The Devil Made Her Do It: Culpability and Pardon in Jessica Jones

Another fiscal quarter, another Marvel property hits the airwaves. Not that that’s a bad thing–I […]

Bryan J. / 12.2.15

Another fiscal quarter, another Marvel property hits the airwaves. Not that that’s a bad thing–I quite enjoy the Cinematic Universe, especially as it embraces the less heroic side of comic book lore. Daredevil, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy are favorites from the recent past, and so a Thanksgiving binge with Jessica Jones was an easy choice. Thirteen episodes later, and my wife and I were impressed: the show is well written, with stellar performances from Kristen Ritter (Jessie Pinkman’s girlfriend in Breaking Bad) as titular character and David Tennant (Broadchurch, Dr. Who) as the show’s supervillain. To get the pun out of the way, we’re “Jonesin” for a season two. More than that, though, Jessica Jones is a show that embraces the very real complexities of trauma and grief–a unique addition to the Marvel Universe, and to TV itself.

Netflix-Jessica-Jones-Official-TrailerHere’s the spoiler free reason why the show might be worth your consideration: Jessica Jones is a superheroine already acquainted with defeat. Although gifted with super strength, regenerative abilities, and (in some story lines) flight, her initial attempts at hero-dom are foiled. Fighting bad guys under the moniker “Jewel,” Jones is defeated by The Purple Man, Zebediah Kilgrave, whose power is mind control. For some months, Jones is reduced to Kilgrave’s superhero slave girlfriend, a prisoner to his every spoken command. After escaping his clutches, Jones experiences traumatic breakdown. She gives up the superhero life, opens a Private Investigations business, and becomes an alcoholic. What good is a hero do once she’s defeated? Jones is trying to find out.

Here’s a spoiler-riffic (and trigger-riffic) reason why the show might be worth your consideration: Jones has to face Kilgrave again, and the Kilgrave of Netflix is one of the most terrifying and complex super-villains to inhabit the Marvel universe. His mind control abilities gave the writers a way to explore sins as old as the garden of Eden: misogyny and abuse. You might even say that Jessica Jones is a 13 episode parable of relationship abuse and the fallout that occurs when “the Devil made me do it.” Except this devil has ditched the pitchfork and red horns for a designer suit of purple gabardine.

Kilgrave uses his powers to wield complete and total control over his target. Any command he shares out loud is immediately obeyed. Yet it’s not the body responding to his verbal demands–it’s the will. Victims of Kilgrave’s speech commands are overwhelmed by their desire to hand over their jacket, clean his apartment, murder, or commit suicide. They want to do whatever Kilgrave says.

In this way, Kilgrave commands Jessica to kill for him, he commands her to sleep with him (which the show correctly deems rape), he even commands her to smile. Unlike the world-conquering Hydra, the greedy Yellowjacket, or the blindly jealous Ultron, Kilgrave is a villain with an obvious non-comic parallel: the abusive ex on a mission for revenge.

Jessica defeats Kilgrave, but she cannot defeat her own trauma from the experience. The show takes her PTSD very seriously, as it does for every victim of Kilgrave’s mind control, e.g., showing us a Kilgrave survivors group, where those who have been overtaken by Kilgrave’s power can share and receive reassurances from fellow sufferers. It was one of my favorite of the show’s subplots.

wpid-us_vertical-kilgrave-banner.jpgThe question posed by these all sufferers is profound: if I was under the mind control of Kilgrave, am I still guilty for the offense? For example, Jones’s neighbor Malcolm became addicted to drugs at Kilgrave’s command. Malcolm eventually confesses: some days he helped the villain because of the promise of drugs, not because of mind control. Another victim was forced to be Kilgrave’s chauffeur for a two week period, leaving his two-year-old alone on the curb. He now faces charges of child neglect. The great secret of the show is that Jessica Jones killed Luke Cage’s wife at Kilgrave’s command. Is Jessica responsible for her death? Remember–Kilgrave’s words affect a person’s will, not their body. That question of responsibility lies at the heart of Jessica’s trauma.

Forgiveness–or more accurately, absolution–is the great motivator of the show, the carrot at the end of a stick of guilt and shame. Remember Good Will Hunting? Remember when Robin Williams’s therapist Sean confronts Matt Daemon’s Will about being physically abused by his foster parents? “It’s not your fault! It’s not your fault!” These words of deliverance are the words that every character in Jessica Jones is desperate to hear. Jones wants to be absolved of murder, just as teen mind-control victim Hope wants to be absolved of killing her parents. Former child star Trish needs deliverance from the abuse of her mother, cop Will Simpson needs absolution for leading his buddies into a trap. Kilgrave, in true villainous fashion, refuses to accept any culpability in his deeds. “I haven’t killed anybody,” he insists throughout the show, while coercing others to murder on his behalf. It’s terrifying to watch him shift the blame for his reign of terror.

The show’s writers tease out the cast’s hope for forgiveness. Malcolm receives a word of forgiveness from Robyn for lying about her twin brother’s death. The support group offers each other reassurances of pardon. Trish offers Will Simpson a word of forgiveness after his Kilgrave-fueled almost-murder. There are even attempts at forgiveness between Kilgrave and his abusive parents. In fact, the heaviest and most dramatic moment of the show is when Jessica finds out that the clemency she receives from Luke Cage isn’t as solid as she was led to believe (I almost cried at this part!).

In Jessica Jones, both Kilgrave’s coerced victims and uncoerced sinners seek a word of pardon, a final vindication. It’s no different from real life either- victims and victimizers are looking for the same thing on this side of the TV screen. Whether the Devil made us do it, or whether we came up with it ourselves, the need for full clemency, a 100% pardon with no strings attached, is universal. Gratefully, life outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe provides an opportunity for such clemency, straight from the mouth of history’s great anti-hero. There is a source of mercy for those who “do what they don’t want to do.” Take it away, St. Paul:

20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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