AKA 1,000 Cuts continues to toy with the conventions of the superhero genre.
The revelations about Kilgrave’s past in AKA Sin Bin represented a rejection of the psychology traditionally applied to comic book villains, creating a villain who could not blame his sociopathic tendencies on a convenient childhood trauma. AKA 1,000 Cuts plays upon another standard genre convention, the idea of the superhero who doesn’t kill. In terms of superhero storytelling, the old “thou shalt not kill” rule is always a reliable source of existential angst for a suitably ambiguous hero.
As with many of the conventions toyed with on Jessica Jones, the trope is played relatively straight on Daredevil. Again, there is a sense of Jessica Jones as something of a playful twisted response to Daredevil, often subverting or undermining many of the genre conventions that Daredevil so skilfully embodied. At this point in the first season of Daredevil, Matt Murdock was wrestling with the question of whether or not to murder Wilson Fisk. Much hand-wringing and angst resulted, playing into the show’s masculine Catholic aesthetic.
While Daredevil seemed anchored in moral absolutes, Jessica Jones opts for a much more pragmatic and relativist solution. The question posed by Jessica Jones is not whether killing Kilgrave can be justified; the show embraces that reality quite skilfully in AKA 1,000 Cuts. The question is what it takes to justify it. AKA 1,000 Cuts offers a fairly harrowing answer.
AKA 1,000 Cuts is a fairly gut-wrenching piece of television. There is a staggering brutality to the episode, which does a fairly efficient job of thinning the show’s recurring cast. Over the course of the hour, AKA 1,000 Cuts begins the process of trimming the show’s extended ensemble as a way narrowing focus before pushing into the final three hours. There is a pragmatism to all of this, a sense that Jessica Jones is consciously trying to get its ducks in a row as it pushes towards the inevitable conclusion.
While the actual effectiveness of this cull is open to debate, given where these episodes choose to invest their focus, it is a bold and confident move that helps carry over narrative momentum from AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin. The show is consciously barreling towards its final handful of episodes, and jettisoning those characters who are now surplus to requirement helps to tighten the narrative while lightening the load. AKA 1,000 Cuts ensures that there is no divorce or prison subplot to dilute the final three episodes.
AKA 1,000 Cuts kills off three recurring players who have been developed to varying degrees. The repeated assertion that Detective Clemons was only two years away from retirement in AKA Top Shelf Perverts and AKA Sin Bin comes back to bite him in the ass, his role coming to an end with a bullet to the head. Jeri’s subplot wraps up with Wendy dead and Pam in custody. Jessica finally loses Hope, both literally, and figuratively. These deaths are surprisingly effective, even if they are pragmatic.
Indeed, it is worth considering what the default mode of consumption is for a Netflix show, whether they are intended to be consumed as individual episodes or as part of a binge. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones have struggled with this, often feeling like an attempt to balance the episodic demands of digestible fifty-minute chunks of television with the binge experience of a thirteen-hour feature film. Their strengths differ; Daredevil has a stronger opening act, while Jessica Jones does better in its middle third.
AKA 1,000 Cuts works well enough when watched episodically, as part of a more relaxed viewing experience spread over the course of days or weeks. However, the episode is most effective when watched as part of a more concentrated “binge” session. There is a sense that “binge” watching is still such a novelty that the rules are largely unwritten. Free of the constraints of network scheduling or week-long buffering, the narrative rules of television change. Structuring a show for this release model is much different than planning a show for a television network.
In many ways, structuring a television show for the Netflix model of distribution poses quite a challenge for producers and showrunners. It invests a lot more power in the consumer than in the distributor; once the shows are released, the audience is free to set their mode and rate of consumption. The show won’t necessarily premiere on a big screen or a television set; viewers might watch it for the first time on their phones or their laptops. They might greedily gobble the show up or consume it in bite-sized chunks. They may do both.
The Netflix distribution model is really just an extension of the television revolution that began with the mass success of DVD at the turn of the millennium. DVD allowing audiences to consume television shows at their own pace in their own way, largely free from the constraints imposed by network television. However, DVD was always a secondary mode of release; although shows like 24 and Firefly found bigger audiences on DVD than on television, they were designed first-and-foremost for the network television system.
Arriving nine hours into a thirteen-hour session, this is the point at which the audience will be feeling most fatigued; the novelty of the set-up has been somewhat worn out, the end is just over the horizon. The audience needs something to refocus their attention. AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts offer quite a jolt of televisual caffeine. AKA Sin Bin builds to a terrifically tense climax, with AKA 1,000 Cuts providing a series of sharp jabs that befits its title. It might be the show’s shrewdest (if slightly cynical) structural choice.
Of course, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts also serve a clearer narrative purpose than simply streamlining the show’s narrative and waking the audience up. The two episodes serve to meditate on one of the core themes of the superhero genre, exploring the classic “no kill” rule that provides so much tension in so many adaptations. After all, Superman’s decision to execute Zod at the climax of Man of Steel generated almost as much controversy as the devastation wrought on Metropolis during their confrontation.
Barring aberrations like Batman or Batman Returns, most superhero narratives tend to adhere to the principle that costumed vigilantes should not resort to lethal force when taking down the antagonist. Exceptions seem to be tolerated in the heat of battle (as at the climaxes of Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3) or dealing with faceless aliens and robots (The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron), but there is a tendency to have villains conveniently commit suicide to avoid implicating the hero (as in Spider-Man and Spider-Man II).
There is, of course, something quite odd about this. Audiences do not blink when John McClane or James Bond murder villains or henchmen with reckless abandon. It could be argued that – as a police office and a secret agent, respectively – the use of force by McClare and Bond can be justified as an exercise of lawful authority. However, this tends to gloss over the fact that police are routinely trained to seem non-violent resolutions and that James Bond has a tendency to go on killing sprees of his own initiative.
It could be argued that superheroes are intended to exist as paragons of moral virtue, as exemplars and symbols of better ways of resolving problems. After all, Clark Kent is called “Superman” for a reason. This is fair, but it glosses over a lot of particular context. For all his bright iconography, Thor is a god worshiped by the Vikings. While he might be dressed in red, white and blue, Captain America is a soldier who fought in the Second World War. Bruce Banner turns into a giant green rage monster. These heroes seem like they’d lend themselves to killing.
However, whenever the topic is actually brought up, it seems like there is a knee-jerk rejection of the idea of superheroes committing premeditated killing. Although many would argue that this position is rooted in the infamous neutering of the industry by the Comics Code Authority in the wake of the whole Seduction of the Innocent scandal, professional “Batmanologist” Chris Sims argues that the real reason is just tied to the medium and genre itself:
A lot of people who haven’t actually read a lot of Golden Age super-hero comics tend to assume this was the sinister, meddling influence of the Comics Code. That was certainly a factor later on, but it’s not the case at the beginning. Batman’s change from gun-toting vigilante to non-killing super-hero actually hit the comics a full ten years before the Code was put into place. It’s more likely that it was just a shrewd business move to appeal to a younger audience — and to reassure the parents who were actually buying these things that their characters were solid, upstanding role models and not a filthy commie plot to corrupt America’s youth.
There’s another good reason for it, too. Unlike most other genres in other media, super-hero comics aren’t generally designed to be finite. Even when they are, that’s no guarantee that someone won’t eventually try to wring a little more cash out of them by exploiting the property anyway, but that’s something you can read about elsewhere. The point is, a successful comic isn’t usually supposed to end. Unless it’s specifically built with an ending in mind, it’s supposed to keep going for as long as people want to pay money to read it. And when your protagonist kills his enemies, it’s pretty difficult to have a recurring villain.
It is certainly a fair point. After all, the history of Batman would be pretty dull if Batman just snapped the Joker’s neck at the end of Batman #1 back in Spring 1940. It is very difficult for a character like the Punisher to cultivate an impressive rogues’ gallery given his methodology; indeed, there is an argument to be made that one of the biggest difficulty in telling long-form Punisher stories is the fact that his solutions to problems tend to be quite… final.
Superhero movies have traditionally been a lot more relaxed about the whole “no kill” rule because they were traditionally approached as finite units of story. The Joker and the Penguin could die at the end of Batman and Batman Returns because the studio wasn’t yet trying to build a massive blockbuster universe in which those characters might be expected to cameo for the next decade or so. In contrast, it makes sense for Thor to keep Loki around because the character can appear in a half-dozen other movies.
Given that one of the more interesting aspects of Marvel’s brand management has been in appropriating comic book narrative conventions into film and television, it would make sense to this attitude creeping gradually into their work. The real reason that Matt Murdock can’t kill Wilson Fisk is because the production team might want to use him in a loose adaptation of Born Again or Shadowland at some point in the franchise’s future. Keeping villains around for future appearances is perfectly rational.
There are a whole host of reasons to want to keep these baddies alive. These thirteen-episode seasons have done a much better job at realising complex and multi-faceted antagonists than any of the studio’s feature films. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk and David Tennant’s Kilgrave are not just among the very best villains of the Marvel cinematic universe, they rank with Ian McKellan/Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler as some of the best live action comic book villains ever.
The possibility of a Netflix “Masters of Evil” built around Wilson Fisk’s Kingpin, David Tennant’s Purple Man and Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah sounds much more compelling than anything involving Thanos or the Infinity Gems. So there is an understandable creative tension there, a clear desire to resist killing the villains because they are so damn good and the structure of the Marvel cinematic universe would allow the production team to just keep using them in new and interesting ways.
Of course, the narrative logic of Jessica Jones demands that Kilgrave die at the end of the season. After all, Kilgrave is the living embodiment of Jessica’s trauma. While locking him inside a glass cage might play well as a metaphor for how that trauma never actually goes away, there would always be the temptation to bring Kilgrave back. Bringing Kilgrave back in just about any capacity involving Jessica would undermine the central thematic purpose of the season. It would feel like a retread or a rehash.
So the idea of a “no kill” rule would provide an easy out here. it would provide an in-universe justification for an out-of-universe decision. Within the story, the show could insist that Jessica did not kill Kilgrave because killing is always wrong. However, that would also allow for the possibility of a scenery-chewing role for David Tennant on The Defenders. The prospect of Vincent D’Onofrio and David Tennant gloriously trying to steal their scenes from one another is almost tempting enough to justify keeping Kilgrave around. Almost.
As such, the decision that Kilgrave has to die is very brave. It is the correct story choice for Jessica Jones, even if it does mean robbing the shared universe of a myriad of possibilities. Jessica Jones makes a point to justify Jessica’s eventual decision to execute Kilgrave, with both AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts dedicated to demonstrating that there is simply no reasonable justification for keeping Kilgrave alive. Events demonstrate that Kilgrave cannot be stopped, and he will not stop himself.
AKA WWJD? demonstrated that Kilgrave had no real desire to reform, that the best he could offer was an unconvincing performance of basic decency rather than anything approaching human empathy or decency. When Jessica pointed out that his powers could be put to good use, in service of the betterment of mankind, Kilgrave insisted that it was Jessica’s responsibility to teach him. At the climax of AKA WWJD?, Jessica firmly rejected the notion that she was responsible for ensuring that Kilgrave behaved with basic human decency.
AKA Sin Bin demonstrated that Kilgrave could not be restrained by traditional means, even when those were wielded by a person immune to his power. Jessica tried to contain Kilgrave, locking him in a makeshift prison and even engaging in torture and brutality in an effort to overwhelm him. Kilgrave simply gamed the system, perhaps a commentary on how it is impossible to deal with the sort of institutional misogyny and abuse represented by Kilgrave within traditional power structures.
AKA 1,000 Cuts reveals that the possibility of “a cure for Kilgrave” is illusory at best. Kilgrave’s father promises that he might be able to develop a vaccine within twenty-four hours, but the climax of the episode demonstrates that the entire plan is for nothing. There is no way to stop Kilgrave’s influence without stopping Kilgrave himself. After all, AKA Sin Bin revealed that Kilgrave was more than the sum of his powers; Kilgrave is the embodiment of manipulation and abuse. His powers cannot be divorced from his person.
Having established that Kilgrave cannot (or will not) change and that he cannot be contained, AKA 1,000 Cuts suggests that the only reasons for keeping Kilgrave alive are ambiguous at best. When Jessica asks why she shouldn’t just kill him, Kilgrave responds, “Because you don’t know what will happen when I die.” However, Jessica does know what will happen if he lives. At the climax, Hope astutely observes, “If you don’t kill him, he’s going to just keep hurting people.” The evidence bares this out.
Indeed, in the episode’s final scene, Kilgrave suggests that Jessica’s motivations for keeping him alive are ultimately selfish. “She hopes that – at her core – she might just be a hero,” Kilgrave boasts to Hope, “but only if she can still save you. The ultimate innocent victim.” There is a sense of the theatrical in how Kilgrave chooses to frame the argument, but he is not entirely wrong. Hope is the emotional leverage that holds Jessica back. Ultimately, Jessica’s reluctance forces Hope to kill herself, demonstrating how counter-productive this is.
It is surprising that Jessica Jones takes such a bold position, but it is telling that the show approaches it with such confidence and stoicism. Jessica does not come to her decision to execute Kilgrave through extended conversations or soul-churning monologues. What little romantic language is applied to the central dilemma comes from Kilgrave talking around Jessica, the Purple Man indulging in some purple prose to finally (and repeatedly) acknowledge the symbolism of Hope’s name. (“Abandon Hope…”, “… lose all Hope.”)
It is telling that the familiar (and borderline cliché) rhetoric about the morality of extra-judicial execution is delegated from Jessica to Simpson. That sort of justification and dialogue feels more at home on Daredevil than Jessica Jones, so it feels entirely appropriate to hand the dialogue over to a character originally created by Frank Miller for his run on Daredevil. If any character on Jessica Jones is going to indulge in the sort of macho angst that defined Daredevil, Simpson is the best choice.
When it becomes clear that Simpson is thinking about summarily executing Kilgrave, Detective Clemons takes exception to it. “Maybe the system won’t be able to contain him,” Simpson insists, which is a statement that is entirely correct but entirely distinct from Simpson’s actual motivation. “That’s not your call, Sergeant,” Clemons responds, which could easily have been copied and pasted from Daredevil. Simpson forces the point, “The guy isn’t a purse snatcher, Detective. He’s a terrorist. Kilgrave can’t be put on trial.”
While Simpson is entirely correct that the system cannot contain Kilgrave, and it is a perfectly valid argument to make in context, it has absolutely no bearing on why Simpson wants to execute Kilgrave. Simpson is not looking to protect the world from Kilgrave, he is looking to avenge his own violation at the hands of his attacker. While Jessica Jones wholeheartedly endorses Jessica’s eventual decision to murder Kilgrave, the show is more critical of Simpson’s efforts. Jessica Jones suggests that the motivation for an act is as important as the act itself.
Jessica’s decision to kill her abuser can be justified because it comes at the end of an exhaustive exploration of alternative possibilities; Jessica did not make the decision lightly. (Indeed, the death of Hope Slottman suggests that Jessica actually hesitated too long making the decision.) Jessica’s decisions were always primarily concerned with the greater good; not in some abstract sense, but in the very literal sense of casual by-standers like Malcolm or Hope. There is a sense Jessica would be happy never to see Kilgrave again if he just disappeared.
In contrast, Simpson has focused on the idea of murdering Kilgrave from the moment he was attacked. Simpson has shown little consideration for anybody else, particularly those who might be negatively affected by his own desire for retribution. In AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, he is quite happy to let Hope spend the rest of his days in prison if he can murder the man who violated him. In AKA WWJD?, he tries to blow up Jessica’s house with Kilgrave inside without any thought on the innocent civilians.
Affirming the idea that the morality of executing Kilgrave is dependent upon the motivation for the action rather than the action itself, Robyn’s half-assed lynch mob is stirred with justifiable passion and righteous anger, only to end up further enabling Kilgrave’s reign of terror. “Where is your rage?” Robyn demands of the group. “Aren’t you sick of hearing yourselves talk and talk and talk?” Their motivations are similar to Simpson’s; they feel impotent and ineffectual in the wake of a horrifying trauma. (“I already bared my soul. It didn’t get me back my son.”)
The lynch mob feels like another contrivance designed to extend the season. Robyn has been consistently aggressive towards Jessica, but is also ridiculously antisocial; it seems ridiculous that she could manipulate the group to action without Malcolm countering. More than that, once they get to the apartment, the group are able to knock out Jessica with a single blow to the back of the head. Even allowing for that, it feels incredibly forced that Robyn is the first one to get to Kilgrave, given she is the only one who would not recognise him. It is a little convenient.
It is worth noting that Simpson is one of only two prominent white male characters in Jessica Jones, the other being the villain of the piece. While Jessica Jones is largely driven by the responses of female characters to trauma, Simpson represents a more traditionally masculine response to such violations. Whereas all the female characters in Jessica Jones respond to trauma in their own ways, it is Simpson who sets about enacting the classic “rape retribution” narrative anchored in masculine archetypes.
Simpson seldom admits that he was violated by Kilgrave. Instead, he fixates on his self-appointed role as the protector of others. It is not enough that he is a police officer whose duty is to “protect and serve.” Instead, Simpson elevates himself to a “super-soldier.” When he confronts Clemons, he asserts his concern for Trish. “Where’s Trish Walker?” he demands. “Did he hurt her? Did he do something to her?” However, Simpson’s abusive behaviour towards Trish in the motel makes it clear this is more about him than about her.
Much like Kilgrave constructs his own narrative to justify his abuse, Simpson constructs his own narrative to justify his response to that abuse. Simpson constructs a rape revenge narrative, positioning himself as the hero. It is a common media narrative, as Carol Harring and Tainui Neilson note in A Review of Research on Sexual Violence in Audio-Visual Media:
The finer points of genre classification aside, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, and Death Wish II are united by a focus on a single or multiple rapes, and the subsequent revenge by the victim or a (male) family member of the victim. All caused classification controversies because of their representations of sexual violence.
This rape revenge genre is built on the narrative of rape as a catalyst and justification for male violence, criticised by Cuklanz in her analysis of TV detective shows. In both Straw Dogs and Death Wish II the rape of a female character justifies violent retribution by a male character. Women in the two films are both victimised and avenged by males. Furthermore, the male heroes in Straw Dogs and the Death Wish films are initially a “pacifist” and a “mild-mannered liberal,” respectively, and are forced to rekindle their “wavering masculinity” to avenge their loved ones. In short, the films show violent masculinity as a solution to sexual violence rather than as an underlying social problem.
The “rape revenge” narrative has been a fixture of Western literature dating back to Töre’s daughters in Vänge, which inspired Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In recent years, pop culture has begun to engage with and criticise the convention, with examples including Glen Morgan and James Wong’s One Breath on The X-Files and Steven Moffat’s A Good Man Goes to War in Doctor Who.
Given that Jessica Jones has been primarily engaged with female responses to trauma, it makes sense to engage with a feminist reading of a very traditional masculine response to trauma. Simpson is coded as the epitome of comic book (specifically Marvel) masculinity; he speaks in the kind of lines that might have been borrowed from Daredevil while actor Wil Travel is repeatedly styled to resemble Chris Evans from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. AKA Sin Bin even confirmed that Simpson is a super soldier.
Simpson codifies his own response to trauma by asserting his masculinity. He becomes violent and aggressive in his efforts to track down Kilgrave. He paints Trish as a victim in all of this, ignoring that fact that she is holding together better than he is. Tellingly, he does more harm to Trish and Jessica than to his intended target. Although Simpson’s red, white and blue pills are very much part of the character’s comic book persona, the would-be super soldier’s fixation on the “red pills” has an entirely meaning in light of the show’s feminist context.
The “red pill” has become a label associated with the recently popular “men’s rights” movement. As Harris O’Malley explains, the entire philosophy is rooted in taking the iconic “wake up to reality” scene from The Matrix and using it to justify a fairly misogynistic worldview:
Where the Wachowskis intended the scene to be a metaphor for the Buddha receiving enlightenment and no longer being bound by worldly concerns, to the Red Pill philosophy, it means “the recognition and awareness of the way that feminism, feminists and their white-knight enablers affect society.” It’s a neat rhetorical trick – trying to claim both the identity of a persecuted minority (cisgendered, hetero men) while also proclaiming themselves inherently superior to the “blue-pillers”, white knights and “betas” because they see the truth: that they’re supposed to treat women like sh!t.
The fixation on Simpson’s “red pill” addiction feels particularly in line with contemporary concerns, just like the decision to have Kilgrave literally “go viral.” The movement is relatively recent, experiencing impressive growth in 2013.
Simpson is not satisfied with reality as it appears to him, so he rejects it and substitutes his own. In his own way, Simpson is not so radically different than Kilgrave; indeed, he ends up posing a much greater physical risk to Jessica and Trish than Kilgrave in AKA I’ve Got the Blues, right down to staging an impromptu reenactment of the climax of The Shining. There is the faintest sense that Simpson’s subplot is a cynical way of extending the season to thirteen episodes, but his characterisation remains in line with the rest of the season.
Kilgrave does something similar. AKA 1,000 Cuts confirms something heavily implied to this point; Kilgrave actually believes some of his own justifications. Kilgrave is so skilled at manipulation that he has managed to convince himself of some of his lies. Early in the episode, Kilgrave attempts to justify himself to Jeri and Wendy. He doesn’t have to; they are both under his control. He seems to be desperately trying to assert his own narrative as he talks about the “grand romantic gesture” he made to Jessica.
It doesn’t matter that these are objectively untrue. (“I treated her better than anyone ever has,” he boasts at one point, perhaps the gold standard of self-delusion.) Despite the fact that Kilgrave was well aware that he was manipulating Jessica in AKA WWJD?, he does seem to genuinely imagine there is some world where they are “inevitable”, as he put it in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. Even in AKA Take a Bloody Number, Kilgrave honestly demands of Luke, “Tell me the truth, did you bugger my chance with her?”
This self-delusion plays out in Kilgrave’s romantic fantasy of world where Jessica “chose” to stay with him. He recalls one occasion where he timed the use of his powers on Jessica down to the seconds. “For eighteen seconds, I wasn’t controlling you,” he argues. “You stayed with me. Because you wanted to.” Naturally, Kilgrave glosses offer the fairly basic fact that there are other methods of control between well-timed mind-control commands. He had managed to do a reasonable job keeping Jessica under his thumb in AKA WWJD.
“Getting you out of my head was like prying fungus from a window,” Jessica tells Kilgrave, dismantling his rather clear-cut idea about her supposed passive consent for eighteen seconds. In fact, Kilgrave was able to skilfully manipulate Jessica without access to his powers in AKA Sin Bin. Abuse is not a simple on/off switch; it is not something that cleanly wears off over time. When Kilgrave tells Jessica that he is there (and will always be there) for her at the end of the flashback, it is a threat as much as a promise.
However, AKA 1,000 Cuts goes further than that. Jessica’s version of events begins with a fantasy; a fantasy in which Jessica is better at landing and in which there is a white steed that will take her away from this abuse. Of course, reality does not work like that. Jessica might never be able to quite stick the landing, and white steeds don’t generally show up to rescue people in distress. Jessica eventually had to walk away on her own, and she suggests that the fantasy of an idealised escape prevented her from making her move in time.
While Kilgrave seems to genuinely believe that this was a romantic moment, Jessica remembers it completely. She remembers how Kilgrave responded to even the threat that she might leave, escalating his abuse in response to her perceived defiance. “If you don’t listen to me, what is the point in having ears?” he demands. “You never appreciate anything I do for you. If you can’t listen to me, you don’t need ears. Cut them off.” Stripping the superpowers out of the equation, it plays like a familiar abuse scene.
Of course, with these competing and contrasting narratives, which version is to be believed? If reality is so malleable and subject to manipulation or distortion, what is truly real? As Jessica folds down her ear to reveal the very literal mark that Kilgrave left on here, AKA 1,000 Cuts suggest an answer; we believe the people with the wounds and the scars of their abuse. At the very least, we listen to them. It is not a bad philosophy, particularly in a culture that is all too eager to blame the victim in cases such as this.
Much has been made of how Kilgrave’s powers serve as a metaphor for sexual trauma and abuse, for the literalisation of institutional misogyny and the amplification of ambient sexism. These are undoubtedly the primary thematic drivers of the character, to the point that the season finalé is called AKA Smile. However, the show also touches on broader moral and philosophical issues about control and responsible. “Kilgrave made me do it” is something of a mantra of the season, but the show plays up the ambiguity around it.
The season repeatedly touches on the theme of will and control. It played through Malcolm’s account of his struggles with drug addiction in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and it bubbles through AKA 1,000 Cuts as well. Just how much can a person be held accountable for how they chose to interpret Kilgrave’s commands? How does an instinctive emotional response inform their character? Was Kilgrave even a little right when he argued in AKA WWJD? that Jessica chose to interpret “take care of her” as “kill this woman”?
The show never blames Hope for murdering her parents, but AKA 1,000 Cuts does emphasise that Kilgrave’s commands do leave some leeway to his victims in interpretation. Jessica very cleverly works around Kilgrave’s instruction that Trish should put a bullet in her skull. When Kilgrave tells Jeri to go, she revs the engine. When she asks where, he responds, “To a doctor, obviously. Someone you trust.” Jeri ends up taking Kilgrave to Wendy, suggesting that perhaps Jeri does still trust Wendy in spite of what has happened between them.
Kilgrave even draws attention to it. “I tell you to bring me to a doctor you trust,” he reflects, “you bring me to the woman you shat on.” It seems like AKA 1,000 Cuts is more playful with Kilgrave’s mind control than many of the surrounding episodes. Even his casual “tell me something I don’t know” leads to a plot-centric revelation, proof of how Kilgrave’s power can have unintended side effects. (Not that it justifies anything like the callous brutality of ordering Windy to cut Jeri one thousand times.)
Control and accountability run through AKA 1,000 Cuts, just as they run through the rest of the season. Confronting Jessica in her apartment, Kilgrave compliments her on declining to kill him. “There would have been a rash of suicides across the neighbourhood and who would have been to blame?” he ponders, rhetorically. Jessica responds, quite simply, “Not me, you asshole.” Kilgrave counters, like the petulant child that he is, “You tell yourself that.” While Jessica takes responsibility for Hope, Kilgrave cannot even take responsibility for his own actions.
This echoes through into Jeri’s final conversation with Pam. Jeri’s central arc through the season has been that of a woman trying to maintain control as power slips away from her. Indeed, covered in cuts on the floor of her wife’s home, with a dead body and her lover holding the murder weapon, Jeri still asserts, “It’s okay. I’m going to handle this.” It turns out that Jeri’s immediate response is to manage her own sense of responsibility for what happened, to avoid facing the reality of her involvement in events.
As she finds herself under Kilgrave’s power, Jeri mutters, “I didn’t know… I didn’t know you would…” She demands of herself, “How could I know?” There is a debate to be had about just how responsible Jeri was for what happened at the warehouse. Kilgrave manipulated Jeri into cutting the electric charge to his cell in AKA Sin Bin, which contributed to his escape. However, it was not the only factor. Indeed, all Jeri really did was remove a tool Jessica was using to torture Kilgrave. If Trish had not of broken the glass, Kilgrave likely would not have gotten away.
Nevertheless, Jeri’s response to trauma is to distance herself immediately. She dismisses Pam’s legitimate questions with a handwave of “it’s complicated” and then proceeds to imply that Pam was solely accountable for everything that happened in Wendy’s home. “You told me to handle it,” Jeri explains. “That’s what you said.” Pam responds, “So you turned me into a murderer?” Coldly and calculatedly, Jeri states, “You chose to pick up that thing and crush her skull.”
There is a sense that issues of power and accountability are bigger than semantic arguments over word choice. Jeri’s attempts to throw Pam’s words back at her mirror Kilgrave’s own insistence about his careful choice of words in AKA WWJD?. One of the more interesting aspects of Jessica Jones‘ treatment of responsibility is the rejection of hard and fast answers. The show consistently and repeatedly insists that Kilgrave’s power is absolute on everybody but Jessica, but what of his other manipulations?
Is Jeri responsible for freeing him because he manipulated her without access to his powers? Is Malcolm accountable for the decisions he made while free of Kilgrave’s power but still addicted to drugs? Can Kilgrave be blamed for Hope’s death even though she made that choice of her own free will without her influence? Is Simpson really responsible for his actions when on super-steroids as a traumatic coping mechanism to help him work through his violation at the hands of Kilgrave? Jessica Jones never answers these questions, leaving it to the audience.
It is always fun to wonder about the types of questions that get glossed over in these sorts of narratives. Jeri compares mind control to drunk driving, so would the courts treat it the same way? Drug addicts are held responsible for crimes they commit in order to get their next fix, with leniency at the discretion of the courts; does the same logic apply here? Is Kilgrave only responsible for what happens within that twelve-hour window, or does his accountability extend further? Just how far out does this ripple of responsibility go?
Jessica Jones touches on all of these interesting philosophical and moral quandaries that are generally ignored in pulpy stories about evil characters with access to mind control. Melissa Rosenberg and her production team deserve a great deal of credit for both using that superpower as a clever allegorical commentary on important contemporary social issues, but also for following the various trains and strands of thought that flow outwards from the basic premise of “mind control.” In many ways, Jessica Jones is a tale of consent, accountability and self.
There is a very weird strand running through AKA 1,000 Cuts, with the episode touching quite heavily on terrorist themes. Simpson describes Kilgrave as “a terrorist”, drawing attention to the uncomfortable image of “a foreign scientist” working away in a secret lab in a shady hotel. Given that Simpson takes pills that are conveniently labelled “reds”, “whites” and “blues” (not to mention is a version of a comic book character with an American flag tattooed on his face), this makes sense for his character. But Robyn also offers, “If you see something, say something.”
To be fair, Kilgrave could work as an analogy for modern terrorism. Given that radical groups are able to convince their followers to travel around the world to die for a cause, there are obvious parallels to Kilgrave. Kilgrave’s power is not just controlling somebody, but overriding their reason and making them want to do what he says. Kilgrave could easily serve as a metaphor of the danger of religious fundamentalism. After all, the character lends himself to religious imagery with his command of “the word.”
However, Jessica Jones has largely avoided casting Kilgrave as anything approaching a genuine terrorist. Perhaps the closest he came was converting a suicide bomber in AKA WWJD?, but that was very much the exception; the improvised explosive device was even designed by Simpson. Kilgrave frequently threatens to have his victims commit suicide, but never in the pursuit of a higher goal; even at the climax of AKA 1,000 Cuts, his followers’ suicide serves as a protection mechanism rather than a political statement.
Even as Kilgrave’s power grows exponentially in AKA Take a Bloody Number and AKA Smile, the character does not change his goals. There is no mention of a plot to take over the city or cause mass chaos in a major urban area; there is no big philosophical speech or aggressive statement of intent. Even at his most powerful in AKA Smile, Kilgrave’s most evil plan is to run away with Trish as an emotional attack upon Jessica or to take possession of Jessica herself. Everything else is just a distraction.
Perhaps the repeated references to terrorism in AKA 1,000 Cuts exist to draw attention to the rather low stakes of Kilgrave’s evil plan. As a rule, superhero stories tend to favour epic stakes and impossible threats. Age of Ultron builds to a point where the eponymous villain threatens to drop half of a city on top of another city. The planet is frequently at stake. These escalating threats can have a numbing effect, with the best superhero climaxes rooted in something more intimate and personal. The Dark Knight boils down to Batman and the Joker over Harvey Dent.
Jessica Jones avoids even the low-level threat to the moral health of New York that Wilson Fisk posed in Daredevil. Kilgrave is ultimately nothing more than a rapist and stalker, but he still seems like a more credible threat than the Thanos or Ultron or General Zod. For all his massive power, Kilgrave represents something a lot more familiar to most audiences than the threat of genocide on a species level. Everybody has encountered somebody with attitudes similar to Kilgrave. Jessica Jones just imagines them with real power.
A narcissist who can actually bend the world to his whims without the ambition for world domination and a fixation on petty personal vendettas? That is more terrifying than any army of robots.
You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Jessica Jones:
- AKA Ladies’ Night
- AKA Crush Syndrome
- AKA It’s Called Whiskey
- AKA 99 Friends
- AKA The Sandwich Saved Me
- AKA You’re a Winner!
- AKA Top Shelf Perverts
- AKA WWJD?
- AKA Sin Bin
- AKA 1,000 Cuts
- AKA I’ve Got the Blues
- AKA Take a Bloody Number
- AKA Smile