This essay is part of our series Episodes, bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s looking at Jessica Jones and “AKA Smile.”
No one is scarier than Kilgrave. No one in the Marvel canon, no one in David Tennant’s filmography, and quite possibly no supervillain anywhere. The figure stalks the first season of Netflix’s Jessica Jones (now on Disney+) like the hero’s own personal night terror, only there’s little chance a strong jolt could wake her from his gleefully sadistic manipulations. He’s a mind-controlling rapist and murderer, the sort of full-blown nasty that seems so family-unfriendly that it’s strange to think he ever existed under the Disney-Marvel banner. Kilgrave’s horrors seem endless until finally, they don’t. When he finally eats dirt in the series’ first season finale, it’s a cathartic joy to behold and a statement to abuse survivors everywhere.
As a single piece of the Marvel puzzle, parts of Jessica Jones feel more like connective tissue than a standalone drama. That’s especially true of “AKA Smile,” a tremendous finale that features plenty of scenes meant to dovetail into the Mike Colter-led Luke Cage. The episode opens with jaded, traumatized PI Jessica (Krysten Ritter) rushing her superpowered boyfriend to the hospital after shooting him to release him from Kilgrave’s control. Throughout the episode, we see her and nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) tend to his comatose form while they wait to see if he’ll survive.
“Pain is always a surprise,” Jessica says in the show’s signature neo-noir voiceover, explaining her habit of detaching herself to avoid its impact. Despite the superpowers, there’s no separating Jessica’s story from the stories of real-life intimate partner violence survivors. There’s no layer of metaphor here: she is, after all, one herself. Kilgrave has the power to make anyone do anything by literally just saying the word, and it’s a harrowing skill he uses largely to make women love him and submit to him. Before the series started, Jessica found herself under his spell; not only did he hurt her mind, body, and soul, but he made her kill a woman.
Now, he’s taunting her in the creepiest way possible. “This call is for you, you have to take it,” a nurse at the hospital tells Jessica, and she can tell by the woman’s dull intonation that she’s been hypnotized by Kilgrave. When she answers, the pair have an honest conversation about his apparent psychopathy, all while they both maneuver around the hospital in hopes of getting the upper hand on one another. He takes no pleasure in death, Kilgrave says, but feels like he’s “removing nuisances.” Yet he’d relish in killing her. “The feeling is mutual,” Jessica quips, before escaping down a hallway, dodging Kilgrave-activated assassins in the process.
Throughout the first season of Jessica Jones, Kilgrave flexes his superpowers in utterly unnerving displays of violence and terror. He turns Jessica’s friends against her, but he also manipulates the systems that are meant to keep her safe–as when he makes an entire police station take themselves hostage at gunpoint. Visually, tableaus like this one are stunning and frightening. Like much of the season, they’re also especially resonant in the context of partner violence. Many abusers isolate their partners to maintain an upper hand, making them feel unsafe going to the police or to a friend for help. Anyone Jessica meets could be under Kilgrave’s spell, and this knowledge has worn her trust in mankind down to the bone.
This is the weight Jessica carries when she steps into one of the season’s–and Marvel’s–gnarliest scenes. Earlier in the episode, a power-impaired Kilgrave forces his dad (Michael Siberry) to create a drug that will either kill him or bring his powers back stronger than ever. Some poor gay couple has also been roped into his mayhem, with their high-rise apartment as his home base. By the time Jessica arrives, one man has drank bleach, and the other is fiddling with something in the kitchen. He turns, and with horror, we realize he’s trying to shove a full severed forearm down a garbage disposal. It’s something straight out of a horror film, and the carnage doesn’t stop there. Jessica finds Kilgrave’s father on the floor, bled out from two severed arms. Kilgrave ordered the men to remove him from the face of the earth, then kill themselves. It’s all extremely bleak and only gets darker when the armless man makes one last lurch back to life to warn Jessica about Kilgrave.
Carnage, callousness, and cruelty stud the villain’s plot, even before he ever arrives on screen in person. In the show’s first episode, Jessica saves a young woman (Erin Moriarty) Kilgrave kidnapped and left trapped in a bed, only to see her execute her own parents under his orders. “Smile,” she says to Jessica after pulling the trigger. Kilgrave has the power to rule nations, but instead, he uses it to terrify and taunt one woman. I can’t think of anything scarier.
So when Jessica finally meets Kilgrave at the Hudson Ferry Terminal, the stakes are made plain. He’s a pathological misogynist who revels in violence, and he’d burn the whole world down to get the woman of his dreams back under his control. This, too, unfortunately, follows a realistic pattern, as abusers often ramp up their actions when their partner leaves. Jessica isn’t alone anymore, though. She has her best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) as backup. Before they part ways, Trish tells Jessica they should use a code word to prove she’s still herself, like “pickle juice.” Jessica has another phrase in mind. “Something I never say,” she responds as she slides out of the car, “Like ‘I love you.’”
Inside, Trish dresses as Jessica to distract Kilgrave. She wears a pair of noise-canceling headphones, so his commands can’t reach her. As Kilgrave leads Jessica and Trish into a frenzy of mind-controlled civilians, though, Trish’s headphones fall off. The construction workers and travelers are in the process of killing each other when Jessica steps in the middle of them. “Stop!” Kilgrave shouts, rooting everyone, including Jessica and Trish, in their respective spots.
Despite his increasingly complex attempts to get her attention, Kilgrave hasn’t actually tried to mind control Jessica since he got his powers back. He’s worried she’s faking her obedience, so he tries the dirtiest trick he can think of. “I’ve been asking the impossible of you,” he says. He wanted her to love him, but she’s only been capable of loving one person. Kilgrave calls Trish over to him and puts her hand on his chest.
“From your perspective, I’ll be raping her every day,” Kilgrave tells Jessica bluntly, as Trish looks horrified. “My skin will be touching hers. She’ll be my plaything. She’ll be my slave. And in her mind she’ll be dying, is that right?” The entire season has been a harrowing and incisive look at the true meaning of control, and this moment is a gut-churning culmination. Tennant, phenomenal in the role, is all bared teeth and curled lips when he delivers this blow to Jessica. “Kiss me,” Kilgrave orders Trish, with venom in his voice. “Mean it.”
It’s all a con, though, to see if Jessica really is under his spell again. When he’s satisfied she really can’t move to save her best friend, he returns to her, giddy and desperate. Even as he holds her life in his hands, he still thinks Jessica is choosing to stay with him. “After a while, however long it takes, I know–I know you will feel what I feel,” he says, breathless with sick joy. Then he commands her to smile. Jessica does, with a prompt and genuinely bright smile. “Tell me you love me,” he growls in her ear. She leans an inch to the left, so her eyes meet Trish’s. “I love you,” she says and snaps Kilgrave’s neck.
It’s a moment of triumph and catharsis so deep and so needed that it’s hard not to cheer out loud. For survivors of real-life situations like Jessica’s, it may be just as hard not to cry. Crumpled on the ground, Kilgrave has become nothing but a small, dead man. “I’d do anything to see the look on her face when she realizes she’s helpless,” Kilgrave whispers to himself earlier in the episode. He didn’t get the chance to see that look, but she did. With time and distance from his power, and with a support system of people who care about her, Jessica has finally become immune to his poison. It’s a victory for the superhero, for Marvel, and for survivors everywhere.
If you or anyone you know needs help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or speak to someone online at www.thehotline.org.