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Jessica Jones – AKA Sin Bin (Review)

Kilgrave lies.

To be fair, that much should be obvious. Kilgrave is a character whose power hinges upon his ability to manipulate people using words. Of course he lies. Even his name is a lie. He lied to Jessica about the effectiveness of his powers, revealing that his decision not to control Jessica against her will wasn’t really a decision. He lies to everyone about his past, painting his concerned parents as cliché monsters. He lies to himself about his motivations, genuinely believing he is a victim in all of this.

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He also lies to the audience about his character, as AKA Sin Bin reveals Kilgrave is not a tragic and sympathetic antagonist with an explanatory childhood trauma after all. He is not the archetypal sympathetic bad guy whose actions can be explained away as the result of the horrible things that happened to him when he was a child. He is not the version of Wilson Fisk presented in Shadows in the Glass, a man who might have been a hero under other circumstances. Kilgrave is an unrepentant self-serving sociopath.

One of the joys of Jessica Jones is that the revelation that Kilgrave is unquestioning evil does not in any way make him a less complicated or compelling character.

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One of the more refreshing aspects of Jessica Jones is a tendency to play with and subvert some of the expectations engendered by more than a decade of exposure to superhero storytelling conventions. After all, even the basic structure of Jessica Jones rejects the basic superhero “origin story” template, essentially positioning itself as a superhero “retirement” story of sorts. More than that, even AKA The Sandwich Saved Me declined to reduce the title character to a traumatising series of cause and effect as a painted something like an origin story.

Jessica Jones wastes relatively little time outlining the mechanics of its central characters’ abilities. It is strongly suggested that neither Luke Cage nor Jessica Jones are able to rhyme off their basic superhero stats. AKA I’ve Got the Blues suggests that Jessica gained her mysterious powers in the accident that killed her parents, but doesn’t seem too concerned about the particulars. In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Luke Cage measures his unbreakability “on a scale of ‘I don’t know’ to ‘I don’t want to find out’.”

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Perhaps owing to the roots of the Silver Age in the tradition of science-fiction, there is a tendency to rank and categorise superheroes according to their abilities. There is a conscious desire to exhaustively outline the full range and depth of a character’s ability, to reduce their heroism to a set of vital statistics as if they were walking baseball cards. After all, Marvel and DC used to publish periodic “Who’s Who” collections that threatened to reduced characters to vital statistics. Fans argue about who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk.

To be fair, there are points at which this seems reasonable. In stories hinging on a character’s set of powers, having them suddenly reveal a new ability (or convenient nuance to an existing ability) can feel like a clumsy deus ex machina. Silver Age Superman is perhaps the best example of this, acquiring powers as the (crazy) plots demanded. There are also situations where it makes sense to reduce characters to metrics, like card or role-playing games. And “who would win…?” discussions are fun in their own way.

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However, Jessica Jones is singularly disinterested in the mechanics of its characters origins or superpowers. This makes sense; the plot doesn’t really hinge on it. Jessica’s final solution to Kilgrave in AKA Smile is well covered by generic “super-strength” without a need to quantify that super-strength. The developments involving Luke Cage in AKA Take a Bloody Number and AKA Smile extrapolate cleanly from “unbreakable skin” without having to worry about “how unbreakable.”

Jessica Jones is even decidedly ambiguous about how Kilgrave’s power works. It is clear from AKA It’s Called Whiskey that his power does not work over a telephone line, so it is not simply his voice. In AKA You’re a Winner!, Malcolm and Jessica ruminate on how exactly Kilgrave’s power actually works. Malcolm even asserts that it can’t be magic, either having never seen Thor or Thor: The Dark World or completely buying into the rather banal “sufficiently advanced pseudo-science” nonsense of the films. (Maybe Doctor Strange might do better.)

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Of course, this does create something of a plot hole. In AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, Simpson comes up with the idea of locking Kilgrave away in a sealed CDC chamber with a self-contained oxygen supply. This turns out to be precisely what is needed to prevent Kilgrave’s powers from working, which is just a tad convenient. To be fair “Kilgrave’s powers only work if you share the same air” seems like a reasonable guess, but his powers are so far outside any frame of reference that it seems reasonable to consider other possibilities.

Is it hypnosis based on eye contact? After all, the comic books did label the character “the Purple Man” and made the blind superhero Daredevil immune to his power. Although the comics would later suggest that Kilgrave’s power was based in “pheromones”, there was a long-standing visual motif of colouring his victims purple so as to indicate that they were under his influence. Is Kilgrave’s ability psychic like that of Charles Xavier? Sure Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arbitrarily insists that psychics don’t exist, but a sealed room would not stop him.

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When AKA Sin Bin offers some explanation of Kilgrave’s power, it is almost gloriously nonsensical. Kilgrave’s parents suggest that his mind control is linked somehow to “a virus” that was used “to repair his damaged DNA.” There is little explanation offered beyond that, with Jessica Jones almost reveling in how absurd that explanation is. How is the virus keyed to Kilgrave’s voice? How does a virus affect the brain so precisely? How does it act so quickly? How come it wears off and doesn’t try to replicate or reproduce like a real virus?

The truth is that tying Kilgrave’s power to a “virus” is just as ridiculous as tying that same power to “pheromones”; the idea of Kilgrave’s power as a virus just works better metaphorically. It allows the characters to refer to “the Kilgrave virus”, suggesting that Kilgrave is an infectious or corrosive agent. It allows the characters to talk about immunity and vaccination in a metaphorical framework. It also fits quite comfortably with the idea that Kilgrave represents a very modern strain of institutionalised misogyny.

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The idea that Kilgrave is literally “viral” serves to connect the character to a particularly twenty-first century strand of aggressive misogyny, the type of institutionalised sexism that spreads rapidly on-line through Facebook or Twitter. Simple tweets can promote a barrage of death and rape threats, where it seems like on-line lynch mobs are willing to manifest with the slightest provocation. The “viral Kilgrave” metaphor suggested by AKA Sin Bin is just as relevant and timely as the discussion of the nature of consent in AKA WWJD?

Even this delightfully vague pseudo-scientific explanation for Kilgrave proves to be something of a red herring from Jessica Jones. Revealing Kilgrave is (or uses) a virus suggests the possibility of a cure or a vaccine. In fact, his father spends AKA 1,000 Cuts working on just that; this suggestion is buoyed by the fact that Jessica demonstrates an immunity to Kilgrave at the climax of AKA Sin Bin. This would be a standard superhero narrative set-up and pay-off; the introduction of a pseudo-scientific explanation building to a pseudo-scientific pay-off.

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However, Jessica Jones subverts this. There is no chemical cure or no synthesised vaccine; at least not in the limited time afforded to Kilgrave’s father. There is no magical chemical that Jessica can give Luke to cure him in AKA Take a Bloody Number and Trish still ends up under Kilgrave’s power at the climax of AKA Smile. Although Jessica is immune (and remains immune) to Kilgrave, there is never an attempt at a technobabble explanation for that immunity. It is not about made-up viruses or pseudo-science nonsense. It never was.

Jessica Jones never explicitly spells out how or why Jessica was immune to Kilgrave, but that is kind of the point. The refusal to develop a one-size-fits all magical cure for Kilgrave’s misogyny is an important statement for the show to make. There is no easy way to escape an abusive relationship, no chemical name or biological label that can be applied to the moment in which a survivor is freed from an abuser’s spell. Some victims never break free, and it is not because there is anything lacking or missing from them or their experience.

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So all the nonsensical pseudo-science tied into Kilgrave’s powers serves as a clever attempt to wrong-foot the audience, to set-up an expectation and then make a storytelling choice that deliberately upsets that expectation. There is no easy answer for why Jessica could break Kilgrave’s control but Simpson and Luke could not. These sorts of stories do not have clear-cut and tidy resolutions in real life, so offering clear-cut and tidy resolutions to allegorical explorations of these stories can seem a little trite.

(It is worth contrasting the “Kilgrave is a virus” elements of AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts with the “Kilgrave has a weakness” plots of AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Both are narrative dead-ends, with neither having a substantive impact on the climax of the show. However, while “Kilgrave has a weakness” feels like an effort to stall for time and keep Kilgrave involved in the plot, “Kilgrave is a virus” serves a valid thematic purpose. In its own way, how Jessica won’t defeat Kilgrave is as important as how she does.)

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As much as AKA Sin Bin sets up one nice subversion of comic book storytelling conventions, it also draws down on another. In the middle of its season, Jessica Jones seems to toy with the suggestion that Kilgrave might conform to that most obvious of comic book villainy clichés, that Kilgrave might have been a monster created by childhood trauma whose misdeeds are the result of a tragic life. It has become the stock way of fleshing out comic book badguys, rendering them as something approaching anti-villains.

Although it is an old literary trope, the idea of explaining a comic book villain’s megalomania through historical trauma can probably be traced back to Chris Claremont’s reinvention of Magneto. For most of his early appearances, Magneto was portrayed as little more than a super-powered racist intent on elevating mutant-kind over humanity. What little characterisation Magneto had beyond two-dimensional cartoonish villainy was rooted in his “mutant superiority” rhetoric. He was hardly the most nuanced of characters in those years.

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Claremont hit upon the idea of giving Magneto a back story and history that explained his villainy in understandable terms. Claremont reinvented Magneto as a holocaust survivor who had watched his beloved murdered by racist humans, thus explaining his cynical outlook. Although still a violent terrorist with sociopathic tendencies, Claremont rendered Magneto as something approaching an anti-villain. It was possible to empathise and understand the character in a way that extended beyond his previous two-dimensional villiany.

Indeed, Magneto even joined (and led) the X-Men for a couple of years. He established his own mutant nation. Various writers have gone back and forth as to just how sympathetic Magneto is – with Grant Morrison describing Magneto in no uncertain terms as “a mad old terrorist twat.” Nevertheless, this sympathetic version of the character has become his default depiction. Appropriately enough, Bryan Singer carried this element over into his X-Men films, creating what was (at the time) an incredibly nuanced antagonist.

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In the years since, the idea of a comic book villain whose brutality can be explained away as a result of past trauma has become extremely popular. There is not necessarily anything inherently wrong with it; it is a great way of quickly and effectively adding nuance to an antagonist. Batman Begins offered an effective example with the character of Ra’s Al Ghul, allowing the character to spend the first third of the run as a surrogate father to Bruce before revealing his true face. Even Man of Steel rendered the genocidal General Zod as tragic.

Daredevil is instructive here. In many ways, Jessica Jones cleverly structures itself as a twisted mirror to the much more conventional superhero story of Daredevil. In dealing with the character of Wilson Fisk, Daredevil largely took its cues from Frank Miller. (The show took a lot of cues from Frank Miller in general.) The show invested considerable energy in building up the show’s antagonist as a tragic figure. The season’s eighth episode, Shadows in the Glass, offered something of a justification for why Fisk behaves the way that he does.

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Jessica Jones hints at doing something similar. The season’s eighth episode, AKA WWJD?, spend more time humanising Kilgrave than anything that came before. It allows Kilgrave to expand (at length) upon his history and philosophy. Kilgrave was able to explain that he grew up without parents to teach him the difference between right and wrong, that he was abandoned as a child, that he was subject to horrific abuse. Kilgrave claims that he could do good if Jessica were just willing to help him learn how.

Of course, the show consistently hints that Kilgrave is manipulating the truth somewhat. AKA WWJD? never plays down the horror and brutality of what Kilgrave does; it never pretends that he isn’t abusive of Jessica just because he doesn’t (or can’t) use his powers on her. Kilgrave doesn’t order her to stay, but he does render her a hostage in the house. Similarly, Kilgrave is very clearly putting on an act. AKA WWJD? contrasts how Kilgrave behaves with around Jessica with how he behaves around his slaves.

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However, AKA Sin Bin carries this idea to its ultimately conclusion, revealing that Kilgrave’s sad story about childhood abuse is really a lie concocted to make him seem sympathetic. It works quite well, playing on certain inherent sympathies; child abuse tends to generate immediate emotional responses. Although AKA Sin Bin reveals that Jessica saw through a lot of Kilgrave’s other lies and does not excuse his actions, the episode also makes it clear that his story of an abuse trauma manages to garner sympathy from both Jessica and Trish.

Watching the footage play back, even Trish feels sorry for Kilgrave; she suggests that his childhood trauma might have been worse than her own relationship with her abusive mother. Although Jessica would never admit as much to Kilgrave himself, she does seem to blame Kilgrave’s parents for turning him into a monster. “If your parenting didn’t make him a sociopath,” she accuses, “your lack of it did.” Even without his powers, Kilgrave still controls the narrative unfolding around him.

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There is something quite clever in all this; as much as Kilgrave manages to fool Jessica and Trish, he also manages to catch the audience somewhat off guard. Despite the fact that the show is quite clear that Kilgrave is a fundamentally horrible person, the show is structured in such a way that even the audience comes to feels a little sympathetic or compassionate toward him over the first half of the episode. It seems like Kilgrave’s manipulation bleeds through the camera. He plays with genre expectations to catch the audience off-guard.

AKA Sin Bin seems to tease this idea out. The narratives playing through the interrogation scenes in the eponymous “Sin Bin” are cleverly nested. The recordings of Kilgrave’s trauma are literally projected on to the wall behind him; the episode puts a screen between Kilgrave and the rest of the cast; Kilgrave is filmed on camera through footage simultaneously broadcast on a monitor. It renders Kilgrave entirely performative. It is not as overt as the Purple Man breaking the fourth wall at the start of the final issue of Alias, but it is clever.

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Of course, AKA Sin Bin reveals that Kilgrave is manipulating the truth to make himself sympathetic; judiciously editing the narrative to engender sympathy. It is quite similar to some of the creative decisions earlier in the season that disguised Kilgrave’s true intent and hinted at redemption. The sequence of Kilgrave buying the house in AKA You’re a Winner! without using his powers initially looked like the character was trying to be a better person. In hindsight, it seems he was practising to deal with Jessica.

The same is true of his promise not to use his powers on Jessica in AKA WWJD? It initially appeared like a gesture of deference and respect to her, as if to suggest that he realised that what he did to her was wrong. However, the climax of AKA Sin Bin reveals the gesture was meaningless. Kilgrave’s promise not to control Jessica was empty, as he could not control her at all. The same is true of his promise not to touch her; if he tried to touch her, Jessica could just as easily snap his neck. The gesture is motivated by self-preservation rather than respect.

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Kilgrave does something similar with his own history here. He reduces a complex situation to a comic book archetype. Indeed, Jeri sarcastically refers to Kilgrave’s parents as both “evil scientists” and “mad scientists.” Confronting them in a hotel room, Jessica accuses, “You tried to play God.” The truth is much more complicated than Kilgrave makes it appear. Just as Jessica’s psychology cannot be reduced to a single formative trauma, Kilgrave is not a stock tragic anti-villain.

“We tried to save him!” Kilgrave’s mother insists. “Kevin was born with a degenerative neural disease. He’d have been braindead before he reached twelve. His only hope was an experimental study using a virus to repair his damaged DNA.” She clarifies, “We loved our son. We wanted a cure and we found one. We didn’t know about the side effects until…” If anything, it is suggested that Kilgrave made his parents continue running the tests to make his power even stronger.

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“All the tests they did on him were to save his life,” Jessica clarifies later in the episode. “Kilgrave tortured them. Everything he said was a lie.” In AKA Take a Bloody Number, Kilgrave orders his father to continue those experiments on him; this leads to a repeat of the harrowing scene from the recordings of the family taking a spinal tap from the young boy. (One of the more interesting motifs of Jessica Jones is the tendency for trauma to recur, for things that were once broken to keep breaking.)

AKA Sin Bin reinforces the idea that Kilgrave’s powers are more than just abilities; they represent a manifestation of himself. Kilgrave is inseparable from his powers. Even while insulated from his ability to cloud their minds, the primary cast are entirely susceptible to Kilgrave’s ability to manipulate the truth to serve his own ends. Even powerless and helpless, Kilgrave is still able to manipulate the narrative. “He didn’t have to tell me to do a goddamn thing and he had all the control,” Jessica reflects.

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In its own way, AKA Sin Bin is perhaps the biggest “blockbuster” episode of the season. Indeed, AKA Sin Bin features some phenomenally high stakes sustained across the length of the episode; featuring an impressive array of moving parts, the episode builds to a devastating climax that feels all the more powerful for how inevitable and telegraphed it is. There is an impressive amount of plot choreography involved in getting the climax to pay off in exactly the way that it does. However, it feels (mostly) elegant rather than contrived.

Kilgrave’s escape is exhilarating television, because it counts on so many elements coming together in just the right way. Jeri has to be desperate enough to cut the conductor wire. The story thread involving Jeri’s divorce is very clearly all building to manoeuvre her into that position. It is a lot of set-up, particularly since Jeri first asked Jessica to dig up the dirty back in AKA 99 Friends. The plot requires Jeri to be just desperate enough to be reckless without experience a sudden drop in intelligence.

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Whether AKA Sin Bin actually accomplishes this is debatable, but it makes a convincing case. Jeri has never seen Kilgrave’s power in effect, and her self-image is strong enough that it is plausible she’d believe herself immune to his powers or able to maintain control. More than that, Jeri is not stupid enough to actually help Kilgrave escape or willingly share the same air as him. She just sabotages the implement of torture that Simpson created and Jessica used. It would seem a prudent decision for any lawyer wanting to avoid getting tied up in that.

Jeri is fighting to keep what she has left of both her reputation and her material wealth. “The real world is not about happy endings,” Jeri advises Hope at one stage, in what feels like a thesis statement for the show. “It’s about taking the life you have and fighting like hell to keep it.” Jeri is offering an insightful summary of the show’s themes regarding the best response to trauma, but Jeri is also outlining her own motivations with regard to the divorce. Her motivations all stem from that argument.

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(Arguably, the most unbelievable aspect of AKA Sin Bin concerns the false dilemma that the show offers with regards to Hope’s plea bargain. The show suggests that Hope’s plea bargain is an all-or-nothing gambit. In most cases, this would be true. However, if Jessica can prove that Kilgrave’s power exists, it doesn’t matter whether Hope took the deal or not; the deal would be overturned and Hope would be freed. No politician would want to be the wrong side of that case, if Kilgrave’s power could be proven to exist.)

Jeri has been portrayed as a character whose weakness is related to her need to be in complete control of any given situation; her initial assessment of Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night focused on Jessica’s unreliability. Given Jeri is facing the prospect of getting disbarred for bribing a juror, it makes sense she wouldn’t want to be implicated in torture. On top of that, Jeri already has reason to be frustrated with (and even sceptical of) Jessica given how little she has followed through on her promises.

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Jeri is one of the more interesting characters in Jessica Jones, in that she is the character who spends the longest time isolated from Kilgrave. Jeri’s character threads run through the first eight episodes of the season completely separate from Kilgrave, unlike any of the other major characters. It has the effect of insulating her from the show’s narrative through line for most of the thirteen-episode run. In fact, Jeri’s arc largely resolves with events of AKA 1,000 Cuts, although AKA Smile offers firmer closure.

Jeri’s divorce storyline is an interesting beast, because it only really overlaps with the primary plot in AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts, despite being seeded as early as AKA Crush Syndrome. It seems to serve lots of little purposes rather than a singular big purpose. It is interesting on a purely conceptual level, adding much-needed diversity to the Marvel universe. It also exists to make Jeri seem more like a character than a stereotypical lawyer, but it also plays into the show’s key themes about abuse and control.

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Although they appear to be more together than Jessica’s liaisons, Jeri’s relationships are ultimately quite toxic. Jeri’s relationships are obviously quite different from Kilgrave’s, but Jeri is not above leveraging her power to get what she wants and is certainly not above manipulation to assure the desired outcome. Jeri’s attempts to offer Pam “leftover romance” by taking her to the restaurant where she proposed to her ex-wife in AKA 99 Friends is perhaps comparable to Kilgrave’s attempts to recreate Jessica’s childhood home in AKA WWJD?

In many ways, Jeri is also a mirror to Jessica. Jessica projects a practiced cynicism and disinterest to conceal her compassion and empathy; her obvious affection for Malcolm in the early episodes is proof, as is her reluctance to walk away from Hope. Jessica’s cold exterior is largely feigned. In contrast, Jeri actually is that cold and disengaged; she only agrees to help Hope Slottman because Jessica promises her a “favour”, and seems to expect Jessica to deliver on that “favour” even in the middle of her hunt for a mind-controlling rapist.

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Carrie-Anne Moss does excellent work in a role that could easily seem two-dimensional or cliché. Jessica Jones really does benefit from a very strong ensemble, with Moss embuing Jeri with a strong sense of purpose. As played by Moss, Jeri understands exactly what she wants out of things; she may be the second-best poker player in the cast. Moss does a great job reconciling the character’s inconsistencies; her power with her insecurity, her respect for Jessica with her frustration, her skepticism of Kilgrave’s power against her clear fascination with it.

A recurring theme across the season is the idea that people with no first-hand knowledge of Kilgrave tend to dismiss him. Trish seems to have believed Jessica before encountering Kilgrave first-hand, but she is the exception rather than the rule. Even Luke Cage, who is consistently portrayed as a considerate and reliable romantic partner, offers a somewhat tepid “[he’d] believe that [Jessica] believed it” before he encounters Kilgrave first-hand in AKA Take a Bloody Number. Of course, the audience has already seen his power first-hand.

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In its own way, this is a very effective way of tying Kilgrave back to the metaphor of abuse. Studies suggest that victims of abuse are routinely dismissed and disbelieved. Assault investigations are routinely turned into “he said”/“she said” arguments. Victims are often reflexively accused of (and even punished for) fabricating “unfounded” assault charges, even though statistics suggest that men are more likely to be victims of a sexual assault than to be accused of one. The arbitrary scepticism about Kilgrave plays into the themes of the season.

Even if Jeri does believe that Kilgrave has the power of suggestion, she also has reason to doubt Jessica’s account of events. From Jeri’s perspective, Kilgrave is a helpless man beaten to a pulp by Jessica; even if he has powers, he is not strong enough to protect himself. In AKA 99 Friends, Jeri seemed to suggest Kilgrave’s use of his power was pedestrian; she suggests loftier ambitions for such a man. It makes sense she would not consider him a threat, based on what she had seen and experienced directly.

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More than that, AKA Sin Bin is careful to ensure that Jeri is not solely responsible for Kilgrave’s escape. Even though Jessica can no longer incapacitate him, he is still trapped in the chamber. Indeed, Jessica goes in to stop him. Given Jessica is immune to his power, that would likely have been enough to stop Kilgrave’s escape in its tracks. The problem is that nobody but Kilgrave has realised that Jessica is immune to his power, prompting Trish to intervene, using the gun she received from Simpson in AKA 99 Friends.

It really is a perfect storm of characters operating at cross-purposes from each other, without access to all the relevant information. Kilgrave does not escape because he is an evil genius who has anticipated every eventuality. He survives by the skin of his teeth because events come together in just the right manner. This could arguably be seen as another sly subversion of Kilgrave’s practiced super villain persona. Although Kilgrave cultivates an image of himself as the devil in the minds of his victims, the show suggests he is something of a human cockroach.

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That said, AKA Sin Bin does offer a reflection of a standard blockbuster plot device. AKA Sin Bin represents the point (usually in the second act) at which the heroes appear to have the villain at their mercy only for a shocking reversal. The most common iteration of this trope has the villain masterminding an escape:

In most cases, the Villain Who Wants To Get Caught plot comes in the middle of the film. It’s a nice middle act. After the set up in which the villain is established as a serious threat, there’s a big battle to capture the villain, followed by the stand off between hero and villain. Then the villain escapes, accomplishes whatever goal his fake capture was supposed to accomplish, at which point the third act begins and the hero fights his way back to victory.

Appropriately enough given the show’s psychological thriller elements, The Silence of the Lambs offers perhaps the most iconic example. However, this structural choice was popularised by The Dark Knight. It has since turned up in The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness and Skyfall, among others.

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It was a trope that was arguably more effective when it was less common. In contemporary blockbusters, it often feels like an obligatory structural element; it is almost an expected as a second act complication, allowing the hero and villain the opportunity to trade insightful observations before raising the stakes going into the final third of the story. It is telling that while The Silence of the Lambs allowed Hannibal to slip gracefully off-stage, most modern blockbusters have the hero defeat and/or kill the villain in the third act as redemption.

There are certainly elements of Kilgrave’s escape in AKA Sin Bin that feel contrived. Most obviously, this is Kilgrave’s second of three escapes over the middle stretch of the season. While AKA Sin Bin represents Jessica’s most effective “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” moment, it is undercut by the sense that Kilgrave keeps getting captured and escaping to extend the plot to thirteen episodes. This cements the sense that the season arc of Jessica Jones might not be quite enough to sustain a full thirteen episodes.

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There is a slight element of irony to all this. After all, David Tennant’s most iconic role includes a three-season (four-year) stint in the lead role on Doctor Who. During the show’s earlier incarnation, the extended multi-part serials were frequently criticised for their “capture and escape” elements. In order to draw a six- (or even four-) part story out, the Doctor would inevitably go through a formulaic series of captures and escapes. Tennant never quite had a “capture and escape” story during his time on the show… so it’s nice to see him get it now.

However, the familiarity of the plot device aside and the fact that Jessica Jones employs it a little too often for its own good, the climax of AKA Sin Bin is compelling television. It is quite clear that Kilgrave has to escape; there are four episodes left in the season. The climax is inevitable. Nevertheless, there is something satisfying about watching all the pieces slide comfortably into place. AKA Sin Bin is not cobbled together as an act of desperation on the part of a writing staff looking to get out of a corner, it instead ties a whole bunch of threads together.

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As much as story threads like giving Trish the gun or putting Jeri through a painful divorce all build towards this pay-off, they are seeded and threaded well enough in advance that they never feel conspicuous. They never feel like they exist solely so the show can have this moment. Jessica’s botched threatening of Jeri’s ex-wife in AKA Top Shelf Perverts pushed the divorce plot into its endgame, but also served a purpose in its own right of demonstrating how desperate Jessica was at that point.

Similarly, Simpson giving Trish the gun in AKA 99 Friends was not just about getting it into this scene, but building trust between those characters. Even within the climax of AKA Sin Bin, the sequence pays a great deal of attention to detail; Trish emptying her pistol into the glass means that the gun is empty when Kilgrave orders her to put one in her head, allowing the climax a moment of incredible tension and a quick “get out of jail free” clause with regards to paying off that tension. (Jessica’s solution in AKA 1,000 Cuts is also very clever.)

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Indeed, for all the problems that Jessica Jones has structuring its opening and closing acts, AKA Sin Bin works well as set-up on its own terms. AKA Sin Bin essentially finds Jessica trapping Kilgrave in a position of what appears to be vulnerability that he converts to strength. This is rather shrewdly mirrored in the final scene of AKA Smile, when Kilgrave manoeuvres Jessica into a position of what appears to be vulnerability that he converts to strength. Along with recurring motifs like the broken door, Jessica Jones is very good at playing with its own iconography.

There are points at which Jessica Jones skirts along the edge of contrivance. It feels awfully convenient that Kilgrave’s mother just happened to hear about the support group, that she travelled to attend it, and that Jessica actually remembered her. However, the script acknowledges this contrivance. “Still think she looks familiar?” Trish asks upon finding Jessica studying the picture. “It’s impossible, right?” Jessica responds. Nevertheless, it happens to be true and provide enough material to spur on the rest of the plot around it.

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It is a very convenient revelation, arguably much more convenient than Jeri’s desperation happening to overlap with Kilgrave’s return in just the right way. Nevertheless, it fits with the themes of the season. Jessica Jones has touched repeatedly upon the communities and bonds that happen to form in New York. This idea of lives tied together by an almost living urban environment has played across the season; most obviously in bringing Jessica Jones and Luke Cage together, given their shared abilities and their shared history.

It is fair to argue that such contrivances are forced; that this New York designed to bring people together is a convenient tool for writers struggling to justify the next plot twist. Indeed, AKA Sin Bin reveals another spectacular coincidence that goes all the way back to AKA It’s Called Whiskey, revealing that Kilgrave by sheer coincidence just happened to send a member of a secret super soldier programme to kill Trish Walker. Then again, this is the Marvel universe; it often feels like a character cannot throw a stone without hitting a secret super soldier programme.

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Despite its faults and its holes, AKA Sin Bin is a fantastic piece of television – much like the series around it. It wonderful continuation of the show’s sustained climax. If offers a clever subversion of the cliché tragic villain without undermining or eroding that antagonist. Kilgrave remains one of the most unsettling and effective comic book villains ever brought to the screen without recourse familiar superhero storybeats. AKA Sin Bin represents the climax of the season’s climax.

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

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4 Responses

  1. This one made me uncomfortable. I guess it’s a success, then.

    My money’s on Bobby Tisdell as next season’s villain, assuming he hasn’t appeared on Daredevil already. (I’d love to see Typhoid Mary, but I’m assuming she’s earmarked for Daredevil.)

    • Ha! Talk about your esoteric baddies who are perfectly appropriate for the story at hand! That said, I suspect that season two might run with IGH. I suspect it’s the “inhuman-for-mutant” version of MGH, which would really be one of the few workable storylines from Alias that the production team could use for a hypothetical second season. (You could even do that story about the girl who ran away as part of that.)

      With Daredevil, you have years of material to draw on, to the point I’m surprised they seem to be taking so long to get to Born Again. (Although the Punisher/Elektra suggests we’re working through leftover Frank Miller stuff first.) But I am genuinely curious about how a second season of Alias would actually look. (And a second season of Iron Fist, assuming they use the Brubaker/Fraction/Aja run as inspiration.)

      • Me, too. I haven’t read Alias, as you might have guessed (I guess you’re a Marvel, and I’m a DC!), but didn’t the series conclude with the defeat of the Purple Man?

        More importantly, this season has been so completely defined by David Tennant. He makes a stab at turning it into a one-man show — a one-man show based off a more famous performance from 7 years ago! It’s still thinly-sketched. Can it survive without a big name?

        I enjoyed JJ, but it didn’t leave me hungry for more.

      • I’m both a Marvel and a DC! Although I’ll admit to having a hard time with the New 52. Not because I disagree with the concept or was particularly attached to the concept. More than the books generally aren’t good enough. (Although I did love Soule’s Swamp Thing and Lemire’s Green Arrow, and am digging Snyder’s Batman and enjoying Johns’ Justice League.)

        I would recommend giving Alias a go, though. The Defenders seem to be drawing a lot from early millennial Marvel Knights/Max stuff, which is one of my favourite Marvel eras. Bendis/Brubaker Daredevil, Bendis Alias, Ennis Punisher. I’d even group Brubaker/Fraction/Aja Iron Fist in there as well. All well worth a read, particularly given some other books (the usually reliable X-Men/Spider-Man lines) were going through turmoil at that point.

        (Although my favourite DC era would be about the “One Year Later” mark. Lots of great stuff there from Morrison’s Batman to Dini’s Detective to Johns’ Action Comics and Green Lantern to smaller stuff like Cornell’s Action Comics and Simone’s Secret Six.)

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