By Corey Patterson
With the upcoming second season of Jessica Jones set to premiere on Netflix March 8th, I thought it’d be a good idea to revisit the first season and all its intricacies. The series, along with Daredevil, helped shape the Marvel TV show landscape over the past few years by introducing us to darker heroes who face corruption in Hell’s Kitchen.
Whereas Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil) fought against the very physical dangers of a mob boss who led a crime syndicate, Jessica Jones gives us a hero who takes on a less-tangible but horrifyingly real threat. Her villain came in the form of Kevin Thompson (Kilgrave), a metahuman with the ability to manipulate and control the desires of other people.
A major theme in the series is guilt, which seems to follow Jessica wherever she goes. We learn early on that Jessica has great animosity toward Kilgrave, and for intensely personal reasons: She was once put under his control and compelled to commit unspeakable acts, both against her own will and those of others. Among these commands was the order to murder Reza Cage, a woman who held unique information pertaining to Kilgraves past. The shock of murdering Reva pushed Jessica out of Kilgrave’s control and allowed her to escape. However, Jessica couldn’t escape the memories of her time spent with the monster as well as the murder she committed.
As the series progresses, Jessica attempts to track down Kilgrave while trying to escape her feelings of guilt for Reza’s murder. Of course, one might wonder why Jessica struggles with these feelings of guilt; after all, it wasn’t her choice to murder Reva. But since she broke free from Kilgrave’s mind control right after the murder, Jessica begins to wonder whether the desire to kill had been inside of her all along. This continually haunts Jessica throughout the series.
The bulk of the season focuses on Jessica’s attempts to free people from Kilgrave’s control, most notably a teenage girl named Hope Shlottman, who is forced to kill her own parents. During her investigations into Hope’s whereabouts Jessica develops a relationship with Luke Cage, a bulletproof metahuman living in Hell’s Kitchen. However, Jessica learns that Reza was Luke’s wife, and her guilt is further etched onto her psyche when she tells him the truth.
As they try to recover from this major rift in their relationship, Kilgrave takes control of Luke and forces him to attack Jessica. She is then forced to grab a nearby gun and knock him out with a single shot. Unfortunately, the force of the blow leaves him with severe internal bleeding and Jessica is forced to rush him to the nearest hospital.
While looking for help from the hospital’s nurses, Jessica runs into Claire Thomas, a strong-willed woman who was introduced earlier in Daredevil. She agrees to treat Luke while Jessica explains their situation.
During their conversation the topic of guilt surfaces and leads to quite a telling statement from Claire.
Claire Temple: Guilt makes people do stupid shit.
Jessica Jones: I’m not guilty. It’s not my fault.
Claire Temple: See, I hate that. I want everything to be my fault. Good or bad. Means I have some control.
Jessica Jones: You don’t.
Claire Temple: Obviously. But it keeps me dreaming I can change things for people.
[points to Luke ]
Claire Temple: Case in point.
Jessica Jones: You’re in total control. You’re responsible for all of this and I blame you.
Claire Temple: Don’t push it. (Jessica Jones, Episode 13)
Claire claims her own guilt lets her know she’s in control. Even if her decisions lead to something bad, the corresponding feeling of guilt lets her know she had the freedom to make the choice. In her mind, the guilt we experience is only valid if we have choice.
While Jessica’s response to her might appear tongue-in-cheek to most, it illustrates her full breakaway from the false feelings of guilt. The more control a person has, the more responsible they are for their actions, and therefore the more guilt they accrue when it all goes to hell. And as far as Jessica was concerned, Kilgrave was rolling in the dough.
When under Kilgrave’s influence, Jessica believed her desires made her guilty. He could control and manipulate her as much as possible, yet the desire would be uniquely her own. It’s not hard to see how Kilgrave’s persona serves as a deterministic God-figure, a being who ultimately decides what people will do and leaves them feeling guilty for the desires he himself gave them.
Fortunately, Claire offers a different view of freedom and guilt: We aren’t made guilty by a specific desire, but by the choices we freely make.
This sentiment is central to the thought of many open and relational theologians, most notably Thomas Jay Oord. In Oord’s view, God’s nature as love prevents any form of control or coercion:
“The model of God as essentially kenotic says God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being” (Oord, 94).
Since creatures necessarily have some degree of freedom and agency, guilt is inevitable. But this guilt is made possible by an uncontrolling force of love which grants us freedom and desires our well-being.
The concept of love as desiring someone’s well-being is elaborated by Claire in a later scene when she speaks with Malcom, Jessica’s friend and a former victim of Kilgrave’s powers.
Malcolm Ducasse: Wasn’t that long ago I was trying to get my degree in social work.
Claire Temple: Wanted to help people?
Malcolm Ducasse: I still do.
Claire Temple: Well, you don’t need powers to be of use.
Malcolm Ducasse: I don’t want powers. I mean, I do not want to be on the receiving end of them either, but… I don’t know, I just… I like people too much. Luke, Jessica, just by necessity, by definition, they’re separate. Even from each other.
Claire Temple: Maybe that’s what they need most from us. Connection. (Jessica Jones, Episode 13)
This flies directly in the face of Kilgrave’s mentality. Forcing people to do your will, even for their own “benefit,” leaves nothing but pain. But connecting with them will truly improve their well-being. It lets them know they’re cared for and prevents the destructive effects of unchecked guilt.
As this series shows us, guilt is an unfortunate consequence of free will. However, this freedom is also what allows us to connect with those who feel guilt and remind them that they are loved.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here.
Rosenberg, Melissa. Jessica Jones, Season 1. Marvel Television. 2015.
Oord, Thomas J. The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. IVP Academic. 2015.