Freedom and Imprisonment
Jessica Jones and Simone de Beauvior
By Jennifer Anvari and Matthew William Brake
Marvel’s Netflix series Jessica Jones is a story about what binds us and what makes us free. As a low-key superhero, Jessica works as a private investigator in a sketchy neighborhood, using her powers primarily to access fire escapes and alleys where she can spy on her clients’ marks in the dark. We learn that her more noble and heroic aspirations vanished after being abducted and imprisoned for nine months by Kilgrave, another powered individual who is able to exert complete control over anyone nearby. Her isolation from everyone she knew in her former life, and anyone involved in her current life, is complete; after being controlled and kept away from others against her will, she continues to separate herself all on her own. Over the course of the series, Jessica must relearn how to connect with others and how to let them connect with her, and that this interconnectedness is the only path to achieve true freedom from Kilgrave and everything he represents.
The lessons of existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity are reflected in the series. For Beauvoir, the human condition is defined by “our fundamental ambiguity” (p. 8). There is no external absolute to which we can compare ourselves and our choices, but only having the freedom to decide upon our values matters. Like Jessica, all we can rely on for value in this world is that we might decide “to give a damn.” For Beauvoir, freedom “is the source from which… all values spring” (p. 23), and although it is the freedom of individuals to decide upon the values that matter, Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity refuses “to deny a priori that separate [individuals] can, at the same time, be bound to each other,” although they can strive to create a world where all are free (p. 17). As Beauvoir writes, “Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men,” for “to will oneself free is also to will others free” (77-78). We are each intertwined with one another, and so long as our morality requires us to care about others, we are not free unless others are as well. Unfortunately, Beauvoir’s ethical philosophy also gives “a real role to evil” in the world, for only “because an evil will is here possible [do] the worlds ‘to will oneself free’ have a meaning,” and indeed, she asserts that because of us, existentialism is the only philosophy in which ethics has a place (p. 34).
CONTROL AS ISOLATION
In the case of Kilgrave, an undoubtedly frightening villain, such an evil will is incarnate, one that denies the freedom of others. Through video documentation, Jessica learns that his parents imprisoned him for years as a child, performing medical experiments on him in a misguided attempt to cure a terminal illness. As is wont to occur in the world of Marvel, these experiments trigger a strange ability: anyone in his presence is infected by a virus that renders them incapable of refusing his commands. Possessing this power for most of his life, Kilgrave is the ultimate sendup of our cultural concept of privilege: not only is he white and male, but merely a word makes him wealthy, gives him access to the best clothes, food, and accommodations available, and makes those around him seem not only willing but happy to comply with everything from passing whims to nefarious desires. His ability to control people directly feeds a petulant sense of entitlement whenever his goals are frustrated.
Like Beauvoir’s adventurer, Kilgrave asserts “his own existence without taking into account that of others” such that “nothing prevents him from sacrificing these insignificant beings to his own will for power. He will treat them like instruments; he will destroy them if they get in his way” (pp. 65-66). Human beings are merely “indifferent matter destined to support the game of his existence” (p. 67). Kilgrave’s sociopathy and his incredible powers lead to isolation from those around him. His radical ability to control ultimately prevents him from even understanding how to connect with another person meaningfully. Believing he truly loves Jessica, he tries to woo her, wanting her to come to him of her own free will, but his isolation has made him fundamentally incapable of understanding what freedom is, and he ends up having to control those around her in order to manipulate her decision. Exerting control itself, it seems, breeds isolation–and not only for villains.
Jessica follows much the same path. Following her abduction and subsequent escape, Jessica is deeply scarred by her time in Kilgrave’s control. She struggles with symptoms of PTSD, including panic attacks, and attempts to control these symptoms with self-destructive behaviors like rampant alcoholism and pursuing inappropriate sexual partners. More significantly, Jessica attempts to regain the control she has lost by pushing away everyone close to her to prevent them from being dragged down by her struggles, and later, to protect them from being used by Kilgrave to get to her. Just like Kilgrave, she learns from her time of imprisonment that control is a valuable tool, except that she wields it against herself rather than others. She uses what control she has in order to further isolate herself, thereby extending the isolation of her prison.
Imprisonment and freedom are at opposite ends of the spectrum: one breeds isolation, and the other can only exist when it is connected to other people. As Beauvoir notes, “Freedom always appears as a movement of liberation” that “[prolongs] itself through the freedom of others” (p. 33). Imprisonment itself cannot lead to freedom. Kilgrave learns this after his failed attempt to woo Jessica by replicating her family home. He wants her to come to him voluntarily, but he only knows how to manipulate. The knowledge that he can inflict pain on anybody in the neighborhood keeps Jessica in prison, even without being under Kilgrave’s direct control.
Jessica must learn this, as well. In her quest to stop Kilgrave from harming everyone around her, she decides to remove herself from the equation by getting herself locked in a supermax prison where she believes he’ll be unable to get to her. She doubles down on the theme of imprisonment by literally pursuing a prison of her own making, despite the protests of everyone around her. When that attempt is foiled by none other than Kilgrave himself, she flips the script and attempts to imprison him instead, but his powers prove too strong to hold in the long run. Jessica eventually must learn that there is only imprisonment or freedom—one cannot be the tool that leads to the other. Control breeds isolation, isolation breeds control, and neither one can lead to true freedom.
FREEDOM AS INTERCONNECTEDNESS
Ultimately, it is Hope Schlottman, one of Kilgrave’s victims, who shows Jessica the only way to true freedom. Kilgrave uses Hope to torment Jessica, first by abducting her in the same manner as he did Jessica and then having her murder her own parents just after Jessica believes she has rescued Hope and thereby defeated Kilgrave. Getting Hope out of prison and convincing the world that Hope did not murder her parents of her own free will serves as Jessica’s main motivation in pursuing Kilgrave, keeping the two of them dancing around one another. Jessica is unable to escape while Kilgrave exerts control over anyone else because, as she states in episode 2, “My greatest weakness? Occasionally I give a damn.” In episode 9, when they have Kilgrave imprisoned, Jessica’s friend Trish Walker similarly tries to tell her to turn him over to the police because “As long as he has your attention, as long as you care, he has control.” Jessica does not immediately respond to this, but she has made it clear all along that she cannot move forward until Hope is free—Jessica is enslaved as long as anyone else is, for “every man needs the freedom of other men” (77).
After being released from prison and immediately recaptured by Kilgrave, Hope understands her role as a bargaining chip between Kilgrave’s control of Jessica and Jessica’s desire to free her. She also understands that further imprisoning Kilgrave will not ultimately save herself, Jessica, or anyone else. Hope commits suicide, choosing the freedom found in death and thus showing Jessica the only way Kilgrave can be stopped. Hope’s sacrifice is the only way she can free both of them to do what needs to be done to liberate others as well, proving that freedom is never a solo act. Hope shows Jessica the way to free Kilgrave from his own prison of entitlement and control, demonstrating with her own life the oneness required to achieve the goal.
In Jessica Jones, freedom is not achieved on one’s own: characters free one another or they work toward freedom as a group. In episode 5, as Jessica is nursing Malcolm through his heroin detox, he begs for drugs, saying that she can’t save him. She replies:
You’re right, I can’t save you. The whole time [Kilgrave] had me, there was some part of me that fought… I’m still fighting. I won’t stop fighting. But if you give up, I lose. Do you get that? He did this to you to get at me. To isolate me. To make me feel like an infection, one more person dead or dying because of me. So why don’t you remember how to be a goddamn human being again, instead of this self-pitying piece of shit that he turned you into, and save me for once? You choose.
This proves to be a revelatory moment for Malcolm, who from then on demonstrates how freedom is found through interconnectedness. He achieves peace with his victimization much more quickly than Jessica does, primarily by facilitating a survivors’ group for Kilgrave’s victims to lean on one another in support. This group goes on to play a pivotal role in Kilgrave’s final takedown. Malcolm does indeed save Jessica at several points, refusing to leave her or to allow her to work alone.
Jessica herself eventually learns that not only is she working to free everyone around her in order to free herself, but that she cannot do either alone. A conversation she has with Claire Temple in the final episode of the series illustrates this point:
CLAIRE: Guilt makes people do stupid shit.
JESSICA: I’m not guilty. It’s not my fault.
CLAIRE: See, I hate that. I want everything to be my fault, good or bad. Means I have some control.
JESSICA: You don’t.
CLAIRE: Obviously, but it keeps me dreaming I can change things for people.
Despite Jessica’s ambivalent feelings toward her sense of control, she in fact does internalize guilt about everything Kilgrave does to manipulate her, and feels exactly as Claire does—that if only she could better control situations and those around her, things would be better for everyone. However, it is only when she allows herself to trust and depend on others that she is able to achieve victory. Jessica enlists the help of Trish and Luke Cage willingly rather than reluctantly in her quest to stop Kilgrave, understanding that she cannot do it alone any longer.
Her ultimate development comes as she permits herself to once again let them in and allows herself moments of emotional connection she has vehemently refused during the entire series thus far. She takes hesitant steps as she pours her heart out to Luke, but only while he is unconscious. With Trish, however, she is able to embrace her oldest and best friend once again. She lets Trish help her in the final step to take down Kilgrave. This scene plays out with Jessica’s love for Trish on the line as Kilgrave attempts to kidnap her in order to further torture Jessica. In the final moments of the confrontation, Jessica tells Trish “I love you” as she snaps Kilgrave’s neck. The moment at which she frees Kilgrave from his own isolation is bathed in a sense of connection with others, cementing the bond between herself and Trish, and witnessed by a crowd under Kilgrave’s control who she simultaneously sets free.
Simone de Beauvoir. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Open Road. 2015.
Jennifer Anvari is an interior stylist, decorator, and organizer at Haven Home Solutions. She graduated summa cum laude from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in English literature, and has written and edited for nonprofits, magazines, blogs, and literary journals. She is a co-founder of Pop Culture and Theology.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He is a contributor for Noetic (www.noetic-series.com). He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy, Wonder Woman and Philosophy, and Mr. Robot and Philosophy. Matt is the creator and founder of Pop Culture and Theology.
Together, they serve as the editorial staff of Pop Culture and Theology, which attempts to bring the mission of this site to the world of religious engagement. Find it at www.popularcultureandtheology.com.