With reporting by Victoria McNally
Spoilers for "Jessica Jones" lie ahead.
As you may have heard by now, Marvel's latest outing, the Netflix series "Jessica Jones," is a story about PTSD and sexual violence. Over the span of 13 episodes, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) does her best to defeat the sinister Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man born with the powers of mind control who uses the skill to get anything and everything he wants -- including sex, with multiple women.
Kilgrave's crimes are horrific, and their implications are certainly felt -- but unlike many other shows, which have faced a fare amount of critical backlash for showing a rape onscreen and then ignoring its aftermath, "Jessica Jones" does exactly the opposite. Despite being a story about rape, in all seven episodes that MTV News was given to screen in advance of the series' Friday (November 20) premiere, not a single sexual assault is shown onscreen. This, of course, was intentional.
"We don’t show things gratuitously," Tennant told MTV News when he dropped by our studio ahead of the show's release. "We refer to the terrible things that have happened... we see the horrors of the effects of things, rather than the horrors of them happening, which I think is a more effective way of storytelling."
After a year that included -- among many, many others -- the rape of fan-favorite characters like Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) on "Game of Thrones" and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) on "Outlander" (shows that "Jessica Jones" executive producer Melissa Rosenberg referred to as "Rape of Thrones" and "Rapelander" during a recent interview with Rolling Stone), the difference is palpable.
Instead of showing Kilgave control Jessica and his other victims with sexual violence, we see (and hear) stories of him controlling their bodies in other horrific ways -- he makes one woman jump in place for hours, for example, and forces a young girl to pee her pants. It provides the same horror of one human being seizing full control of another's body, without exposing viewers to yet another scene of gratuitous rape. Additionally, the show gives the survivors of Kilgrave's crimes ample space to tell their stories and process their grief.
"Kilgrave does some awful things, and Kilgrave isn’t aware of how awful they are," Tennant added. "But the show is, and the show shows the terrible implications of that, psychologically, for Jessica and those around her... There’s no shying away from it. There are some awful things that have happened to some of these characters, and we see that that really costs them."
Showing how Kilgrave's abuse impacts his victims is crucial, Tennant continued, because showing "these terrible things will always be part of the stories we tell. It’s part of the way that we process these things as a society."
And when what we see on television mirrors what happens in real life, that creates an added responsibility to give the proper respect to something as irredeemable as rape. Something that other works in the medium may have failed to recognize... And thereby helped perpetuate societal perceptions of trauma.
"What this show does well, that can be difficult in something that has some fantasy elements -- it could become a little easy to shrug off -- [is] the repercussions of what happens are properly inhabited and seen through, and I think that’s a credit to the writers," Tennant explained.
Also a credit to the writers is how what happened to Jessica with Kilgrave quite naturally hardens her -- but when he reemerges in her life, she chooses to open up old wounds and fight back against her psychopathic rapist, instead of drowning under the weight of every terrible thing that has happened to her.
"I think it’s exciting that the show is exploring that, the PTSD and the humanity of what she's going through; not wanting to keep going and wanting to hide," Carrie-Anne Moss, who plays the openly gay lawyer Jeri Hogarth, explained. "And yet, she can't! She has to keep fighting. She has to keep trying to win and trying to bring it to [light] -- not for herself, for other people. And yet in doing it for others, it's healing herself, in a way."
At the end of the day, that's what makes "Jessica Jones" so powerful -- that it's a story about one woman's fight against a monster, yes, but also that it's a story about healing from a trauma that so many millions of people can identify with. And the fact that it chooses to focus on what happens long term after rape instead of the act itself is simply smarter, more responsible storytelling.
And for Tennant, it meant that he didn't have to go through the added difficulty of trying to identify with Kilgrave after doing a horrific rape scene.
"I have to, in some way, understand where Kilgrave is coming from," he concluded. "I have to make sense of [how] this man has done these awful things, but he doesn’t understand that they’re awful things. Part of his journey is to understand the awful affect that he’s had."