About halfway through "AKA The Sandwich Saved Me"—as Jessica trails Malcolm through Union Square—there's a quick shot of a little boy in a Captain America costume playing with his friends.
"Come and get me!" the boy yells to his friends. He's got the costume, so he's the hero, and his plain-clothed friends are relegated to the roles of bad guys. It's a dynamic that is in-line with modern, on-screen superhero tropes: in most of the Marvel movies, in the Nolan Batman films, and in shows like The Flash and Supergirl, villains don't often wear costumes, and they and their henchmen certainly don't go in for color-coordinated branding like they do in the comics. (Why would they? They're crooks: it's in their interest to fly under the radar.)
But, as Trish Walker says this week, "heroes wear costumes." Heroes, you see, are symbols: they are supposed to be larger than life, and they represent ideals.
In the muted noir aesthetic of Jessica Jones, however, the bright primary colors of the child's costume stand out as glaring, almost garish. We're still in the Marvel Universe—Captain America is a real person to these children—but his incongruity also reminds us that this show doesn't exist in the same spiritual neighborhood that houses Cap and the rest of the Avengers. ("I wasn't even there," Jessica told Audrey last week, about the skyscraper-wrecking shenanigans of The Avengers.) I don't know if you can see Stark Tower from Hell's Kitchen, but things are different on this side of town. Everything is murkier, more complicated, more morally ambiguous: the stakes are smaller, and nobody is larger than life.
Captain America may stand as a symbol of absolute goodness and hope, but this isn't that kind of story, and Jessica isn't that kind of hero. Even Netflix-sibling Daredevil ended its first season ends with Matt Murdock donning his red superhero costume for the first time, but I think it's safe to predict that this show isn't working its way towards putting Jessica in skin-tight spandex.
On Jessica Jones, being a hero means something different.
"So you're really going to do it? You're going to be hero?" — Trish
"AKA The Sandwich Saved Me" features the first extended flashbacks we've gotten yet in Jessica Jones. "There's before Kilgrave, and there's after," Jessica says: she's talking about pictures of Malcolm's transformation, but she could also be talking about herself. The Jessica we meet here in flashbacks isn't so obviously different, on the surface, from the one we know: she's still tough, and she's still sarcastic, and she's still a little misanthropic. But there's a lightness in Krysten Ritter's performance of pre-Kilgrave Jessica that is different: she is not yet so defensively hunched, not yet so haunted. Whether she's extorting money from a sleazy boss, or humiliating a misogynistic asshole in a bar, there's an optimistic self-confidence—and even joy—in these flashbacks. This, as we see throughout the episode, is part of what Kilgrave took away from her.
Pre-Kilgrave-Jessica was still skeptical of the whole "hero" thing, of course. It was Trish who was unashamedly enthusiastic about the idea. "Why don't you put on a cape," Jessica suggests, and Trish says she would if she could: "To save the world, of course." With Kilgrave as our most prominent example, it's a truism of Jessica Jones that people with "gifts" aren't necessarily the most deserving of them. I'm increasingly loving Rachael Taylor's performance as Trish, and one of the things she does very well is layer just a slight edge of envy into her friendship with Jessica: Trish, after all, would have made an excellent superhero, if she'd had Jessica's gifts. (As Hogarth—we suspect—might have made an even more terrifying villain than Kilgrave.) As it is, however, Trish can only—for now—live vicariously through her friend.
Fans of the comic Alias will recognize the ridiculous costume and name Trish suggests for Jessica as those she actually wore in her brief, unmemorable stint as a traditional superhero. (Both were supposed to be a little ridiculous in the comic, too. Alias opens after Jessica has abandoned her superhero life.) But the expectations of what a superhero needs to be—particularly a female superhero—is one of the things Jessica Jones is determined to subvert. ("'Jewel' is a stripper name," Jessica says to Trish. "And if I wear that thing, you're going to have to call me 'Cameltoe.'")
I want to talk about this for a moment, because I think it goes beyond simply subverting superhero tropes. There's a larger theme throughout Jessica Jones of how, not just superheroes, but women are expected to present themselves to the world. We see a little of this in that scene in the bar: certainly, Krysten Ritter is every bit as attractive as Rachael Taylor, but the sleazy barfly hits on Trish. Trish is wearing bright colors, while Jessica is all in black; Trish is in a dress, while Jessica is in jeans; Trish is smiling and friendly—even to a guy who's harassing her—while Jessica is surly. Trish plays the role women are expected to play in our society, but Jessica refuses to do so. ("I'm not really feeling the Love Tester right now," Jessica says. "How about the Strength Tester instead?")
So Jessica's refusal to wear a brightly-colored costume is more than a fashion preference: it's a feminist statement that's in line with the entire series. She doesn't have to make herself attractive to men to be a strong woman; she doesn't have to smooth out her rough edges; she doesn't have to put on a smiling public face, or pretend to be a different sort of person than she really is. She doesn't need to be anyone else's concept of a hero to be one.
"You think because you have these abilities, you're a hero? I've seen heroes. You're not even close." — Will
But just because Jessica doesn't want to be a superhero, that doesn't mean she doesn't want to help people. When she performs her first act of heroism—in the scene that gives the episode its title—she is in fact dressed as a giant Hoagie, but that doesn't make the little girl she saved any less alive. We can count on one hand the number of genuine smiles that have crossed Jessica's face in this show, but she enjoys one here as the little girl thanks her.
And she is smiling in the flashback towards the end of the episode, after she has saved a man—who turns out to be Malcolm—from some muggers. Did she enjoy it? Kilgrave asks her, in their first meeting. "Yes," Jessica says. "Because I saved someone. Because I made a difference." (Ironically, Kilgrave's mind-controlling powers give us our most honest glimpse yet into the real Jessica Jones: this is a level of naked sincerity and pure goodness that a free-willed Jessica would never reveal.)
This, too, is what Kilgrave took from her: Jessica did want to be a hero—albeit on her own terms—and she thought she could actually help people. But Kilgrave deliberately corrupted that: it is no coincidence that he chose Malcolm, the man she saved, to be her drug-addicted spy. Try to help someone and they'll end up worse off then they were: that's the message he sent with Malcolm, and it's the same message he sent with Hope. Jessica's isolation has actually been an expression of her same noble instincts: she has pushed everyone away not because she doesn't care, but because she does.
This is one of the many things Will doesn't understand. Will is another person who has narrow expectations of what a "hero" should be, and Jessica doesn't fit his preconceptions. "You think because you have these abilities, you're a hero?" he says, from the safety of his isolation booth. "I've seen heroes: you're not even close." (I talked in my piece on Episode Two about how glass separates people on Jessica Jones, and it's a motif that the show has never abandoned.)
And we suspect Will's notions of a hero are fairly sexist: he patronizingly disparages both Jessica and Trish. "Look, whatever abilities you have, I'm guessing they don't include rendition, infiltration, and isolation of enemy combatants," he mansplains to Jessica. And though Jessica has no doubt that Trish is capable of being a hero—"It's time to put on your cape," she says—Will wants to bring in one of his old Army buddies to drive instead. "We need someone who's trained, not a talk radio host."
Will thinks he's a hero, and so does Trish. ("He's a war hero," she tells Jessica.) But Jessica has Will's number, and recognizes that his concept of heroism is problematic. ("You definitely have a screw loose," she says, from her side of the glass. "I'm guessing you left the military because you gunned down a small village.") Jessica has to explain to him why they can't just kill Kilgrave: they're not out for revenge, but actually trying to help someone, and they need Kilgrave alive. She also realizes his first instinct is to kill her as well, should Kilgrave get control of her. ("I was going to say tranq me," she says. "But what the hell: shoot me in the head.") And later, she has to stop him from torturing Kilgrave's bodyguard, even though the guy doesn't know anything he isn't volunteering willingly. "You come to terms with this guy," Jessica says. "And that means serve and protect. You're a cop, Simpson. Remember?"
Will has the look, and Will has the job, and Will has the uniform, and Will has the friendly demeanor—but none of that makes Will a hero. Jessica has none of those things, but we know she's a hero. And it's Trish who puts her finger on part of what makes a hero. "Do you trust that I'm a decent human being?" she asks him, and he says he does. "And I know Jessica is. And I'm pretty sure you are, too. And that's all any of us need to know right now."
"You're right. I can't save you." — Jessica
Heroism isn't about the costume, and it isn't about being a symbol, and it isn't about power: it's about being a decent human being. This is what Jessica is reminded of at the end of the episode, and it's what she in turn reminds Malcolm about.
Finding Malcolm passed out in the elevator, after his ordeal with Kilgrave, Jessica has a decision to make. Earlier in the episode, when Trish suggests breaking Malcolm free of Kilgrave's control, Jessica says she won't do it until she can get her shot at Kilgrave. It is an understandable decision—he is her only lead—but it's still fairly shitty: she is using him again, as she used him before, and as Kilgrave has used him for months.
And even after she's missed her shot at Kilgrave, she could still have left him in the elevator, or taken him to the emergency room, or just dumped him in his own apartment as she's done so many times before. But she doesn't: "I'm taking him home," she tells Ruben. She means his home, but—after she realizes he is the man she once saved—she takes him to her home.
Last week I discussed how Jessica Jones is a show, in part, about the need for community, and we see that theme expanded throughout this episode. A long ways from the angry, isolated loner of the first episode, Jessica now has an entire team working with her to capture Kilgrave, and an extended community of people around her. Taking responsibility for Malcolm is another leap forward for her—not just in her decision to help him, but in her recognition that doing so is a way to fight back against what Kilgrave had done to both of them. She reminds Malcolm that he once—like her—wanted to help people, and she reclaims that desire for herself by offering it back to Malcolm:
"I'm still fighting. I won't stop fighting. But if you give up, I lose. Do you get that? He did this to you to get at me. To isolate me. To make me feel like an infection: one more person dead or dying because of me. So why don't you remember how to be a goddamned human being again instead of this self-pitying piece of shit he turned you into, and save me for once?"
It's a speech to herself as much as it's a speech to Malcolm. She is giving them both back what Kilgrave had taken away from them: the belief that they were decent people, that they had something to offer, that they could be heroes.
"Don't play the hero with me." — Kilgrave
This, as much as anything, is Kilgrave's agenda. As Jessica has said several times, he could probably kill her any time he likes. He could, presumably, control her again any time he likes. (Though previous flashbacks to Rena's death—when Jessica seemed to be immune to his commands—leave us some doubt on that point.)
But Kilgrave isn't out to make Jessica dead, or to make Jessica his puppet. (It doesn't even seem to be about robbing her of her power, because he enjoys her power. "So rare for me to feel powerless," he says. "In retrospect, it's exhilarating…My life was literally in your hands.")
No, Kilgrave is out to destroy the hero in her, or—or his eyes—to rob her of the delusion that she can be a hero. Just as he defends his abuse of Malcolm by saying he didn't make him do anything he didn't want to do, so he flatters himself that Jessica is not really any more noble than he himself is. He is delighted when he wakes up with a big bruise on his face and a loosened tooth: not just because he now knows Jessica needs him alive, but because he also knows that, while he was unconscious, she punched him in the face. It's not something a hero would do, and that thrills him. "Don't play the hero with me," he tells her.
I am overdue to spend some time talking about Kilgrave—I promise I'll do that on his next significant episode—but for now what I find interesting is that he is more than willing to let the people Jessica cares about go as soon as he can get her to admit that she can't protect them. He let Trish alone after he proved that he could hurt her, and after he coerced a humiliating apology out of her. And now he lets Malcolm go, in exchange for Jessica taking over his duties. Kilgrave wants a picture of her, once a day, and she has to be smiling.
"I couldn't stop smiling," one of his other survivors, Emma, said last week. "Kilgrave wouldn't let me." Kilgrave, as we've discussed, is patriarchy and misogyny personified, and he expects women to smile: to be approachable, to be pleasant, to be pleasing, to be well-dressed. "Come here and let me look at you," Kilgrave says this week, in the flashback where he first meets Jessica. "Jesus, you're a vision. Hair, and skin. Appalling sense of fashion, but that can be remedied." (And indeed, the only times we've seen Jessica gussied up and traditionally "feminine" were in flashbacks, when she was under Kilgrave's control.)
Jessica will give him the photo: he thinks it diminishes her, but it doesn't. She knows it's a small price to pay for saving Malcolm—or, more accurately, for giving Malcolm the chance to save himself. (As superhero victories go, this might seem like a small one to The Avengers, but it's a major win on Jessica Jones, where the stakes are smaller, and more personal.) She knew Trish's apology last week was a small price to pay for her safety as well. ("Saying the words doesn't make it true," she told Trish, after that concession.) Being a hero isn't about wearing a costume: it isn't about putting on a public face, or being a symbol, or caring about what anyone else thinks about you.
But she won't give him the smile. In fact, this is exactly why she won't give him the smile. He's just another person—another man—trying to tell her how she's supposed to look, and how she's supposed to act, and who she's supposed to be. But she knows who she is, and she won't give him that piece of herself.
"What's your superhero name?" Kilgrave asks her, when he first meets her. "You have to have one." But she doesn't have to have one. She doesn't have to have a costume, and she doesn't have to smile, and she doesn't have to be anyone but who she is.
What's her superhero name? It's just "Jessica Jones."
And that's enough.