It could be argued that Jessica Jones is at its strongest when it embraces its status as an anti-superhero story.
The weakest points in the first season come when Jessica Jones embraces its superhero elements too readily, like when AKA Crush Syndrome or AKA It’s Called Whiskey fixated upon the idea of Kilgrave’s “weakness” as if Jessica is going to pull a glowing purple rock out of her pocket that will solve everything or when AKA 99 Friends made a point to tie the show into the events of The Avengers. This is not a show that lends itself to those sorts of superhero conventions.
Instead, Jessica Jones works best when it ignores many of the more common tropes of the genre. Kilgrave is particularly creepy for the fact that he doesn’t want to rule the world or destroy New York. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are more interesting for the fact that they cannot be reduced to a series of cause-and-effect chain of consequence. These are real and messy lives that just happen to exist in a world full of giant green rage monsters and Norse deities. The juxtaposition is part of the appeal.
In that respect, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me plays as something of a gleefully subversive origin story. It exists primarily as a negative space, a story that rejects enough of the preconceived notions of superhero tales that it fosters a compelling dissonance.
A lot of superhero stories can boiled down to trauma. Not all of them, of course. Some superhero origins tend to assume that people are basically decent and that those entrusted with great power would want to use that power to make the world safer in what little way they could. Superman might have lost his home planet, but that trauma does not motivate him to do good. The X-Men might be traumatised by the hatred they experience at the hands of humanity, but they are heroes in spite of that trauma rather than because of it.
Nevertheless, audiences have come to expect formative trauma to exist as part of their superhero stories. The story suggests that Batman was created the night that Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne were gunned down by Joseph Chill in a dark alleyway. Peter Parker only really became Spider-Man when the death of Uncle Ben taught him that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Tony Stark built his suit of armour to keep him alive, and some versions suggest he heroism is driven by conscience. The Hulk is quite literally Bruce Banner’s repressed trauma.
The story beats are relatively familiar. Even Daredevil goes through that archetypal chain of cause-and-effect in explaining Matt Murdock’s issues and abilities. Using this logic, superhero origins can become a game of mad-libs into which any number of traumas might be substituted, a rather simplistic bit of pop psychology that serves as background material for a whole host of exciting adventures. Make your own superhero; all you need is a formative trauma and some mysterious (preferably radioactive) chemicals. The chemicals are optional.
Of course, this is all very reductive. The sad fact of the world is that countless children have lost their parents to urban crime without dedicating their lives to pursuit of justice in a really cool cape. As many great Batman writers have pointed out, there had to be something fundamentally different about Bruce Wayne to begin with. Would he have actually lived a happy life if Thomas and Martha Wayne had lived? As Grant Morrison has pointed out, Bruce was really lucky that a bat happened to fly through his window that fateful night.
The simplicity is the point. Superhero stories work very well as allegories or metaphor. What is Superman but the literal embodiment of the American Dream, the idea that an immigrant could come to America from anywhere and make something of himself? What is Batman but the representation of gothic urban anxiety? The stories play best as abstract contracts that allow for fantastical explorations of mundane concepts. After all, nobody with Kilgrave’s powers actually exists, but plenty of people like Kilgrave do.
Nevertheless, audiences expect a certain tidiness to superhero stories. There is something of a conveyor belt quality to these origins. People go along the line, experience some trauma, and emerge the other side as superheroes. The idea seems to be that people go into the trauma relatively normal, and emerge with issues through which they must work in order to become the strongest version of themselves that they could possibly be. AKA The Sandwich Saved Me is very much a rejection of that storytelling model.
“There’s before Kilgrave and there’s after Kilgrave,” Jessica narrates as she explores the sad life of Malcolm. He was a social activist, but Kilgrave turned him into a junkie. “He was an addict waiting to happen,” Kilgrave insists, but it seems like simple justification. Kilgrave used drugs as a means to control Malcolm and to ensure that he could spy on Jessica. This very nearly killed Malcolm. It didn’t make him stronger. Although Malcolm recovers over the rest of the season, there is never a sense that he completely heals.
Jessica cannot pin all of her own issues on the trauma she experienced at the hands of Kilgrave. Kilgrave did not make her the person that she is today. The opening scene of AKA The Sandwich Saved Me establishes that Jessica was a socially maladjusted dysfunctional borderline alcoholic even before she encountered Kilgrave. She was prone to blackmailing her boss, picking fights at bars and was not doing anything particularly worthwhile with her life. Jessica was a mess before fate brought her into Kilgrave’s orbit.
Of course, Jessica’s experiences with Kilgrave did serve to enhance and increase these anti-social tendencies. The flashbacks in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me suggest that Jessica was more comfortable with Trish before she fell under Kilgrave’s influence. Jessica conducted her drinking at nicer bars, and didn’t seem to get drunk at work. (She just stole Diet Coke from the commissary.) Nevertheless, there is no clear “cause-and-effect” that can be drawn between Jessica’s worst tendencies and her experiences with Kilgrave. She was hardly happy beforehand.
Jessica did not even want to become a superhero. Again, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me makes it clear that Jessica did not immediately put on spandex upon gaining her powers. After all, wearing a silly costume and fighting evil is hardly a sane idea, no matter how many superhero origin stories might insist upon the point. Jessica gained her powers in childhood, and did not decide to become a hero until many years later. AKA The Sandwich Saved Me makes it clear that being a superhero is Trish’s dream; it is not necessarily a healthy one.
No, she isn’t, which is incredibly fun to write. The original source material was written by Brian Michael Bendis, and he drew such an incredibly complex, deeply flawed character. The kind of character that he initially introduced was very much along the lines of the characters in television that I had been loving but were written pretty exclusively for white men: Tony Sopranos and Walter White and Dexter, even, or Vic Mackey, these very deeply flawed, interesting, sometimes morally ambiguous characters. I’d been dying to do the female version of that forever.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that Breaking Bad is actually a five-season supervillain origin story, but the point stands. Those characters generally have a psychology more complex than a linear sequence of events.
There is an endearing ambiguity to the way that Jessica Jones engages with its title character’s superhero career. While Daredevil frontloaded a lot of its origin stuff, only holding back on Nelson v. Murdock until towards the end of the season, Jessica Jones is never too keen to reduce the eponymous character’s psychology to a simple chain of cause and effect. This reflects the source material upon which the television show is based. Alias opened after Jessica Jones had already retired. The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones was the penultimate arc of the twenty-eight issue run.
Melissa Rosenberg is highly faithful to the original comic book by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, allowing for the realities of pragmatic adaptation. In particular, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me manages to work in affectionate references to Jessica Jones’ superhero costume and code name. “Jewel is a great superhero name,” Trish vehemently insists. “Jewel is a stripper name,” Jessica responds. “A really slutty stripper.” Both Rosenberg and Bendis are generally disinterested in a simplistic or reductive origin of Jessica Jones.
AKA The Sandwich Saved Me might look like an origin story, but it is very much an anti-origin story. It exists to occupy a lot of the story beats that audiences expect from an origin story (costume! decision to do good! trauma!) but refuses to fit them into a simplistic psychological narrative for the lead character. The linking clauses are missing. The episode never offers a simple linear “because…” or “as a result…” Jessica Jones was a complex character before her decision to become a hero and before her encounter with Kilgrave. She remains complex after.
Indeed, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me emphasises its ambiguity. In conversation with Simpson, Trish refuses to reduce Jessica to a set of clearly defined powers and abilities. “Did she get her powers in that accident?” Simpson asks Trish. “What exactly can she do?” The show never answers those questions explicitly or exclusively. Indeed, Luke and Jessica emphasised that they had no real knowledge of the limits of their powers, because these things don’t come with an instruction booklet. “You won’t find that on Wikipedia,” quips Trish.
It seems more than likely that Jessica gained her powers in the car accident, even though the characters never explicitly confirm it. Even when AKA I’ve Got the Blues flashes back to Jessica’s childhood, the script is careful to suggest that Jessica was antisocial even before the accident. Also Jessica’s power seems to include super-strength and jumping, the script never puts exact scientific limitations upon those abilities. Jessica is more than just a collection of superhero stats. She is a person, and people don’t come with clearly defined origin stories.
Later in the season, AKA WWJD and AKA Sin Bin go to great lengths to something similar with Kilgrave’s past history. Those episodes allow Kilgrave to construct a self-serving narrative of childhood trauma, only to insist things were never that simple. Those episodes reject the equivalent Freudian causation frequently associated with supervillain origin stories. Indeed, having Daredevil as a companion series works out very well. Daredevil is an effective distillation of many of these tropes, providing a clear contrast to Jessica Jones‘ subversion of them.
AKA The Sandwich Saved Me suggests that people do not necessarily respond to trauma in the way that audiences might have been conditioned to expect. Both Trish and Simpson were violated by Kilgrave, but AKA The Sandwich Saved Me makes a point to feature Trish and Simpson engaging in some very enthusiastic and energetic sex. While both Trish and Simpson might have been hurt by what happened, they are not solely defined by it. (Cleverly, it is initially frames so it looks like Trish is having a nightmare.) Responses to trauma are not always what we expect.
AKA The Sandwich Saved Me also marks a point at which Jessica Jones begins to feel a bit more comfortable with its set-up and pay-off structure. There are still some bumps along the way, of course. Kilgrave’s “capture and escape” at the climax of AKA The Sandwich Saved Me is the first of three times that Jessica has Kilgrave dead to rights only for him to slip away. Indeed, Kilgrave will spend significant stretches of AKA You’re a Winner! and AKA Top Shelf Perverts waiting for the other characters to catch up with him.
Nevertheless, the set-up feels more essential here. Having spent two episodes explaining that Kilgrave is vulnerable to sedatives, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me offers more solid threads that will pay off later. Jeri’s need for Jessica to dig up information on her soon-to-be-ex-wife becomes a motivator that drives Jeri’s arc across the rest of the year. Although Kilgrave evades the hyperbolic chamber in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, he ends up trapped in it in AKA Sin Bin. Even the Hope plot threads in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me pay off in thematic and plot terms.
AKA The Sandwich Saved Me also touches on the idea of Kilgrave as creepy outside of his powers of persuasion. The flashback scene with Jessica and Trish at the bar demonstrates that guys do not need superpowers to be supercreepy. Hassling women drinking at a bar is questionable enough (“while that’s an amazing offer, I’m kinda busy right now”), these are professional men who consider it entirely appropriate to bring up their masturbation habits in casual conversation.
Jessica Jones is packed with examples of that low-level background sexism, of the kind of crap that happens everyday and isn’t governed by human resources guidebooks or proven in employee tribunals. Simpson is very much the embodiment of confident masculinity. He is careful not to come across as a sexist douchebag in conversation with Trish or Jessica, but there is a marked difference between the attitude that Simpson adopts towards Trish and the healthier dynamic between Luke and Jessica.
During planning, Simpson implicitly objects to involving Trish in the planned abduction of Kilgrave, despite the fact that she is familiar with Kilgrave and her hand-to-hand combat, not to mention the fact that she’d essentially be operating support. “Trish is the driver?” he asks. He insists, “One of my boys from my old unit will drive.” Indeed, Simpson makes repeated reference to his “boys.” Simpson is smart enough to concede the argument. “You’re right, I’m out of line. I’m sorry.” However, he keeps needling, particularly with Jessica.
“I don’t need you,” Jessica states, which seems a fair point given her super strength and familiarity with Kilgrave. Rather than explain his position or offer his experience, Simpson just responds, “Yes, you do.” Trish is the most level-headed of the three, splitting the difference. “No, she doesn’t,” Trish agrees with Jessica. While it might be nice to have somebody with Simpson’s experience along, Jessica doesn’t need him. At the very least, which Simpson never acknowledges, he needs her more. (It is worth contrasting this with Luke’s “good for you” in AKA You’re a Winner!)
None of this is explicitly sexist in the way that Kilgrave is explicitly sexist, but there is an ambient background-level of sexism to it. “A woman running an unconscious man through Union Square to a van,” Simpson muses of Jessica’s plan. “Pretty conspicuous.” He adds, “Somebody might try to stop you.” He acts as if those would not be concerns for a man who lacks super strength and the ability to jump great distances. As Jessica points out, she is the more physically capable of the two. However, Simpson still repeatedly objects.
Simpson embodies a particularly stereotypically masculine response to trauma, the idea that violence is best met with more violence. “A bullet to the head is more effective,” Simpson exists. “Not for the girl sitting in prison,” Jessica responds. It is quite clear that Simpson does not really care about Hope Slottman. Instead, he just wants to avenge himself upon a man who hurt him. Jessica has to call him out on this when he suggests torturing a captive bodyguard. “Come terms with this guy. That means serve and protect. You’re a cop, Simpson. Remember?”
Simpson is almost a parody of hypermasculinity. With his sunglasses, he looks like a poor man’s Steve Rogers, a fact emphasised by the quick shot of the little kid wearing the Captain America uniform in the park. In his own way, Simpson is just playing the stereotypical masculine hero. “He’ll see you coming,” Jessica warns Simpson about Kilgrave. With absolute unquestioning and foolhardy conviction, Simpson boasts, “He won’t see me.” Of course, it turns out that Kilgrave literally does see him coming.
Then again, this is arguably an example of Kilgrave’s insidious influence. One of the shrewder aspects of Kilgrave’s portrayal across the first season of Jessica Jones is the idea that Kilgrave’s powers are just a representation of his more insideous tendencies. Kilgrave’s power over people, and the evil he represents, reaches much deeper than just his mind control with a twelve-hour time limit. Kilgrave is still affecting Simpson, to the point where it seems like Simpson has almost forgotten who he was. He is no longer protecting and serving, but avenging.
Kilgrave is able to maintain a hold over Jessica and Malcolm, despite the distance between them. Kilgrave knows that Malcolm will be away from him for more than twelve hours at a time, so Kilgrave concocts a plan to addict Malcolm to drugs in order to ensure his control. Jessica’s investigation suggests that Kilgrave spent quite some time preparing Malcolm for this mission. Kilgrave is also able to use Malcolm as leverage to force Jessica to obey him, despite the fact that she is very much out of his reach. “Send a picture, save the junkie.”
AKA The Sandwich Saved Me represents something of a turn in the general arc of the season, the point at which the show begins consciously building towards its sustained emotional peak. After the first few episodes struggled a bit with setting up and paying off plot points, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me begins to build a momentum that will sustain the show through AKA 1,000 Cuts. There are some minor problems along the way, but this is the start of the strongest run of the season.