Plenty of media narratives touch on trauma and recovery nowadays, and PTSD has become a common trope. But in real life, everybody deals with trauma differently—and Marvel’s new series Jessica Jones actually shows the vast array of responses that people can have to traumatic events.
Spoilers for Jessica Jones follow.
One of the best choices the writers of Jessica Jones made was to pay full attention to the psychological effects of Kilgrave’s actions. While his ambitions are much smaller than any other Marvel villain we’ve seen so far—his only goal is, roughly, “Jessica”—his casual hijacking of people’s lives still leaves plenty of devastation in his wake.
One bit of trauma that isn’t tied explicitly tied to Kilgrave is that New York is still dealing with the attack from The Avengers. This is evident in the opinions people have over whether or not Hope’s story about a man with the power to make you do whatever he says is true or not. The reaction of “Hey, we had a bunch of special people fighting an alien invasion, so why not?” is a result of that trauma. So, too, is people’s tendencies to deny that it all could have happened.
And such is the reaction of Audrey Eastman in episode four, “AKA 99 Friends.” She comes to Jessica and hires her to find proof her husband is cheating. After having clients directed to her by Kilgrave in the first episode, Jessica is duly paranoid about her new client. But Eastman’s secret motivation has nothing to do with Kilgrave—instead, it’s the trauma of watching her mother die in Loki’s attack. Eastman ended up blaming the gifted people for everything, and is hunting them down. Her grief has become resentment and bitterness. And she’s generalized it, into an attack on the people she can find. Jessica is right when she points out that she’s trying to dump her pain on others.
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Jessica says that you don’t see her going out and hunting down every bad driver, like the one who killed her parents. And Jessica’s way of dealing with trauma is much more specific. Jessica Jones doesn’t start with Kilgrave’s initial attack on Jessica and then follow on to her revenge. It does something much better. It begins after Kilgrave raped and used her. Jessica isn’t visibly bleeding anymore, but she is clearly scarred.
First of all, this means Jessica Jones avoids fetishizing rape, at all costs. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg was very conscious of avoiding that, telling the Los Angeles Times’s Hero Complex:
With rape, I think we all know what that looks like. We’ve seen plenty of it on television and I didn’t have any need to see it, but I wanted to experience the damage that it does. I wanted the audience to really viscerally feel the scars that it leaves. It was not important to me, on any level, to actually see it. TV has plenty of that, way too often, used as titillation, which is horrifying.
Elsewhere in the interview, which is a must-read, Rosenberg says that there is a healing process but that Jessica doesn’t suddenly become a wholly different person just because she’s faced Kilgrave.
We see Jessica in a lot of phases in her life. We see flashes of her life with her parents; with another family, the Walkers, after her parents die; before Kilgrave; during; and after. And she really does have a core personality that is altered by her experiences, but she’s never unrecognizable. One flashback has her using her strength to protect Trish from her abusive mother, after saying she wasn’t going to play hero.
That’s kind of the reaction from trauma we see in the show writ large. Jessica’s initial impulse in “AKA Ladies’ Night” is to run from Kilgrave. And we find out that she’s tried to isolate herself from Trish in a similar way to what she did after her parents died.
In both cases, she ends up being unable to intervene. And then becomes fiercely protective of the person she’s now chosen to stand up for. The insidious after-effect of Kilgrave’s actions is on full display in “AKA 99 Friends.” Jessica’s constant questioning over whether her newest client was sent by Kilgrave would be paranoia, if he weren’t always out to get her. As bad as what he did was, Jessica is not in denial. Instead, she goes on the offensive with the knowledge her trauma gives her.
Kilgrave isn’t just a rapist. He’s every abusive ex-boyfriend. The way he gaslights Jessica by saying everything he’s doing is her fault is a classic abuser manipulation. His insistence that she look a certain way for him. The way he blames her for his outbursts. The stalking. Forcing her to take photos herself. Even his return is every survivor’s nightmare: finally gathering up the courage to leave, only to be hunted down. But the fact that Kilgrave can’t change who Jessica is, even if he can take over her life, is a powerful message.
In that light, Jessica’s determination to save his latest victim, Hope, from having to pay for what Kilgrave forced her to do makes total sense. Jessica’s goals are all about proving his powers are real and preventing Hope for going down for what Kilgrave made her do.
Hope’s got a completely different way of responding to her pain. Episode 6, “AKA You’re a Winner!,” has Hope trying desperately to get control of her life back from Kilgrave. She finds out she’s pregnant as a result of his rape. That, on top of being in prison because of him, is too much. She has to get rid of it, telling Jessica, “Every second it’s there, I get raped again and again; my parents are shot again and again.”
Hope’s constantly in the position of feeling like she has only bad options. She can’t see a doctor in prison in time to get an abortion, so she arranges for a beating she hopes will induce a miscarriage. It’s a relief when Jessica and Jeri are able to actually get her access to a real medical solution.
Hope’s always trying to claw back her agency at any costs. She tells her story on Trish’s show, only for her own lawyer to call it a delusion. She finally gets out of jail, only for Kilgrave to kidnap her again. She honestly feels like she’ll never have her life back, so she kills herself in order to free Jessica up to kill Kilgrave. Jessica’s story says that trauma doesn’t have to completely change you. Hope’s reminds us that not everyone can see a way free of the darkness.
Trish is also dealing with her own baggage. There’s her mother, the ultimate stage mom who forced her to work at a young age. Who cared more about appearances—forcing bulimia on Trish, taking Jessica in for the good press, and taking Trish’s name away from her to create the “Patsy” brand. With Jessica’s help, Trish is able to establish her own identity and turning into “Trish Talks.”
Trish’s distaste whenever anyone brings up her childhood fame is a result of the scars that her mother left. But even though she’s visibly unhappy about it, she doesn’t begrudge her fans. Like Jessica, whatever pain she’s been through has made her who she is.
Trish has also dealt with feeling useless in the face of what happened to Jessica by training in martial arts and installing a security system the Pentagon would call overkill in her apartment. Trish has redirected her pain into self-improvement at every turn.
There are a score of Kilgrave victims in Jessica Jones. Will Simpson is sent to kill Trish, and is overcome with remorse for it. He’s initially great, talking through everything with Trish through her door, and he becomes an expert ally for Jessica’s crusade against Kilgrave. Like Jessica, his experience has convinced him to go after Kilgrave. While Jessica’s interested in exonerating his victims through a confession, Simpson just wants him dead. Jessica actually did kill at Kilgrave’s request, so her sympathies lie with making sure that Hope and the others know it’s not their fault. For his part, Simpson was stopped by Jessica, so his only concern is making sure that it never happens again. It’s a fundamental difference in experience and philosophy, that forces these allies apart. (Or it should have, if it had been handled with a bit more grace.)
We have Malcolm, whom Kilgrave turned into an addict in order to control him when he wasn’t close enough to use his powers. The reveal that the confused but mostly harmless Malcolm had been Kilgraved is one of the major twists in the show, and so is the bomb that Malcolm was on the path to become a social worker when Kilgrave got to him—this shows us that he was always determined to help others. And even though Kilgrave ruined that plan, Malcolm channels his pain into running the support group for Kilgrave’s victims and into being Jessica’s friend. He believes she is the best person to handle Kilgrave, so he uses his experience to help her.
The existence of the support group is another way this show acknowledges that healing is an ongoing process. None of these people are fine in the next episode, the way they might be on another show. They have to keep working on dealing with their pain. And some of them are easily led into blaming Jessica, who is a convenient target. Unfortunately, that means they also buy into the lies about her that Kilgrave is spinning.
The ones who go after Jessica are led by Robyn, whose brother is killed by Kilgrave in Jessica’s apartment. And Malcolm helps cover it up and lies to her. Robyn is obnoxious throughout the series. She’s the loud neighbor we all hate. She’s controlling towards her brother, and she seems like a bully. But she’s honestly devastated by the death of her brother. But Robyn never stops thinking about herself. She doesn’t listen to Malcolm, who tries to help. So she releases Kilgrave, and ends up in a noose because of it.
The closest she gets to character growth is being convinced to lie about Kilgrave, Hope’s suicide, and the nooses her Jessica attack party had been in. Robyn never becomes likable, but you empathize with her grief. The scene when she opens the last package her brother received, and cries about not letting him get expedited shipping is really well done. Her pain doesn’t suddenly make her pals with Jessica and Malcolm, but it does make her more sympathetic.
Finally, there’s Kilgrave himself. In a less complex story, learning about Kilgrave’s background would make him less villainous. We see him going through painful procedures at the hands of his parents, and they never seem willing to give him the kind of affection a child needs.
What we then find out is that his parents, for all their faults, were trying to save Kilgrave from a fatal disease. And that the cure also gave him his powers, after which his childhood demands and tantrums turned them into his slaves. So they ran when they could.
Kilgrave refuses to learn anything from that experience, other than that he should get whatever he wants. He doesn’t grow up or give up. He uses what he went through as an excuse when he thinks he can get away with it.
Jessica Jones is a brilliant look at what it’s like to live with trauma. Everyone’s essential character is tempered by their pain, but their different personalities explain the vast range of reactions they have to their experiences. Some blame the wrong people, and are consumed by misguided “revenge.” Jessica uses it motivate her heroics. Hope grasps at the few things in her life that she still has control over. Trish gets smarter and stronger. Malcolm becomes more caring. Robyn stays mean but becomes sympathetic. Jessica Jones delves into a complicated area to often glossed over by other media: what it means to survive, who does it, and how.
Images via Screencapped
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