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Jessica Jones – AKA Top Shelf Perverts (Review)

Generally, Jessica Jones is quite optimistic in its portrayal of responses to trauma.

In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Will Simpson tried to murder Trish Walker with his own hands; by half-way through AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, the two are involved in an energetic and fulfilling sexual relationship. In AKA Top Shelf Perverts, Malcolm helps to dispose of the body of Ruben before engaging in a half-season long deception of Robyn about the fate of her brother; but AKA Take a Bloody Number, it seems like there might be romance in the air. In AKA You’re a Winner!, Jessica reveals that she killed Luke Cage’s wife; by AKA Smile, they have reconciled.

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As a rule, Jessica Jones suggests that trauma is not defining or delimiting. Trauma damages a person, but it does not necessarily break them. Jessica Jones never avoids exploring the consequences of abuse – particularly long and sustained abuse – but it also refuses to let its characters be trapped by those experiences. Trish’s abuse at the hands of her mother might have led her to build a fortress, but she still puts herself out in the world. Jessica has been abused by Kilgrave, but she still wants to save Hope. AKA Top Shelf Perverts is the exception that proves the rule.

After the events of AKA You’re a Winner!, Jessica spirals into truly self-destructive behaviour. In many ways, AKA Top Shelf Perverts serves as an effective contrast to the rest of the season, demonstrating how functional Jessica was up to this point. As with AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, the episode suggests that Jessica is not solely defined by her traumas; that she is not broken by her experiences with Kilgrave. AKA Top Shelf Perverts does this by teasing the audience with glimpses of what a truly broken Jessica might look like.

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Jessica Jones is, broadly speaking, a faithful adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias. Naturally, there are some changes in the transition from page to screen. Some of those chances feel like they happened to the detriment of the material; keeping Kilgrave around for the whole season causes pacing problems and undercuts some of the show’s trauma metaphors by providing a clear recovery arc that inevitably leads to satisfactory punching.

Some of those changes are inevitable, given the constraints of live action television production for Netflix. So a lot of the intertextuality of Alias has been stripped away. Jessica Jones is not as keenly engaged with the weird minutiae of the Marvel universe as Alias is, given that Chris Evans is unlikely to guest star in an episode where Jessica accidentally discovers his secret identity and that Jessica cannot investigate any mutants because Fox owns those multimedia rights. While it would be nice to have those elements, they are not the heart of Alias.

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However, some choices actually improve on the source material. The version of Jessica who appears in Jessica Jones is a lot more proactive and a lot less self-destructive than the character introduced by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. This version of Jessica is still self-destructive and passive aggressive, still trapped in her own minor cycles of abusive and exploitative behaviours. However, while this version of Jessica is still dysfunctional, she generally holds herself together. The comic book version of Jessica would never actively hunt Kilgrave.

There are other conscious changes in how certain events are portrayed. While AKA Ladies’ Night retains the sex scene between Jessica Jones and Luke Cage from the first issue of Alias, the context is changed significantly. The conversation leading up to the hook-up is portrayed as flirty and fiery, rather than lonely and desperate. The framing of the sequence puts an emphasis on both participants rather than just Jessica. Most importantly, the sequence in AKA Ladies’ Night makes it clear that Jessica is having more fun than her counterpart in Alias.

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Indeed, while the hook-up scene in AKA Ladies’ Night is a very positive depiction of considerate and consenting sex, Brian Michael Bendis has talked about how the sex scene in Alias was really about Jessica Jones punishing herself:

I know that some people, particularly friends of mine, had an issue with a woman punishing herself with sex or whatever that sexual act was. They would come up to me and go, “Women don’t do that.” I would go, “No, not all women, but some women and some men do that.” And they’d say, “Well, that’s true.” It’s weird the way people take that. “I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about her.” I absolutely have known people who do that and I know some people who continue to do that well past an age where you think they would stop. And I wanted to write about it. And I am shocked I get to write about it in a Marvel comic book.

Indeed, the comic book sex scene has been criticised for some of the unfortunate connotations of Jessica punishing herself through sex. The television sex scene wisely sidesteps these issues.

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However, the point remains. Jessica Jones tends in tolerate a lot less self-flagellation and self-hatred from its central character than Alias did. This is even reflected in the voice over narrations. There is a lot less self-loathing in Krysten Ritter’s deadpan witticisms than in Bendis’s internal monologues. Jessica Jones generally portrays its lead as a character who has been scarred and traumatised, but who is working through that trauma. Jessica might drink too much, distance her friends, and keep secrets; but she is generally heroic.

AKA Top Shelf Perverts offers a point of contrast. It offers the audience a glimpse of a defeated version of Jessica who has allowed herself to be swallowed up by her “shame.” Jessica’s hatred and anger is not directed at Kilgrave for what he made her do to Reva Connors, but at herself for how she chose to live with that. Jessica had coped as well as could be expected with the murder up until Luke Cage discovered that she had kept it from her. Tellingly, she takes his anger and internalises it. She helpfully labels herself “a piece of sh!t.”

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That is ultimately what AKA Top Shelf Perverts boils down to. It is about Jessica deciding to punish herself for everything that has happened; it is about trying to give up on her life. She tried to do it in AKA Ladies’ Night when she considered abandoning Hope to Kilgrave, but she could not bring herself to do it. However, events have just piled on from that point. Early in AKA Top Shelf Perverts, Jessica stares down a subway train; she contemplates whether to jump out of the way or just let it come.

When she discovers that Kilgrave has brutally murdered Ruben, it seems like Jessica completely snaps. She can take no more. Who could blame her? So she concocts a plan. “I’m going to end it,” Jessica tells Malcolm. “End what?” he inquires. Then he seems to realise the implication. “End yourself?” Jessica seems to weigh it for a moment. She offers, “There’s another option: I go to jail.” Of course, that is just a slower form of ending herself. The fact that prison extends her suffering is probably a positive.

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It is worth considering Jeri’s description of Supermax. “It is a living hell. With real demons. It is the last place you want to end up.” Hell is something of a recurring motif across the season, with Kilgrave compared to the devil in both AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. However, Kilgrave is not really the devil; he is just a pathetic man with incredible power. The most insidious aspect of Kilgrave is the way that he leaves just a little doubt inside his victims, enough that they hate themselves for what he made them do.

In AKA You’re a Winner!, Malcolm discussed the lingering self-doubt that comes from dealing with Kilgrave. “It’s not just the things that he made me do that keep me up. It’s the question of who I am. I mean, he turned me into an addict, a liar, a thief. He did that. But I don’t know if it was in me to begin with. Or if it’s part of who I am now.” Kilgrave even engages in some of that himself in AKA WWJD? when he argues that Jessica chose to interpret his command to “take care of [Reva Connor]” as a call to murder her.

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The sad truth about this sort of abuse is that victims frequently blame themselves for what happened; that somehow they deserved the abuser’s actions. It has been suggested that a lot of this is an attempt to assert a sense of control over what happened; that taking responsibility for an abuser’s actions allows the victim the illusion of control over events and the power to stop it from happening again. Given how absolute Kilgrave’s control over people can be, it makes sense that he would elicit that same response; Malcolm wants to believe he had some control.

Jessica concocts an elaborate theory about how getting herself locked away in prison will serve to bring Kilgrave out of hiding; that he will have to follow her into prison where he can be trapped. This seems somewhat elaborate. AKA You’re a Winner! demonstrated that Kilgrave could control an entire restaurant without batting an eyelid. The climax of AKA Top Shelf Perverts has Kilgrave assert control over an entire police station without any effort. It seems highly unlikely that he could not get into Supermax if he wanted.

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He convinces the authorities to release Hope in AKA 1,000 Cuts. It might take a little more effort, but it seems highly likely that Kilgrave could do something similar for Jessica, if he set his mind to it. After all, Kilgrave wants Jessica a lot more than he wants Hope. It seems like Jessica’s plan is far from watertight and is certainly not Kilgrave-proof. Then again, that was never the point of the plan. Jessica never really planned to trap Kilgrave in Supermax, although undoubtedly she would be happy if she did.

This is all about Jessica punishing herself. “Tell him the right people are going to pay for what they’ve done,” Jessica remarks on visiting Luke Cage’s bar for one last time. When Jessica insists that she has a plan, Trish corrects her. “You have guilt and shame.” Jessica argues, “I have to pay.” There is a sense of self-flagellation to all of this, that Jessica wants to be punished for everything that Kilgrave has done. She argues that it would give the families of the victims some closure, but there is also a sense that it would allow her some peace and some rest.

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“There are so many ways this could go wrong,” Trish concedes. “There’s one way this will go right,” Jessica corrects her. “No one else will die because of me. I’m taking myself out of the equation.” This is Jessica wanting to give up the good fight, wishing that she had never tried to make a difference in the first place. This is Jessica multitasking, blending her self-resentment with the apathy she feigned to Trish in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and AKA Ladies’ Night.

Of course, Jessica has certainly earned the right to have some peace and quiet away from all the misery and death. She has earned the right to run away from all the hurt around her. That said, planning to “spend the rest of her life locked up with a bunch of murderers” throws a healthy dose of self-pity on top of the flight response. This represents Jessica’s emotional nadir, the bleakest point in her arc across the season. The rest of Jessica Jones finds the character clawing her way back from this self-loathing and self-recrimination.

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Of course, it also represents the first confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave since their parting of the ways. The two had locked eyes briefly in AKA It’s Called Whiskey and talked over the phone in AKA The Sandwiched Saved Me. However, the climax of AKA Top Shelf Perverts represents the first time that the two have had a conversation with one another in the same room. Although Kilgrave’s powers do not work on Jessica, he is immediately manipulative. He tries to paint himself as romantic.

“I am new to love, but I do know what it looks like,” he advises Jessica at one point. “I have watched television.” He offers a very touching and romantic story about how Jessica opened his eyes to the full range and depth of the human experience. Of course, there is the occasional Freudian slip. “You were the first thing – excuse me, person – that I ever wanted that walked away from me. You made me feel something I’d never felt before: yearning.” As his fellow gamblers noted in AKA You’re a Winner!, Kilgrave really has to work on his poker face.

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Of course, Kilgrave is lying. He is manoeuvring Jessica even without the use of his powers. For all that Jessica Jones allows Kilgrave to make this bluff, the show also makes it clear that Kilgrave is not to be trusted. Although Kilgrave does an excellent job tailoring his own narrative, the show is never entirely sympathetic to him. He is still a monster. After all, his declarations of love are interspaced with childish temper tantrums. “The next person whose phone rings has to eat it!” He even loses his temper with the object of his affection. “Do not presume to know…!” he yells.

More than that, Kilgrave is introduced in AKA Top Shelf Perverts sneaking around Jessica’s office. There is a very clear implication that he is the eponymous pervert. (There is even a really creepy shot of him urinating in her toilet.) He murders Rubin for the mere inconvenience of showing up. He could just as easily have told Rubin to forget him or that it was a prank, but he instead opted to have the young man slice open his own throat. “You can’t pretend he didn’t irritate you too,” Kilgrave argues to Jessica. “I wanted to slap him after thirty seconds.”

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Of course, quite divorced from his perspective inside the narrative, there is a sense that Kilgrave might have a point. Jessica Jones struggles a bit with the characters of Robyn and Rubin. One of the smarter decisions on Jessica Jones was not to incorporate the obligatory comic relief into the primary cast. Foggy Nelson was incredibly irritation for long stretches of Daredevil when he was supposed to play the role of plucky comic relief. Treating Robyn and Rubin as guest characters means that Jessica Jones is not always burdened by mandatory fun.

It also helps that the major players in Jessica Jones are quite gifted at comedy. Krysten Ritter has impeccable comic timing, and her sardonic style helps to find the dark humour in just about any situation. David Tennant is creepy enough as Kilgrave, but his performance is also more outlandish and oversized than the corresponding performance of Vincent D’Onofrio in Daredevil. Tennant draws some delightful inappropriate laughs, whether with his “screw himself” story in AKA WWJD? or his “tell me something I don’t know” in AKA 1,000 Cuts.

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Ritter and Tennant are very good at finding comedy that does not compromise the heavier themes of the show. Jessica never feels like a cartoon character because she always has a witty one-liner (or Carl Icahn comparison) to hand. Tennant never feels any less creepy and unpleasant because his delivery can draw a totally awkward chuckle from the audience. The AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts triptych represents the emotional climax of the show, but there is always enough humour to stop things getting too bleak or dark.

As a result, Jessica Jones really doesn’t warrant the same sort of “obligatory comic relief character” that Daredevil had. It is a good thing that Rubin and Robyn do not have to appear in every episode, because they jar with the rest of the show. The problem is that Jessica Jones never quite manages to humanise the characters. Neither Rubin nor Robyn ever get an episode that develops their character as skilfully or as insightfully as Nelson v. Murdock does for Foggy. Even when Jessica Jones gives Robyn dramatic weight to carry, it struggles balancing tone.

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That is quite obvious here, as Malcolm tries to cover-up Ruben’s death from Robin. Malcolm is lying to the twin sister of the man lying dead in Jessica’s bed. This should be tense and gut-wretching and heart-breaking. Instead, the episode struggles to find the right tone. Asked to explain why she thinks that Ruben eloped with Jessica, Robyn offers “He’s been drawing their initials with a big heart around them on his etch-a-sketch.” That’s neither funny nor sad. That is just creepy.

Similarly, the sequences in later episodes where Robyn doesn’t realise that Ruben is dead but is still treated as comic relief feel decidedly mean-spirited for a so so engaged with the idea of trauma. In AKA Take a Bloody Number, Malcolm finally decides to take Robyn to a place where she can pay respect to her deceased twin; however, the show also uses the scene to have Robyn make all sorts of inappropriate remarks. Given that these are sequences that are intended to make Robyn sympathetic, the show’s fixation on making her the butt of the joke feels ill-judged.

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AKA Top Shelf Perverts also returns to the idea of Jessica Jones as a show consciously grounded in New York City. As Jessica makes her “goodbye tour” of New York City, she makes a point to climb to the top of the Manhattan Bridge to bid farewell to the city. Jessica might have a cynical exterior, but she seems to adopt a very romantic attitude towards the city around her. “I hate goodbyes. I’ve always just disappeared. But this goodbye… this one deserves a last lingering look.”

This leads a delightful shot of Jessica taking in the view of the city from the bridge. It is a very different version of New York than the city that appeared in The Avengers, one more grounded in reality. That is not just because the version of New York featured in Jessica Jones was actually shot in New York rather than Cleveland, and not just because the show does not have the budget to replace the MetLife building with a CGI model of Avengers’ Tower. The city is part of the fabric of Jessica Jones, as was clear as early as AKA Crush Syndrome.

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This feels entirely appropriate. After all, the Marvel universe is firmly anchored in New York City. As Jason Bainbridge argues in I am the City, this is arguably what defined Marvel against their early competitors:

Aspects of New York appear in Will Eisner’s stylised Central City in The Spirit, in Batman’s Gotham City wrapped around letters and right angles, in Scrooge McDuck’s Duckberg, dotted with oversized typewriters and billboards, in Flash’s Central City, Green Lantern’s Coast City, and Superman’s Metropolis; indeed, as has been attributed to everyone from Frank Miller to John Byrne, Metropolis is often referred to New York by day and Gotham as New York by night. But, as comics historian Peter Sanderson describes it, in each of these comics New York City was given “a fictional veneer [which] removed the fantastic series even further from reality.” This mean that the comic book city remained largely archetypal, a backdrop that was endlessly adaptable to the demands of the narrative. It wasn’t until 1961 that the fledgling Marvel Comics brought New York City into the foreground, rolling out a collection of characters and titles that were set in New York rather than inhabiting fictional cities that were simply extensions of themselves.

The New York City of Marvel comics is so well defined it has its own landmarks. The Xavier School in Westchester, Avengers Tower in Manhattan, Avengers Mansion on Fifth Avenue, Empire State University, Fantastic Four Plaza.

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New York City is part of the DNA of the shared Marvel universe, to the point where Marvel offers guided tours of the town. The  teaser for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man featured the character slinging a web between the Twin Towers. The climax of the film features New Yorkers banding together to help defeat the Green Goblin. Indeed, the Spider-Man films are anchored in New York; from the confrontation with Doctor Octopus on the elevated train in Spider-Man II through to Peter Parker’s message sprawled across the Brooklyn Bridge in The Amazing Spider-Man II.

However, the Marvel cinematic universe has never put much of an effort into describing its New York in tangible terms. The climax of The Avengers features a Chitauri invasion of New York, but the action sequences were largely shot outside the city. Even the shawarma restaurant featured in the post-credits scene exist in Los Angeles. It could be argued that Daredevil unfolded in a version of New York that no longer existed; the crime-riddled urban landscape of Hell’s Kitchen long gave way to gentrification.

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In that context, it is good to see Jessica Jones embracing New York City and taking advantage of its location work. Jessica Jones is never explicitly about New York, but it is very firmly anchored in that location. In a way, its central metaphors about trauma and recovery feel applicable to twenty-first century New York City. It is certainly a much more effective way of capturing the spirit of the city than having Doctor Doom cry in the rubble of the Twin Towers. (Or, to be fair, AKA 99 Friends.)

AKA Top Shelf Perverts kicks the season into high gear, finally bringing Kilgrave and Jessica into confrontation with one another after half a season of teasing and build-up. AKA Top Shelf Perverts was the last episode of Jessica Jones screened for critics, and that makes a certain amount of sense. The show only really starts building with the fifth episode, but the eighth episode kicks off the emotional climax of the season. AKA Top Shelf Perverts marks the point at which Jessica Jones stops building and starts paying off.

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

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