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Jessica Jones – AKA Smile (Review)

So Jessica Jones comes to an end.

AKA Smile accomplishes quite a lot, ably assisted by the narrative streamlining that took place from AKA 1,000 Cuts, AKA I’ve Got the Blues and AKA Take a Bloody Number. Indeed, many of the character’s find resolutions unfold in those episodes, leaving AKA Smile free to concentrate on wrapping up the arc. Jeri Hogarth’s arc is complete. Will Simpson has been handled. Robyn has found some measure of peace. Although Jessica and Luke spend a considerable portion of AKA Smile together, they do not actually have a conversation.

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As a result, AKA Smile has room to breath. There is time to focus on the conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave, to ruminate on the bond between Jessica and Trish. There is even time for a minor crossover from Daredevil, with Rosario Dawson dropping by in the character of Claire Temple. Oddly enough, there is even a slight sense of padding to all this. Kilgrave’s confrontation with Jessica in the hospital feels somewhat unnecessary, given their confrontation by proxy at the climax of AKA Take a Bloody Number and in person at the climax of AKA Smile.

At the same time, there is an endearing confidence to AKA Smile that ensure the finalé is never tied down or overwhelmed by the narrative weight that Jessica Jones has amassed over its thirteen episode season.

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AKA Smile is a conclusion to this story, but one that feels organic and logical. Daredevil often struggled to justify its own sense of conclusion, forcing the plot into knots in order to hit all the requisite storybeats. Not only did Daredevil find the eponymous character conveniently dismantling his adversary’s criminal empire in the space of about twenty minutes, it also turned Wilson Fisk from anti-hero to comic book villain through the sheer magnetism of Vincent D’Onofrio uttering the words “I am the ill intent”, and it had Fisk escape custody to receive an in-person beatdown.

In contrast, AKA Smile is all about straight lines rather than plot contortions. The actual plot logic is very linear. AKA Take a Bloody Number revealed that Luke was receiving calls from Kilgrave, so Jessica traces the calls back to his hideaway and from there follows him to the docks. There is no point at which Kilgrave suddenly decides to destroy New York City or takes to labelling himself “the Purple Man” or even brings into effect a contigency that is designed to escalate the stakes of the season around it.

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AKA Smile boils down to a confrontation on the docks, with Kilgrave ordering a bunch of police officers to shoot at Jessica and instructing a bunch of by-standers to beat themselves to death. Despite all the effort that AKA Take a Bloody Number and AKA Smile put into convincing the audience that Kilgrave has been harnessing and expanding his power, there is very little here that Kilgrave could not do earlier in the season. Kilgrave was able to take over an entire police station in AKA Top Shelf Perverts and make them threaten to kill each other before laughing it off.

On a plotting level, this is arguably unsatisfying. Indeed, the early scene at the hospital would seem to exist solely so the show can demonstrate just how powerful Kilgrave has become; Kilgrave is able to control an entire hospital from the security office, suggesting that his powers have an extended reach and an extended intensity. “He can’t control everyone in the hospital,” Jessica protests as his voice sounds over the intercom.  “Unless he can,” she adds, watching his commands take root.

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The problem is that this whole sequence takes place during his own self-improvement binge, but prior to his final “level up.” Given how much emphasis the show places on the forty percent chance that his father’s research will greatly improve his powers, it feels like the show never quite justifies the energy spent on Kilgrave trying to hone his skills. The sequence at the dock would have played out almost exactly like this had it arrived six or seven hours earlier in the season. Almost.

Indeed, the only real purpose of all the time invested in Kilgrave’s experiments is to set up a red herring at the climax of AKA Smile. Has Kilgrave’s power improved to the point where he can control Jessica? If Kilgrave had not spent so much of AKA Take a Bloody Number or AKA Smile trying to develop his powers, there would be no suspense. The audience (and Kilgrave) know that Jessica is immune. The narrative tension stems from the possibility that Kilgrave might have developed power over Jessica. It turns out that he doesn’t.

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However, there is something slightly unsatisfying in the fact that the bulk of Kilgrave’s scenes in the final two episodes of the season are all about setting up a red herring that allows the show to finally kill off the character. Perhaps the set-up might feel a bit less cynical had Kilgrave actually demonstrated some truly awesome power after that final procedure. Of course, given how absurdly powerful Kilgrave is at the start of the season, it is hard to imagine just what kind of display might have made such a point.

(There is, to be fair, an argument to be made that much of Jessica Jones‘ best storytelling come from subverting superhero storytelling conventions. After all, Kilgrave is all the more effect for the fact that AKA Sin Bin rejects the idea of an explanatory traumatic backstory. Similarly, AKA The Sandwich Saved Me works best as a rejection of various superhero origin stories. AKA It’s Called Whiskey is delightfully glib on explanations for how Luke Cage and Jessica Jones came to be. While this might be another example, it is an unsatisfying one.)

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Still, AKA Smile works well in spite of this minor climactic hiccup. Stripping the supporting cast back in order to allow Jessica her confrontation with Kilgrave was a smart decision. Krysten Ritter and David Tennant have played well off one another across the season, and their final scene in AKA Smile allows the two one last chance to share the screen. Jessica’s resolve and Kilgrave’s arrogance are pitch perfect in that confrontation, with the final twist feeling both well-earned and deserved.

Structurally, AKA Smile draws upon a host of effective set-up across the season. Kilgrave’s use of the word “rape” in describing what he plans to do to Trish is particularly pointed following Jessica’s accusations in AKA WWJD? The dynamic of “empowered captive” and “powerless captor” is reversed from AKA Sin Bin. Jessica’s final instruction to her abuser is a wry callback to Kilgrave’s repeated fixation on “a smile from a pretty girl” in AKA 99 Friends and AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, and a very sly piece of feminist commentary to boot.

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Indeed, Melissa Rosenberg acknowledges that the emphasis that Kilgrave puts on smiling (and the reversal of that in AKA Smile) is very much a loaded choice:

When asked specifically how much of the framing of “smile” is inspired by modern misogyny, show runner Melissa Rosenberg laughs before responding, “Let’s see. 100%” Rosenberg continues, “This is a character who is not defined by her gender. But those of us of the female persuasion, our lives are certainly informed by our gender and the misogyny around us.”

It is a very effective demonstration of how skilfully Jessica Jones is able to embrace a feminist perspective within the genre trappings of a superhero story; all without undercutting the narrative itself.

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Even though the final scene between Jessica and Kilgrave finds Jessica turning her abuser’s words back at him, the script is careful to allow Kiglrave his own perspective. One of the most disturbing (and effective) aspects of Jessica Jones is the recurring sense that Kilgrave genuinely believes all of the toxic hate that he spews. As Kilgrave grows to believe that Jessica is under his control, he promises her, “After a while, however long it takes, I know you will feel what I feel.” These are his last words on the show, suggesting Kilgrave is just as capable of manipulating himself.

One of the more interesting aspect of AKA Smile is the episode’s approach to the death the Kilgrave. One of the potential issues with building an entire season around a walking metaphor for abuse is that it runs the risk of simplifying the experience of dealing with trauma; trauma becomes something that can be confronted and beaten, rather than something that must be lived with and overcome. After all, the consequences of abuse tend to linger on even if the victim can escape the reach of their abuser.

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There are ways in which Jessica Jones explores this. AKA I’ve Got the Blues suggested that Kilgrave’s violation of Simpson affected the characters in ways that ultimately would never tie back to Kilgrave; that Simpson found himself wandering down a self-destructive path that led him to hurt both Trish and Jessica. However, the constant presence of Kilgrave across the thirteen-episode season does mean that the show’s metaphors of trauma get tied up in his own arc. His death runs the risk of becoming a quick-and-easy exorcism, a way of casting out the hurt he caused.

There are some ways in which AKA Smile supports this over-simplified reading of trauma. In AKA 1,000 Cuts, Kilgrave argued that Jessica had no idea what would happen after he died; would his spell be broken? AKA Smile suggests that it is. The moment that Jessica snaps Kilgrave’s neck, all of the people from the docks suddenly come to their senses, coming back to themselves. This suggestion is reinforced by the cut to Luke Cage suddenly waking up. Even if his coma was not directly tied to Kilgrave, it is suggested Kilgrave’s death undoes a lot of the harm he caused.

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This is a rather problematic suggestion. The damage caused by abusers tends to linger; there are effects felt for years after survivors have escaped. Trauma tends to linger, much like Jessica Jones uses purple lighting to suggest the after effects of Kilgrave’s influence. Jessica Jones never really explores the consequences of abuse outside the shadow of the abuser. It is perhaps the most severe change made in adapting Jessica Jones from Alias, turning Kilgrave from a climactic opponent to a season-long antagonist.

To be fair, AKA Smile does make a point to suggest that killing Kilgrave does not “fix” Jessica. The character does not get a “happy ever after” ending just because her abuser is lying dead on the New York City docks. The season’s final scene puts Jessica roughly back where she started, sitting in her crappy office with a broken door and bottle of alcohol to numb the pain. Jessica has not been transformed by the experience; she is not a superhero. The final scene has Jessica ignoring various cries for help, including one from a woman abused by her boyfriend.

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This, in essence, is the heart of the show’s response to trauma. As Jeri assured Hope in AKA Sin Bin, the real world is not about happy endings; it is about fighting to hold on to a sense of self and security. The idea of home recurs throughout Jessica Jones, whether as a safe space or a place that has been perverted. Characters frequently respond to trauma by returning to a place they consider to be home or by trying to make a home for themselves. The broken door serves as a recurring motif, suggesting Jessica’s own home is not as sturdy as it could be.

In AKA Ladies’ Night, Hope’s parents come to the city to bring her home. In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Trish has turned her home into a fortress against the world. In AKA WWJD?, Simpson argues that he returned home to get away from Jessica and Kilgrave. Even AKA Smile suggests that Luke has responded to the destruction of his life by returning home. However, this is not to suggest that “home” is inherently a place of safety; particularly homes that people have not chosen for themselves.

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Throughout the series, Kilgrave repeatedly turns people into prisoners in their own homes; this is the cornerstone of both of his introductions in AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. He does something similar to what was Jeri and Wendy’s home in AKA 1,000 Cuts. In AKA Take a Bloody Number and AKA Smile, Kilgrave turns what should be a safe family home into a place of horror. Kilgrave perverts Jessica’s childhood home in AKA WWJD?, while Trish rejects the idea that her mother’s house could be described as home in AKA Take a Bloody Number.

Jessica Jones suggests that the best homes are the homes that people make for themselves; that Trish’s high tech security systems will never protect her as effectively as her friendship with Jessica, that it doesn’t matter whether Jessica’s door is broken as long as she is surrounded by a surrogate family. This plays into the larger recurring theme of the season, the idea of interconnectivity; in many ways, Jessica Jones plays into the larger romance of New York City, suggesting an intersecting and overlapping community that can come together in surprising ways.

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This plays into the show’s obligatory crossover with Daredevil. Claire Temple represents the most significant character to cross between the two shows, although recurring Daredevil guest star Royce Johnson did reprise his role as Brett Mahoney briefly in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. In some respects, it feels entirely appropriate that the characters to overlap between the two shows should be a nurse and a police officer; employees of the two city services who could be said to represent the city itself.

It is surprising how small the actual crossover between Daredevil and Jessica Jones is. Rosario Dawson had been announced as the “connective tissue” between the various Netflix miniseries quite some time ago, but it seems odd that she should only appear in a single episode of the show. (In fact, it seems like Luke Cage might feature the character in a more significant manner; the show recently cast Sonia Braga as Claire Temple’s mother.) Having Claire Temple arrive as a major player in the final episode of the season is quite shocking.

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Then again, AKA Smile makes great use of the character. If Claire is to be used to tie the various shows together, it makes sense for her guest appearance to emphasise thematic continuity; it would be frustrating if her appearances became as jarring as Hawkeye’s cameo in Thor or Sam Wilson’s appearance in Ant Man. So Claire gets an extended conversation with Jessica in which the similarities between Daredevil and Jessica Jones are laid bare; the connections are pushed to the fore.

After all, both Daredevil and Jessica Jones are about issues tied to trauma; guilt and responsibility, power and retribution. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones might approach their subject matter in different ways, there is a lot of room for comparison. In perhaps the most succinct summary of the thematic connection between the two shows, Claire simply warns Jessica, “Guilt makes people do stupid sh!t.” Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones are both dealing with their own issues of trauma and guilt, in their own unique ways.

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That said, there are some other more interesting examples of overlap between Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It would appear that Claire has quite the occular fetish. In Cut Man, Claire suggested that Daredevil might be able to convince a goon to talk with eye-related torture. Here, Claire decides to relieve Luke’s cranial swelling “along the ocular nerve.” It would seem feasible that the same pressure could be relieved through the lining at the back of the nostril, but it does make for a delightfully specific callback.

There is another sly piece of internal referencing going on. Although Jessica Jones has been quite careful to avoid name-dropping and heavy-handed references, the show engages intertextually with the surrounding Marvel universe. This is most obvious in the way that the show approaches the character of Will Simpson, who is constantly framed in ways that evoke Steve Rogers from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It turns out that AKA Smile includes another sly reference; this time to the company’s fascination with dismemberment.

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Every Marvel “Phase II” movie features a sequence of a character losing a hand or an arm. The hallucination of Thor in Thor: The Dark World, Bucky Barnes in The Winter Soldier, Klaw in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. According to producer Kevin Feige, this is all an elaborate nod to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:

So is this a spoiler for Ant-Man… not really. I’m obsessed with Star Wars. Who’s not? I’m 40 years old. I’m in the movie business. I went to USC. So I’m obsessed with Star Wars – and it didn’t start out as intentional, but it became intentional, including that beat that you referenced. It sort of happens in every Star Wars movie, but I was sort of looking at it, ‘Okay, is Phase Two our Empire Strikes Back?’ Not really, but tonally things are a little different. Somebody gets their arm cut off in every Phase Two movie. Every single one.

Indeed, Marvel’s cinematic fixation with dismemberment is itself something of an industry in-joke. Their comic book competitor, DC, famously went through a “dark and gritty” phase at the turn of the millennium where their own stories seemed to fixate on dismemberment. (It is arguably still on-going.)

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As such, it seems like AKA Smile takes the idea to its logical extreme. When Jessica tracks down Kilgrave, she discovers his father lying on the ground with both of his arms severed at the shoulder as a poor mind-controlled victim tries to shove one arm down the garbage disposal. It is an image that is simultaneously horrifying and absurd. In some respects, it serves as the production team taking Marvel’s fixation on limb loss as far as it could possibly go, while taking advantage of the looser restrictions on blood and violence on Netflix.

In fact, AKA Smile is absolutely packed with comic book shout-outs. Kilgrave angrily mumbles to himself about how best to punish Jessica, outlining in sadistic detail the plan that his comic book counterpart used in Alias. When Jessica snaps Kilgrave’s neck, the show seems to be consciously evoking Wonder Woman’s controversial murder of Maxwell Lord at the start of Infinite Crisis. Both Kilgrave and Lord were mind-controllers who used their powers to force the heroine into a position where they had to kill.

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Crossover stuff aside, Claire Temple works surprisingly well in the context of Jessica Jones; the biggest problem with the character’s inclusion is the fact that it feels rather late in the story to introduce such an important character to the narrative. Rosario Dawson shares wonderful chemistry with pretty much the entire cast, and her banter with Jessica plays very well. (Indeed, Claire’s suggestion of “Snuffcarcass” as an alternative name for Kilgrave harks back to Jessica’s “Murdercorpse” from AKA Sin Bin.)

Dawson also works very will with Eka Darville and Mike Colter, to the point that it is fun to imagine all the various supporting characters hanging out together without the direct involvement of Jessica Jones or Matt Murdock. It is surprising how well Jessica Jones and Daredevil seem to have populated their little corner of the shared Marvel universe, fleshing it out in ways that are not necessarily possible in a series of feature-length (and relatively self-contained) films.

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AKA Smile provides an effective and suitable conclusion to a pretty impressive run of television. Mostly resisting the urge to keep escalating proves a shrewd decision on the part of Melissa Rosenberg and her team. Jessica Jones ends well, even as it points towards the future.

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

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10 Responses

  1. This is an impressive finale. My comments are usually very complain-y, but that’s me picking nits.

    The dock scene is contentious, but who cares if it’s well-acted? I love Kilgrave’s overjoyed face right before his death. What an actor.

    I have a few minor quibbles — not toward the show, but many in the fanbase who want Tennant to come back (including, apparently, Tennant himself), undoubtedly with bright purple skin in a tentpole release.

    They seem to have missed the point with the character entirely, to the point of actively rooting for him. The point of all his mayhem was to push Reset on a failed relationship. Frankly, the character is played out. And it’s a bit silly how no one — Luc, Jessica, the police — has put a bullet in him from long distance, or kept a ball gag on him in prison, or any number of things.

    Considering his sheer body count, and the fact that Tennant shares none of the magnanimity of D’onofrio’s villain, these idiotic youtubers should be dreading his return, not campaigning for it.

    • Yep. There was no reasonable way to end the season without killing Tennant, as tempting as the business logic would have been to keep him around. (And, as much as I know it would be a terrible idea, even I am tempted by the idea of a Tennant/D’Onofrio scene.) I respect the show for being willing to actually kill him off.

      • “Tennant/D’Onofrio scene.”

        Et tu, them0vieblog?

        Truth be told, it’s a good possibility that he’ll come back. (I only hope this JJ arc doesn’t become “origin” fodder for Purple F—–g Man.)

      • Oh, c’mon. Fisk/Kilgrave writes itself.

        Fisk and Kilgrave in a lush penthouse, talking. Surrounded by Fisk’s goons.
        FISK: “I think you’ll find that these men have all been inoculated against your little… virus.”
        KILGRAVE: “Oh, where’s the trust? Anybody here forget their shot this morning?”
        One goon raises his hand, compelled. Fisk nods at a goon across the room. He pulls a gun and swiftly executes the unfortunate individual who forget his shot. Fisk and Kilgrave just sit staring at one another.
        (BEAT)
        KILGRAVE: “Blimey. You do know how to create an awkward silence.”

  2. I was going to bring this up yesterday, but why is Defenders greenlit before Iron Fist has even been cast?

    This has got to be the oddest superhero lineup in history. Daredevil = super reflexes. Luc Cage = indestructibility. Jessica Jones = uh, less indestructibility. Iron Fist = Even less indestructibility, concentrated in a tiny part of his anatomy.

    Also, wasn’t Jessica neutered when Bendis moved on, and she was reintegrated into the Avengers? That’s what I gathered from the Chris Sims column, anyway.

    • Without being too glib about it, Jessica Jones lost a lot of what made her unique when circulated back into the Avengers titles. But that was also try of Daredevil when he was finally integrated into the rosters as well. The only difference is that Daredevil got to hold on to a consistently solid solo book.

      (Oddly enough, Marvel did a better job of holding on to what made Bendis’ version of Luke Cage so effective when it integrated him into teams like The New Avengers or Thunderbolts; perhaps because they made him team leader with his own agenda.)

      As for greenlighting Defenders before casting Iron Fist… well, I think the studio knew Avengers was coming long before they actually cast Thor and Captain America. Indeed, they even recast Mark Ruffalo. (Which is a shame, I much prefer Norton’s take.) Business demands and all that.

      Although I think the similarities in powers and abilities is less of a problem for the Defenders. This is a Netflix television show rather than a superhero blockbuster; I suspect a lot more interpersonal dynamics than in The Avengers films. And I think the four characters are distinct enough that they can sustain eight episodes.

      • Do you remember when Hulk was considered the weak link in the Avengers tie-ins? 😀

        What are the commonalities? …rom coms…Reese Witherspoon…The choice is clear: Luke Wilson for Iron Fist 2016.

      • The Hulk movies are certainly… divisive. I am astounded that nobody’s put together a proper “Ed Norton cut” yet.

        Luke Wilson as Iron Fist: “Kung-fu… Yeah.” (nods to himself)

  3. I do think the door has been left open for Kilgrave to return – perhaps as an evil duo for dynamic complexity. He did have a massive shot of embryonic stem cell solution right before his neck was snapped. The lack of other injuries or view of his body after his initial fall tends to support this. There may not be plans to bring him back any time soon, but Marvel has left itself an easy way to do it.

    • That’s a fair point. But I can’t think of any way to bring him back that wouldn’t seriously undermine the entire season to this point.

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