We are watching, as it happens, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the television series Jessica Jones, which is based on a Marvel Comics original. A contemporary morality play with a feminist inflection. Sex, drugs, mental illness. An edgy air. A noirish tale in a chiaroscuro New York City. Jessica herself a wise-cracking, heavy-drinking gumshoe with superhuman strength and a tendency to crippling introspection.
Behind this scaffolding something besides. Something enabled by the long form of the television series and, in a curious way, by the comic-book exaggerations and inventions—the special powers, super-heroes, super-villains and all the rest of it. Something like the preoccupations of other long tales with an element of the fantastic, from the Bible to Lord of the Rings by way of Pilgrim’s Progress. That is, an extended debate on the nature of radical evil, or, more precisely, on what to do about it.
Jessica Jones characters talk a lot. Among other things, about the social and psychological roots of bad behaviour, the role of bad parenting, of misfortune, of inequalities in life chances. Much is made of post-traumatic stress disorder and of the paralysing effects of guilt. Characters encourage one another to talk over their troubles, to seek help.
The tale finally, however, pushes against this grain of earnest rationalisation, these reasoned explanations for evil, these therapeutic evasions of responsibility for action. Before Jessica can bring down the dark other, the evil Kilgrave, she must learn that her own guilty feelings are a self-indulgence. That her powers entail a unique responsibility for moral action. That the power of Kilgrave—mind control at the service of a plausible, charming, self-justifying psychopath—only grows the more she dithers. The moment Jessica achieves this moral clarity she is free from Kilgrave’s power. She discovers love, she recovers purpose. She breaks his neck.
Northrop Frye long ago argued for the necessity of popular romance, with its sex and violence, as periodically invigorating genres of high narrative art grown too precious and remote, too rarified or courtly, too self-regarding and convoluted. Could it be that popular romance—rude, untidy, shocking—also opens up from time to time to our gaze moral horizons we are in danger of forgetting? Responsibility, courage, truth.