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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jessica Jones and the Nature of Guilt


Not unlike "Mr. Robot," "Jessica Jones" is an intensely psychological series. I have not read any of the original comics, so it's hard to attribute the source of this subtext. No matter, I'm especially fascinated by the issue of guilt in the TV series.

For most of the 13 episodes, Jessica resists the calls from people around her to kill her nemesis and the villain Kilgrave. Her explanation, which increasingly feels like an excuse, is that she wants to show the world that Kilgrave exists and thereby legally exonerate Hope, Kilgrave's young victim Jessica strongly identifies with and projects herself into. In effect, she is trying to get the world to agree with her that "It was not my fault." The "it" here of course refers to her past, when she lived with Kilgrave and murdered another woman at his bidding. It's not about Hope, but rather all about Jessica's judgment of herself.

The theme of guilt is permeated throughout the story line. It's pretty transparent that a villain like Kilgrave is the embodiment / projection of our guilt and shame for our id. He is created for our deniability and repression of a part of us.

Beyond the navel gazing, the series also suggest that guilt is a force that binds people together, although not always in a good way. Jessica feels like she is obligated to save Hope and other "weak" people from Kilgrave, because her guilt binds her to their fate. She feels responsible for Kilgrave's rage and destruction, and therefore she is responsible for the outcome.

Is this a reasonable assessment of the situation? I think the writers of the series are also questioning this chain of deduction: If Kilgrave is enraged by Jessica's disobedience and takes it out on bystanders, is Jessica responsible for either Kilgrave or the victims? Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The instigator of domestic abuse claims (and usually truly believes), "You have made me so mad, that I cannot help but beat you." Most of us would agree that this logic is faulty, but Jessica seems to differ. That she feels compelled or even forced to "save people" is a combination of her superpower and her guilt.

As such, one of the most intriguing characters in the series is Robyn, Jessica's neighbor who is always blaming other people for her own irritability. These two women are made for each other: One refuses to take responsibility for her own reaction/feeling, and the other gladly takes it on her own shoulders. Thus one can't help an sense of uneasiness in this orgy of saving and being saved, rescuing and being rescued.

Both Robyn and Kilgrave are able to command or manipulate Jessica into doing things for themselves. "This is on you," they tell Jessica, but that is not the point. The point is what follows, "Therefore, do what I tell you to do." While we do derive a sense of bonding and belonging through the fudged boundaries, the results are still all about each of us getting what we want. Kilgrave may enjoy the sense of power through Jessica's apparent obedience, but Jessica is getting relief from her guilt. You may be the superhero who have saved someone's life, but you are still alone.

Perhaps confined by the conventions and expectations of the American Superhero mythology (TM), the series do not fully explore the complications of such guilty-driven boundary crossing. Should Jessica save these people? What is she actually doing for the 13 hours of the series? Perhaps simply to escape the voice of guilt inside her head.

It so happened that, in the middle of watching Jessica Jones, I also re-watched the Hitchcock movie "Spellbound" starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. It's a rather crude dissection of the guilt complex. A child wishes someone dead, that someone actually dies, and the child infers that his own wish has killed that person and therefore develops a deep-seated but often repressed guilt. Underlying the guilt is the omnipotent fantasy. In other words, attributing external occurrences to one's own will or power is both elating and depressing. This goes to the very heart of the American Superhero mythology, especially the darker superheroes. "With greater power comes greater responsibility," but the unspoken inference is "responsibility = guilt / blame." The flip side is that, one would rather be plagued with excessive and unrealistic guilt than to feel (realistically) small and weak and ordinary and, as such, not all that responsible.

The series seem to be fully aware of the god-complex (omnipotent fantasy) in the superhero mythology. The ironic dialogue between Jones and the nurse (played by Rosario Dawson), which could have been a psychologist's commentary on the series, shows an intentional deconstruction of the issue.

"I want everything to be my fault. Good or bad. Means I have some control."
"You're in total control. You are responsible for all this and I blame you."

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