• Allan Dyen-Shapiro

Jessica versus the Hellcat: moral philosophy from Season 3 of Jessica Jones


I was going to give up on this series after the first couple episodes of its last season. I had loved the first two seasons. The morally ambiguous superhero, the noir private eye, the woman suffering from Stockholm syndrome—none were innovative in and of themselves, but combining them in one character was. Jessica’s struggle for humanity in the face of extreme psychological abuse was riveting.

But Trish? Rich kid, child actor became bland TV star? And now she has superpowers—big deal. [Spoilers coming.]

But watching her become a psychopathic serial killer, only of those who deserved to die, mind you, was worth watching. Sure—Dexter—done already, but done very differently. Dexter was a study in the psychology of someone who admits they are a sociopath and tries to wreak some good out of it. It was cerebral, forensic. Trish becoming Hellcat was a study of the descent into madness and the consequent violence. An explicit questioning of means versus ends. And, yes, it mattered not only that she was female but also that she started innocent and with the motives of not only punishing evil but also of mattering in the world and of equaling her sibling’s heroism.

Herein lies the fascinating question: at what point does someone close to you veer so far in the direction of evil that you wash your hands of them? To answer, we need look no further than our own families. Admit it—you’ve got a relative of whom you don’t approve. And you feel guilty about writing them off because they’re your parent, uncle or aunt, grandparent, child, brother, or in the case of Jessica Jones, stepsister with whom the “step” never diminished the closeness of the bond.

How dare your sibling vote for the wrong political party in an era of global crisis? How dare they harm other members of your family? Or cheat on their spouse? Or act unethically in their professional life? Or drag you with them into morally ambiguous decisions?

David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted—the Unabomber, a murderer of three—was the one who turned him in. By contrast, Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho was known to be unstable and violent, yet nobody did anything so head off the massacre. His writing class expressed horror at his ultra-violent one-act play, “Richard McBeef”; his counseling records indicated severe issues, his parents knew very well something was wrong with the kid. Nobody acted on the information. Acting is a tough decision. When you act, are you ruining the life of someone who may be only mildly troubled, or are you saving lives? Often, you don’t know.

Jessica Jones had a great plot device, an allied superhero, Erik Gelden, whose power was migraines that manifested in the presence of bad people. Hellcat crossed the threshold into evil when she brutally murdered the already imprisoned-for-life Gregory Salinger, and Erik’s analysis of her proved correct: she enjoyed killing when she could convince herself it was righteous.

What of a soldier in a military engaged in a morally ambiguous war of conquest? The Eichmann trial established that “just following orders” was an insufficient defense. As such, are the US soldiers currently drawn into the genocide in Yemen all psychopathic murderers, even if they merely toil in logistical support of those who actually do the brutalizing? Is it any wonder that troops return to the US damaged to the point where they can’t adjust to civilian society?

And what of Jeryn Hogarth, the unscrupulous lawyer to the criminals? Where was her moral compass? The TV show muddies the waters by portraying her as damaged, as diseased (ALS), and as capable of love. Do even the most despicable deserve a fair trial with the best possible legal representation? What does playing such a role do to the humanity of the lawyer?

When Detective Costa looks at Hogarth in the final episode, she responds, “I know.” He says, “Then do something.” He is the rule of law, not quite Javert, but one who defaults to established procedures, albeit with some wiggle room. She must make a decision on which side of the lines to color.

For her transgressions, Hogarth gets to die alone. Her lover, Gillian, thanks Hogarth for saving her life—and boy, was that a unique scene with a psychopath, a morally ambiguous superhero, a corrupt lawyer, and an innocent victim, all women—but will not remain coupled with a ruthless defender of the indefensible. Hogarth ends the series as alone in the world as the psychopaths in jail did.

Do what’s right, do what’s wrong—you’re alone. It’s those who fail to act who get to be popular.

But apparently, those willing to keep struggling with life’s ambiguities do get some happiness. In the last scene of the show, Jessica is escaping to Mexico, having given the keys to her private investigator office to her loyal sidekick, Malcolm. Kilgrave, the purple man, her captor/abuser/rapist from the first season, comes back to her in her mind, approving her decision, telling her she has no responsibility to keep fighting. She changes her mind, returning to work she finds meaningful, and presumably to her created family of those who care about her.

A bit pat. In the real world, the true villains aren’t usually punished. Those who transgress societal mores to do right nearly always are, one way or the other. Hellcat would have copped a plea, and Jeryn would have bought her way to happiness of some sort. Jessica would have ended up in some type of prison, psychological if not physical. Heroes die alone.

The rest of us face an endless series of decisions—when to stand up, when to let things go. Thoreau, in his Essay on Civil Disobedience—written by a man anguished by slavery, illegal war in Mexico, and the then-in-progress genocide of Native Americans—answered for us that when the brutalizer is your own government, you must stand up. Same answer when the psychopaths are corporate: environmental and Native American protestors endured the spray of water cannons in subzero temperatures a winter ago as they resisted the fossil fuel companies destroying our planet.

But what about the more personal decisions, within a family or a workplace or a religious community or a circle of friends: do you endure the awful one even as he hurts others around you? Do you speak out? Do you act?

Like Jessica, you will suffer. Regardless of what you decide. I’d like to say that consistently standing for what’s right, damn the consequences, wouldn’t leave you comprised and hurt, isolated and alone, but it generally does. No good deed goes unpunished.

So a story like Jessica’s resonates. Agonized but ultimately moral decisions lead to relative inner peace and acceptance by at least some of those who love you, at least on TV. The rest of us get vicarious catharsis.

You may need it. You won’t get it elsewhere.


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© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

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