Because tell me that isn’t what Jessica Jones is. Well, okay, it is a bit redundant to use ‘neognostic’ and ‘noire,’ but in this case I think the intensifier is necessary. Moreso than a standard noire piece, Jessica Jones (the character) plays the role of a the soul navigating the fallen world. Her discovery of agency in the midst of her sinful nature, her momentary liberation, and her failed effort to express that liberation within the confines of the sinful world, make Jessica Jones (season 1, at least) nothing less than a gnostic parable.
The gnostic dimensions of the show are easy enough to highlight. The main character, Jessica Jones, has been recently liberated from the powers of a mind-controlling figure known as Kilgrave. Kilgrave’s power to regulate the world around him and his hunger for the recognition of the people (souls) in his power, as well as the sense of helplessness of those within the world, all echo gnostic sensibilities, albeit those of the most pessimistic and dark bent.
The show goes much further than that. As the narrative unfolds, we encounter Kilgrave’s parents. The woman is found lurking at the edge of a support group formed by Kilgrave survivors, her concern for the victims suggesting she falls into the role of Sophia, albeit an ineffectual one. His father’s inefficacy in the material world is repeatedly emphasized, his arms alternately bound behind his back and severed (a veritable Pullman-esque impotent God). Even more sharply, Kilgrave consumes the remains of his own dead child in order to strengthen his powers, aligning him with Saturn as demiurge (this is gothic and baroque even by comic book standards).
Of special interest to me is the way in which the show inscribes that gnostic parable within what we might call a second wave feminist imaginary, exploring the imaginary’s difficulty confronting or transforming the realities of the color line and its tendency to measure success by temporal power over others. Jessica Jones achieves that by a strict displacement of the classic noire center from a (white) male PI to a (white) female PI. It is an inspired and wrenching narrative decision, amplified by Jessica’s gift being raw physical power, a rubric easily translated into the terms of empire.
This displacement does nothing to undermine the social structures (racist and patriarchal) upon which noire rests, but makes them brutally evident by displaying how those structures are taken up and supported by its women. I want to focus on Jessica’s narrative arc, but much can be said by examining how other women navigate the same world and the troubles that develop. Those sub- and parallel plots are themselves commentaries on what troubles this particular feminist imaginary.
Jessica’s time with Kilgrave (white, British, male, and posh; Tennant is well cast) is defined by the most extreme erasure of a black woman, the murder Reva Connors. That murder is the point along which the season’s gnostic structure turns. This murder and the guilt liberates her from Kilgrave’s control (awareness of empire’s hierarchy and her complicity with it liberates her from its power to command her), but it does not liberate her from the world. Rather than flee from that world, she attempts to correct it, sending disasters rippling through the lives of those nearest.
The murderous silencing, is amplified by the way Jessica then proceeds to usurp Reva’s life. She guiltily stalks that woman’s (black) widower, soon-to-be hero Luke Cage, and (toxically, without sharing her crime) sleeps with him. The plantation fantasy is frighteningly close here, despite the series’ New York setting. What Jessica gets through dishonesty is Luke’s body. When Kilgrave takes control of Luke later to manipulate Jessica, what makes the revelation of Kilgrave’s control so terrible is that he is repeating, precisely, Jessica’s own moral manipulation of Luke.
The erasure of black women is doubled by an effort to save black men. The same scene in which Kilgrave discovers Jessica, she saves Malcolm Ducasse from a mugging. She forgets him, but, in the interim after she has been liberated, Kilgrave transforms this would-be social worker into a racist cliche, a layabout black drug addict. The invisibility he acquires from this transformation allows Kilgrave to use him as a spy to follow Jessica.
While she once again saves Malcolm, this time from Kilgrave proper, she shows herself willing to use that stereotype to set up Malcolm as a distraction, so that she can steal the drugs she needs to neutralize Kilgrave’s power. She makes use of him and demands that she serve him, stating explicitly that it is his turn to save her. He becomes a prop for her own elevation, the precise role often played by a woman in classic noir. What (white) women once did for (white) men, (black) men now do for (white) women.
At the end of the season, Kilgrave may be dead, but we find Malcolm still trying to ‘save’ Jessica, intervening as her secretary to mediate between her and all those people now seeking her help. This is an unabashedly ambiguous destination for Malcolm, contrasting with the clarity he seems to have when he attempts to break free of Jessica’s orbit, to return to the life where Kilgrave took from him.
Malcolm’s first attempt to break away comes in the form of a support group for Kilgrave’s victims, suggesting a route beyond the demiurge’s control that bypasses the rubric of power and domination, replacing it with one of mutual recognition and support. Repeatedly, Jessica disrupts this nascent community seeking information which will provide her with power over and against Kilgrave.
This community is finally destroyed by the arrival of another (white) woman, Robyn, who uses the group in an effort to revenge herself upon Jessica, the violence dissolving the nascent and more fragile human ties. When he tries to break away again, this time by returning home to his family, it is his compassion for Robyn’s grief that interrupts his departure.
At least we can say that Cage, unlike all of the other characters in Jessica’s orbit, finally breaks away from her. Tellingly, that departure takes place in a scene with night nurse Claire Temple overseeing his return to consciousness, literally and figuratively. Here we see a woman who has already come into the orbit of the heroic ego (Daredevil) and broken away, rooting her actions in communal rather than heroic ideals.