Friday, December 4, 2015

Jessica Jones - All About Abuse - Exploring the Character Web - Initial Thoughts. Spoilers.

I just went through the entire 1st season of Jessica Jones in a marathon 2 day session. I was pretty blown away by a few aspects of it, but I don't plan to do a full analysis or a standard review or anything. Instead I just want to quickly jot down my first impressions.

It's the writing that really grabbed me. Well, and casting too - super impressed with Krysten Ritter as JJ. I believe she has found her perfect role. And David Tennant is incredible of course. So are most of the principles, especially the actress playing Trish. Luke Cage - the character is extremely stoic - mostly just a big imposing presence, very man of few words and seems to see everything in very strong binary terms. He strikes me as a blunt instrument of a character (pun intended) opposed to Jessica's much more subtle nuanced worldview in shades of gray - a hammer to her out-of-tune but sweetly-played violin. He's a man of action rather than words, very primal. Things either need to get hit, which is what he does really really well, or he has little to no interest in them, aside from a love interest. And his love is expressed very stoically as well. I'm not saying its bad acting, or a bad character - in fact I quite like him in the first half of the season when he plays an important part, but in the second half he's mostly just a sort of zombie murder puppet with Kilgrave pulling the strings, and for a couple of episodes he's just laying unconscious on Jessica's bed.

Even his action is very minimal - I dig his fighting style revealed in the bar fight with him and Jessie against a bunch of thugs - a few simple unhurried moves delivered with precision in a calm manner. One strike per opponent and down they go - the polar opposite of Daredevil's complex and busy style - he tries to overwhelm each opponent with a massive flurry of blows kicks and moves until he sort of wears them down. I get exhausted watching DD fight!

Unbreakable skin plays perfectly into the main theme - it's the tough exterior, the invulnerability so many trauma survivors develop. And it's important that Jessica doesn't have it, or super strength, or the ability to fly - she says she can only jump pretty far and then control the falls. That's because she isn't completely inhuman. It's the vulnerability that makes her human, her ordeal has only provided her with some toughening and strengthening. That means that Trish is completely human, but is making herself tough and strong and a fighter without losing any of her humanity.

But I don't want to write about individual characters, more about the character web. That's a term I first learned from John Truby's book Anatomy of Story. Some really good stuff in that book, but also a lot of stuff I don't care for much - definitely get Robert McKee's Story first, along with Aristotle's Poetics, and then Truby if you want to go beyond the basic 3-act stuff. That's how I'm approaching this, as a student of writing.

Character web is how each character relates to the main premise or theme of the story and to each other. In this case we have a story where the main theme seems to be damaged characters due to some form of abuse, often in childhood. All the main characters are either survivors or perpetrators of abuse. The show explores the way that affects their various personality types and coping mechanisms. As already stated, Luke for instance is a very stoic character and he copes by seeing things as either good or bad - not to society, he couldn't care less about that, but to him. He's no hero, just a guy with unbreakable skin and a lot of strength who finds those things useful in living his simple life. His mission statement: he protects himself and his own, and thats about it. If you don't either belong to one of those groups or threaten them, then he has no interest. Jessica is a lot like him, but less so. Less strong, less invulnerable, less stoic, and a lot less hardened when it comes to caring about other people in general. This is how the character web is used, by comparing and contrasting characters against each other. I suspect the writers were paying attention specifically to character web for this show.

Simpson (the fairly psychotic poor man's Captain America, with his red white and blue pills and violent outbursts) has a similarly black-and-white worldview - a dyed in the wool patriot and highly trained special forces veteran. Much more articulate and talky than Luke, but with a laser focus on topics relating to his military training. A pretty one-note character really. It might sound like I'm bashing both of the big guys, and if I was concerned strictly with characters I suppose I would be, but they both relate quite well to the overall character web, by serving as foils against which we can see how much more subtle and nuanced certain other characters are. Hogarth is similarly simple - a high-powered lawyer who's excellent at her job for the same reason she's a horrible human being - complete lack of empathy.

Which is an important barometer for reading the characters - how much empathy do they have for other people? It's expressed in different ways - for the first couple of episodes I was disappointed that Jessica wasn't more humanized in some way, a scene or 2 where we get to see her relaxing or enjoying some aspect of her life, but it seems she doesn't do that. She seems to be hard bitten and cynical pretty much to the bone - seems because it's the armor that she hides her vulnerability behind. She never relents in her tough chick routine, but her actions demonstrate her empathy. Not just for people close to her, but for pretty much everybody, even her enemies.

In the X Men series (comics and movies) mutant abilities represent differentness that makes people suspect, whether they're heroes or villains, and turns society against them, serving as an excellent way to comment on prejudice and social ostracism as well as teenage problems, since mutant abilities begin to manifest around puberty. In the Jessica Jones world superpowers seem to be caused by abuse. Apparently most of the heroes and the villain got their powers because they were experimented on in childhood (I assume adulthood for Simpson, same as CaptainAmerica). Nobody ever uses the term superpowers or superheroes, they talk about 'us' and 'them', and refer to them as 'gifted'. The term is how society separates the normals from the different, and since all the heroes and villains are survivors of abuse, it seems to refer specifically to abuse survivors. How are survivors of abuse different from other people? Well, victims of severe abuse often say they feel dead inside, have no feelings at all anymore, are unable to relate to people with any compassion. For those less afflicted it's similar but with correspondingly less severe symptoms. All the main characters are relationship impaired to some degree, and seem unable to hook up with normals, but to relate much better to other 'gifteds'.

I wonder how this relates to Jessica's only friend Trish? She is also a survivor, but has no special powers. She fits into society as an 'us', and yet she feels compleltely at home among 'them'. Maybe she represents abuse survivors who hide the scars well. Or maybe she counts as 'us' because she's a wealthy celebrity? She's one of the most interesting characters to me. No special powers, but she has been training hard in Krav Maga and working out, learning to take care of herself. Essentially trying to develop superpowers to what extent she can - and of course she's on her way to becoming Hellcat or whatever the name is. Sort of a Batman or Daredevil style superhero, with no augmented strength or invulnerability or flight, only training. Trish also represents the real core of humanity in the show. She is in a sense Jessica's conscience, and the person who always believes in her even when she doesn't believe in herself. She's vulnerable since she's only human, and must be protected by Jessie, but she also needs to look after Jessie. They need each other.

Hope is another character who relates directly to Jessie. This isn't explicitly spelled out in the series, but Jessica sees herself in Hope - victimized by Kilgrave, forced against her will to murder her own parents (Jessica feels survivor's guilt over her own parents' deaths). And then put in prison where Jessica is the only person fighting to save her. Jessica feels that if she can save Hope she's saving herself essentially, and that if she 'loses Hope' then she is a lost soul. The name is a big clue - characters named Hope often literally represent hope in some way and need to be protected and nurtured (yep - like Xena's baby). And to make it even more excruciating, even the other heroes keep wanting to just destroy Kilgrave, even when Jessica repeatedly reminds them that would consign Hope to a life sentence and quite likely make her commit suicide. This is a brilliant device - it's a very literal reason that Kilgrave can't just be wiped out, but rather it's necessary to somehow convince the judge and jury that he actually does have telepathic mind control powers. And even with a great deal of evidence, who would ever believe that?

The fact that Kilgrave's powers are something no sane person would believe in is very crucial to the theme - it points out the way society often refuses to see trauma or abuse unless it's blatantly obvious or physical. A victim of purely emotional abuse will often be ridiculed if they tell people about it, which often leads to isolation and suicide. Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths can be very charming, like Kilgrave, and people often refuse to believe they would do any such horrible thing.

The superpowers all seem to be caused by experiments done on people - mostly children, by various secret organizations. This is handled in such a way that it comes across as a stand-in for abuse. Abuse can sometimes make people morose, angry, or violent-tempered, strengthen the will and resolve to incredible levels, and can increase their tolerance for pain and give them what's referred to in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as the thousand yard stare. This is something the veterans who have seen combat have and the young recruits are eager to acquire (in FMJ). But it turns out the way to acquire it is to kill and to see your friends killed or mutilated. So it's caused by the loss of humanity, feeling dead inside. This is why people who grew up in really tough neighborhoods or bad family situations often are so tough - they've got the thousand yard stare. It comes from experiencing horrible things that you can't bear without cracking under the strain.  It's what fighters develop. A badge of honor that marks you as one of them.

One standout thing about the series is the nuanced treatment of villains. They aren't simply evil to the core for no reason - they have what they consider good reasons for what they do and are humanized by showing that they are also victims of abuse and that they have feelings and are capable of great warmth. So this is not a world where the solution is just to blow up the bad guy - they need to be treated with compassion as human beings. See, what's so great about this approach to the bad guys is, this is like real life. In real life your opponents usually aren't people you can just kill - they're usually people doing what they actually believe is right. In the words of Dave Mason, "There ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys, there's only you and me and we just disagree." There's a primal satisfaction to simplistic movies where you can just blast the villain with no remorse, but it's nice to have a superhero series that goes beyond the cliches and simple revenge fantasies and shows how messy and multifaceted the issues really can get.

Other factors that make Kilgrave an amazing villain:

  • His power relates directly to the core theme of the series - he's a psychotic manipulator with the ability to absolutely control people - the ultimate abuser. Basically everyone in the show is a victim at some point of his capricious childish petulance, especially Jessica. He can't be resisted or escaped, and even when he's not physically there his power still holds complete sway.   
  • He doesn't just have some random evil plot that they discover and decide they need to stop - he poses a direct personal threat to Jessica. Actually it's both - he uses his power mostly to control and torment Jessie, but he also randomly uses hostages and leaves a bloody trail of their mutilated body parts, and as his power grows he develops plans to take over larger segments of the population, it's as if he's in the embryonic stage of becoming a megalomaniac. 
  • It's revealed that he also is a victim, or is he just playing the victim card? A nice touch, exploring the issue from all angles rather than choosing sides and making the series a propaganda statement. 

And back to the main theme now - I love the fact that so many characters are messed up because of their parents. So often that's the primary cause of psychological issues, either bad parenting or lack of parenting - and that's something Jessica even verbalizes near the end of the season. 

So it's clear that the primary theme is abuse and how it affects people, how they decide to live their lives in its wake. There's even a Kilgrave survivors support group!

As a private eye, Jessica's job involves violating people's privacy all the time. This is because victims of abuse will tend to treat other people the same way they've been treated - sort of acting out and trying to take revenge on other people for what was done to them. It's a way of trying to take control, to get some power over their own lives.

Jessica tends to break doors windows and locks - very symbolic considering she's had her privacy completely violated. Also note that the door to her own apartment is broken for a long time and gets broken again - her boundaries are not secure. And she seems not to be trying to secure them, her friend had to get the door fixed and the carpenter dad dude at the beginning tried to fix it for her as well - people are more concerned for her safety than she is. It's like she doesn't feel safe anyway, so why worry about the door. Psychologically all her doors and windows have been destroyed already.

I think this was also intended to make Hope's dad seem to be acting fatherly toward Jessica - she already sees them as very parental figures (though the mother isn't exactly a warm and fuzzy person). Hope also had a little brother - so the family was just like Jessie's. The only real difference was the bother wasn't killed along with the parents. All this reinforces the idea that Hope practically IS Jessie, but a Jessie without any powers who can't take care of herself, so Jessica needs to do it.