a victim, and so when she sometimes takes morally faulty actions we the audience are given permission to hold her accountable for that – acknowledging that she’s been traumatized doesn’t free her from the expectation of behaving like a grown-up. That said, her lack of moral perfection also doesn’t negate the fact that she’s still enduring the psychic fallout from having been tremendously abused. By the same token, Kilgrave also had a horrible childhood, and he genuinely does not understand that what he’s been doing to people for his entire adult life is wrong – and yet, forcing the audience to acknowledge that even bad guys do the things that they do for reasons that seem good to them (and maybe even seem good to us sometimes) doesn’t give us license to exonerate him for his many, many crimes. They’ve both had some very bad moral luck – things happened to them that they neither chose nor deserved – but it’s how they react to those events that determine who they are.
Let’s put it this way: Jessica Jones hates herself even for things that were not her fault. Kilgrave feels that what he’s endured entitles him to do anything that he pleases. Even in a world where the regression of causes is effectively infinite, as you travel back along that path there are still some weigh stations, loci of moral causality where individuals transcend their influences. These are heroes and villains: larger-than-life figures who symbolize the tension – the painful, wrought philosophical gap – between acknowledging the effect of bad moral luck on the decisions we make, and using past traumas as a shield against taking responsibility for our choices. Jessica Jones doesn’t resolve this tension. But it makes us squirm with it, which is the first vital step.