CASTALIA: The Missed Opportunity of “Jessica Jones”

Even in my critiques of “Jessica Jones” I always make sure to point out that the conflict driving the plot is an excellent one, a terrific cat and mouse thriller: Jessica Jones needs to find a way to catch Kilgrave and prove that he can control people with the sound of his voice, except that she can’t get within earshot of him, can’t allow anyone else to get within earshot of him (at least, if other people get within earshot of him he can’t know they’re onto him), and can’t kill him (if she kills him, an innocent woman goes to prison for the rest of her life). This is a great idea! It’s a fine concept for a show.

Okay, let’s do a sudden gear shift. Recently, after Declan Finn’s review of the anime, I finally got around to taking a look at “Death Note” (the manga; I find the anime a little too histrionic for my liking). It is fascinating, essentially a “Dial M for Murder” Alfred Hitchcock style thriller that just so happens to have death gods in it. It is – at least at first – also a classic cat and mouse thriller between a mysterious Interpol detective who goes only by L and Light, a genius level high school student. One day, by random chance, Light finds a mysterious notebook known as a Death Note, a demonic artifact dropped by a death god that gives the person who uses it the power to kill anybody whose name they write in the notebook. The rules:

  1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die.
  2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected.
  3. If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person’s name, it will happen.
  4. If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack.
  5. After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

After Light gets a hold of the Death Note he sets about killing literally thousands of people within just a few days of finding it, nearly all violent criminals. This gets the attention of Interpol and of L.

Note the similarities to “Jessica Jones”. Much like that show, in “Death Note” we have a criminal who holds every card and a detective who needs to figure out a way to capture him anyway, and he must be captured, not killed. The biggest difference between “Death Note” and “Jessica Jones” is that “Jessica Jones” is very stupid, and “Death Note” is fiendishly clever.

“Jessica Jones” cheats. The writers weren’t smart enough to come up with ways for Jessica to work around Kilgrave’s advantages, so they simply deus ex machina’ed new advantages for Jessica. When we meet Kilgrave one of the rules is that his mind control is absolute and impossible to resist even in theory; if he tells you to do something, you WILL do it until either eleven hours pass or Kilgrave abandons you and gets a certain distance away (an exact distance is never specified). Instead of having Jessica work within these constraints, the writers add in a weakness a couple of episodes in: If Kilgrave is under anesthesia, people under his control can break free. Later on in the show, even more inexplicably, the writers give Jessica immunity to his powers.

Why does she have immunity? It’s never explained. She just does, because the writers couldn’t think of a way for Jessica to win otherwise. Oh, and the constraint of Jessica needing to capture Kilgrave alive? That disappears too. The woman she’s trying to help kills herself, so that’s no longer an issue.

Image resultContrast this with “Death Note”; if anything, as the series goes on Light gains MORE advantages. The Death Note is an entirely untraceable weapon; his father just so happens to be in charge of the investigation against him, so he has an inside track to the case at all times; all he has to do is see even a photo of someone and learn their name and he can kill them; he gains an ally who has the ability to learn a person’s full name just by looking at them; and he even has a limited ability to control the actions of the people he’s marked for death immediately before they die. Oh, yeah, and nobody in Interpol has an inkling of an idea that something like a Death Note even exists at all.

L’s advantages? Well, he has a small, rapidly dwindling group of allies helping him and Light doesn’t know his name or what he looks like. That’s it. And with that on his side, L needs to figure out a way to bring Light to justice.

“Death Note” never cheats. The rules are established and followed at all times. It is never revealed that L, for some reason, is immune to the Death Note; never does a random weakness suddenly pop up out of nowhere. Everything that occurs happens within the context of the established rules, yet despite this L somehow still manages to methodically encircle Light with a slowly tightening net. One of the best scenes in the whole manga is one of the first: L goes on television and dramatically announces that he is going to be taking charge of the investigation for Kira (their name for the mysterious serial killer), appearing in person on TV with his full name written in front of him. Light sees his opportunity and writes his name down in the Death note, and within 40 seconds the person making the announcement dramatically drops dead…and then the speech continues. By using a death row inmate (condemned to die within the hour) as a sort of proxy for himself L has managed to establish 1) The region of Japan Kira works in, 2) That Kira needs to know what a person looks like and what their name is in order to kill them, and 3) can kill people within a minute of getting this information no matter where he is.

And he accomplishes all of this without once breaking any of the established rules of the series.

“Jessica Jones” has its moments; for example, there is a scene where Jessica and her allies manage to kidnap Kilgrave, but are caught by bodyguards, allowing Kilgrave to escape. They are confused as to why this worked, since Kilgrave was given anesthesia, until one of the bodyguards reveals that they weren’t forced to go after them: They were legally hired by Kilgrave.

This is really clever! It provides a way for Kilgrave to partially nullify his only weakness without ever breaking any of the established rules of the series. This is the sort of stuff “Jessica Jones” should have made its stock in trade, but the writers simply weren’t clever enough to pull off this sort of thing consistently, like “Death Note” did.

In fact, “Jessica Jones” broke the cardinal rule of a show like this, the one thing you can never do: It made the rules inconsistent. There are multiple examples, but here is a subtle, yet instructive, one:

Early in the show the character of Simpson is told by Kilgrave to murder Jessica’s friend. Jessica manages to partially lift Kilgrave’s control (he had a second part of the order to finish out) by faking her friend’s death. This establishes a rule: Kilgrave’s commands are limited by a person’s knowledge – if a person thinks one of the conditions of Kilgrave’s commands occurred, whether or not that condition actually occurred is irrelevant.

Let’s fast forward. Later in the series Kilgrave marches into Jessica’s house. He can do this, he says, because he has told random people to kill themselves if he dies. Jessica simply binds and gags him.

What Kilgrave did broke the rules. Since the people he told to kill themselves if he died wouldn’t know whether or not he died, then according to the rules established earlier, nothing would happen to them; they would need a way to become aware that one of the conditions of Kilgrave’s commands had been triggered; the condition does not trigger automatically. So both Jessica and Kilgrave are acting as if he has this trump card when in fact given what we have seen of the show so far the trump card shouldn’t be possible.

(This, by the way, occurred in the astonishingly stupid tenth episode of the show; I go through the whole ball of idiocy here in this otherwise good review that I later thought better of.)

This is a slight, small thing, but in a story like “Jessica Jones” it is ENORMOUSLY important. The entire plot depends on there being consistent rules that Jessica could work around and potentially manipulate. It’s difficult to even imagine “Death Note” making a mistake like this; the entire story is built around manipulating and discovering the rules of the Death Note, and if an established rule was directly contradicted, the whole story is ruined; there is no way to win the game anymore.

In short: “Death Note” was carefully conceived and expertly executed. “Jessica Jones” was haphazardly conceived and even more sloppily executed. The show was ruined by lazy, inconsistent writing. And the sad thing is it  could have been so much better.

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