It's only because I'm running so irretrievably behind on my Jessica Jones reviews that I've decided to double-up on episodes for the remainder of the run. But, as it turns out, "AKA You're the Winner" and "AKA Top Shelf Perverts" really do go together pretty well. Actually, Jessica Jones as a whole is enough of a single piece—narratively and thematically—that any consecutive episodes could probably be examined effectively as a unit, but these two work particularly well.
They're both about how Jessica is a piece of shit.
This, of course, is not a new theme for Jessica Jones. She began the season in isolation, pushing everyone away from her, for their own good. "I'm life-threatening, Trish," she told her friend in Episode Two. "Steer clear of me." Throughout the series, we've seen Jessica's self-esteem hover somewhere right around nothing: part of this is her PTSD, part of it is her survivor's guilt, part of it is that she is still torturing herself for what Kilgrave made her do. All of her friends—Trish, Malcolm, Luke—tell her she is a good person, but she can't hear it, and she can't believe it.
We've discussed before how the entire overarching plot of this season is fundamentally about this issue. Jessica's quest is not to kill or punish Kilgrave—she has had several opportunities to do that—but to prove Hope Shlottman innocent. She is doing this because she is a good person, of course—whether she'd admit it or not—but she's also doing it for deeper, more personal reasons: if she can make the world see that Hope is innocent, maybe she can begin to believe that she herself is innocent. That she might not be an "infection," as she told Malcolm. That she might not, after all, be a piece of shit.
Conversely, we've seen—and we see again in these episodes—that Kilgrave's agenda is to not to kill her, or control her, or even to torture her. His goal is convince her that she's a piece of shit. Their goals—their needs—are precisely opposite: she needs to believe that the person he brought out in her is not who she really is, and he needs them both to believe it is.
So Jessica Jones is not the kind of superhero show where battles are fought over global stakes: it's really just a fight over one woman's soul, about who gets to define and determine her identity.
And we see this theme echoed by some of Kilgrave's other victims. "AKA You're a Winner!" opens with Malcolm talking to the survivor's group. "There was a kind of freedom to being under Kilgrave's control," he says. "You're not a slave to guilt, or fear, or even logic. You just do what you're told." There's no need to wonder or worry about what kind of person you are, when someone else is pulling the strings.
And at the end of the episode, we return to the survivor's group so Malcolm can bring the theme home: "It's not the things he made me do that keep me up," he says. "It's a question of who I am...I don't know if it was in me to begin with, or if it's part of who I am now."
I don't know if it was in me to begin with, or if it's part of who I am now. This theme is picked up throughout "AKA You're a Winner!" in different keys. Hope has the same guilt and identity crises as Jessica and Malcolm, but she also has a more tangible manifestation of Kilgrave's influence: she's pregnant. The thing they fear has happened to them, spiritually, has happened to her, literally: she has been infected by his evil, and it's living inside her, part of who she is now. "I can feel it growing like a tumor," she tells Jessica. "Every second it's there, I get raped again, and again. My parents are shot, again, and again." She arranged her own beating in a misguided attempt to bring about a miscarriage—a plan that no doubt served double-duty, as both physical solution and spiritual self-punishment—and she doesn't hesitate a second to take the pill to abort the fetus. ("I want to live. I want to have children. But I won't give life to this thing.")
Jessica's own purging of what Kilgrave did to her will be less straight-forward. The main plotline of "AKA You're a Winner!"—concerning the search for drug-dealing, loan-shark-avoiding Antoine (Dante E. Clark)—is probably the least interesting so far on Jessica Jones. (Whenever the show strays from its arc, and focuses on case-of-the-week type stories, it becomes something lesser.) But the plotline is almost irrelevant: what it's really about is the unconfessed sins Jessica has been keeping from Luke.
There is a fleeting moment here when it seems that perhaps she could be happy with Luke—after he has tried to convince her that she is not a piece of shit, and they end up together again—but it is short-lived: the following morning, she learns that the case he has involved her in is really about finding out the truth about his wife's death. That's Jessica's worst fear, the chief source of her guilt and the secret that's been growing like a tumor since she first met Luke. I won't stretch the thin and unpleasant metaphor so far as to say Jessica spends the episode trying to abort this secret: let us say she tries to expunge it, by somehow intercepting the truth of Reva's death before Luke can discover it.
And she more or less succeeds. But when the evidence directs Luke's rage at a helpless bus driver instead of her, she can't—or won't—keep the secret anymore. Ironically, her confession proves she is a good person. (She was home-free, and could have had what she wanted.) But it also reveals that Kilgrave's control of her was never the entire story, or the entire sin. It is not her involvement in Reva's death that hurts Luke the most, nor should it be: it's the fact that she let him get close to her, perhaps even love her. "You slept with me," he says. "You made me feel I could get past it. Did Kilgrave force you to do that? You let me be inside you. You touched me with the same hands that killed my wife, while you knew."
You let me be inside you. And she got inside him: she was the tumor, the infection, the thing growing in him that was perverted and tainted and wrong. And that was all her: Kilgrave didn't make her do that, didn't make her be that. In its own way, what she did to Luke—deceiving him, denying him full consent by denying him full information—was just as bad as what Kilgrave did to her. "I was wrong," Luke says. "You are a piece of shit."
"It's not the things he made me do that keep me up," Malcolm says. "It's a question of who I am." Who is Jessica Jones? Is she a piece of shit, or is she a hero? Did Kilgrave tap into something fundamentally corrupt and dangerously selfish that's been part of her personality all along? Did he make her worse than she was before?
The answer isn't simple: as Malcolm has said, the only simple life is being completely in someone else's control. Free-will, agency, individuality, means that the answer is never simple. The freedom to make choices means the freedom to make mistakes, and the fact that Jessica makes so many is what one of the things that sets this show apart from just about every other story of its kind. If Jessica Jones is largely a fight over one woman's identity and soul—about her ability to actually be a hero—the show raises the stakes by making the outcome of that fight far from a foregone conclusion.
And if this conflict isn't clear in "AKA You're a Winner!', it becomes much more real in "AKA Top Shelf Perverts." Appropriate to a thirteen-episode arc, I suspect this seventh episode probably constitutes the low-point for Jessica. "Perverts" opens with her literally being thrown in the garbage, which is where she feels she belongs. ("Well, I'm a piece of shit, and shit stinks," she tells a homeless man who is offended by her odor.) If Kilgrave's game is to convince Jessica she's no hero, he's pretty much winning here: he's in her head, as much as he's in her apartment and in her childhood home. (In addition to the symbolism, there is something genuinely revolting about him wandering Jessica's apartment alone, pissing in her toilet with the bathroom door open.)
What Jessica did to Luke may be more emotionally scarring in the long run, but the scene in the subway with Wendy is the most callously shitty thing we've seen Jessica do, even outpacing her cruel use of Malcolm in "AKA It's Called Whiskey." We can argue Jessica went to Luke out of genuine emotional need, and we can argue her manipulation and betrayal of Malcolm was a justifiable means to an end, but there is no excuse for nearly killing Wendy. Wendy—as far as we know—is an innocent. (Hogarth has had Jessica looking for dirt on her, and there appears to be none: she seems to be a good person, whose only crime is that Hogarth no longer loves her. Yes, she basically blackmails Hogarth this episode, but only after Hogarth sicced her "freakish thug" on her.)
It doesn't really matter, because this has nothing to do with Wendy: this is Jessica's self-loathing bubbling over. "Do you know what shame feels like, Wendy?" she asks. "I mean real shame, Wendy. You know, when you've done something, when you've hurt, disgusted someone so completely you can see it in their eyes. The black, oozing shit inside you, you sweat it through your skin, but it keeps spreading, until you would do anything not to feel it. Anything."
(As horrible as this scene is, it also gives us one of the series' best, darkly funny moments, when drunk Jessica accidentally drops Wendy into the train's path. "Shit, I didn't mean to do that," Jessica slurs, after having threatened Wendy with doing exactly that. But then the scene turns dark again, as Jessica—for one long moment—seems to contemplate just standing in the train's path herself.)
Jessica's confirmation of her own worthlessness comes with the death of yet another innocent: Ruben. Like Wendy, Ruben's only crime was to love someone who didn't love him back, but entering Jessica's orbit cost him his life. It's further evidence that Jessica is "life-threatening," that everyone she knows and cares about would be better off without her around. (And this, obviously, is exactly what Kilgrave has been trying to prove to her. It's why he went after Trish, and it's why he went after Malcolm, and it's why he made Hope kill her parents.)
As with "Winner," the actual plot of "Perverts" is kind of silly: Jessica decides to take credit for Ruben's death and get herself locked up in the Supermax prison, ostensibly as an elaborate (and unlikely) trap for Kilgrave. But, as with the previous episode, the plot is not the point: this isn't about Jessica's ridiculous plan to stop Kilgrave, but about her plan to stop and punish herself.
These double-motives are something Jessica Jones' writers excel at layering in, and they are something Krysten Ritter excels at playing. When she tells Det. Clemons that she is "sick," "dangerous," "a killer," and a "psychopath," she is—on the surface—lying. But she is also expressing how she really feels, a confession of her deepest fears and self-loathings cloaked in the trappings of a lie. "I've done something terrible," she tells him, dumping Ruben's head on his desk. True, she didn't kill Ruben, but he is dead because of her, and she has done other terrible things for which she feels the need to punish herself: it is self-retribution for Reva, and for Luke, and for Malcolm, and for the Shlottmans, and for all the other people whose injuries and deaths make her feel, as she told Malcolm, "like a goddamned infection." (She gets more confirmation at the end of the episode, when Ruben's sister Robyn confronts her: "This is all your fault," says Robyn, yet another broken person left behind in the wake of Jessica and Kilgrave's twisted saga. "We were fine before you came here.")
So Jessica's desire to be locked up is a form of self-punishment, and a way to remove the danger and corruption she believes herself to represent. It is also, I think, pure exhaustion, and a cowardly if understandable desire to lay down her burdens. If she has all of her choices and decisions taken away from her, she will no longer have to feel responsible for anything that happens. (In this way, her desire to be locked up echoes Malcolm's comments in "Winner" about the liberation of being under Kilgrave's control: "You're not a slave to guilt, or fear, or even logic. You just do what you're told." Free will is an incredible burden, one that comes with responsibility and consequences: Kilgrave is one way to lay that burden down, and prison is another.)
Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending how we look at it—Kilgrave prevents her from executing her plan. It's ironic, in a way: the man who represents the denial of free will forces free will upon her when she doesn't want it. And he does it, in his own twisted logic, because he wants her to have free will. "I have absolutely no intention of controlling you," he says. "I want you to act of your own accord." Everything he has done, he says, has been not out of hatred, but out of love: "I'm hoping you'll choose me, just as I've chosen you. I believe you'll figure out the same thing I did: we're inevitable."
I suspect we will get more opportunity to really get into Kilgrave next episode, but we should pause here for a few observations. We've talked before how he is the absolute personification of male entitlement, and we see that here in his incredible explanations for his own actions: like every stalker, like every abuser, he justifies his crimes as coming from a place of love. ("I am trying to profess eternal love here, people!") He says he wants what's best for her, and he presumes to know what's best for her—which is, coincidentally, himself. ("You didn't have a life," he says offhandedly, dismissing completely her entire autonomous existence. "I wanted you to see what I see: that I'm the only one who matches you, who challenges you, who would do anything for you.") Accustomed to getting everything he wants, he is obsessed with getting what he can't have. ("You made me feel something I never felt before: yearning. I actually missed you.") And he wants it all wrapped up in the illusion of romance: despite his unprecedentedly awful manipulations of her life, he needs the self-justifying fiction that she wants him too. He is a terrible parody of all of misogyny's self-deceptive lies, one that betrays itself at every turn. ("You are the first thing—excuse me, person—who ever walked away from me," he says, a Freudian slip that reveals the objectifying, possessive way he really sees her.) There is even a sly recognition that his misogynistic views of romance—in which "getting" the girl is all that matters—is reinforced by popular culture. ("Oh, please," he says. "I may be new to love, but I know what it looks like. I do watch television.")
As I've said, these two episodes—halfway through the season's arc—probably constitute a low point for Jessica. (And for Jessica, that's saying a lot.) If this were a different kind of show—if we didn't know that Jessica is ultimately a hero, however flawed—our interpretation of the ending of "Top Shelf Pervert" might be much darker: Jessica delivers herself, of her own free will, directly into Kilgrave's hands. We could read it as her acquiescence to a fate Kilgrave says is "inevitable." We could see it as her surrender to what Malcolm calls the "freedom" of being in someone else's control. We could see it as her decision to embrace, at long last, the truth of who she really is: just a piece of shit, with nothing to offer anyone.
But we should also consider how Jessica spends her time before she turns herself into the police, and before she ends up turning herself over to Kilgrave. She goes looking for Luke, to apologize—without the expectation of forgiveness—and to assure him that justice will be served. She goes to find Trish's mother Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay), to make sure that Trish will be safe. (It is worth noting that Dorothy feels "no responsibility, no remorse." Jessica says she wishes she could be like that—the longing for the freedom from guilt and burdens, again—but of course she doesn't really: only the true monsters like Kilgrave can be like that. In fact, the whole question of forgiveness is an unresolved one on Jessica Jones: can anyone truly be forgiven, no matter how they try to balance the scales? "It doesn't make the bad shit you did go away," Jessica says here.)
And Jessica goes to say goodbye to the city, from high atop the Manhattan Bridge. On first viewing, this scene struck me as coming out of nowhere, for when have we ever heard Jessica express any real affection for New York? But then I realized that Jessica doesn't express affection: that's not her style. But that doesn't mean she doesn't feel it. And now, when she feels most like a piece of shit, what matters to her is what she loves. She loves Trish, and she perhaps loves Luke, and she loves "this goddamned city" that she—in her own humble, messy way—works to protect. Those are the things that make her not a piece of shit, that make her different from Kilgrave, who has "never loved anyone in [his] repulsive life." At her most defeated—when she is ready to throw herself away in Supermax Hell with the very worst of the villains, the real "top-shelf perverts"—she is perhaps as close to being a superhero as she has been so far.
A lowest point is just a turning point. As Luke's bartender tells her, when you burn a bridge, you gotta learn to swim or fly. She may have begun this episode in the garbage, but—standing high above the city—Jessica looks for all the world like she's ready to take flight.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Surprise! I'm still reviewing Jessica Jones. (Admit it, you thought I'd given up.) My schedule has been even more unreliable than usual lately, and I did contemplate just dropping this series. (As my regular readers know, it wouldn't be the first time. And is anyone but me still watching this show, nearly four months after it dropped?) But I genuinely love Jessica Jones, and I like writing about it, and I'm eager to see it through. My plan is to push through the rest of the series over the next couple of weeks, two episodes at a time. (I'd like to get it done in time to possibly write about its sibling Daredevil when Season Two drops on March 22.)
- I keep thinking I'll get around to really discussing Kilgrave—next post may be the one—but I should say here that David Tennant is killing it as The Purple Man: it's a fantastic, funny, endlessly creepy performance, with just the right mixture of sincerity and sociopathy. He's particularly brilliant in those moments when Kilgrave is trying to be good, just barely resisting the urge to use his powers.
- Mike Colter, too, is giving a surprisingly layered performance in what could—in other hands—be a fairly one-note role. There's an almost boyish emotional vulnerability beneath his impervious exterior that really does make Luke the perfect partner for Jessica.
- Hogarth has harvested Hope's fetus—and Kilgrave's DNA—for her own nefarious purposes. I hope this somehow pays off the time spent on Hogarth and her divorce, which—while not bad—has been the least interesting sub-plot on Jessica Jones. And I guess I do appreciate how characters like Hogarth—and now Dorothy—exist in the show as controlling, manipulative, "normal" parallels to Kilgrave.
- As horrible as it is, I was relieved to hear the word "rape" spoken aloud on this show for the first time. Kilgrave is a rapist, and Jessica and Hope are survivors of rape, and I'm glad the show is no longer being coy about that.
- Everybody but me has already finished this show, so you already know the answer to this question, but have we considered the possibility that Kilgrave is no longer trying to control Jessica because he knows he can't? As I've mentioned before, the fact that she walked away from him in the first place, after Reva's death, might mean that his mojo no longer works on her...
- The care this show takes to make even secondary (and tertiary) characters real people is impressive. There are no "stock" characters: we may never get to really know Luke's bartender, or Hogarth's girlfriend, but they seem to exist as actual people, with actual lives and stories of their own. And the final scene with Robyn—a character who has been the boldest kind of comic relief—is surprisingly effective and heartbreaking, as she tries to figure out what she did to drive Ruben away. ("Tell him I'm sorry about the zoo. We can go this weekend. I'll take him to see the giraffes, I promise.")
- Jessica is worried about one day coming home to find Trish bludgeoned to death with her vacuum cleaner. "We both know you don't own a vacuum cleaner, Jess," Trish says. We can add this to growing list of things Jessica doesn't have, along with toilet paper, a level, and a working knowledge of chicken cordon bleu.