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On Jessica Jones and Its Presentation of Manipulation and Control

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Whether it’s alcohol, emotions, or words, everyone on Jessica Jones has serious problems with manipulation and control. While a lot of the (much, much deserved) praise for the show will focus on its excellent plot and character performances, what will stick with me the most is its presentation of different types of manipulation and control and how each character deals with them.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering: yes, spoilers follow. You’ve been warned.

The inclusion of things like alcohol, sex, and emotional abuse feel just a touch more evil in their insidiousness, because each of these things carries with them the threat of something real. This isn’t to suggest that people like Kilgrave don’t exist—more on that later—but it’s likely that we’ve all had our own struggles in the past with each of these things. They lend the show depth, and give us all anchor points onto which we can latch ourselves and find connections between us and the characters.

These elements make this show human.

Superheroes—they're just like us, getting thrown out of bars, too!

Superheroes—they’re just like us. They get thrown out of bars, too!

Control in relation to alcohol abuse is something that comes up often in the show. It’s pretty much the only beverage Jessica’s ever seen consuming. It’s also what she turns to first when she finally admits to killing Luke’s wife, resulting in him breaking off whatever they had going. It’s an ever-present detail in her life, and when everything she can control—her office, her apartment, her life—is wrecked in a fight with Simpson, all the spirits (see what I did there) of her past come tumbling out in the bottles that are strewn about her apartment.

Alcohol isn’t the only substance shown controlling another person: Malcolm’s struggle with drugs (and, as it turns out, Kilgrave) is a prevailing theme for the first half of the season. There’s a powerful scene where he talks about needing a fix—and how after a time, it wasn’t even Kilgrave controlling him anymore; it was his addiction to the drugs that kept him coming back. Malcolm and Jessica share the same struggle for control; they’re just two sides of an ugly, ugly coin.

When it comes to emotional abuse as a form of control, a prime example that comes to mind is the relationship between Trish Walker and her mother, Dorothy Walker. Trish essentially fired her mother as a manager, and in doing so, also severed their relationship as mother and daughter. But when Dorothy comes back from the past with information about the possible origins of Jessica’s powers, she uses guilt, bribery, shame, and even anger to try to get Trish to work for her again.

dorothy patsy argue

None of it works on Trish, who sticks to her guns and realizes what her mother is trying to do to her. She’s been through that struggle for control before, and it’s taken its toll on her. She doesn’t want any part of it once it tries to come back in her life, because that’s just it; it’s her life. She’s literally fought for every inch of it, through addiction, victimization, and most likely harassment. Trish’s life belongs to her, and nobody else.

Perhaps the most egregious (and obvious) example of control in Jessica Jones is Kilgrave. He literally has the power to control people by telling them what to do. Nearly everyone is powerless against Kilgrave’s ability, making him an incredibly terrifying villain. But it’s not the use of his powers that makes him so horrifying. While his powers make him seem brutal and frightening, it’s in his single-minded desperation to “have” Jessica that he reaches a new level of scary—because we find he doesn’t even really need his power to manipulate her into doing what he wants her to do.

Kilgrave is the human personification of emotional abuse. He goes to these great lengths to “win over” Jessica with all his own twisted little scenarios. He manipulates her into returning to her childhood home, which he’s decked out in full 90s regalia, recreating the last day that Jessica spent at home with her family. While she’s there he promises not to use his powers on her, so his emotional manipulation of her takes on a whole new depth. He intends to control her into making a decision to stay with him, yet he expects her to make that decision of her own free will.

What he’s done is graduated from superpower-based manipulation to good ol’ pure emotional manipulation, and he’s all the more disgusting for his use of it. Suddenly, Kilgrave has found a way under her skin, and to me, this is when he is at his most haunting. Kilgrave doesn’t need superpowers to control Jessica. With a few words, he can essentially carry her to the veritable doorstep of making the decision to be with him (which, mercifully, doesn’t happen).

In their own ways, each of the characters in Jessica Jones is struggling for control. Jessica struggles for control of her life without Kilgrave. Malcolm struggles for control of his life without addiction. Trish struggles for control of her life without her mother. Luke struggles for control of his life, haunted by a specter from his past. And Kilgrave struggles for control of love.

In Jessica Jones, control comes not with force, and not through the efforts of one single person. Control–and freedom–come as a result of asking other people for help. Or, in Kilgrave’s case, using those people as collateral, but still.

To me, these things resonate the most simply because these are the kinds of struggles we find ourselves facing every day. Ultimately, the show ends with Jessica killing the voice inside her head. She proves that we’re all stronger than we think we are, and we’re all allowed to be weak when we need to be. You have the control over who you can be, nobody else.

We each have our own Kilgraves, but we’re also each our own Jessica Jones.

(images via Netflix/Marvel Entertainment)

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