[May contain spoilers for Marvel’s Jessica Jones]
‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me…’
That mantra was repeated in my head for most of my formative years. Every school year brought a fresh set of words, names and slurs to be called, to be pelted with and the solution was always the same, ‘sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you…’, no they’ll just follow me around like ghosts for years long after school days are a thing of the past.
I didn’t expect to have this all dragged up again after watching Marvel’s Jessica Jones, but after the rest from the marathon of episodes and the noise of post-binge discussion had quietened I was left with my own thoughts and the chance to reflect on the show.
Speaking to others about the superhero show I felt maybe I had watched the wrong show altogether, many felt the show lacked a real punch, that it was all talk and no action. Maybe! Or maybe we’re still not willing to have that conversation, still unwilling to share just how much other peoples words can devastate, destroy and follow us long after they’ve been said.
Jessica is haunted by her past, tormented by the actions she was forced to carry out by Kilgrave. We watch as she tries to push the memories and whispers back, as she tries to run and distract herself from the real issues until she finally begins to confront what happened her when she was controlled by Kilgrave and just how far she sank. The journey for Jessica isn’t easy and despite being ‘gifted’ her abilities aren’t able to pull her through these problems and that’s where the show really shines. We don’t see Jessica fight an invading alien armada or a sentient psychotic machine – she’s facing her own inner demons, monsters in her head, born from and fed by words, Kilgraves and her own.
Unwilling or unable to process just what has happened to her, Jessica retreats from her self, disappearing down the neck of cheap whiskey, throwing herself into her work and keeping friends and family at arm’s length. When she can’t use her powers to deal with a situation, she uses her own words and we see more of her ability to cut people/situations down with those than her fists. For Jessica and the people around her, their fixation on Kilgrave is focused more on what he said than on him or even what they did – if he said those things then they must be true.
The Kilgrave survivors support group is made up of individuals who can be propped up as a shattered metaphor for Jessica, each seems to feel a distinct emotion; the disgusted woman forced to smile, the broken celloist, the angry coat owner and the ashamed father. This metaphor resonates most of all in Jessica’s neighbour/former stalker Malcolm who joins the group after being freed from Kilgrave’s grasp, it would also serve to explain why Jessica shuts him out soon after he is freed. Malcolm poses a question to the group, did Kilgraves words make him be the drug addict or was that a part of him that was always there, just below the surface of who he thought he was. The other survivors all share the same notion that the words uttered by Kilgrave were just words, while this could be just their ignorance of his actual gift/ability, in a deeper sense it could pertain to the fact we as a society don’t seem to afford the same power to saying as we do to doing – all talk, no action!
While Jessica is at the centre of all of this, she’s not the only person affected by Kilgrave and Kilgrave isn’t the only one manipulating words for his own gain. Trish Walker, Jessica’s best friend, was a victim of exploitation at the hands of her mother, both as her daughter and her client. This is particularly evident in a flashback scene where we can hear her mother emotionally blackmailing and berating a young Trish. During her talkshow, Trish uses airtime to berate and attack Kilgrave, lashing out with words she knows could hurt him or wound his pride but this is portrayed more as an act of defiance or attack rather than a stirring delivery of words, an act where we see Jessica quickly try to get a grip on the situation. In the series Trish acts as the antithesis for Kilgrave, using her radio talk show, her words to reach and help people. She also acts oppositely to Jessica, facing her monsters both physical and metaphysical, head on and learning to defend herself.
How does Jessica deal with hers? It’s only by reliving her life with Kilgrave and being around him again that Jessica is able to actually confront just what happened, just what Kilgrave did to her and made her do. It’s an explosive outburst as Jessica tells Kilgrave exactly how she felt and was made feel, violated, degraded and powerless, it’s only when Jessica sees how quickly her captor and attacker brushes aside her words that she realises the true power lying behind what she says isn’t in how they’re received but how she herself delivers them and internalises them. By recognising that she is able to separate herself from Kilgrave and what he had her do. From this point onwards, it’s no longer about control and manipulation, it’s about Jessica empowering herself and the depowering of Kilgrave who resorts to a suicidal gamble all for the sake of holding onto what little control he has over the one person he truly wants.
In the end, while Jessica is forced to act, defeating Kilgrave isn’t about matching his power or even taking it away from him, he has little regard for his power or the power of his words. We see how he uses them not only to manipulate people and situations but his own memories, his own conscience, using them to lie to himself, to convince himself that he is justified, that his victims weren’t victims, they were asking for it, for him and that his ability and words were a gift, freeing to be who they really are and what they really wanted.
Kilgrave is an ugly truth, for all of us, not just Jessica Jones, he’s the conversation we’re still not willing to have with each other or even ourselves.
The series is over for now, the credits have rolled, maybe it’s time we start talking and using our own words.
Editor-in-Chief, part-time super villain and hoarder of cats. If you can’t find me writing, I’m probably in the kitchen!