Editor’s note: this op-ed contains minor spoilers for the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Read at your own risk!
Marvel and Netflix’s Jessica Jones is not perfect. Neither the person nor the series—but that’s to its benefit. Because most television, and especially most superhero shows, eschew deep personal failings or inadequacies lest they can be neatly tied up with an episodic and/or season-long bow. Because the moments where our humanity can’t stand the test—when the nuance of our own personal experiences and the failure that follows proves hard to put into words—those are the most challenging but necessary ones to portray on screen.
This is precisely why it’s a gift to us all that Jessica Jones exists, as hard as it can sometimes be to watch.
Some people are lucky enough to have a road map or a path towards healing that makes them stronger and more competent humans in the face of personal hardship. But many must try and fail and try and fail again merely in order to survive, let alone to figure it all out—a far more complicated path. For all the incredible acting, amazing writing, and spectacularly rendered characterization that Jessica Jones brought us, catharsis was, perhaps, its greatest achievement. Because here—at long last—was a truly dynamic, imperfect woman making do by turning her own issues into assets, an on-screen characterization of mental health that acknowledged its existence in Jessica’s life but did not lessen her strength in the process.
But don’t get it twisted: Jessica Jones is as challenging to watch as it is rewarding. It is unflinching in the chaos it breeds to showcase Jessica’s mindset when dealing with—or triggered by—her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD for short). It even gives us reasons to sympathize with Kilgrave, her captor, during her emotional interrogation of him (regardless of how bad a dude is he, no one deserves to be experimented on by their parents as a child and tortured with the footage later on). His mind control is a stand-in for Stockholm Syndrome, his omnipresence a reminder of his lasting effect on her and a perfect way to show its extent.
In a show that could have easily let the strength and dynamism of its female characters be enough, Jessica Jones went one step further, depicting exactly how it feels to be lost in your own anxiety while trying to move forward and get out from under its crushing weight. Without the necessary help or guidebooks, people develop their own particular brand of coping mechanisms, and Jessica is no exception. She drinks, she overanalyzes, and she keeps those she loves at bay (lest she unintentionally hurts them in the process—and boy, do people get hurt around Jessica Jones). The subsequent guilt she feels because of these necessary actions begets more guilt, which begets more drive, and catalyzes her own problem-solving skills. Even for someone with super-strength and an ability to fly(ish), there’s no superpower powerful enough to overcome your own mind’s tricks.
You can’t fly over your problems—you must move forward through them.
And that’s never easy (or all that interesting) to show on screen. Mental illness is a completely personal and unique experience for anyone dealing with it: we saw Tony Stark deal with it slightly during Iron Man 3 in the wake of the Battle of New York in Avengers, but we have never before seen the ramifications of what happens when you can’t be the superhero people expect you to be. Never before have we been given the opportunity to actually live in that headspace. This isn’t an obstacle for Jessica Jones; this is who she is. Sometimes, with work, you can overcome your shit. Other times you have to operate within it, for better or for worse.
Jessica Jones does something that a lot of shows—especially comic book shows—do not: it shows failure, consequence, and dynamic, imperfect ladies who are still capable and strong in spite of their personal failings. Every woman on this show is neither wholly good nor bad—not Jeri Hogarth, not Wendy Hogarth, not Trish Walker, and certainly not Jessica Jones—nor are they expected to be. This is not a show chained to the archetypal roles women have long held in superhero (or regular) television. (Mostly because, above all else, they are merely human, and it shows.)
Because Jessica Jones lives outside of the quote-unquote success stories of superherodom (read: The Avengers), but still has the power they do, it gives the viewer a unique, seemingly more realistic portrayal of what it’s like for someone who isn’t an Iron Man or Black Widow or Captain America coming to terms with this brand of “great responsibility.” This is equal parts evocative and original in a way we haven’t seen before. It is radical in its representation, but not its its reality.
For someone living with PTSD or mental illness, Jessica Jones’ methodologies and machinations are the welcome, imperfect representation we’ve long waited to see. It is normalizing in its abnormality because it shows that sometimes we have to take the road less traveled by, get messed up, and find our own way. Her reasoning is imperfect, but understandable—and clearly mapped out throughout the series. Her suffering at the hand of Kilgrave becomes her greatest strength as the show rolls along, with her channeling her own ability to not be controlled as a way to, in turn, control him and find a way through to the end.
Jessica Jones is many things for many people: strong, flawed, cold, compassionate, confused, reactionary, negative, gloomy, intense, determined, and ultimately good. And the fact that this woman can be this many things to as many different people is a radical act of characterization. It upends the model in a way that feels ordinary, but is extraordinary in doing so. Do we need more of it (and a more intersectional, diverse, and inclusive iteration)? The answer to that question will always be yes. But regardless of the steps we can always take moving forward, its existence is proof that Jessica Jones is not just a necessary series, but a blueprint for how to deal with nuance in storytelling and characterization moving forward. It raises the bar—and it feels good to see something to imperfect.
Image Credit: Netflix
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of The Nerdist. Find her on Twitter (@alicialutes) if you’re into that sort of thing. (I don’t know your life!)