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Jessica Jones – AKA You’re a Winner! (Review)

AKA You’re a Winner! is certainly a much better standalone episode than AKA 99 Friends.

Of course, the episode is tied more tightly into the arc of the season around. Although AKA You’re a Winner! does little to advance Jessica’ on-going pursuit of Kilgrave, it does allow the show to advance many of its individual character plots. In particular, it allows Jessica and Luke a bit of space to advance their own plot while Hope Slottman deals with the consequences of her trauma and while Kilgrave begins to enact his own endgame. There is a sense of pieces moving around a chessboard, but moving with purpose.


Despite the fact that AKA You’re a Winner! is less literally tied to the hunt for Kilgrave than AKA Crush Syndrome or AKA It’s Called Whiskey, it feels like it adds substantial more momentum to the on-going plot. The middle stretch of Jessica Jones represents the point at which the show has the clearest sense of drive and identity, the point at which the show is most comfortable in its own skin. AKA You’re a Winner! is a relatively light character-driven piece than the episodes around it, but it retains a firm grasp of the characters involved.

AKA You’re a Winner! feels like the kind of episode that Jessica Jones should have employed earlier in the season.


Jessica Jones is a fascinating and multi-faceted character. Melissa Rosenberg has likened Jessica to iconic anti-heroes like Tony Soprano or Walter White. That is perhaps a bit of a stretch; Jessica lacks the extremes of their moral ambiguity. While it even applying the label “anti-hero” rather than “villain” to characters like Tony White or Walter White is highly debatable, Jessica Jones is very clearly a hero. Indeed, the central conflict of Jessica Jones is not whether Jessica is really or a hero or not; it is the question of whether Jessica will embrace her heroism.

Jessica was unwilling to abandon Hope Slottman in AKA Ladies’ Night, even though she knew the danger that Kilgrave represented. Jessica embraced the idea of becoming a hero in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me because she could not stand by and allow a little girl to get hit by a taxi. When Kilgrave compelled her to explain why she was beating up two thugs in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, Jessica explained that doing the right thing felt good. It seems unlikely Matt Murdock could offer such an earnestly sincere answer for his own violence in Daredevil.


Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones emerge in the wake of the so-called “Golden Age” of television. It is perhaps telling that both Jessica Jones and Daredevil make a point to acknowledge The Wire in the early parts of their seasons. It is not that Daredevil or Jessica Jones are bold enough to position themselves as successors to The Wire. It is simply an acknowledgement of a massively influential predecessor which informs a lot of the shows; whether their nods toward urban realism despite their fantastical elements or even the embrace of a novelistic narrative style.

This the reality of the medium at this particular moment. The “Golden Age” saw cable television radically change the tone and format of mainstream television. Shows like The Sopranos changed the rules of the game, embracing the idea of mature morally complicated long-form storytelling. Given that the “Golden Age” really began at the turn of the millennium, it could be argued that the “Golden Age” has passed. Indeed, there has been a conscious shift away from grounded prestige dramas in favour of more stylised and pulpy fare.


HBO has transitioned from shows like The Sopranos and The Wire towards more trashy genre work like True Detective or Game of Thrones or Westworld. Even on mainstream television, the complex workplace dramas like Homicide: Life on the Streets or E.R. have given way to weirder and bolder fare like Hannibal. If there was a show that marked the transition between the “Golden Age” and the pulpier style of modern television, it was arguably Breaking Bad; it blended modern crisis of masculinity with a more stylised flair.

By and large, the “Golden Age” came to be known for its anti-heroic characters. Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White. These characters represented a departure from more conventional protagonists on eighties and nineties television, where characters were traditionally portrayed as heroic paragons of virtue. Given everything that has unfolded in the years since his first appearance, it is hard to image how genuinely shocking Tony Soprano was in his earliest appearances; how much he changed the face of television.


Of course, these characters have certain common elements. The central characters of “Golden Age” television tended to be white adult anti-heroes. They also tended to be masculine. As author Brett Martin explains, these shows were frequently tied to ideas of masculinity:

These characters are male (and to some extent, female) wish fulfillments. At the same time, they make us question why that is. There’s no doubt that a large part of men watching Tony wanted to be Tony. What that made us think about ourselves was part of the tension of watching that show. And women who wanted to be Tony, or found Tony sexy, had good reason to question themselves about why that might be. I’ve just re-watched the pilot, of Breaking Bad, and I know where this is headed, but I still root for Walter White in that pilot to get up off the ground and kick some ass. That is how powerful that fantasy of seizing the masculine power is. In part, it’s because the earlier stuff was made by men who had lived through huge upheavals in the definition of what it meant to be a man.

This is not to suggest that there weren’t complicated female roles on The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad, but to emphasise that the default position for these dramas was one of a white male anti-hero. Although the particular circumstances and story details changed, there was a common starting ground.


As such, it makes sense that part of the response to the “Golden Age” of television has been to develop a more diverse pool of complex characters. In the past half-decade, the number of interesting leading roles for women and minorities on television has increased dramatically. It could be convincingly argued that the character of Carrie Mathison from Homeland is the most influential female character in contemporary television, even if the show is no longer the cultural force it once was. Scandal offered its own female anti-hero.

This is very much the context in which Jessica Jones emerges. All of this informs the series and the character; the idea that moral ambiguity is increasingly considered a prerequisite for “serious” television series, that lead characters are increasingly expected to blur the line between hero and anti-hero. After all, both Jessica Jones and Daredevil offer decidedly more morally compromised lead characters than Marvel’s network fare like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Agent Carter.


At the same time, it could also be argued that part of the response to the ambiguity of the “Golden Age” has been the rejection of the anti-hero and the suggestion of a more rigid moral framework for protagonists. In 2013, Alyssa Rosenberg mused that perhaps television was shifting away from antiheroes and towards “tragic” heroes:

FX, which given its investment in dudely dramas, might have been expected to follow the anti-hero formula closely, but has invested in tragic heroes, instead, be they Justified‘s U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who is drawn back to his ancestral seat in Kentucky, and unable to transcend his personal limitations even as he wins standoff after standoff, Sons of Anarchy‘s Jax Teller, a kind of working-class Michael Corleone, who’s pulled into the criminal business of the motorcycle gang his father founded to the erosion of his decency, and most recently, the married Russian spies and their FBI agent neighbor in The Americans.

Indeed, it could legitimately be argued whether the central narrative arc of Walter White was really that of an “anti-hero” or simply that of an out-and-out villain seeking to justify his own violence and selfishness. Although hard to quantify, there has been a clear tonal shift.


It should be noted that television has historically treated female antiheroes differently than male antiheroes. Male antiheroes typically begin as male power fantasies that quickly turn toxic; their strength goes on to become something poisonous. Female antiheroes tend to follow the opposite path, as Rosenberg argues:

Rather than examining how far our admiration for masculinity stretches when its applications turn toxic, female anti-hero dramas tend to examine at what point we can overcome our distaste for a character’s weaknesses–be they addiction in Nurse Jackie, a solopsistic turn to drug dealing in Weeds, mental illness in Homeland, or simple early twenty-something indecision and selfishness in Girls–to recognize their overall worth.

Jessica Jones very much follows this arc. Jessica Jones is a mess; she is an antisocial (mostly) functional alcoholic. Despite the fact that Jessica is quite literally a very powerful person, the only time that her powers represent a real risk to innocent people is when she is under the control of Kilgrave.


Instead, Jessica’s arc follows that of the conventional female anti-hero character. She is selfish and self-destructive. Although she claims to distance herself from others as a means of protecting them from Kilgrave, she also does it to protect herself from emotional attachment. One of the bolder choices of Jessica Jones is to avoid “fixing” Jessica. AKA Smile might end with the immediate crisis resolved, but Jessica still finds herself back in that grotty office with the same broken door.

Jessica never runs the risk of becoming a villain in the conventional comic book sense. The moral ambiguity around Jessica’s actions is never equivalent to that facing Matt Murdock in Daredevil. Several times over the course of the first season, Daredevil questions whether Matt’s vigilante activity is really just about satisfying his own violent impulses. In contrast, Jessica Jones never questions the larger morality of Jessica’s actions. Jessica is always trying to protect Hope, always trying to stop Kilgrave from doing to others what he did to her.


Jessica’s flaws are more intimate and personal than those facing characters like Tony Soprano or Walter White. Jessica’s moral ambiguity is never about the purity of the motivation driving her primary arc. While The Sopranos and Breaking Bad tended to question why their protagonists were really making those particular decisions, Jessica Jones takes its main character at face value. The question of whether Jessica is a good person is asked on a smaller and more interpersonal scale. Jessica is unlikely to murder her nephew’s wife or inadvertently down an airplane.

Instead, Jessica’s moral ambiguity is rooted in the way that she pursues her goals and in the way that she uses other people. Jessica Jones is smart enough to avoid direct comparisons between the way that Jessica uses people and the way that Kilgrave manipulates those in his path; any equivalence would seem forced or trite. Nevertheless, Jessica is just as willing to use Malcolm for her own ends in AKA It’s Called Whiskey or to exploit the survivors’ group as a source of information in AKA 99 Friends.


The plot of AKA You’re a Winner! features Jessica at her most selfish. She conspires to keep the truth about the death of Reva Connors from Luke Cage. She abandons Luke to take care of himself during a warehouse fight and attempts to confiscate the evidence that would implicate her in the death of Luke’s wife. Although Jessica repeatedly argues that she is trying to protect Luke, it is very clear that she is trying to protect herself. She is relieved when the evidence does not implicate her; she only speaks up when Luke threatens to beat an innocent man to death.

“If I never found out about Charles, would you have ever told me the truth?” Luke challenges her at the climax of the episode. She does not answer; she does not have to. Jessica knows that keeping the truth from Luke is unfair, and denying him the right to heal, but she does it anyway. This is particularly cold coming from Jessica, given that Jessica has first-hand experience of how painful trauma can be and how difficult it can be to get past all of that suffering. Jessica’s manipulation of Luke in AKA You’re a Winner! is the worst thing she does over the season.


At the same time, it is entirely understandable. Jessica’s decision to keep the secret from Luke makes sense, from her perspective. It is self-serving and conniving, but it is also perfectly reasonable. It might make Jessica a “piece of sh!t”, but it does not make her an anti-hero in any real sense of the word. Tony Soprano and Walter White would have been perfectly willing to let Charles Wallace die to protect their secret and maintain their facade. Jessica might wait until the last possible minute to speak up, but she speaks up.

More to the point, Jessica remains sympathetic throughout. Despite the fact that she does something truly horrible to Luke, there is never a sense that AKA You’re a Winner! is portraying this as a moral event horizon from which there is no return. Jessica is even able to reconnect with Luke in AKA Take a Bloody Number and make some peace with him in AKA Smile. While the episode makes no excuses for the hurt that she causes, it does stress that the death of Reva Connors was a traumatic event for her as well.


AKA You’re a Winner! makes it clear that the death of Reva Connors is still an open wound for Luke Cage, no matter how together he might actually seem. As with almost every other character on this show, Luke is working through his own trauma. What hurts the most about Jessica’s deceptions and manipulations? “You made me think I could get past it,” Luke cries. Instead of helping him heal, Jessica’s actions wind up causing Luke to relive the trauma all over again.

Then again, trauma has a way of lingering on. Hope Slottman has been free of Kilgrave’s control for almost half a season at this point. However, AKA You’re a Winner! reveals that Hope is carrying Kilgrave’s child. This is one of the rare points at which Jessica Jones engages directly and explicitly with the sexual subtext of what Kilgrave actually does, acknowledging that his violations are sexual in nature. AKA Ladies’ Night had heavily implied it, but the show tends to dance around the implications just a little bit.


The fetus is an embodiment of the trauma that Kilgrave inflicted upon Hope. “Every second it’s there, I get raped again and again,” Hope tells Jessica. “My parents are shot again and again.” The fetus is a constant reminder of the violation that Hope suffered at the hands of her abuser. “I can feel it growing,” she states. “Like a tumour.” AKA You’re a Winner! is refreshingly candid in embracing Hope’s decision to abort the fetus, with the prison system’s inefficient response to her suffering serving as another example of institutionalised sexism pushed to the fore.

Jessica Jones uses Luke Cage very well. He is very much part of the show’s cast, rather than a guest star dropping by to promote his own upcoming miniseries. The use of Luke Cage across the thirteen episodes is markedly different from the use of Claire Temple in AKA Smile, where Claire is quite pointedly a guest star crossing over from Daredevil to prove that the shows occupy the same space. Luke Cage has his own arc across the season. Even if Luke Cage never appeared again, his story would feel relatively complete in the context of Jessica Jones.


In a way, introducing Luke Cage as part of a larger ensemble rather than as a lead feels entirely appropriate for the character. Luke Cage has a long and distinguished history at Marvel, but the character has rarely carried his own book. The character was introduced in the seventies as the lead of his own book, but struggled to establish himself. The book was originally titled Luke Cage, Hero for Hire before being rebranded Power Man. In a bid to save the series from cancellation, he was teamed with Danny Rand. The book became Power Man and Iron Fist.

There have been a number of efforts to launch Luke Cage as a solo hero, but they never really took off. Cage enjoyed a twenty-issue run in the nineties, but made little impact. Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben launched a “MAX” series starring the character in 2002, to no real success. Luke Cage only really emerged as a major Marvel character when Brian Michael Bendis began incorporating Luke Cage into various ensembles. Luke Cage began in fringe titles like Alias and Daredevil, but Bendis carried him over to popular books like Secret War or New Avengers.


Although Bendis has never written a solo Luke Cage book, Bendis remains one of the most influential writers ever to handle the character. Bendis cites his affection for B-list characters as the reason he is drawn to Cage:

As far as Cleveland goes, it’s hard to say, other than I’m hyperly aware now that it’s a second city and there’s a second-city mentality, and I definitely seem to angle my love of second-tier, like the B-list characters—or those that are perceived as B-list. I don’t see them as B-list. Luke Cage and all that, they’re definitely the second-city characters to Captain America and Superman. So I definitely see a connection there.

Bendis has given Luke Cage a very distinctive role and voice in the shared Marvel universe, at one stage even directing the New Avengers to become more socially-minded and engage in “impact policing.”


Cage’s popularity has grown exponentially from there, although mainly as a character within large ensembles. Bendis retained him during the New Avengers relaunch, but other writers have incorporated Cage into important roles on teams like Thunderbolts or Mighty Avengers. Acknowledging Cage’s inclusion in Marvel’s massive multiplayer online game, Bendis acknowledged that a lot of Cage’s success was down to his use of the character:

Well I think just on the most egotistical level it was just nice to see Luke Cage included on the list. Then there’s some other characters too that I wonder if they would have made the list before New Avengers, you know what I mean? That just made me personally feel like a proud daddy, like “Oh look, they’re legitimate now.” That kind of thing made me happy.

It is a very fair point, and it seems entirely fair to suggest that Luke Cage would not be happening if Brian Michael Bendis had not taken such an interest in the character over a decade ago. Despite the fact that Luke Cage hasn’t emerged as a major solo hero, Bendis has made him an important character. “I’m very surprised people like him as much as I do because there was no evidence to that prior to his advance in New Avengers,” Bendis reflected.


As such, it seems entirely appropriate that Luke Cage should be introduced to audiences this way, as an ensemble player rather than launching straight into his own series. This is another example of Marvel adopting comic book storytelling sensibilities to other media. The Avengers was basically a comic book crossover brought to life, while the films and television shows all unfold in a vast and fully-formed shared universe. Luke Cage will represent the first time a character has spun off into their own project from another, even if it was pre-planned.

It helps that the relationship between Jessica and Luke is surprisingly engaging and heartfelt. Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter have a real chemistry, but the script is also willing to allow Luke moments of tenderness and empathy that are lacking from other relationships in the show. “You’re still going to have to go after this Kilgrave guy,” Luke states. “You don’t have to do it alone.” Jessica responds, “Yeah, I do.” Rather than argue with Jessica like Simpson did with Trish in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, Luke simply offers his support and encouragement. “Good for you.”


While Jessica and Luke are having their episodic adventure, Kilgrave is busy aligning all the pieces for his big gambit. AKA You’re a Winner! opens with Kilgrave hustling a bunch of high-rollers at a game of poker. It is a wonderful scene on many levels. Most obviously and superficially, it allows David Tennant to chew copious amounts of scenary. After all, what is the point of casting David Tennant as a supervillain if he can’t indulge his inner Frank Gorshin or Heath Ledger? (And, controversially, it could be argued that Ledger’s performance owes a lot to Gorshin.)

More than that, it serves as an effective piece of foreshadowing. Over the middle arc of the season, Kilgrave is effectively engaged in a number of very long gambits that are incredibly high risk and which require a great deal of skill beyond his obvious advantages. AKA Sin Bin reveals that Jessica is immune to Kilgrave’s power, something that was set up as early as AKA It’s Called Whiskey when Kilgrave made a point to abandon a confrontation rather than speaking to her. The next couple of episodes are predicated on that twist.


The middle arc of the season is very much about how Kilgrave is a skilled manipulator even without access to his powers. In AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, he manages to blackmail Jessica into sending him pictures of her every day even though he cannot control her through his voice. In AKA WWJD?, he convinces Jessica that his reluctance to control her is rooted in some romantic ideal rather than the pragmatic reality that he can’t control her. In AKA Sin Bin, he tries to manipulate others into feeling sorry for him and succeeds at getting Jeri to release him.

Indeed, Jessica Jones is playing its own version of poker with the audience as regards Kilgrave’s character. Over the course of episodes like AKA You’re a Winner! and AKA WWJD?, the show repeatedly misleads the audience as to Kilgrave’s motivations and his intentions. There are several points at which the audience is led towards certain conclusions about who Kilgrave is and why Kilgrave is doing what he is doing, only for the show to subsequently pull the rug out from under the viewer.


Towards the end of AKA You’re a Winner!, Kilgrave buys a house without the use of his powers. Within the context of the episode, and the episodes that immediately follow, this suggests some innocence and humility. “I’ve always been really bad at small talk,” he explains to the owner. “I’m used to just saying things and they happen. It spoils you.” The owner replies, “What a burden.” Kilgrave responds, “You have no idea.” There are echoes of this in Kilgrave’s confession about telling a man to “go screw himself” in AKA WWJD?

The audience almost feels pity for Kilgrave. On initial viewing, it looks like Kilgrave desperately wants something real and true in his life, for something to happen without abusing his powers to get it. He carefully chooses his words so as to ensure he buys the house without using his gift. “I want everything above board and binding,” he assures the owner. He even accepts that the owner needs a lawyer to view the papers. “Avoid seller’s remorse. There is one condition: you have to have moved out of here by end of day tomorrow… if you choose to sign.”


It looks like Kilgrave is genuinely trying, just as he attempts to convince Jessica in AKA WWJD? However, that is not the case. As with his willingness to use mind control on other people in AKA WWJD?, the fact that he is willing to use mind control to get the money to buy the house in AKA You’re a Winner! suggests that Kilgrave is not being altruistic. It seems more likely that Kilgrave is simply practising his ability to manipulate people without access to his powers, as something of a dress rehearsal for his encounter with Jessica.

It is all one big bluff, just like a lot of Kilgrave’s actions over the next few episodes. AKA You’re a Winner! even teases the audience with hints of a traumatic back story that might explain his monstrous actions. “I wish I’d grown up somewhere excessively normal like this,” Kilgrave reflects, studying the street around the house. In AKA WWJD?, Kilgrave paints a picture of an abusive childhood that turned him into the monster that he is today. Of course, AKA Sin Bin reveals that all of this is a self-serving lie. As such, the poker game serves an effective thematic purpose.


It also allows for Kilgrave to engage in some self-serving mythmaking. AKA You’re a Winner! plays into this, opening on a voiceover narration about Kilgrave from Malcolm as the show treats the audience to an atmospheric shot of a man lighting a cigar. In a shady poker club, Kilgrave manages to win a million dollars with just a two and seven. “You’ll be dining out on this story for years,” Kilgrave boasts once he claims his money. “The night you lost a million dollars to the worst hand you’ve ever seen.”

Kilgrave builds up a persona and a myth around himself. Kilgrave creates a number of self-serving narratives that disguise his true nature. In AKA WWJD, Kilgrave is the man who genuinely wants to win Jessica’s heart rather than the man who simply cannot control her with his voice. In AKA Sin Bin, Kilgrave is the victim of abuse from both his parents and from Jessica. These are little more than fabrications. Kilgrave’s true nature was suggested as early as the final scene of AKA Crush Syndrome when Jessica monologued about him while crushing a cockroach.


AKA You’re a Winner! slows down the primary driving plot of the season to allow its characters room to breath and to get everything lined up for the big push ahead.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Jessica Jones:

4 Responses

  1. Someone, Camus I think, said, “The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone.”

    I like how this was deconstructed with Pusher, Walter White, and now Kilgrave.

    Of the three WW is still my favorite, because it shone a light on maybe the defining American issue of our times. Any means of accumulating money is justified, even working outside the law, so long as you don’t get caught and expose the system for what it is.

    Pusher and Kilgrave, while interesting characters, are just reiterations of a theme: like you said in the last Lone Gunman review and in others, the spiritual and social costs of trying to be something you aren’t… (I’m afraid this is a very English point of view and is anathema to the American one! The ethos here is that people not only can but must succeed.)

    I’m rambling now, but these reviews have been getting philosophical of late. 🙂

    • Walter White is definitely one of the best deconstructions of American masculinity ever. (I’d argue, though, that Pusher was very much a prototype for Gilligan’s work on Breaking Bad. You can feel it gestating inside The X-Files.)

      Sorry about the philosophical stuff. I fear that’s the danger of me reviewing a weekly show. Theme and character are often more interesting to me than plot, so there are limits to what I can talk about without wandering off on a tangent or two. Coming up next week: the history of Miss Marvel, Patsy Walker, and why Alias was a feminist comic book.

  2. I appreciate the comic book history on Bendis and Luke Cage. Really interesting!

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