"You take your goddamned pain and you live with it, assholes," Jessica says to her murderous new client Audrey (Jessica Hecht) and Audrey's husband Carlo (Ricky Paull Goldin) towards the end of "AKA 99 Friends."
It's sound advice—and Audrey really needs to hear it—but it's easier said than done, isn't it? "AKA 99 Friends" is all about assholes living with their goddamned pain, in various ways, and to varying degrees of success.
In fact, come to think of it, that's pretty much what Jessica Jones as a whole is all about. How do you deal with trauma? How do you make sense of the terrible things that have happened to you, which you were powerless to prevent? How do you deal with the terrible things you yourself have done, which you were unable to stop yourself from doing? Do you blame yourself, or do you blame everyone else? Do you lash out at the world, or do you lock yourself away from it? Do you seek vengeance, or do you seek justice? Will your pain make you weaker, or will it make you stronger? Will it drive you to make the lives of the people around you better, or worse?
Like every other fantasy genre, superhero stories become something more than disposable entertainment only when their supernatural elements serve as metaphors for—or at least windows onto—real, relatable human experiences. None of us—presumably—will ever encounter anyone with the mind-controlling abilities of Kilgrave, but we will meet assholes, and we will be hurt, and sometimes we will be manipulated into moments when we barely recognize ourselves, moments in which we find ourselves doing things we know we shouldn't have done. None of us will ever have super-strength either, but we will have to muster what strength we have, and decide how to use it in response to the terrible things that have happened in our lives. None of us can fly, and neither can Jessica, really. "It's more like jumping, and then falling," she said last week. We'll all jump, and we'll all fall, and it's really just a matter of how well we stick the landing.
"You're not gifted: you're a freak." — Audrey
Let's begin with the asshole who is dealing with her pain the least successfully: Audrey. It's also the storyline the episode deals with least successfully. The A-plot of "AKA 99 Friends" is the most stand-alone storyline we've gotten so far in Jessica Jones, and it's also the weakest. Jessica spends the episode suspecting that Audrey may be under Kilgrave's control, but the woman turns out to be crazy all on her own: she just hates all "gifted" people, because her mother died when aliens invaded New York in The Avengers.
Here, I think "AKA 99 Friends" gets points for intent but demerits for execution. The idea of normal human beings hating and fearing super-powered people is a potentially interesting one, and probably overdue for exploration in the on-screen Marvel Universe. (I suspect the upcoming Captain America: Civil War may address it more directly.) It is realistic that the sudden emergence of normal-looking people with the powers of gods would be—among other things—the greatest existential crisis the human race has ever faced. How afraid would we feel? How insignificant? How powerless and threatened? Human beings, historically, have not dealt particularly well with even superficial tribal differences: how much more hatred and prejudice and violence would emerge if we encountered a tribe of people who could wipe us off the map with a wave of a hand?
And the idea of Audrey evokes real-world situations. Substitute "9/11"—or any terrorist attack—for "The Incident," and Audrey's twisted plan comes into focus: it's a hate crime, an attempted lynching, little different from random attacks on innocent Muslims that occur all too frequently in real life. "I wasn't even there," Jessica protests, but Audrey's irrational, all-consuming hatred doesn't differentiate between different gifted people: her response to tragedy is simply to lump them all together, and murder the first one she finds.
So I see where they were trying to go in "99 Friends," but it doesn't quite work. Jessica Hecht is a fine actress, but the script (by Hilly Hicks, Jr.) never allows Audrey to be anything more than a cartoonishly pathetic psycho with an absolutely ridiculous plan. I think there was a fine line to be walked between taking Audrey's grief and anger seriously enough for it to feel real, and just dismissing her out of hand as a whack-job, and the episode doesn't manage to walk it. Audrey is just too awful, in a one-note way that doesn't feel authentic. (Her venomous use of the word "retarded," for example, underlines how transparently and simplistically nasty she is.) Jessica's temper-tantrum is a delight—her casually embedding the gun in a wall was a particularly nice touch—but it feels out of proportion to the cardboard absurdity of Audrey and her hatred.
And Audrey's absurdity actually disconnects her from what could have been her rightful emotional place in the episode as a whole, which is a far more successful exploration of normal, innocent people who have been traumatized by encounters with gifted individuals.
"Men and power: it's seriously a disease." — Trish Walker
Rachael Taylor has been doing excellent work on this series, but "AKA 99 Friends" is her best episode yet, as Trish comes door-to-door—and eventually face-to-face—with Will Simpson, the cop who tried to kill her in "AKA It's Called Whiskey."
Trish is an interesting character, with a lot of back story that's barely been hinted at so far. Her life as a child star, her abusive mother, her sisterly relationship with Jessica, are all subjects the show has touched upon but never really explained. (This is not a complaint: in fact, kudos to showrunner Melissa Rosenberg for trusting the audience to accept this emotional and biographical texture without needing to be spoon-fed exposition: it goes a long way towards making these characters feel like real people with complex histories.)
But what's important here, I think, is to remember that Trish had locked herself away in a virtual fortress even before she was attacked by Will, and even before Kilgrave returned. She was already traumatized, already defensive, already afraid. Even Trish's choice of profession—hosting a radio call-in show—allows her a degree of isolation and self-protection: she has found a way to use her voice, but from the safety of a booth where she does not have to make herself physically vulnerable. (It's a safety-barrier that is echoed in her door's intercom system, which gets a good workout this week.)
Now her safe spaces have all been compromised: last week she opened her door to the Kilgrave-controlled Will, and was nearly killed. (Whatever sense of confidence and power she had begun to regain from her Krav Maga training took a literal and spiritual beating.) She also, from the supposed safety of her booth, recklessly attacked Kilgrave on the air, but this week she is forced—at Jessica's urging—to walk that back, and apologize. It feels, as of course it would, like a violation: "I need a shower," she says to Jessica, after she has compromised her authenticity in this way, and surrendered this previous piece of safe ground.
It's no wonder that she is afraid when Will twice appears again at her door: first because he believes he killed her, and then later because he wants—somehow—to make it up to her.
This is as tricky an interpersonal negotiation as Jessica Jones has navigated yet. What is their relationship to each other? Are they victim and abuser, and therefore adversaries? Or are they both victims of the same abuser, and therefore comrades in recovery? Will wants to believe the latter, even though Jessica has already warned him: "You're not going to make her feel safe, Sergeant." Will's answer to this dilemma is to bring Trish a gift. "It's personal," he says, and when Trish opens the gift it turns out to be very personal indeed: it's a gun. Will, recognizing the physical power differential between them, tries to balance the scales the only way he knows how: by handing her what he thinks of as power. When Trish is finally able to let him into her apartment to talk face-to-face, their slightly flirtatious conversation takes place with the gun on the table between them. This is what's required to forge an equal, safe relationship between this man and this woman. (It reminded me of Jessica's speech in "AKA Crush Syndrome" about how she goes through life never feeling safe—a direct reference to Kilgrave, and a symbolic reference to the constant dangers that women have to deal with every day.)
And the Trish/Will relationship works on this symbolic level as well. If we see Kilgrave as the living personification of misogyny—and frankly I don't see that as much of a stretch—then this is an acknowledgement that both men and women are its victims, both shaped and weakened by a culture of toxic masculinity. Will wants to be a good man—he thinks of himself as a good man—but there are plenty of clues that he was an embodiment of dangerous masculinity even before he met Kilgrave. "I've spent my whole life protecting people," Will—the former soldier turned cop—tells Jessica. But his very next sentence is telling: "I did things in the line of duty, horrible things." Later, we see him lose his cool and brutally rough up Malcolm, a form of rage that clearly predates his encounter with Kilgrave. ("I know how to turn it off," he tells Jessica, as he tries to compose himself. "The paranoia and the panic...") Even his story to Trish is revealing, about how he once burned down his sister's Barbie Dream House enacting a "rescue" scenario with his G.I. Joes. "That was meant to be a story about how I've always been the guy saving people," Will says hopefully—but his masculine notions of "saving" women ends up in total destruction. ("I was committed to the scenario," he laughs.)
So I don't have high hopes for Will Simpson, unless his learning curve is steep and rapid. But I have hopes for Trish, who embodies—even in her fear and vulnerability—far more genuine strength and courage than Will himself does. And part of her strength is in the recognition that traditional notions of power are not the solution. Will gives her the gun, but it is not the gun that leads her to open the door. (The gun is a false idol: Audrey thinks a gun gives her power as well, but it doesn't.) What gives Trish strength is the courage to recognize that they are in this together, and hiding away is not the solution. "What Kilgrave did to you, he did to Jessica," she tells him, invoking the strongest person she knows. "It doesn't matter how strong you are." If there's hope, it's not to be found in barricades and weapons, but in sympathy, and human connection, and community.
"I couldn't stop smiling. He wouldn't let me." — Emma
And this is the lesson Jessica is slowly—reluctantly—learning as well.
As it turns out, the rapidly spreading legend of Kilgrave is turning into the new "Twinkie Defense," as hordes of supposed victims have come forward claiming to have committed various crimes and sins under Kilgrave's control. But there are a handful of real survivors among all the phony ones, whose stories ring authentic not just in the details—Kilgrave's nice clothes, his British accent, etc.—but also in the substance. "He made me play the cello for him," one woman, Claire (Danielle Ferland) says, showing Jessica her bandaged hands. "Until I made a mistake." Another woman, Emma (Gillian Glasco), says "I couldn't stop smiling: he wouldn't let me." This last is particularly creepy, and has obvious resonance in a world where men are constantly demanding that beautiful women smile.
(It's interesting that Kilgrave uses men only for things and services: he demanded a leather jacket from one man, and made another serve as his chauffeur because he liked his car. From women, however, he demands attention. Kilgrave is male privilege, personified.)
The survivors form a support group, of which Jessica—at first—wants no part. "Like I'd waste my time circle-jerking with a bunch of whiners," she tells Hogarth. "I'm using them." Later, she recommends the group to Will—who clearly needs it—while dismissing it in the same breath. ("Yeah, I'm not into it either," she says hastily.)
But her encounter with Audrey—and perhaps her own explosion of repressed anger?—changes something, and leads Jessica to attend the survivor's group. She still isn't ready to unload her own story—"I don't take my shit and dump it on other people," she told Audrey—but she listens, which is a start. And it's listening to them that leads her to the next clue in her attempt to track down Kilgrave: Donald, the "chauffeur" (Paul Pryce), witnessed Kilgrave's meetings with Jessica's spy—who turns out, of course, to be Malcolm.
Jessica sheds tears when she realizes this, and it's an important moment. She had told Audrey that she had 99 friends, but that was perhaps the biggest lie of her life: Jessica barely has any friends. She has Trish, who she has pushed away, and Luke, who she has driven away, and she has assorted acquaintances who she mostly berates and avoids. Malcolm is one of these: a neighbor, a man who's always around, a man who likes her and thinks she's a good person. Caught up in her own problems and isolation, she never gave Malcolm a second thought, never paid any real attention to him except to dismiss him as a junkie and use him for her own purposes. Now she discovers that he is an actual person, another innocent person who—like she did—fell victim to Kilgrave. Malcolm lost his entire life just because Kilgrave needed someone to be close to her, and she barely noticed him.
"You need to process your trauma," Hogarth—another of her not-really-a-friend acquaintances—has told her. But the path to that, we suspect, isn't in lashing out at the world or locking yourself away from it. It starts with opening the door, and sharing stories, and recognizing your commonalities with your neighbors, your fellow victims, your fellow survivors. Jessica has a long ways to go, but her tears for Malcolm—which are also tears for herself, and how isolated she's become—suggest she may be coming around.
I could be wrong, but I suspect Jessica Jones may not be a show, after all, about an angry loner. It may turn out to be a show about the end of isolation, about the need to share pain, and compare experiences, and help each other to get up when we fall. Kilgrave's victims are coming together, Will and Trish are daring to forge a connection, and Jessica is realizing she can't just be an asshole with pain and ignore the people around her. She may never quite get to 99 friends, but this is starting to feel like a show about the importance of community.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I'm trying to avoid spoilers from the comics, but Will's story about burning down the Dream House has a particular resonance for those who know the role Will Simpson played in Hell's Kitchen during writer Frank Miller's second run on Daredevil. (The character is very different here, so whether this is foreshadowing or just a sly aside remains to be seen.)
- The conversation between Trish and Will obviously parallels—or even foreshadows—an even trickier conversation that still needs to take place: the inevitable one between Luke and Jessica, in which she'll admit that she killed his wife while under Kilgrave's control. (I have a feeling forgiveness will not come quite so easily in that one.)
- Kilgrave as a metaphor for male privilege and masculinity works in interesting ways. For example, Donald's story of abandoning his child is notable for his admission that the kid was driving him crazy, even before Kilgrave showed up: he is haunted most by the fact that Kilgrave compelled him to do something that a part of him may have secretly wanted to do anyway.
- If Kilgrave is male privilege, Hogarth is the woman who does not so much resent that privilege as covet it. (I'm a little resistant of this character: she is too much the stereotypical, cold career woman, and—though the scene with Wendy this week was very good—her role as the heartless, philandering "male" half of her marriage is problematic. I'm hoping this character gets a little more nuanced as the series progresses.)
- I didn't get around to discussing it, but I loved the incredibly creepy scene with the little girl (Taylor Dior) who Kilgrave sends as a messenger. (Kilgrave's thing with children is something I suspect we'll discuss somewhere down the road. It's pretty obvious that he has a real contempt for kids. Is this just a sign of how perfectly he embodies the masculine extreme—without a feminine, nurturing bone in his body—or does it stem from something more specific?)
- "You're are coming across distinctly paranoid." "Everyone keeps saying that: it's like a conspiracy." Heh.
- Apologies, once again, for the extreme lateness of this post. (Yes, I know, the rest of you finished watching this show weeks ago. Is anyone still reading along here? Should I just give up and go binge watch the rest?)