The following contains SPOILERS for Marvel’s Jessica Jones.
Like many of my fellow nerds, I spent the weekend binge-watching Jessica Jones and can confirm that it’s an excellent television show. Daredevil had more elaborately choreographed fight scenes, but Jessica Jones has far more thematic consistency, as well as perhaps the best across-the-board cast of any Marvel property thus far. It can be a difficult watch due to its dark subject matter, but it rewards the viewer with plenty of depth and nuanced depictions of trauma and sexuality.
Jessica Jones also delivers a truly terrifying villain. David Tennant’s Kilgrave doesn’t have the reality-warping power of Loki or Thanos, but he doesn’t have their world-conquering ambitions, either. (Loki doesn’t do house calls.) Kilgrave is so frightening precisely because he’s small-minded and petty, someone with influence who might show up on your doorstep and ruin your life simply because he can.
It helps that Tennant gives a spectacularly slimy performance, which means Kilgrave is going to have fans in the same way that the Joker and Loki have fans. It’s rather unfortunate considering that Kilgrave is so utterly despicable, though it is one of the many things that makes the show so fascinating. Jessica Jones expertly explores the differences between outcome and intention in questions of morality, aptly demonstrating why it’s as important to consider why people do what they do as it is to weigh the consequences of their actions.
That’s especially true in the case of “AKA WWJD,” the show’s eighth and most morally complex episode. When people attempt to justify their fandom of Kilgrave, they’ll offer “AKA WWJD” as ‘proof’ that Kilgrave isn’t a villain as much as he’s a tragic figure that could eventually be redeemed with proper guidance. Those people will be wrong, because one decent act committed for selfish reasons does not negate a lifetime of murder, rape, and ill-intent (more on that in a moment), but it does reflect the constant hope that people can change for the better.
If Kilgrave could be persuaded to use his powers for good, would the positive benefits offset his selfish motivations for doing so? I’d argue no, largely because a change in behavior is meaningless and temporary unless it is based on a similar shift in one’s essential character.
It’s sometimes suggested that intention doesn’t matter as much as outcome when it comes to questions of morality. In a way that’s true. An individual act can be evaluated based on its effect, and if something causes harm – even unintentionally – then that harm should be addressed and atoned for.
But I’ve never been comfortable with the notion that intent should never be considered when discussing the moral makeup of a human being. While results are good signposts – good intentions often correspond to good actions and vice versa – any singular act is a data point on a much larger trend line, a fact that frequently gets obscured whenever an online mob interprets one solitary act as a referendum on someone’s entire personality. There are some acts that are so horrific that they can rightly offset a lifetime of good deeds, but for most people, life is a series of relatively small-scale moral decisions. Sometimes good people make mistakes. Sometimes bad people do good things for reasons that are ultimately selfish.
All of which is to say that intention matters because it’s the best predictor of future behavior, a way to figure out if a person will be beneficial or harmful to those around them. If someone truly does not intend to cause harm, that person will take steps to understand where things went wrong. If that person has no sense of altruism, they’ll stop doing nice things as soon as it becomes inconvenient.
That brings us back to Jessica Jones, Kilgrave, and the possibility of his redemption. In “AKA WWJD,” Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is living with Kilgrave, partly to gather information and partly because she doesn’t know how else to stop his crime wave. Though she’s technically there of her own accord, he’s holding people hostage and he will torture and murder them if he doesn’t get compliance.
In his twisted, narcissistic mind, Kilgrave thinks it’s all quite romantic. He loves Jessica (or rather, is violently obsessed with her) and he wants Jessica to choose him. His enormous self-regard convinces him that that’s a possibility, but as misguided as that conclusion might be, it does alter his behavior. Like many love blind men and women, Kilgrave is willing to go to unusual lengths and to do things he ordinarily wouldn’t do in order to impress the object of his desire.
That also means that Jessica has some influence over his actions. In “AKA WWJD,” Jessica persuades Kilgrave to go to a crime scene to end a hostage situation with little hassle and zero loss of life. It’s a nice thing to do and it gives Kilgrave a rush because Jessica approves. He suggests that maybe he could learn to be a hero if Jessica is willing to stay and teach him, and that presents Jessica with her own moral conundrum. She finds herself trapped in a nightmare scenario in which a categorically evil person could theoretically make the world a better place.
Of course, that’s a horribly manipulative thing for Kilgrave to say because it’s not Jessica’s responsibility to fix his pathology. More to the point, it’s a completely self-serving act of altruism designed to prey on Jessica’s heroic sensibilities. After all, Kilgrave doesn’t fully understand why ending the hostage situation is the right thing to do or why Jess wants him to do it – he says as much at the end of the episode while keeping his own hostages during the episode – to the point that Jessica would have to move in permanently in order to keep him on the straight and narrow. That’s what Kilgrave wants. He’ll behave as long as Jessica is around, but he’ll return on his vicious amusements as soon as the relationship arithmetic changes. For Kilgrave, nobility is as much a threat as it is a statement of heroism.
Jessica recognizes that, which is why she drugs and imprisons Kilgrave at the end of “AKA WWJD.” Kilgrave is not a hero. He’s a sadistic, possessive asshole without any concern for the thoughts, feelings, or well being of those around him. He does not understand the basic human compassion that brings people together and that motivates so many of Marvel’s heroes. Kilgrave’s one noble act does not reveal some kernel of goodness sitting deep within his soul as much as it reveals the insidious depths of his depravity.
Once again, an individual action may be good or bad and should be treated accordingly, but a character is made up of thousands of such actions accrued over a lifetime of ethical decisions. Intention is a pattern, and the desire to do good is a prerequisite for anyone looking to push that trend in a more positive direction.
That’s not to say that intention is sufficient. In Jessica Jones, Simpson (Wil Traval) has chivalrous intentions (at least when not on super drugs), but he has little to no understanding of how to act on those intentions in an ethical manner, which is how he ends up killing a bunch of people while convinced that he’s doing the right thing. Thanks to her impulsiveness, Jessica also has a habit of creating a new mess every time she cleans up an existing one, albeit to a much lesser extent than Simpson. She wants to figure out how to use her powers to help those around her, but the task proves to be far more complicated than she’d like. To be a moral person is to have both the desire to do good and the sound judgment needed to match action to that intention.
Kilgrave, however, possesses neither. Though he is as capable of good things as anyone else, he is a terrible person – a monstrous villain – because the pattern of his life is one of misery, cruelty, and death motivated by apathy and greed. His complete lack of remorse or understanding virtually guarantees that he will continue to perform such acts in the future, and until he wants to change (it doesn’t happen in the show), he is not a tortured soul who needs a guiding hand to help him do better. He’s an emotionally abusive serial killer and a rapist, and one charismatic performance should never allow us to overlook that reality.