Jessica Jones’ finale soars by shirking superhero conventions

Jessica Jones’ finale soars by shirking superhero conventions

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Jessica Jones

"AKA Smile"

Season 1 , Episode 13

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Hero. Villain. Good. Evil. Kilgrave says these types of labels are reductive in “AKA Smile,” and it’s one of the rare instances in this series where he’s actually right. In reality, people don’t fall so easily into one camp or the other. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and everyone has their own individual circumstances that are directly influenced by the good and/or bad people around them. But superhero narratives aren’t reality. They’re escapist fantasy, and for a significant part of the superhero genre’s history, an essential aspect of that fantasy was maintaining a strong dichotomy between heroes and villains.

This black-and-white morality dominated the Golden and Silver Ages of superhero comics, but more shades of gray began to appear in the Bronze Age as plots became darker and more socially conscious. The moral distinctions were blurred further in the Modern Age with the rise of antiheroes in the grim and gritty comics of the late ’80s and ’90s, marking a major shift in the style of superhero storytelling as heroes became increasingly flawed and damaged and villains gained extra dimension. That’s the superhero climate that Jessica Jones emerged from, and while she definitely wasn’t a villain in Alias, she also wasn’t the typical hero.

Jessica was a normal person who had gained superpowers, tried the costumed crimefighter life, and quit after being deeply traumatized by her experience. Struggling with the psychological wounds left by Purple Man’s abuse and unable to return to the person she was before, Jessica became a private investigator, giving her the opportunity to help people without drawing the unwanted attention a superhero costume brings. While comic-book Jessica did eventually get back into her Jewel costume during her time as a New Avenger, many years after the conclusion of Alias, her costumed identity has always been secondary to her civilian one, and Jessica Jones doesn’t try to change that.

Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones’ final episode has its main character completing a hero’s journey, but the destinations are completely different for the two figures. That distinction is clear in the shows’ titles: Matt Murdock’s journey ends with him becoming Daredevil, whereas Jessica Jones’ journey ends with her reclaiming her own agency as Jessica Jones. I had issues with the conclusion of Daredevil and felt the show lost depth and style as it shifted away from gritty crime noir to a more traditional superhero mode, but Jessica Jones doesn’t have that same problem because there’s no superhero endpoint that Jessica needs to reach. The superhero elements get stronger in the last two episodes of Jessica Jones as Kilgrave’s powers are amplified and Jessica and Luke have a superpowered brawl, but the show never makes that jump into full-on superhero series the way Daredevil does.

After last scripting the pilot, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is back in the writer’s seat with “AKA Smile,” co-writing the teleplay with Scott Reynolds (who co-writes the story with Jamie King). The pilot took a lot of inspiration from the first issue of Alias, and the season finale takes a lot of inspiration from the final issues of Alias. While he never takes on the name Purple Man, Kilgrave becomes a purple man when Albert injects him with a serum that dramatically increases his powers while giving him giant protruding purple veins, and Kilgrave’s fantasy of what he’s going to do to Jessica when he has her back in his control is very similar to what Purple Man actually did to Jessica in the comics. The final action sequence where Kilgrave commands a group of people to try and kill each other is also pulled straight from Alias, and while it effectively shows how monstrous Kilgrave is, the villain becomes less captivating as his affection for Jessica is replaced by an urge to see her dead.

David Tennant plays that bloodthirsty aspect of the character very well, but Kilgrave is far more intriguing when his actions are motivated by a twisted mutation of love rather than hatred. At the same time, I understand why the writers have taken the character in this direction, and Kilgrave’s change reflects the way affection can turn to loathing when an abuser can no longer maintain control over a victim. All of Kilgrave’s talk about love earlier was an effort to get Jessica back under his power, and when he was unable to convince her, that superficial love was replaced by real contempt. There’s a point in the series where the writers want the viewer to have some small glimmer of empathy for Kilgrave, but that’s no longer a priority once Kilgrave escapes his glass prison. From that point on, Kilgrave is depicted as a remorseless force of evil, making it easier to accept the inevitable moment when Jessica kills him by snapping his neck.

There’s a nice sense of symmetry between the first and last episodes of Jessica Jones. Both episodes feature voiceover narration from Jessica, which helps reestablish the crime noir sensibility going into “AKA Smile,” and the final shot of the season is a visual callback to Jessica destroying her door in the pilot. The difference between Daredevil and Jessica Jones’ endings are highlighted in the shows’ final shots: Daredevil ends with Matt Murdock in full Daredevil body armor leaping into action from a rooftop while an orchestra blares triumphantly in the background, a tableau that should be familiar to most superhero fans. Jessica Jones ends with Jessica sitting at her desk ignoring a phone call from one of the many new people looking for her help, staring blankly ahead as the camera creeps away from her, moving down the hallway and through the hole in the door to frame Jessica inside the frame of the broken Alias Investigations sign.

Rather than an orchestra, there’s a mournful jazz trumpet underscoring Jessica’s internal monologue, which paints a very different image of a hero than Daredevil’s closing image. “Maybe it’s enough that the world thinks I’m a hero,” Jessica says. “Maybe if I work long, and hard, maybe I can fool myself.” Jessica saved the day, but she still has more work to do if she’s going to save herself. She’s still dealing with the guilt of what she did to Luke, and she’s received no closure with him. She’s still dealing with the guilt of her unwitting role in Kilgrave’s manipulation and murder of others, and she’s not feeling victorious after murdering Kilgrave with her bare hands. She’s been surrounded by pain and death for too long, and that hole in her door is a symbol for the psychological and emotional damage caused by all of her trauma.

Guilt has been weighing down on Jessica for this entire series, which may be why Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple ends up crossing Jessica’s path in “AKA Smile.” Claire appears to have a magnetic attraction to superpowered people with guilty consciences, and while it’s awfully convenient that Claire is the nurse pulled in to help an unconscious Luke, I can excuse the coincidence because Dawson is such a great addition to the episode. The banter between Claire and Jessica provides a refreshing respite from the tension of the opening sequence where nurses and doctors are trying to figure out how to treat a man with unbreakable skin that has suffered severe damage to the head, and Dawson and Ritter play so well off each other that I wish the writers had found a way to get Dawson on the show sooner and more frequently.

The appearance of Claire is this show’s only substantial crossover with Daredevil, and it’s appropriate that the non-powered Claire would be the character that bridges the various Netflix series. These shows are much more grounded than Marvel’s big-screen offerings, and I like the idea that the superheroes in Hell’s Kitchen overlap via other citizens in the community rather than immediately meeting face-to-face. Paul Tassi’s Forbes piece on Jessica Jones’ connection to the larger MCU has some very valid criticisms about the limitations placed on Marvel’s TV properties (specifically the Netflix series) by having them share a universe with the films, but I think both Daredevil and Jessica Jones benefit from their street-level perspectives of a fantastic world. I can excuse the absence of Avengers characters on the Netflix shows easier than I can on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. because these narratives have a much smaller scale, and I don’t expect Captain America to stop Kilgrave because he’s dealing with problems on an international level.

The influence of the greater MCU is felt in both Netflix series, but it’s felt in a much more personal way, one that mirrors the evolution of superhero narratives over the past century. Daredevil looks at how collateral damage from superhero battles can have long-lasting ramifications on a community, and Jessica Jones offers a story that focuses on a woman trying to be a normal person despite having extraordinary abilities. In the case of Jessica Jones, superpowers are used as a metaphor to explore white male privilege and surviving sexual abuse and PTSD, and it’s been an intriguing new approach to the genre.

I’ve seen complaints about police and lawyers not believing that Kilgrave can control minds when they live in a world where an alien armada attacked New York City, but I think that also ties into the overall themes of this series. An alien attack is something huge and cataclysmic, and something that demands an immediate, public response. If there’s a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, you can expect swift, aggressive action to be taken by the government and law enforcement, but you’re not going to see that kind of force and speed when the attack is more personal and private in nature and committed by someone in a position of power.

I’m writing this review as major developments unfold in the Bill Cosby sexual assault scandal, and I can’t help but see parallels between Cosby and Kilgrave. There are huge differences between Cosby and Kilgrave—Cosby is a black man and a public figure whereas Kilgrave is a white man that operates in private—but they both come from a place of privilege that has allowed them to avoid the consequences of their (alleged) actions. 55 women have accused Cosby of drugging and/or sexually assaulting them, and yesterday an arrest warrant was issued for Cosby for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, a former employee of Cosby’s alma mater Temple University. New charges were called against Cosby after a 2005 deposition went public this past summer, revealing that Cosby had admitted to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women that he wanted to have sex with, and that at least one woman had been given the drug.

That warrant comes 10 years after that deposition. Now think about how much the U.S. government did in the 10 years after the September 11th attacks. Imagine if politicians and law enforcement officials dedicated that much time and those kinds of resources to putting measures in place to prevent and punish sexual abuse? I watched the movie Spotlight earlier this week, which is another grim reminder of how sexual abuse is swept under the table in America, this one focusing on the history of child abuse in the Catholic church, specifically in Boston. That movie doesn’t end with a coda detailing the changes in policy made by the Catholic church; it ends with an summary of just how widespread the problem is, and how little has been done to fix it.

That’s the culture that prevents the police in Jessica Jones from believing an eloquent, well-dressed white man like Kilgrave could be mind-controlling people into doing his bidding, whether it’s committing crimes for him or satisfying his sexual desire. That’s the culture this series is attacking, a culture that expects Jessica to smile and pretend like nothing is wrong when she knows just how fucked up everything really is. Believing that he finally has Jessica under his control in this episode’s climactic moment, Kilgrave asks her one last time to smile, and she does, but it’s not to satisfy him. It’s to fool him, to put him in a position of vulnerability so she can get her hands on his neck, and there’s genuine happiness behind her smile because she knows what is about to come.

The smile was a symbol of Jessica’s submissiveness for so long that Kilgrave never thinks that it could be a reflection of her strength, and she flashes it to him just before she kills him. She reclaims her smile back from Kilgrave in the final moments of their relationship, but that doesn’t mean she’s happy now, which is a victory in its own way. She’s not suddenly a beacon of joy now that Kilgrave is gone, and she’s allowed to feel sad and guilty and confused. It’s her right to experience those emotions, and by the end of the series, Jessica Jones gains the freedom to live her life without a man dictating how she should feel. It’s not necessarily a happy life, but it’s hers again.

Stray observations

  • Claire Temple had a delightful guest appearance in last week’s Sam Wilson: Captain America #4, where she showed up to help Sam Wilson and new character Joaquin Torres with their recent transformations into human-animal hybrids. If you haven’t been reading Sam Wilson, it’s a lot of fun while also being an intensely politically charged superhero title.
  • Great use of music to build up the tension when Trish walks into the train station disguised as Jessica. Sleigh Bells makes music that is empowering but also unsettling, and I think that’s the perfect mix for this scene. It sells the idea that Trish-as-Jess is a total badass, and sets up the big explosion of action to come when the music drops out and Jessica’s plan is revealed.
  • Trish really should have invested in more heavy-duty ear protection than Beats headphones. A pair of back-up earplugs would have been helpful too.
  • Between Luke Cage getting a needle in his eye and Albert getting his arms sawed off and blended, this is an especially grisly and gory episode. I don’t much care for that aspect of the Netflix Marvel shows.
  • Jeri’s returns briefly to represent Jessica after the police arrest her for killing Kilgrave. Things have not been going well for her, and that’s exactly what she deserves.
  • Making fun of the name Kilgrave has been fun, but “Snuffcarcass” is a bit of a stretch.
  • “I want everything to be my fault. Good or bad. Means I have some control.”
  • “You’re in total control. You’re responsible for all of this and I blame you.”
  • “Fortunately for you, we’re already in a hospital, so when I rip your tongue from your skull, it will be a short trip.”
  • “Oh, for god’s sake. It’s Patsy!”