Jessica Jones Isn’t a Syrian Refugee Parable, but It Isn’t Not Either
Netflix's latest Marvel show is a logical and moral puzzle that may teach fans a lesson about strategy in stand-offs.
Jessica Jones, the product of Netflix’s latest dalliance with Marvel, is a private investigator in the Sam Spade mold. Having given up on playing hero, Jones is content to drink cheap whiskey, put her feet on her desk, and dwell on an unpleasant past until her nemesis, a mind-controlling psychopath named Kilgrave, provokes her with an act of senseless violence and the gears of plot click into place. Kilgrave is the sort of character who makes science-fictional scholarships worthwhile. His ability — he can force people to do his bidding against their will — makes him not only high-grade story fuel, but a real-life useful rhetorical device. He is the purveyor of ideology devoid of value. He is the harnesser of base instinct. He is the sharer of bad intel.
Kilgrave provokes questions.
The question at the core of Jessica Jones is this: To what degree does it make sense for Jessica to expose strangers to Kilgrave, and the mortal threat he poses, in an effort to save an innocent life? How does one balance safety and justice? The question feels particularly trenchant given the debate du jour, the fiery war over the United States accepting Syrian refugees. Liberty and security have a complicated relationship — despite whatever Benjamin Franklin may or may not have said.
(Yes, contextualizing the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people using the drama Marvel Universe is facile. But the intellectual triviality of the latest superhero saga is exactly what makes it malleable.)
Jessica Jones is heroic in that she prioritizes others’ well-being over her own safety. That said, she is a moral idiot. Over the course of the series, Jones goes to extraordinary lengths to rescue a young woman held hostage (broad strokes here, the details don’t really matter) by Kilgrave. In order to save this fresh-faced MacGuffin, Jones allows Kilgrave to live and, in so doing, repeatedly puts others at risk. This sort of makes sense at first, but as the bodies stack up, it becomes impossible not to question Jones’ decision making. Then she pivots. Then she pivots again. Ultimately, the original moral imperative (freeing the wrongfully accused) doesn’t seem worth the loss. Even the moppet in question reaches this conclusion.
Kilgrave, for his part, is monomaniacal and murderous, but morally consistent. He never values human life. All he wants is to control Jones.
The interesting wrinkle here is that Kilgrave can’t tell if he can mind control Jones or not. He can take hostages and threaten her friends, but he can’t exert direct influence upon her without getting close enough to risk the swift death that would accompany failure. Jones also doesn’t know if she can be controlled. On first look, this puts our characters on even footing going into a final confrontation. But it actually doesn’t and the reason why is simple: Kilgrave is predictable and Jones isn’t. Jones’ relevant power isn’t strength; it’s moral inconsistency.
So let’s talk about moral inconsistency.
The debate over refugees is frustrating for all concerned. Those opposed to allowing refugees into America see resettlement as an unnecessary risk. Those opposing the opposition say that barring the downtrodden would represent an (unnecessary) abandonment of our fundamental national ideal. Certitude isn’t hard to come by on this thing, but deliberative debate is. The long and the short of it is that America doesn’t feel any one way about refugees or the containment of ISIS. A broadly applicable, and cohesive policy will not be forthcoming. America will remain unpredictable because what America wants and thinks is subject to seemingly arbitrary change.
Arbitrary changes in priority aren’t a moral good, but they sure as hell can be a strategic advantage.
How does Jessica Jones defeat Kilgrave? By convincing him that she’s willing to sacrifice the thing most dear to her, thereby convincing him that she’s under his control. He takes the bait because he can’t read Jones. He can’t read Jones because, again, she’s kind of an idiot. He stumbles toward his own execution because he assumes that Jones’ behavior has always been like his own: logical. He’s wrong.
Can ISIS affect U.S. politics using terrorist attacks? The answer, post-Paris, seems to be a strong “maybe.” But ISIS can only understand whatever power it has over America by interacting with America and America is, well, unpredictable. The U.S. may have super strength, but that might not be the relevant power. The relevant power might be deliberative democracy and the inconsistency that clusterfuck naturally breeds. How could a terrorist organization possibly understand its sway over a country that behaves (and has always behaved) like a belligerent drunk?
Jessica Jones is a fine show, but it’s not intended as a commentary, so any parallels to current events eventually take a turn (there is, after all, no existential threat to America). Still, the show provides an important reminder that moral and political static has a strategic upside as well as a primer on strategic thinking. Jessica Jones introduces people the sort of riddle that people in the middle ages called a “crocidolite” after the following question:
>“A crocodile snatches a young boy from a riverbank. His mother pleads with the crocodile to return him, to which the crocodile replies that he will only return the boy safely if the mother can guess correctly whether or not he will indeed return the boy.”
Think on that. And think on Jessica Jones after you’ve left the room in a huff post-Thanksgiving political debate. Moral absolutism and logic are both strategically troublesome. Sometimes heroes are inconsistent and sometimes inconsistency can position us to vanquish a lunatic foe.