Marvel’s Jessica Jones
How is everyone recovering from the twistiest of twists? Jess isn’t really an orphan after all. Her mom has been alive — yet unrecognizable — this entire time. And she is the captive-slash-project of IGH, apparently getting Stockholm syndrome’d into gratitude by Dr. Karl, whose experimental treatments saved her life but cursed her with far more strength than our “I can stop a slow-moving car” antiheroine has, along with the anger problems to match.
I loved this twist. I did not see it coming. But looking back, it feels true to the show that the real villain here is a man. Not that women cannot be cruel, of course, but Jessica Jones is about the ways women survive the violence the world inflicts on them, and the world is run by men. Women in the Jessica Jones universe end up being monstrous, more often than not, when men are controlling them, coercing them, threatening them — sometimes even while pretending to care for them or even love them.
I keep thinking about what the Whizzer said: With great power comes great mental illness. And I think about how Dr. Karl has made Alisa so powerful and full of rage — but every time she expresses that rage or uses that power, he goes, See? I told you that you were dangerous. If she’s behaving, she’ll never get out. And if she misbehaves, according to Karl, it’s all the more reason she can’t get out. She’s the manifestation of the trap that women land in so often: In circumstances that are objectively rage-inducing, your anger is used against you to prove that you’re being emotional, can’t be trusted, and don’t make sense.
This is a standout episode, my favorite of the season so far, and not just because I love a good flashback to the recent past so we can see how Trish would have tried to pull a Lindsay Lohan in the mid-aughts with the laughably atrocious “I Want Your Cray Cray.” Trish has been given so little to do this season and it shouldn’t be that way: She is Jessica’s only family, and their dynamic is fraught and intense and full of the push-pull between gratitude and resentment. It is so revealing to watch Jess struggle to support Trish’s choices — choices that Jess knows are trashy and self-destructive — and then seeing how they both suffer when they aren’t together.
We learn that the “meat monster” of Jess’s PTSD flashback wasn’t a monster at all: It’s what her mom looked like after suffering severe burns in the car accident. The flashback also marks the first (and among the more insidious) time that Karl gaslights Alisa into thinking she’s better off with him than with her own daughter. “You attacked Jessica,” he tells her, but when we see what actually happened, it’s not quite that simple: Alisa fled her own hospital room, killed an orderly, and tried to grab her daughter in a protective bear-hug.
Karl’s whole thing is that he has a ponytail and is a “cool” doctor, not a regular doctor. His shtick is so grating. Even as nurses ask him why he’s still putting Alisa through this, he can’t stop himself from pushing forward with what he calls “cutting-edge genetic editing.” When Alisa — FIVE YEARS AFTER THE ACCIDENT — regains consciousness after some umpteenth surgery, he explains that she doesn’t look like herself anymore and her cells are also different. “If my cells were different, then I would be different,” she insists, but he’s unfazed. “You don’t know me yet, but I’m actually trustworthy,” he says, which is something trustworthy people definitely say!
How is Jessica faring without her mom? She’s … getting by. She is trying to go to college, but Trish’s ascendant-pop-star lifestyle is getting in the way, and Trish’s mom still treats Jess like some downer of a charity case. (I love how Jess replies to the Trish hanger-on who asks if she’s having fun: “I’m having bourbon.”) Jess meets-cute with a bartender who overpours and gets fired for this offense, and though he is scruffy and charming, it seems obvious from the jump that he’s not great people. But Jess and Trish have a huge fight outside the club — it’s one of the more wrenching exchanges we’ve seen between these two — with Trish accusing Jess of “mooching” off her, even though, as Jess says, she’s only paying Jess’ tuition because she “insisted.”
Jess pointedly uses her superstrength to bust open an ATM. Dollar bills fly everywhere. She can get anything she wants, see? Trish ditches her on the sidewalk, and who is there to pick up this rejected, dejected super-soul but Sterling the bartender?
Red flags about Sterling and his intentions abound, starting from the fact that he asked Jess out only after he saw her use her powers to take free money. Later he tells her, “I want to get my girlfriend something special,” and he eyes a leather jacket in a closed store window — the one that has since become her uniform. But he doesn’t get her anything; Jess is the one who breaks into the store and, as her theme music plays in the background, lifts the jacket for herself.
Lots of origin-story candy sprinkled in here: Not only do we see where Jess got her signature jacket, but also how she landed on the name for her business. Sterling wants to open a club called Alias. The one tiny problem is that he hasn’t raised enough money. Is he even trying? Does he have a job? Or is Jess ignoring these glaring issues because she gets to be the provider, not the recipient, of generosity?
Jess brings Sterling to meet Trish, ending their separation. She sees that Trish’s addiction has spiraled, and Trish sees that Jess has dropped out of school and lives by theft, wearing McQueen boots she clearly stole. Sterling waits all of 20 seconds after meeting Trish to hit her up for money. Later that night, a few guys come by to rough Sterling up for the money he owes them plus interest; Jess handily takes care of them.
Meanwhile, Alisa is still under Karl’s care. The most compelling villains are the ones who really, truly think that they’re heroes — or the ones who know they’re victims, too. Though your zero-redeeming-qualities baddies have their mustache-twirling place, a show like Jessica Jones thrives when it introduces a bad guy with a point of view that isn’t entirely wrong. (It’s all very Killmonger.) It throws our heroine, such as she is, in even more stark relief. Jessica is always grappling with the harm she causes, no matter how hard she tries, forced to wonder if she helps more than she hurts. By comparison, Karl believes in his moral clarity: He’s saving lives. His technology brings out a heartbeat where a typical doctor would get a flatline.
And that is what makes watching him so stomach-churning. Alisa is a patient and a prisoner; she owes Karl her life and she should hate him forever. He remade her so much that it’s hard to tell how much her is left. He manipulates her into staying not because it’s better for her, but because he can’t let his experiment go, because he is chasing a goal that he must know, deep down, he’ll never reach. He says he treats her like a person, but look at how casually he disregards her humanity, her basic right to say no: When she tells him she doesn’t want more tests, he slyly coerces her into taking one anyway, under the guise of “multitasking,” because he knows she will do anything he asks in exchange for information about her daughter.
Finally, Alisa sneaks out of IGH. She wants to see her daughter. She tracks down Trish’s mom and pretends to be Jessica’s old high-school teacher — I like her ability to come up with a quick cover story; she and Jess have a lot in common, it seems — and gets enough information to find Jess. She follows her into a bar, then into the bathroom.
This scene gutted me, friends. In the bathroom, Jess needs a tampon, so her mom breaks into the machine to slip her one and asks if she doesn’t carry a purse. “I haven’t since I was 8,” Jess says, citing some childhood accident. The look on her mom’s face — she remembers! She is still in there.
But then it all goes to shit. Alisa overhears Sterling, who gets cornered by those same guys from the night before, agree to lend Jessica out as “muscle” to buy him time to pay them back. Was he, as he insists, just saying this to get them off his tail? Honestly, I think he would have done it for real. He would have talked Jess into it, and she would have said yes, and it would have been very gross and sad. This is Alisa’s hunch as well, and she loses it: “She is not your whore to pimp out!” She bashes his head into a wall, killing him.
On the bright side, at least Jess never found out Sterling was a dirtbag? But as she wails over his dead body, Alisa recoils at the pain she just caused her daughter, and convinces herself that Karl is right. Jess is better off without her. She retreats back to the lab.
Jess finds Trish again that night, rescuing her from some exploitative blow-jobs-for-drugs exchange — again with men using women’s bodies for their own ends, as entertainment or experiments or a cash-substitute — and, in a terrific little riff, she threatens the guy by daring him to call her a bitch again: “Compare me to a dog. An animal you can kick and collar.” She almost bashes his head in against the wall, echoing what her mom did to Sterling, but she stops at the last second and lets him go.
Trish and Jess reunite on their rooftop. Jess begs Trish to go to her mom to get back into rehab. Trish resists, not wanting to leave Jess alone. “I’ll be more alone if you die,” Jess says.
Back at the lab, Karl takes responsibility for what Alisa has become. A nurse suggests bringing in Kozlov, but Karl is appalled— seeing himself, I guess, as the good doctor to Kozlov’s evil one. He promises to make Alisa well enough to see Jessica again, and then we’re back in the present day, where in a twisted way, he’s making good on that promise.
Alisa asks for forgiveness. Jess politely declines. (Jess punches her hard across the face.) And, in what is becoming his signature move, Karl plunges a needle in Jessica’s neck, knocking her unconscious. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Jess really should have left a note with Malcolm.