Luke Cage might be super-strong, but the hardest blow he lands in Jessica Jones is his frank appraisal of Kilgrave’s odds of getting back together with Jessica, which tally to zero. “Tell me the truth,” Kilgrave spits at Luke, “did you bugger my chances with her?” “No,” replies Luke. “You screwed that up yourself.”
His answer would count as a low blow if it wasn’t the damn truth, but Kilgrave has learned nothing from his time spent with Jessica playing at domesticity, so in the end Luke’s words glance off his enemy—mostly. If Jessica Jones has taught us anything about its villain, it’s that he is incapable of accepting personal responsibility for his actions, which he allocates fully to his victims; at the same time, Kilgrave is petty, jealous, and tragically insecure, so sticks and stones and all, but words clearly do hurt him. Can you think of a worse trigger for Kilgrave than the revelation that Jessica has had a consensual sexual relationship with another man? (Other than reuniting Kilgrave with his mom and dad.) And not only that, but a man who manages to be traditionally macho while maintaining modern masculine sensitivity, too.
So begins “AKA Take a Bloody Number,” returning us to the plot that’s been driving Jessica Jones the entire time, even if “AKA I’ve Got the Blues” gave us a break from Kilgrave drama to focus on the now-disappeared Simpson. More than any other duo of episodes in Jessica Jones’ first season, though, “AKA Take a Bloody Number” and “AKA Smile” feel like one big episode that has simply been cut in half. Maybe you can chalk that up to the former’s climax, where Jessica manages to put Luke’s unbreakability to the test and unloads a shotgun right in his face; even if you tried to be good and not binge your way through the whole series, there is pretty much no way you didn’t queue up “AKA Smile” right after the show embedded that awful, violent image in your brain.
But really, once you get to “AKA Take a Bloody Number,” where Kilgrave does some of the most heinous things he’s done in the series in total, you kind of just want to power through to see him get what’s coming to him. Jessica is the best, flawed hero Marvel has put on the screen to date; if you put her alone in a room with Kilgrave, she’ll mercilessly kick his ass, but he’s the perfect heavy to counter her physical and mental gifts. Every time she zigs, he zags, and whenever he zags, people have a tendency of dying, or at least enduring monumental suffering. Jeri’s already acrimonious divorce ends with her in stitches, Wendy dead, and Pam ready to abandon her relationship with Jeri; Ruben is dead and Robyn is alone in the world without her twin; Malcolm wound up hooked on heroin; Trish nearly died by Simpson’s hand, which almost turned out fine, except that he’s kind of a lunatic even when he isn’t under Kilgrave’s sway; and the Shlottman family has been reduced to one member.
And it’s all because of Kilgrave, no matter how much he tries to persuade you otherwise.
This takes us back to Jessica, Luke, and the twelve-gauge, which incidentally takes us to the B-plot of “AKA Smile,” in which Rosario Dawson reprises her Daredevil role to help Jessica bring Luke back from the brink of death. Kilgrave is the kind of scumbag who wants to have his cake and eat it too: he’ll absolve himself of any accountability when people do terrible things under his command, but privately he admits aloud that his ultimate goal by now is just to make Jessica suffer. Even if she did spontaneously develop romantic feelings for him, he says he wouldn’t accept them, though here he’s just lying to himself—that’s all that he wants, really, but of course he’s such a sadistic bastard that he needs the sweet release of hurting Jessica by any means necessary.
Hence Luke, the tender script Kilgrave prepares for him, the brawl at the nightclub, and the discharge of a police grade weapon at the end of “AKA Take a Bloody Number,” not to mention Trish briefly falling under Kilgrave’s spell before the climax of “AKA Smile.” Looking back on Jessica Jones and the sheer volume of abuse, torment, and anguish Jessica has endured at Kilgrave’s will, it’s something of a miracle that she is able to keep going in her mission to put an end to him once and for all. Most folks would probably give up on seeking justice after, say, “AKA Ladies Night,” which ends on such a shocking note that it is hard at first to imagine how Jessica Jones might be able to top itself (at least until you sit through “AKA Smile” and witness the lonesome, gruesome fate of poor Albert Thompson).
But though Jessica can fly and lift muscle cars with one hand, her real superpower is her determination, which sounds totally cheesy and definitely would be in any other standard issue Marvel production; the trick is that Jessica Jones is unlike any Marvel production released to date, including Daredevil. That’s because Jessica Jones is about real trauma in ways that even very good Marvel films, like Iron Man 3, simply aren’t. That trauma is written in its DNA. It’s what the series builds its foundation on, while the fantastical stuff is treated as tertiary to theme and to character, whereas the opposite is usually true elsewhere in the MCU canon.
Not that Jessica Jones has no interest in the usual array of superhero quandaries; Jessica’s origins, for example, become a matter of fixation starting in “AKA Take a Bloody Number,” when Rebecca De Mornay overhears Trish’s chatter about IGH on the phone and goes on to dig up files that might, eventually, lead to an explanation of how Jessica came to possess her powers in the first place. But this is minor league stuff for a show that is, and always has been, focused on much more substantive material than questions of backstory—like questions of responsibility, what it really means to be a hero, male privilege and entitlement, the ways sexual violence affects men and women alike, and how a person recovers from spiritual and physical violation.
Maybe we’ll find out more about Jessica’s accident and IGH in season two of Jessica Jones, assuming there is one; this season alone has exhausted the most defining arc the character went through on paper, and the rest are limp by comparison. (Suggestion: go The Leftovers route and spin new content out of whole cloth.) In the meantime, though, take Melissa Rosenberg’s efforts for what they are: a bold and utterly unapologetic attempt at examining rape culture through the lens of plainclothes superheroism.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.