Surviving Summer TV

“Heroes die,” Jessica Jones says in season two of the eponymous Marvel show. Super-powered but not a superhero, Jessica brushes off the responsibilities of her genre with the shrug of a leather jacket-clad shoulder. Instead of concerning itself with the usual do-gooding antics of comic books, Jessica Jones is a dark exposition of the nature of trauma.

Television viewers in 2018 have increasingly turned an eye on women’s trauma and its fallout, from the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to the laboratories of Westworld. Jessica Jones might be singular in the superhero genre, but it signifies a broader trend across television, where series have increasingly taken an interest in representations of women’s mental health. Shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Lady Dynamite have portrayed the stigma of mental illness, presenting inpatient recovery through a uniquely comedic lens. Meanwhile The Handmaid’s Tale, Killing Eve, and even The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt explored what it meant to reckon with the aftermath of disaster — and how the most disturbing experiences can also be the most formative.

In the sophomore season, Jessica Jones continues to chronicle the super-powered private investigator as she rails against her past, drinks her weight in bourbon, and oscillates between wanting to help people and wanting to throw them through glass doors. Where the first season saw her face down a singular super villain, the second season grapples with a series of ambiguous adversaries to ask the question: If heroes die, then who survives?

As a protagonist Jessica is complex, capable of both selfishness and heroism — allowed the nuance that male protagonists with disorders, addictions and defects have always been afforded. Jessica Jones combines some of the most interesting aspects of film noir and police procedurals, keeping the viewer so busy trying to piece together mysterious clues that the PI’s disorder rarely becomes the focal point.

For decades, female characters in television and film struggling with mental health issues of any kind were flattened into their diagnoses, sorted into two archetypes: the suicidal depressive or the calculating villain. Particularly in film, a woman’s mental illness and recovery were the central narrative, whether The Snake Pit, Now, Voyager; or Girl, Interrupted. Jessica Jones is hardly a story about recovery, and by refusing to give into the usual rock bottom/rehabilitation narrative, the show instead delivers a transcendent, truthful portrait of women who struggle with PTSD.

It is a show about the cost of survival. As a teenager, a car crash leaves her an orphan (or so she thinks) with super strength. Instead of following the path of fellow orphan superhero Batman and saving Gotham City, Jessica grows up to become a beleaguered, alcoholic vigilante struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. She displays nearly all of the symptoms of the disorder before the 10-minute mark of the first episode, including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, hyper vigilance, hostility, and social isolation. Despite the drama of her symptoms early on, she is never reduced to a DSM definition.

Where Jessica Jones succeeds in surfacing the nuance of trauma (and where many other films and series have failed) is that it attempts to make the viewer feel what she’s feeling rather than create a spectacle of her suffering. In the first season when Jones experiences a flashback of her rapist, the camera takes her point of view, mimicking the disorientation of a flashback instead of cutting to a gut-wrenching shot of her sexual assault.

The series has been revolutionary in its presentation of rape and PTSD, exposing the disorder as something that affects people far outside of warzones. Statistics from the U.S. government have found that 30 percent of sexual assault victims develop long-term PTSD, and Jessica Jones gives credibility to women who suffer from the disorder, showing their experience not as an overreaction but as an adaptive response to the horrors that life (and men in particular) can inflict on women.

In season two, Jessica continues to struggle with her rage, inflicting pain even when she doesn’t intend to. She breaks chairs; she injures people to the point of hospitalization, and unlike so many male-centric TV shows (not just superhero ones), there is little glorification of her violence. She drinks to forget the things she’s done, and in more than one scene she stands over the body of someone she’s hurt with horror and not with pride. If there is a villain in season two, it’s Jessica’s mother, whom she had long presumed dead. Her mother represents a kind of warning story about what happens when the disorganized rage of trauma is allowed to run amok: she becomes “a monster,” according to her daughter, a shadow of her former self.

“Death is also what defines trauma: a near-miss ending, a close call with one’s own or a witnessing of other’s annihilation, literal death or even figurative as in rape, where one’s wholeness of identity is tragically violated, and a new fractured self emerges,” writes Jean Kim in Psychology Today of Westworld.

In this way season two of Westworld has been the perfect companion to Jessica Jones, probing both the myriad ways that humans can inflict pain and the infinite consequences that pain can exert. The hosts began to experience “reveries” in the first season, daydreams where they accessed hidden memories about their trauma, including rape, murder, and the deaths of loved ones. The reveries functioned much like a flashback: triggered by something seemingly unrelated and causing the person to relive a moment rather than just remember it. It isn’t until season two that the viewer discovers that the backstories of the hosts are built around some of these “cornerstone memories,” all of which are rooted in intense suffering. Suffering is what helped the hosts act convincingly in their roles, and it’s what lends them a sense of humanity.

Jessica Jones isn’t a perfect show, and as in Westworld, the creators sometimes play with the idea that trauma makes a character more interesting, tantalizing the viewer by revealing horrific details over time. This type of character development serves as a more sophisticated version of the classic film noir archetype, the femme fatale. Unlike Westworld or even The Handmaid’s Tale, however, Jessica Jones doesn’t veer into capitalizing on the shock value of trauma in quite the same way. Jessica always maintains a rich humanity, existing far outside the archetype of the “madwoman.”

“Madwomen are rarely depicted as beleaguered geniuses or the heroes of their own stories, but often its victims and villains,” Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture of this archetype. “It isn’t that these characters have tragic ends that is the problem — it’s that they’re rarely afforded grace and interiority.”

This complexity is what has been missing from so many female characters struggling with mental health. Their stories end in death or inpatient recovery, and there is rarely this wobbling between life and death, sickness and health. Jessica Jones embraces the unpleasant truth that for many, there is no recovery from crippling trauma: there is only survival.

Jess McHugh: Human Woman