This past week, Jason and I finished watching the third and final season of Daredevil, Luke Cage, and The Punisher for this very reason. Great character development. Complex villains. Brilliant writing and storytelling.
Most movies, television shows, and books have a moral they’re trying to communicate. Whether it’s planned or not, they’re teaching their audience something. As a writer, one thing I enjoy doing is analyzing those storylines to figure out what the underlying message and moral is. With Jessica Jones, you can actually break each season down into a single overarching philosophical concept. I’ll take the show season by season, and show you what I mean.
There are spoilers beyond this point!
Season 1. Without Free Will, God is Cruel
Played by Krysten Ritter, Jessica Jones is a petite young woman with jet black hair, PTSD, and a disturbing past. Her family died in a car accident when she was a young teen. On the brink of death, Jessica was kidnapped from the hospital by evil doctors who experimented on her, giving her superhuman strength and a cynical outlook.
Each season has a new villain, and season one’s showcase criminal is Kilgrave. I have to say, David Tennant’s performance (along with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in Daredevil and Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo in The Punisher) have created my favorite villains in all of television, and possibly film. Emotionally complicated, intelligent, and ruthless, they not only remind me of real people I’ve met, but are psychologically realistic and relatable. While you’d never cross the lines they do, you can imagine feeling how they feel, and it’s terrifying.
Kilgrave is darkly humorous, well dressed, sadistic, charming, and selfish. He has the ability to control other people’s will, causing good people to do evil things, and evil people to do … well, evil things they might not otherwise have done. More than anything, Kilgrave wants Jessica to love him. But in forcing her to love him against her will, he demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what love is.
It’s this concept that I find fascinating. People often wonder, “Why doesn’t God force evil people to be good? Why doesn’t he make everyone love him?” Intentionally or not, the writers of Jessica Jones have answered this question: because God understands what love is. God doesn’t want automatons, programmed to do his commands mindlessly or against their own will. He wants us to choose to love him and choose to do good. Despite being all-powerful, God isn’t a control freak. He desires relationships, not dictatorship. God is good. Kilgrave is evil.
Season 2. Circumstances Don’t Define Us
In the second season we discover that Jessica’s mother, Alisa, is alive after all. Like Jessica, she survived the terrible car accident that killed her family. Like Jessica, she thought everyone she loved was dead. Like Jessica, she was kidnapped and experimented on by criminal doctors. Like Jessica, she now has super-human strength. But unlike Jessica, Alisa has turned evil.
Throughout the season we see how Jessica’s memory of her family – though not idealistic or rosy – is inconsistent with Alisa’s. While Jessica remembers being loved and her parents loving each other, her mother remembers resenting her husband and feeling stifled by her family. Though Alisa technically has many of the same memories as Jessica, she’s interpreted them in a negative and twisted way. She is bitter, paranoid, and cruel.
And so, we learn from this season that our circumstances don’t define our morality. Jessica and Alisa had very similar experiences, but totally dissimilar reactions to them. We see that evil people aren’t created by pain, any more than good people are created by joy. Tragedy, victimization, and suffering don’t dictate our morality. It’s how we choose to react to our experiences and grow through our circumstances that makes us into a hero or a villain.
Season 3. The Descent to Evil is Gradual
The third and final season speaks profoundly to the fallenness of the human condition. While a serial killer named Sallinger (played by Jeremy Bobb) initially seems to be the main villain of Season Three, the story is really about the creation of another villain.
Jessica’s adoptive sister and best friend, Trish Walker, has had a rough life. Raised by a narcissistic mother who pressured her to be a child celebrity, Trish has always been in the limelight, held to impossible standards, endured child abuse and assault, and struggled with various addictions.
It isn’t until Season Two that Trish’s capacity for violence rises to the surface, when she shoots Jessica’s mom. The audience is left to wonder whether Trish really thought she was protecting Jessica and serving justice, or if more sinister motivations were at play.
As Season Three episodes progress, Trish’s self-righteous attitude grows to an irritatingly hypocritical pitch. All her life she has witnessed profound evil and suffered manifold injustices. Now, with her new-found super-human athleticism, she sees an opportunity to play God and she grasps it. She visits judgement on those she views as irredeemable, and devastation on those she doesn’t trust the justice system to handle.
At first, we sympathize with Trish. She accidentally kills a dirty cop during a scuffle. She attacks the serial killer who murdered her mom. We can still imagine her to be a decent albeit traumatized human being caught in the throes of grief. But Trish’s passion for “justice” is reckless and obsessive, and starting to look a lot more like bloodlust.
In a climactic scene at the end of the season, Jessica and Trish face off. Trish is still trying to convince Jessica that her cause is righteous; that she’s an avenging angel dedicated to protecting the weak and filling the void where the justice system fails.
But Jessica says, “I thought this was because of what Sallinger did to you, or maybe it was a side effect of your powers, but it has been there all along. I saw it when you shot my mother, and I can see it now.”
In the next scene, we find Trish looking pale and stunned in a police interrogation room, listening as an investigator reads out her crimes. Murder. Assault. Breaking and entering. Kidnapping. And finally, the attempted murder of her own sister, Jessica.
That’s when it finally clicks to Trish. All this time, while feigning righteousness and a desire for justice, what she’s really wanted is power and revenge. She’s longed to crush those she views as less virtuous and morally inferior, when in reality, she herself is a violent killer.
“I’m the bad-guy,” she whispers through tears.
And so, Season Three concludes with the message that evil is rooted deep in the human heart. It’s not something that shows up randomly or out of the blue. It’s not a dramatic transition or sudden change of character. It’s a gradual descent into a darkness that already exists inside us all.
And in the moment, sin may seem good. Revenge can feel like justice. Hate can feel holy. Violence can seem justified. Until we slow down, weigh our heart on the scale of God, and realize that somehow, somewhere along the line, we have become the monster we hate.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’” Genesis 4:6