Spoiler warning: Jessica Jones
Content warning: addiction, rape, PTSD, mental illness
Content is below the cut to help with spoilers and triggers.
Because I am a sucker for media about people who have too much guilt, especially people with mental illnesses, and especially TV shows that have women, people of color, queer folks, and MIND CONTROLLERS as the main characters (especially when it includes David Tennant), I binge watched Jessica Jones this weekend.
For the most part I found it fascinating. I found it did a good job of allowing Kilgrave to operate as a metaphor for loss of control without getting too heavy handed or without totally devolving into an overpowered destroyer. He used his powers on whims instead of with a goal, which is how loss of control usually comes: out of the blue, when you least expect it.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the choice to make Hogarth a woman, especially since her main plotline revolves around a mistress. It was interesting to see a lesbian relationship take center stage without the focus being on the “lesbian” part of that phrase.
But the thing that I want to talk about is mental illness. Huge parts of Jessica Jones circulate around sanity, abuse, trauma, and the ways these ideas affect people, function in society, and affect relationships. These are things that I care a lot about, obviously. And overall Jessica Jones is one of the best portrayals of trauma that I have seen.
The first episode in particular did the most realistic job of making me feel like I was anxious and flashing back along with Jessica. I don’t typically love swimming camera angles, but these did their job. Very rarely do I see moments of melting down or being triggered captured accurately. I loved that in this case they happened in the everyday, set off by little things, that they came and went and sometimes were debilitating and sometimes weren’t, but that you could see they left an incredibly strong person rattled.
But more than the way it looked is the fact that nearly everyone in the show has something that’s haunting them. That seems the most real to me. They all deal with it in different ways. Some people find healthier ways than others. Some people had worse things. I really, particularly found it powerful that the whole crux of the show is a woman who had control over her body stolen from her in a way that no one else believes. It might be done in a fantastical fashion, but this is the kind of thing that rape victims face all the time, and Jessica even names it as rape. I’m so happy that the show head on is willing to say that it’s talking about PTSD and mental illness and rape and trauma, naming these things as important and real.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how Jessica interacts with the concepts of recovery and therapy. She mocks her therapist in the first episode, but she uses the technique he gave her throughout the show and even passes it along to Hope. She repeatedly says that the survivor’s group is stupid and refuses to attend, but she suggests it to Simpson in a way that says she knows it’s the “right” thing to do. In my experience this is always the first step of recovering when you start telling other people all the things you should be doing without following your own advice. I loved that the show wasn’t willing to sell her as some sort of recovery hero or as a lost soul who would never get better. This felt like the true complexities of trying to understand why you would want to give up your shitty coping mechanisms.
However despite all the good there is one element of the show that really pisses me off. That’s the way that it approaches choice when it comes to addiction and mental illness, especially in the way it treats choice and determination in relation to Kilgrave’s powers.
It came to a head for me with Malcolm, the neighbor who spends half the series addicted to drugs thanks to Kilgrave. His turning point was the moment in which Jessica yells at him that it’s his turn to save her, throws drugs down in front of him while he’s in the midst of some nasty withdrawal and says “make a choice.” I understand the dramatic appeal. If Malcolm is a good person he’s supposed to have the willpower to stand up to his addiction and be there for his friend.
Unfortunately that’s not at all how mental illness or addiction work. That seems like it should be the whole point of the show: you can’t just willpower yourself out of the complete loss of control that comes with PTSD or addiction or codependence or alcoholism or whatever it might be. It doesn’t go away because you care about something else. ESPECIALLY with chemical addiction when your body is having physical reactions, you don’t just choose something else over the drug. Or maybe you can for this moment. But probably not the next one. That’s why we don’t put drugs in front of people in rehab. That’s why the point of treatment is to make sure you never fall into the point where you can’t imagine anything but using, to keep you away from the places that send you back there, to surround yourself with things that actually make you feel remotely good about yourself.
And what I wish so deeply this show could have done was not give us another “the power of love will make you overcome your demons” moment (Because of course the finale had to revolve around Trish being the only person Jessica ever loved and that being the spark that came through Kilgrave’s control when we thought it was all over) but rather gave us an image of what it’s like to have support, to make the thousand tiny choices that change your life each day so that the drugs aren’t in front of you anymore or so that the voices are quieter.
Taking back your control isn’t one moment that lets you kill your demons. It’s screaming back at them every time they come out to play. It’s having your friends and family whisper the truth in your ear when all you can hear is lies. In my mind, for Jessica to have defeated Kilgrave, she needed to have stopped hating herself first. And she can’t do that alone or by a sheer act of willpower. That’s a lot harder than killing the bad guy. It’s also a lot less cinematic, so I understand why they wrote it the way they did. I can’t even conceive of a way that Kilgrave would be defeated by the slow and steady kind of fight that is what really taking back control of your mind looks like.
But there were small moments, like the moment with Malcolm, that could have been done differently. Those didn’t have to be the huge, cinematic turning points. They had a whole season to let Malcolm progress in the slow, painful fashion of true recovery, actually helped by his friends instead of thrown under the bus for the sake of an ultimatum and the fetishization of willpower.