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Jessica Jones – AKA WWJD? (Review)

AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts represent the emotional climax of Jessica Jones.

The key is in handing the show over to its two strongest performers. Whether together or separately, Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are always engaging to watch. These three episodes push Jessica and Kilgrave into a sequence of tight interactions with one another. The dynamic between the two characters is constantly evolving and reversing, but the two actors are strong enough that every second is riveting television. While AKA Smile brings the season to an exciting close, there is nothing quite as powerful as watching Ritter and Tennant play off one another.

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Jessica Jones has a very good ensemble, with a lot of the roles cast very carefully and most the supporting players sketched out and developed. However, the core of the season is about Jessica Jones confronting and vanquishing Kilgrave, the man who abused her and countless others. It is highly debatable whether Kilgrave needed to be the focus of the season, particularly in the earlier episodes where he didn’t really have much to do, but Jessica Jones has reached the point where it can throw Jessica and Kilgrave into direct confrontation with one another.

AKA WWJD? makes it clear that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will not be physical in nature. This is not a conventional super hero battle; Jessica will not be using her power to smash Kilgrave, and Kilgrave cannot use his mind control to manipulate Jessica. Instead, AKA WWJD? confirms that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will be emotional and psychological in nature; a victim confronting her accuser in pursuit of closure and satisfaction.

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Kilgrave is a fascinating villain. As with a lot of the major players in Marvel adaptations, Kilgrave draws his inspiration from a comic book character. In particular, Kilgrave is modelled on Doctor Zebediah Killgrave – perhaps better known as “the Purple Man.” While Kilgrave obviously takes many of his cues from that comic book character, the show rather consciously ignores many of the details from the character’s early history as an antagonist of Daredevil.

This makes sense. For most of his existence, the Purple Man was a b-list villain to a b-list hero. Created during the Cold War, Zebediah Killgrave was a Croatian scientist-turned-spy who was exposed to dangerous chemicals during a mission and discovered that he had been granted the ability to control minds. (He had also been turned purple, hence the name.) As with most Silver Age Daredevil villians, the Purple Man was hardly a complex three-dimensional character.

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The closest thing that Zebediah Killgrave had to a character quirk was his own weak will and cowardice, which made an ironic contrast to his ability to impose his own will on others. The Purple Man harked back to the days when Daredevil was mostly a low-rent version of The Amazing Spider-Man without any distinct identity of its own. When Frank Miller revamped Daredevil during the eighties to turn it into an iconic street-level crime book with noir sensibilities, the Purple Man largely faded from view.

The Purple Man was largely considered a joke from the eighties into the nineties, an answer to a trivial pursuits question or a plot device for Doctor Doom in the Emperor Doom graphic novel. (Naturally, Doctor Doom’s will was so strong that the Purple Man’s mind control had no effect on him.) Jeph Loeb helped to bring the Purple Man back towards the centre of the Marvel Universe, including the character in his revisionist Silver Age history, Daredevil: Yellow.

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Daredevil: Yellow was one of a series of books by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale offering a nostalgic exploration of key chapters in the lives of iconic superheroes. (The other books are Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Grey and Captain America: White.) In the wake of Frank Miller’s reworking of the Daredevil mythos, Daredevil: Yellow provided an opportunity to take a look at Matt Murdock’s earliest adventures. The last issue in the series focused on the Purple Man, and introduced a new angle on the character.

As early as his first appearance in Daredevil #4, there had been something distinctly creepy about Killgrave’s interest in Karen Page. Using his mind control powers, he walked out of prison taking Karen Page with him. In Daredevil #4, Matt Murdock is able to catch up with Kilgrave before anything vaguely inappropriate could be implied to have occurred between the Purple Man and his new “assistant.” In contrast, Daredevil: Yellow allowed Killgrave to get Karen back to a hotel room as Matt made it explicit that Killgrave was a sexual predator.

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The idea of Zebediah Killgrave as a sexual predator was reinforced when Brian Michael Bendis incorporated him into Alias, the comic book upon which Jessica Jones was based. Kilgrave used his mind control abilities on Jessica to abuse and demean her. Although the comic is explicit that he never raped her, his abuse was sexual in nature and he did rape others. Although the Purple Man only appeared in the final arc of the run, and only escaped from prison in the penultimate issue of the run, it was still a defining moment for the character.

It is worth noting that mainstream American superhero comic books do not have the strongest history of dealing with issues are gender or sexual politics. (One need only compare the iconic costumes of various male and female characters to affirm that.) In particular, mainstream American superhero comic books did not necessarily have the most nuanced understanding of issues around the depiction of sexual assault and the use of trauma in character-centric narratives.

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There are dozens – if not hundreds – of examples to choose from. The whole “women in refrigerators” trope originated in mainstream superhero comic books, referring to the tendency of comic books to kill off female characters in order to motivate male characters. It was named for an incident in the pages of Green Lantern where z-list baddie Major Force killed Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend and stuffed her in a fridge. Later, Major Force would trie to raise the bar by shoving Kyle’s mother in an oven. She survived, if only so she could be killed later by Sinestro.

Superhero stories have long been the domain of straight white male narratives. There are plenty of exceptions, but they majority of stories seem be writer from and towards that perspective. As Sarah N. Gatson argues, “the default fanboy has a presumed race, class, and sexuality: white, middle-class, male, heterosexual.” This is even reflected in mass adaptation of comic book stories. Batman, Superman and Spider-Man have all enjoyed multiple reboots and iterations in the past decade. Wonder Woman has not had nearly as much traction.

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Things are improving, both inside and outside comics. Books like Batgirl, Captain Marvel and Miss Marvel have demonstrated that female-centric books can develop strong and enthusiastic fanbases. Marvel has been more willing to experiment with diversity on television as compared to film, with Luke Cage featuring an African American lead, Agent Carter having a female lead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. having an impressivly diverse cast. It might be more reassuring if Marvel Studios had more faith in Captain Marvel or Black Panther, but such is life.

This is all to explain that mainstream superhero comics have occasionally struggled with the portrayal of issues that are not part of the standard heterosexual white male experience. This leads to situations like the publication of Avengers #200 in October 1980, wherein one of the most prominent female superheroes in the Marvel universe is abandoned by her colleagues to a mind-controlling supervillain with sexual designs upon her… who also happens to be her own son. This is all played entirely and unquestioning straight.

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To be fair, other writers called out the storyline for its incredibly offensive content. Chris Claremont had Carol Danvers call out her fellow superheroes in Avengers Annual #10 the following year. It could be argued that Brian Michael Bendis’ more sensitive handling of Jessica Jones’ mind-controlled sexual assault in Alias was written as a response to that, right down to pointing out that the Avengers have a really terrible track record for dealing with matters like this. Bendis even wrote in Carol Danvers as Jessica’s best friend, the role Trish plays in the show.

Nevertheless, things had not improved much by the turn of the millennium. DC would build one of its most high-profile events of the (Identity Crisis) around the sexual assault of a beloved female character… only to reveal the assault after the character had been killed off and refusing to explore any of the lingering emotional consequences of that particular act. There were reports that the management of the company took glee in the use of rape as a shock element. Editorial dialogue allegedly included “we need a rape!” and “the rape pages are in!”

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It is worth adding to this discussion the broader context of geek culture’s difficulty recognising issues in this area. Super powers work well as allegorical storytelling tools, but geek narratives have a tendency to overlook certain unfortunate aspects or subtext to particular genre storytelling elements. After all, there is a long history of “body swap” sex comedies downplaying (or completely ignoring) the obvious rape subtext involved with men swapping identities and engaging in sexual liasons.

Of course, it could be argued that some of these issues with the portrayal of mistaken identity in sex comedies date back to Shakespeare. This is not a problem unique to pop culture. Rape by deception is a somewhat contested legal issue. California only considered making “rape by impersonation” illegal in 2013. New Jersey’s 2014 attempt to criminalise “rape by fraud” quickly became somewhat controversial. Nevertheless, the frequency with which pop culture tends to gloss over the uncomfortable connotations of “mind control” and “identity swapping” is unsettling.

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Although Brian Michael Bendis was very sensitive in his handling of the abuse and damage caused by the Purple Man, there is a sense that the character was quickly reduced to a somewhat one-dimensional sexual predator. This tends to happen to comic book characters who are quickly distilled to their most memorable (or financially successful) appearances; Doctor Light, the rapist from Identity Crisis, was quickly reduced to a rape-obsessed antagonist to the point where Kyle Baker referred to rape as the character’s “new power” during his run on Plastic Man.

Given that the Purple Man had languished in obscurity for decades before Loeb reimagined him in Daredevil: Yellow and Brian Michael Bendis incorporated him into Alias, it makes sense that the defining modern interpretation of the character became that of a sexual predator. Fabian Nicieza played up this aspect of the character during his New Thunderbolts run. Even when Mark Waid made a point to pull Daredevil back from grim and gritty excess towards swashbuckling adventure, the Purple Man was still defined as a serial rapist.

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Given mainstream American superhero comics’ somewhat checkered history of dealing with sexual violence, it makes sense that Jessica Jones should largely reinvent its antagonist from scratch. Even the spelling of “Kilgrave” is different from the source material. As Jessica points out in AKA Sin Bin, Kevin is a rather “mundane” name; much more than “Zebediah.” The show luxuriates in David Tennant’s British accent, with the character definitely English rather than Croatian.

The character’s back story, such as it is, is largely invented from scratch. Kilgrave has no connection to the larger Daredevil mythos. Although he dresses in purple (and is frequently bathed in purple light in flashbacks and nightmares over the course of the show), Kilgrave is never referred to as “the Purple Man.” Indeed, Kilgrave’s wardrobe veers somewhere between purple and blue, riffing as much on David Tennant’s most iconic role as much as the comic book character.

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Most notably, barring a very quick shot of his swelling veins in AKA Smile, Kilgrave even drops the most distinctive visual aspect of the comic book character upon which he is based. Kilgrave is not actually purple. Early interviews with Melissa Rosenberg make it clear that the character was never going to be purple:

I doubt it. It may become too cartoony for the tone of it. But who knows? I mean, we have to get in there, we have to get a greenlight for the script first and get in there and design it. But, you know, I’m open to interpretations of him. The tone of this is very gritty and very real, and I’m not sure if purple skin will do it. Maybe he’ll put on a purple suit…

Then again, this seems perfectly reasonable and logical. The effectiveness as Kilgrave as a character is rooted in the reality of the character; despite his mind control powers, Kilgrave embodies a very real and grounded threat that stands quite apart from a purple-skinned Silver Age comic book villain.

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As David Tennant explains, there are also pragmatic differences between creating something for a sixties comic book and reimagining it for twenty-first century television:

“There’s a difference to creating things on a two-dimensional page and creating them in a three-dimensional, living art form,” Tennant explains. “You have to always be aware of what looks extraordinary and what might just look a bit silly or screwy.” Are there lost makeup tests of Tennant in full purple-face? “It was never tried. I’m slightly disappointed. Although, I’m sure by week two turning up at five A.M. to be slathered in purple paint would’ve become rather harsh.”

The version of Kilgrave who appears in Jessica Jones is very far removed from the comic book character upon whom he is based; but that is not a bad thing. In fact, Kilgrave might just be one of the best comic book villains ever brought to screen.

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Indeed, the Purple Man was a relatively minor character in the context of Alias itself. The character only appeared in the final arc of the comic book. Even then, he was incarcerated for most of the run, only escaping in the penultimate issue and only confronting Jessica in the final issue. Alias was quite clear that it was not the story of an abuser, but the story of a survivor. Alias was about Jessica, it was not in anyway about the Purple Man. Indeed, the biggest change that Jessica Jones makes to the character of Kilgrave is increasing the size of role.

This is a double-edged sword, in some respects. In pragmatic terms, it means that the show has to figure out what to do with David Tennant for the first half of the season. It does not always succeed at finding organic ways to keep him around. His introduction in AKA It’s Called Whiskey would be more effective if AKA Crush Syndrome hadn’t already introduced him. AKA The Sandwich Saved Me features the first of three occasions over the show’s thirteen-episode season that the heroes manage to capture Kilgrave only to have him escape their clutches.

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However, there is also a broader thematic concern in making Kilgrave the focal point of the first season. The abuser (and the notion of justice) are important concepts in any narrative of trauma, but they are not the only narrative. Surviving means working through trauma, but the show never lets its title character get past or through Kilgrave himself. Jessica Jones fixates almost completely upon Kilgrave to the point that he drowns out all other aspects of Jessica’s life. Jessica Jones affords Kilgrave a weird power over its survivor narrative.

“As long as he has your attention, as long as you care, he’s in control,” Trish advises Jessica in AKA Sin Bin. She is entirely correct, and there is a sense that Jessica Jones allows Kilgrave that control. Kilgrave is a much more active part of the first stretch of Jessica Jones than Wilson Fisk was for the first stretch of Daredevil. Kilgrave’s constant literal physical presence (as opposed to the more abstract lingering consequences of his actions) represent perhaps the hardest adaptation choice to justify.

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Still, these issues are less of a concern from this point forward. With AKA WWJD?, Kilgrave does become a more active participant in the show around him. He is less of an ominous and mysterious presence, instead becoming a character who engages in active conversation with Jessica and the rest of the cast. Although the character had been relatively mysterious to this point, AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin begin to peel back the layers on the character. He gets a back story and motivation, depth and nuance.

This makes sense. While Jessica Jones occasionally struggles with structure, it inherits a lot of what structure it does have from Daredevil. This is particularly true in the handling of the antagonist. The slow reveal of the horrific consequences of the villain’s actions (in AKA Ladies’ Night or Into the Ring) are followed by episodes establishing the villain’s power without showing too much of them (in AKA Crush Syndrome or Cut Man) leading to a bigger reveal including the first clear shots of the villain’s face (in AKA It’s Called Whiskey or Rabbit in a Snowstorm).

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AKA WWJD is the eighth episode of the season, and it delves deeply into Kilgrave’s character. It arrives at the same point in the season as Shadows in the Glass did during Daredevil‘s first season, the episode which invested a bit of time with Wilson Fisk. There are other structural similarities, with the late-season “breather/character” arriving with AKA I’ve Got the Blues as the eleventh episode of Jessica Jones‘ season in contrast to Nelson v. Murdock as the tenth episode of Daredevil‘s season.

The structural parallels between Daredevil and Jessica Jones frequently work to the advantage of the latter series. Daredevil was a very effective exemplar of any number of standard superhero tropes, extending a very stylish origin over thirteen episodes. Jessica Jones is then able to play with the story beats so ably demonstrated by Daredevil, offering a clever subversion of expectations. This is particularly true in how the two shows choose to approach their primary antagonists.

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Daredevil made a point to treat Wilson Fisk as a sympathetic antagonist, complete with tragic history and fairly understandable motivations. Indeed, there were points where it seemed like the narrative came close to aligning with Fisk’s perspective, if not his goals. This arguably created a problem when it came to the season’s climax; Vincent D’Onofrio did an amazing job with the “Good Samaritan” speech in Daredevil, but it amounted to little more than a justification for the character’s sharp left-turn into out-and-out supervillainy.

Jessica Jones teases this possibility with Kilgrave. AKA You’re a Winner! had Kilgrave lamenting his childhood and making an effort not to use his powers, as if to suggest that the character had some guilt over the harm that he had caused. AKA Top Shelf Perverts had Kilgrave promising not to use his mind control powers on Jessica. AKA WWJD? allows Jessica to get close to Kilgrave and to actually engage with him as a fellow human being rather than some abstract metaphor for horrific trauma. It seems entirely possible that the show might humanise him.

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AKA WWJD? hints at the idea that the narrative might have some sympathy for Kilgrave. The show allows him to make his arguments to Jessica. Kilgrave even gets to make a reasonably convincing argument that mind control could be a spectacularly crappy super power that could cause untold damage to a person’s relationship with reality. “I have to painstakingly choose every word I say,” he warns Jessica. This certainly seems true; Kilgrave made an effort to catch himself with his “say hi Hank” bit.

Similarly, AKA WWJD? has Kilgrave expound a bit on his own traumatic history. Noting the marks on the wall measuring Jessica’s height over time, Kilgrave acknowledges it as a time-honoured family tradition. “Not mine,” he adds. “My parents wouldn’t have dared let their walls be defaced.” When he shrugs off forcing Hope to murder his parents, Jessica challenges him, “How would you feel if somebody forced you to off your parents?” He quips, “Wouldn’t have to force me.”

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Indeed, Kilgrave is able to show Jessica footage that supports his resentment of his parents. Jessica watches recordings of Kilgrave’s parents holding hims down and subjecting him to cruel medical procedures. It is harrowing footage, and Jessica seems visibly moved by it. Indeed, when Jessica gets to confront Kilgrave’s parents in AKA Sin Bin, she seems to adopt a position that aligns with his own. “If your parenting didn’t make him a sociopath, your lack of it did,” she accuses.

It helps that David Tennant is extremely effective as Kilgrave. In his conversations with Jessica, he projects a layer of incredible sincerity and intimacy. There is a sense that Kilgrave is selling a narrative of his life, but it seems entirely plausible that Kilgrave believes at least some of it. Kilgrave makes his case with complete conviction, to the point that even the show seems to accept that some of his arguments are reasonably plausible when the facts are examined from his perspective.

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Tennant is also incredibly charming, which helps to gloss over the horror of what Kilgrave has done or the implications of what he is saying. After Jessica convinces him to use his powers to save some innocent lives, Kilgrave idly muses on just how much work would be necessary to redeem himself; as if saving so many lives might balance the scales. Jessica responds, quite rightly, “Saving someone doesn’t mean unkilling someone else.” Although she wins the argument, Kilgrave steals the scene with his glib reflection, “Still, we should do it more often.”

The show is also building off Tennant’s iconic work on Doctor Who, which endeared the actor to an entire generation of fans. Tennant incorporates quite a few of the same mannerisms into his performance – from the accent to the rolling “weeeelll…” The production team build on this, incorporating a sequence in AKA WWJD? where Kilgrave orders two of his slaves not to blink. Tennant is an extremely likable performer in general, but Jessica Jones actually harnesses that; part of it is for contrast, but part of it is also to wrong-foot the audience.

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On top of that, AKA WWJD? reinforces the idea that Kilgrave is really just an overgrown child at heart. He is a spoiled brat with no sense of emotional maturity. He genuinely argues that he never had anybody to teach him the difference between right and wrong. When Jessica leaves to visit Trish, Kilgrave responds by having his slaves keep a lookout for her; however he insists that they do not blink. “I don’t want you missing her,” he explains. It is an obviously ridiculous idea, but Kilgrave seems to think it is a genuine concern.

This helps to cement the idea that Kilgrave’s appeal to Jessica is genuine, that all Kilgrave really needs is a strong guiding hand to teach him how to become moral responsible. Over the course of AKA WWJD?, Kilgrave argues that Jessica might be able to redeem him from the life he has chosen. Jessica seems to actually consider this option, based on her conversations with Trish. More to the point, it fits within expectations of the genre. By definition, heroes save people. Kilgrave is asking to be saved.

Kilgrave even argues that his purchase and restoration of Jessica’s childhood home is a declaration of love. It is something that took a great deal of effort and care, a gesture intended to demonstrate how deep and genuine his affection for Jessica might be. “I used a magnifying glass on the pictures of your room to ID the CDs,” he boasts of his work. For a character used to just receiving whatever he might ask for, he put a lot of work into earning Jessica’s trust. It is a grand romantic gesture.

However, the beauty of the way that Jessica Jones handles Kilgrave is to make it quite clear that all of this is self-serving justification. This becomes quite clear with the revelations in AKA Sin Bin, but the show plays entirely fair with the audience. No matter how charming David Tennant might be and no matter how many excuses Kilgrave can offer to explain his actions, the show repeatedly insists that Kilgrave is not an anti-hero or an anti-villain. He is not sympathetic or tragic. His crimes cannot be excused by a smile or a sob story.

After all, Kilgrave is perfectly happy to keep slaves in the house. He is quite happy to use those same slaves as hostages, using them to hold Jessica to ransom. He casually convinced Ruben to cut his own throat in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. He blackmailed Jessica into sending him daily pictures of herself at the end of AKA The Sandwich Saved Me. Although he made a point to buy the house fair and square in AKA You’re a Winner!, he still used his powers to order the owner to shut up and get out.

Even leaving aside that all of these grand gestures towards Jessica are part of an extended bluff, Kilgrave’s arguments are not at all convincing. Kilgrave does what he wants, and rationalises it away. After stopping a hostage situation, Kilgrave has a tidy solution. “Now that that’s done, put the barrel of the gun in your mouth,” he instructs the hostage-taker. When Jessica objects, he insists, “Look at him. The man’s clearly insane. He’ll never be a productive member of society.” He complains, “He will go to prison and feed off the tit of the tax payer…”

Jessica offers a very simple rebuttal of Kilgrave’s recycled “talking head” answer. “You’ve never paid a goddamn tax in your life,” she retorts. Kilgrave has no response. She is entirely correct. Jessica Jones suggests that all of Kilgrave’s arguments are similarly spurious and self-serving. When Kilgrave complains that his actions are a response to his parents, Jessica counters, “You blame sh!tty parenting? My parents died. You don’t see me raping anyone.” Suffering and pain is not a license to cause pain.

Kilgrave might innocently argue that he does not know any better as he attempts to deflect blame for his actions, but the truth is that the basics are not that difficult. “Don’t kill people just because they irritate you” is not a moral imperative that requires a lot of elaboration and explanation; it pretty much stands for itself. Kilgrave might have to watch out for accidental use of his powers, but there’s nothing to stop him immediately correcting himself and ordering people to go back to their business. These are all excuses.

Kilgrave argues from a position of power and entitlement. He doesn’t just believe that he can take whatever he wants, he believes that he deserves whatever he wants. “Oh, Jesus, Jessica,” he complains at one point. “A little appreciation wouldn’t kill anyone.” Kilgrave’s ego is all-consuming and all-demanding. At dinner, he boasts that he arranged to provide Jessica with her favourite dish. It turns out that Kilgrave has instead provided his own favourite dish. Kilgrave just assumes that his favourite is her favourite.

AKA WWJD? confronts the show’s obvious feminist subtext head-on. Throughout the season, Jessica Jones tends to dance around the specifics of what Kilgrave actually did. The first time that the show explicitly acknowledges Kilgrave as a rapist comes when Hope requests an abotionin AKA You’re a Winner!, almost half-way through the season. While the sexual elements of Kilgrave’s crimes are implicit from as early as AKA Ladies’ Night, the show is remarkably reluctant to describe Kilgrave’s actions as “rape.”

It is debatable about whether Jessica Jones actually needs to label Kilgrave’s crimes as rape. Applying the label repeatedly can seem tactless or blunt. As Melissa Rosenberg has pointed out, popular cultural is saturated with gratuitous depictions of sexualised violence toward women:

We’re very conscious to treat that aspect of the story with sensitivity and responsibility. For me, if I never see an actual rape on a screen again it’ll be too soon. It’s becoming ubiquitous, it’s become lazy storytelling and it’s always about the impact it has on the men around them. It’s like, “Oh his wife was raped and murdered so he’s going to go out and destroy the world.” That’s so often what it’s about, just this kind of de rigueur storytelling to spice up often male character.

It’s damaging. It’s just hideous messaging, and so coming into this, the events have already happened and this is really about the impact of rape on a person and about healing, survival, trauma and facing demons. To me it’s much richer territory. If you turn on any television show or, for that matter, film these days, nine out of 10 of them seem to open with a naked, tied-up, dead woman with her undies around her ankles. I think I’ve been calling them the NTSDs, which stands for naked, tied-up, dead, I can’t remember. They’ve just become so ubiquitous, it’s like numbing the audience to what is a horrific violation.

This is perfectly understandable. After all, what is the point in constructing a metaphor for trauma if the narrative is going to engage directly with the trauma itself? It is possible to tell a story about sexual violence without using the word “rape.”

However, there is also the simple fact that there are a lot of misconceptions about what is and is not rape. Studies suggest that nearly one in five male students (over eighteen percent) surveyed would commit rape so long as the actual word “rape” is not applied to the assault in question. Indeed, studies suggest that there is a tendency to ignore that coerced sex amounts to rape, perhaps as a result of misconceptions about rape requiring the use of physical assault or the explicit threat thereof rather than simply the absence of consent.

In that context, there is value in labeling Kilgrave’s actions as literal and unambiguous “rape”, for the same reason that there is value in critiquing the lyrics of Blurred Lines. There are a lot of popular misconceptions about what does and does not constitute rape, and making it clear that Kilgrave does not have to threaten his victims in order for his actions to qualify as rape. Indeed, while the first half of the season dances around the label, the show is sure to demonstrate affirmative consent in Jessica and Luke’s sexual interactions.

However the show might have danced around Kilgrave’s crime in earlier episodes, AKA WWJD? confronts the issue head-on. Jessica explicitly calls him out on it. Kilgrave’s introductory conversation with Jessica puts an emphasis on consent as the basis of any relationship. “I choose that you don’t touch me,” Jessica states. Kilgrave responds, “I promise I won’t touch you until I get your genuine consent.” Of course, he shouldn’t have to promise; the assumption should be taken for granted. That it isn’t makes the sequence even creepier.

Later, Jessica has enough of Kilgrave’s sanctimonious nonsense. “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands,” he offers, almost playfully. “Yeah, it’s called rape,” Jessica bluntly retorts. “Not only did you physically rape me, you violated every cell in my body and every thought in my head.” Kilgrave flinches at the description (“oh, how I hate that word!”), but it is entirely accurate. AKA WWJD? is refreshingly candid in its willingness to address the issue bluntly. After all, Kilgrave’s core power to overwhelm and negate consent; he is rape embodied.

Tellingly, Kilgrave’s attempts to defend himself are nothing more than rape apologism. Kilgrave acts as if he was somehow entitled to Jessica’s body. “What part of staying in five star hotels, eating at all the best places, doing whatever you wanted, is rape?” he demands, full of self-righteous anger. Jessica very simply responds, “The part where I didn’t want to do any of it.” Despite what some people might claim, context does not trump consent. Jessica did not want to have sex; that is all that needs to be said on the matter.

This gets at what is truly terrifying about Kilgrave as a character, and what makes him so unsettlingly effective as a villain. Kilgrave might have magic (and hazily-defined) superpowers, but he embodies a very real (and uncomfortably common) perspective in contemporary society. Kilgrave is representative of every “nice guy” who feels entitled to a woman’s body as a form of social currency. He is a more collected and outwardly suave version of the ambient misogyny that informed the twisted ramblings of people like Elliot Rodger.

Kilgrave is insidious and self-righteous, invested in the idea of his victims as vehicles for his own satisfaction and amusement rather than as people in their own right. Even his use of Jessica’s house is clearly intended as a simple exchange rather than a selfless gesture. Kilgrave is part of a timely discourse that needs to take place with regard to certain destructive male attitudes towards sex:

It should go without saying that women aren’t carnival prizes to be won. But just like with lots of things that should go without saying, it needs to be said, as there still seems to be some debate as to whether women are autonomous humans with the right to give as much or as little of themselves to people as they want. It should go without saying that there’s no outside arbiter of who “deserves” which woman, or of what one “deserves” to receive from a woman, because women get to decide for themselves. Indeed, it should go without saying, and yet …

As much difficulty as Jessica Jones might have integrating Kilgrave into the first half of the season, its work with the character in AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin demonstrates that the character is perhaps the perfect supervillain for twenty-first century pop culture. Even Kilgrave’s suggestion that Jessica has some moral duty to redeem him hits on these same entitlement issues.

Particularly remarkable if the way that AKA WWJD? explores the nuances of an abusive relationship. Abuse need not be physical and threats need not be direct. AKA WWJD? mirrors Jessica’s experience in the house with Kilgrave to that of the family held hostage at gunpoint; Kilgrave is perhaps more subtle in is machinations, but barely. Although Kilgrave does not (and cannot) use his powers against Jessica, he still manipulates her. The very act of buying and restoring the house is manipulation.

More than that, though, Kilgrave is able to use threats to keep Jessica under his thumb. He threatens to have his servants slit their own throats if Jessica gets out of line, or to have them peel their faces off if anything happens while he is gone, or to murder them if Jessica doesn’t come back. Indeed, the family home setting of AKA WWJD? suggests that abusive spouses need not even directly target their intended victims; how many partners stay with abusers to protect the other people in a family home?

Although AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin are largely showcases for David Tennant, Krysten Ritter does phenomenal work. Ritter is a gifted performer who carries a lot of the show with her ability to balance her wry comic timing with dramatic depth. Indeed, AKA WWJD benefits from the fact that both Tennant and Ritter are able to walk the fine line between flippant and serious, with Jessica and Kilgrave landing several one-liners that cross the line from horrifying to hilarious and back again.

It would be very easy for Jessica Jones to wallow in its own misery. In fact, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts come very close to doing just that. Certainly, there is enough trauma and tragedy to be found in the series that Jessica’s life might seem unbearably bleak. Nevertheless, the writers and performers make sure that the show offers just the right amount of warmth and (admittedly black) comedy to prevent the audience from plunging into darkness. The show manages that balancing act with deft skill.

AKA WWJD? is a superb piece of television, and a fantastic showcase for Krysten Ritter and David Tennant. However, Kilgrave is still playing the same poker game that began in the opening scene of AKA You’re a Winner! If that is the case, then the climax of AKA WWJD? is just the flop; the game is still to play for. But it’s getting exciting.

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

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10 Responses

  1. He’s a rare pedigree alright. He’s playing the Doctor here, just slightly tweaked, and It seems the writers are aware of Tennant’s history and charm and are using that to seduce the audience much like Killgrave snares his victims (a reaction to the baggage Tennant brings to the role than an narrative choice? A bit of both?)

    I do have an issue with the power dynamics on display here. Ritter. She is very likeable, and can portray hurt and innocence, but ‘righteous anger’ isn’t in her wheelhouse as this episode proves. And I’ll be damned if Tennant isn’t sucking the acting ability out of Ritter in every scene, like a BAFTA-winning vampire.

    You can argue Jessica’s age regression and impotence in the face of Killgrave’s thickheaded-yet-seemingly-bulletproof arguments is the whole point… Still, she’s the weakest actor in this ensemble and that’s a depressing realization for me.

    • I really like Ritter, actually. I think that she brings an uncertainty and insecurity to a lot of the righteous anger that sells it. Ritter plays Jessica as a character who doesn’t entirely believe she’s a good person, even though the evidence overwhelmingly points to “yes.” I think that boils through to her self-righteousness; there’s a sense that Jessica doesn’t feel she’s earned a lot of it, which just makes it sadder.

      I think the cast of Jessica Jones is generally very strong. There is maybe one truly weak actor in the cast, but I don’t see how any actor could salvage the part in question. (Then again, that’s the joy of a great performance, you never see it coming but it seems so obvious in hindsight. Tennant’s work here definitely counts.)

  2. “the rape pages are in!”

    Daaaaaaamn. Where do you dig up this stuff?

    I read a biography once called No Backup”, about a woman’s experiences working in the dudebro-dominated FBI. If even a tenth of that book was true, the whole culture was geared toward being the meanest, the crudest, and the most macho, and women were expected to exceed even those parameters if they want to fit in. This attitude blooms in our business culture, also. Can’t say I expected to find it in the offices of a kid’s magazine, though.

    • I tend to follow a lot of media blogs and stuff. I have been meaning to get back to comic book coverage a bit; it’s been years since I devoted a month to just reading and discussing comics.

      There were some truly horrifying stories in those accounts from inside the major companies. This is to say nothing about some of the other sexual politics of the industry. It’s horrifying, particularly when you assume that we should be getting better at this stuff over time.

      • If you value your stomach lining, maybe you should keep out of comics journalism. 😉 In some ways it never grew beyond the “Dark Age” of the nineties.

      • Don’t get me started on the bulk of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, which seemed to largely consist of the company realising that “comics sold well during the nineties, right?” and so flooding the market with questionable anatomy and grimdark storytelling.

  3. I can’t imagine all the research and fact-checking and hyper linking that goes into making these reviews! After reading this review I feel like I finally understand the specific feminist ideas behind the show. It also helps me see precisely why a Marvel show would want to actively include scenes of consensual sex as a positive contrast to the nightmare that is Kilgrave (and our awfully Kilgrave-like society).

    • Thanks Marc.

      Yeah, the research is tough. But somebody’s got to do it! (I feel like it makes these reviews unique in the larger context of Jessica Jones reviews. After all, there are dozens upon dozens of sites reviewing the show.)

      • “After all, there are dozens upon dozens of sites reviewing the show.”

        Yeah, but most of them are “rah-rah” reviews of the sort you find in Entertainment Weekly. It’s difficult to find an opinion which isn’t overwhelmingly positive — it’s not like movies or theatre. You don’t stand apart from the crowd as easily with television.

        For god’s sake, CSI Cyber got rave reviews until it became impossible to disguise how awful it was.

      • Really? I watched the first episode of that. It was terrible. And I say that as somebody who has built up a great deal of affection for CSI for reasons completely unrelated to the quality of the work in question.

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