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John Paul and Jessica - May 2018

posted May 8, 2018, 1:20 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review

By Elinor Reilly '18

Contains spoilers for Marvel’s Jessica Jones Netflix series.

              In superhero movies and shows, hope is complicated. After watching three Marvel movies with ever-increasing stakes, one might yawn when New York City teeters on the edge of destruction—again. Maybe the heroes will save the day this time, but there isn’t much of a point in expecting things to be better by the time Avengers 5: Super-Mega-Armageddon comes out. A repeated cycle of villains, antiheroes, and excessive violence is the name of the franchise. Marvel’s Netflix shows don’t fit quite as tidily into this narrative. Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, The Punisher, Iron Fist, and The Defenders are on a slightly smaller scale, with fewer city-destroying machines and zero Norse gods. The first four shows in particular focus on an only slightly fictionalized New York City and its unsung heroes and small-time villains. Collectively, these shows function as a very odd love note to the city they’re based on. By interweaving stories and characters on a more intimate level, they give the dramatized New York a sense of community.

In the first season of Jessica Jones, readers are introduced to the troubled and superpowered titular character (played by Krysten Ritter), a private detective who struggles with the effects of having fallen under the power of the sinister, mind-controlling, villain Kilgrave. By the second season, she has (mostly) escaped his abusive influence, but the trauma she suffered lingers. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the mistakes she makes seem to reveal that healing and fulfillment are not found through the hedonism of casual sex and excessive drinking.  

The show slowly abandons the “cope with trauma through sex and whiskey” trope that dominated the first season. Instead, it asks “What does genuine recovery entail?” Clearly, part of the answer is family. Jessica’s childhood, especially her close relationships with her biological mother and her adoptive sister, figures prominently in the second season. The show demonstrates the importance of family and genuine relationships to its main character’s development, while managing to avoid treating the other people in the relationships as means to an end. As St. John Paul II writes in his masterwork on human relationship and sexuality Love and Responsibility “a person must not be merely the means to an end for another person… every person is by nature capable of determining his or her aims. Anyone who treats a person as the means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other.” At the same time, the show acknowledges the emptiness of a life without other people.

The “big twist” of season two is that the superpowered killer terrorizing New York is Jessica’s long-lost mother. In true comic book fashion (they had to put a bit of outlandish science fiction in there somewhere), Alyssa Jones was believed dead in a car accident, but actually fell into the hands of an unscrupulous scientist who unintentionally gave her super-strength and a lot of anger issues. Much of the dramatic tension centers arounds this fraught mother-daughter relationship. Jessica cannot bring herself to turn in her mother, no matter what horrible crimes the other woman commits.

Disturbingly, we see in a flashback that Alyssa even killed Jessica’s boyfriend, Stirling, years ago. In the present, Jessica still wears a leather jacket and boots that remind her of Stirling. She hasn’t had any other meaningful romantic relationships since he died. As the show repeatedly makes evident, she finds comfort in whiskey and hookups. Yet, she seems to desire something more. One of the most uneasy moments in the season is when she attempts to initiate sex with the building super, Oscar. Oscar’s own history and family life are far from perfect, but he cares deeply for his son, Vido, and has a close relationship with his own mother. He is almost shocked at Jessica’s advances. He prioritizes stability for his child, and therefore for himself. Casual sex and immediate pleasure are not a part of that stability, a reality that Jessica is forced to confront and come to terms with.

Few viewers would call Jessica Jones loving. She is uncomfortable with her unwanted superpowers and pushes away Vido and his fascination with her gifts. Her relationship with her own biological mother is painful, and her relationship with her adoptive mother is nonexistent. Her attempts to care for her adoptive sister end in disaster. Her neighbor-turned friend, Malcolm, is forced to end their friendship. I can sympathize with such personal difficulties, even though my mother isn’t a serial killer and I don’t have superpowers.  To even speak of love in these circumstances is difficult. To actually understand what it means in the midst of difficulty is seemingly impossible.

In the end, Jessica Jones is a story of responsibility.  In Love and Responsibility St. John Paul II says, “The greater the feeling of responsibility for the person the more true love there is.”  As Jessica spends more time with her biological mother, she feels accountable for her mother’s safety. No matter what horrible crimes Alyssa Jones commits, her daughter’s love tethers the two women together, even when their broken and flawed relationship inevitably ends in tragedy.

As the season ends, Jessica begins to take on a role of greater responsibility outside her immediate family, too. Instead of self-medicating, she starts to acknowledge her own longing for relationship. She even goes to have family dinner with Oscar and Vido in their apartment instead of drinking Jameson’s alone in her own. As she explains in a voiceover in the closing moments of the season, “I’ve gone through life untethered, unconnected. I wasn’t even aware that I’d chosen that. It took someone coming back from the dead to show me that I’ve been dead, too. The problem is, I never really figured out how to live.” As John Paul wrote,  “the complete and definitive creation of [mankind]…is expressed in giving life to that communio personarum that man and woman form.” However unintentionally, this Netflix series gives voice to this desire for completeness in true communion which we all possess.