[SPOILERS through episode 13 of Jessica Jones; tw for rape mention, discussion of abuse and sexual assault]
One thing you might have heard about Netflix’ newest Marvel series Jessica Jones is that, unlike Marvel’s usual family friendly fare, this show is firmly R-rated. There’s violence, cursing, and, yes, sex.
Rather a lot of sex, relatively speaking, though no nudity—something that sets it apart from nearly every other TV-MA type show on television.
Sex on TV isn’t remarkable in and of itself, but the way Jessica Jones handles it, and the backgrounds of the characters having it, is. Both Jessica (Krysten Ritter) and Trish Walker (Rachel Taylor) have steamy sex scenes. Both characters have been through their share of trauma. Both characters are frank and no-nonsense about their sexuality. These aren’t sex scenes designed for the male gaze, or for flowers-and-candlelight style romance:
I’ve never thought of it as sex-positive as much as … real, grounded sexuality and the expression of it. I have zero interest in portraying female sexuality as anything other than empowering and as a very natural part of our makeup. I was not handling it with kid gloves. I’m not interested in these romantic, pretty, hand crawls up the back, thing. I really wanted a very visceral experience of these characters, it’s another facet of who they are.
The pilot quickly establishes the show’s overall noir-ish tone, and one of the first shots is Jessica Jones throwing an unruly client through her door, shattering a plate-glass window etched with the name of her detective agency: Alias Investigations. For the next several episodes a cardboard box marked “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE” replaces the window, a reminder that despite her super-strength and all the walls she keeps between herself and the outside world, Jessica Jones is a fragile creature: handle her with care.
In voiceover Jessica comments that some cases are harder to forget than others; enter Luke Cage (Mike Colter). Jessica watches him from a fire escape across from his building as he takes a woman from his bar up to his apartment. She (and we, the viewers) spy on him through his window. He’s with someone, but he seems disconnected. Lonely and forlorn; fragile, even, as incongruous as that might seem.
Jessica sits on the cold metal fire escape and drinks. Luke stands in his apartment with a half-naked woman and kisses her, even as his gaze wanders elsewhere.
They choose their comforts as they can, but neither of them seem very comforted.
It’s interesting, then, that the first sex scene of the series is so rough. Jessica lurks outside of Luke’s bar, but this time he catches her and invites her inside. They talk. She tells him she’s a P.I. Luke accuses her of flirting with him, but she claims she doesn’t flirt. She just gets what she wants.
Jessica tells Luke she won’t break. Go harder. Don’t take it easy on her.
It seems like a jarring transition at first glance, and knowing what we’ve seen of Jessica so far (at this point in the story we know next to nothing about Kilgrave (David Tennant)), it looks like a self-destructive woman engaging in some rough, casual sex as she continues her downward spiral.
Let me be clear: I don’t consider casual sex to be self-destructive in and of itself, but based on expectations set by movies, TV, books…yeah, that’s what it looks like. That’s what you’re expecting.
But Jessica Jones isn’t other shows, and Jessica Jones isn’t other TV heroines.
Yes, that first sex scene with Luke is extremely self-destructive, but not for the reasons we think. Her history with Luke—Kilgrave forced Jessica to murder Luke’s wife, Reva—gives the scene context beyond day-drinking and general self-flagellation.
Jessica fully believes that Kilgrave made her into a monster. She knows, on an intellectual level, that the crimes she committed under his control weren’t her fault. She knows he raped her. She knows she was his victim.
But it’s easy to say and much more difficult to actually believe.
Jessica sleeps with Luke the first time, and demands he “go harder,” because she wants to feel. She wants to feel pain, pleasure, both—anything. Connection to someone. Even someone (or maybe especially someone) she feels like she doesn’t deserve a connection with. A victim, like she is, in a less direct way. Kilgrave killed Luke’s wife via Jessica, and now Jessica punishes herself for that act every day. Why shouldn’t Luke punish her, too?
Ultimately the connection becomes too much, and she turns over so she doesn’t have to watch his face. It’s a very intense face, and their connection is strong and immediate; it’s too much for Jessica as she stews in her guilt.
Again, to clarify: this isn’t some sort of kinky BDSM scene, and I believe Jessica’s need to be punished is more subconscious than anything, but the scene also isn’t tender or romantic. It isn’t meant to be, and if it were it would be even more jarring than the sudden jump cut to grunting.
The evolution of Luke and Jessica’s relationship from that first encounter throughout the rest of the series is organic, natural, but it isn’t sappy. It isn’t even particularly romantic. They sleep together again (this time breaking Jessica’s bed, which Luke promptly replaces like the gentleman he is), and while Jessica is still eaten up by the guilt from Reva’s death, each time they’re together feels less like punishment for her and more like her reclaiming herself from what Kilgrave did—not just raping her, but all of it.
Jessica is making a choice to sleep with Luke. She reclaims a bit more of her sexual autonomy every time they’re together.
Unfortunately she does it at Luke’s expense. Jessica knows she killed Reva, but Luke doesn’t. She does tell him about Kilgrave, but not that particular detail. When she finally tells him the full truth, he is horrified. Disgusted, even.
Now it’s Luke’s turn to feel violated—by Jessica. It’s a painful irony, and the expression on Jessica’s face shows it perfectly:
Luke knows Jessica was Kilgrave’s victim. He knows she was under his control. His anger comes from what Jessica did have control over: when and how to tell him the truth about Reva’s death. By this point in the story, their relationship is far more intimate than it was early on, and for Jessica to keep such a huge secret from him (with no real intention to tell him the truth, if circumstances hadn’t forced her hand) is a serious betrayal. Jessica has victimized Luke in a way that’s strikingly similar to how Kilgrave victimized her: by keep such an important truth from him, she has stripped him of his autonomy, his right to choose.
When they finally meet again Luke is (unknowingly) under Kilgrave’s control. He tells her he forgives her, he’ll always forgive her, and he never should have said the things he did. It’s a sweet moment, romantic almost…until the reveal that every word was planted by Kilgrave. They were his words, not Luke’s.
Again, they’re both violated by Kilgrave’s mind games. Luke is forced to say things he may or may not have said on his own; it’s his decision to forgive Jessica, his pain to move beyond; and Kilgrave takes that choice away. Jessica is desperate for Luke’s forgiveness (though it’s unlikely she’d ever show it), and when he gives it she thinks she’s finally turned a corner—only to have it taken away from her when Kilgrave reveals the truth.
Ultimately season one leaves the fate of Luke and Jessica’s relationship up in the air (season two and Luke Cage need something to do, right?), but one of my favorite moments in the entire series happens in episode thirteen.
Luke is unconscious, hurt in a huge fight with Jessica courtesy of Kilgrave, and Jessica crawls into bed next to him.
She describes a normal relationship for them—dates, bowling. A future. The expression on her face shows how poignant this moment is for her, and how much she regrets lying to him.
It’s heartbreaking. They’ve both been Kilgrave’s victims. He has violated and used both of them. They started out rough and angry and harsh, and then after everything, after the way she hurt him, here’s Jessica being so gentle and vulnerable and recognizing just how much harm she’s done. Possibly irreparable.
It’s hard to imagine her letting her guard down so completely in front of someone who could actually hear her (she does later, with Trish, but that’s another subject for another day), but it’s partially through her relationship with Luke—and, yes, the sex with Luke—that she’s able to show that more vulnerable side. She’s able to overcome her own self-destructive tendencies, her lone-wolf mentality, and accept the help she needs to ultimately defeat Kilgrave.
In episode two, Trish buys Jessica a new window to replace the broken one. It breaks again, late in the season. This time, for the last two or three episodes, it stays broken. There’s no cardboard HANDLE WITH CARE barrier. Just a hole, surrounded by shattered glass.
You can come in, it seems to say, but be careful. The edges are sharp, and they can cut.
Images curtesy of Netflix, made by me