All Commentary
Monday, December 7, 2015

Jessica Jones, Free Will, and Leviathan

The most terrifying power imaginable

A subtext of most of the superhero genre of fiction is that government has failed. It doesn’t provide the security people need. Superheroes (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc.) have to step in. The portrayal of the police and public servants in this genre ranges between incompetent and corrupt. At its best, the public sector can get out of the way and let the superhero do his or her job.

Jessica Jones, the acclaimed new series on Netflix (based on a Marvel Comics character), takes this approach to a new and much deeper level, particularly in its portrayal of the pathological villain Zebediah Kilgrave. Jones, a private investigator, spends the entire series trying to capture him. Kilgrave’s character allows us to think through an extraordinary issue. What if someone’s wish really were his command? What would happen to him, and what would be the social effects?

Jones is only a reluctant user of her superpowers, which are highly limited. She can run a 4-minute mile. She is strong enough to break locks with her hands. She can throw a punch that kills. And she can jump what appears to be about 15 feet in the air. Beyond that, she is as human as anyone else. Too much so.

The series adopts a 1940s-style film noir feel. Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter of Breaking Bad fame) has troubled personal relationships. She is alone by choice. She keeps a strange schedule and looks disheveled most of the time. She drinks too much. She is crabby, sometimes crude, often impolite, and constantly vexed.

The Problem of Kilgrave

Mostly, she is haunted by a past horror. A murderous villain named Kilgrave once abducted her, but not in a physical sense. His extraordinary power is causing people to give up their personal will. With just one word, he brings about the total surrender of his victim’s wishes to his own. He can ask for someone’s coat and get it. He can tell a dad to abandon his son and he will do it. He can tell a girl to kill her parents, and it is done. His control over others is limited by time (perhaps one day) and proximity, but otherwise, he gets his way.

He did this to Jessica. She spent some period of time under his control. During this period, she committed egregious acts. She feels deep guilt for this, continually assuring herself that she was not personally responsible because she was not in control. As she encounters other victims, she assures them they are not responsible either. A main plot device of the show concerns her desire to rescue one victim, who similarly did terrible things, from several life sentences in prison.

The trouble is that there is some ambiguity about the question of personal responsibility. Kilgrave’s victims describe feeling irresistibly drawn to follow his instructions. But they also report having some sense in the back of their minds that what they are doing is wrong. They find it impossible, however, to cause their inner conscience, never entirely blotted out, to rise above the Kilgrave-imposed will.

What If You Could Fully Control Others?

The character of Kilgrave raises some interesting questions. What if you had the ability to get your wish with everyone around, even strangers? Your words cause people to do exactly what you want them to do. You do not have to rely on persuasion or consent. You cause a core human trait, individual volition, to recede into the background.

If you had that power, would you use it? It would require a person of extraordinary moral character not to do so. You are at Starbucks and you could say: “add an extra shot at no charge,” and it would be done. You could tell your boss: “give me a 10% raise,” and you’d have it. If you tell someone “let’s go to dinner,” there would be no question. To imagine the power is to peer over the edge of a slippery slope. 

In Kilgrave’s case, this power has had an extraordinarily corrupting effect. He rapes, he kills, he controls, he poisons. He feels no remorse. The social effects are catastrophic, causing all sorts of people to commit terribly anti-social actions that otherwise make no sense. His demand is always the same: people must not resist his orders. Thus do they lose their will, and thus do they lose their humanity. As for his own soul, the darkness is boundless.

Who has the power to delete the human will? By tradition, not even gods have this power. They have granted human beings the free will to make choices between good and evil. Gods can manipulate events, give clues, prod circumstances to prompt people, and even punish for wrong choices, but do not typically use their power (even if they have it in theory) to override human volition itself.

Choice is Baked Into Nature

Such power would certainly be abused, even by the gods. Surely it is not something that should even be granted to a fallible human being. Such power is fundamentally contradictory to the mental workings of the human person. Like all animals, we resist the cage. Those who try to override that impulse corrupt their own souls and finally fail.

Any parent who begins parenting with the intent of total control eventually learns that this is impossible. Perhaps as children there is a point at which we can become completely compliant. But the inner life matures, and by the time we become teens, the sense of independent decision takes hold. It might begin as an internal commitment, but, in time, it grows to be a life pattern.

Societies that function well must respect individual autonomy: the right to control our own lives. This is why Kilgrave’s powers are so terribly frightening. The effects are bad enough when such powers rest in just one person. But imagine a total social system in which everyone had the capacity for full control of everyone else. The results would be immediately and irredeemably devastating.

Power and the Human Will

Watching Jessica Jones causes us to reflect on modern policing via the public sector. Browse YouTube’s archives of police abuse. Think on what happens when you are stopped on the road for a traffic violation. Police are trained to demand total submission. Any evidence of insubordination is treated as a threat and a crime in itself.

For the duration of the interaction, your will means nothing and their will is all that matters. It is not surprising that this power leads to abuse; it’s surprising that it doesn’t lead to it more often.

The Kilgrave Society and the Right to Decide

We can extend this analysis to the public sector at large. The distinguishing mark of the state is its encroachment on individual volition. Its one weapon, its only method, is the promise of violence. But this is not enough to bring about stable rule, as the history of revolution and political upheaval show us. The longing to blot out human choice is ultimately untenable, and the attempt alone is deeply corrupting of both individuals and institutions. Kilgrave is the paradigmatic case.

In contrast, notice that private security takes a different approach. The foremost goal is to assure order and peaceful outcomes, not to bring about a perfect state of nonresistance. If the problem goes away, all is well and the job is complete. Such services know better than to try for total control.

In Jessica Jones, as with modern politics, there is some ambiguity associated with the attempt to erase the decision making of others. In the recesses of our mind, we maintain our own understanding and beliefs, and that alone makes us feel some degree of responsibility for acts committed under the influence of others. To overcome requires steely determination and resolute desire to think independently and live on our own terms.

Jessica Jones can’t leap tall buildings, can’t fly, and can’t run faster than a locomotive. But she has a power that is even more impressive. She possesses that determination to defend the right to think for ourselves. It’s not only the most precious human right: It is the right than makes the social order function toward everyone’s benefit.