Sadly the only time Jessica chokes Robyn this season

Crush syndrome may be in the title of this episode, but post-traumatic stress disorder is the condition driving the storytelling. Jessica Jones had an emotionally charged debut by committing to the character’s damaged mental health, and Jessica’s PTSD symptoms intensify in “AKA Crush Syndrome” as she realizes that her former attacker has returned to terrorize her. Kilgrave (David Tennant) is out there ruining the lives of others to get Jessica’s attention, and while she’s dedicated to stopping him, her plan of action doesn’t eliminate the scars Kilgrave left on her psyche.

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are three main types of symptoms associated with PTSD: re-experiencing symptoms (flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts), avoidance symptoms (staying away from things associated with the trauma, emotional numbness, intense guilt or depression), and hyperarousal symptoms (being easily startled, feeling tense or on edge, difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts). Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) exhibits various aspects of all three, situating her character in mental and emotional territory that is very different from the Marvel superhero norm.

Jessica is a superhero, but not in the traditional sense. She’s not a superhero because she has extraordinary abilities and uses them to help others. She has the powers, and she technically helps people by working as a private investigator, but catching cheating spouses and serving court summons aren’t the same as saving the world with the Avengers or becoming a neighborhood protector like Daredevil. Jessica Jones is a superhero because she’s a survivor. She suffered severe, prolonged abuse at the hands of an evil man, and even though her trauma has made a considerable impact on her mental health, she’s still alive and trying to stay afloat in a sea of fear and despair. And that’s heroic.

In her essay, “A Heroic Failure,” published in the backmatter of this month’s Image comics Codename: Baboushka #2, Danielle Henderson, creator of the “Feminist Ryan Gosling” Tumblr, writes about how the traditional definition of a hero is failing women, creating female heroes that fit male ideals while ignoring the specific issues plaguing women. “There are a million little disasters you can feel every day as a woman living in a culture that constantly insists that you’ll never be enough, so much so that for some of us simply getting out of bed is a triumph.” Henderson writes. “If you walked out on the street right now and asked women to tell you about the women they consider heroic, you’d probably ask more than 100 before you got to someone who mentioned a superhero.”

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Henderson then goes on to call out her best friend who faces down her daughter’s illness with care and humor, a woman who loudly shut down a harasser on the subway, and the grandmother that came out of retirement to raise Henderson and her brother when their mother abandoned them on a doorstep. “My heroes wear invisible capes.” Henderson writes. “My heroes are women who find ways to survive.” Jessica Jones delivers these kinds of female heroes, first and foremost in its titular character, but also in her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), who stays by Jessica’s side when the rest of the world doesn’t believe her story about a sadistic mind-controlling rapist and murderer.

With the exception of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which has plenty of other issues), Marvel Studios’ properties have a poor track record with relationships between women. There have been some solid female friendships—Jane and Darcy in Thor, Peggy and Angie on Agent Carter—but they haven’t been essential to the narrative like Jessica’s relationships with the women in her life: Trish, attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Anne-Moss), Kilgrave’s newest victim Hope Schlottman (Erin Moriarty), and insufferable neighbor Robyn (Colby Minifie). All of these women have different roles in Jessica’s life—Trish is the confidant, Jeri is the employer, Hope is the motivation, Robyn is the nuisance—and they each have their own individual personality, giving Jessica Jones a multi-dimensional female ensemble.

Rachael Taylor is strong casting for Jessica’s friendly foil; she’s much softer and more refined than Ritter in both appearance and demeanor, with a calm, soothing voice that is perfect for a highbrow radio show host. The specifics of Jessica and Trish’s past aren’t explicitly clear yet, but at one point they lived together and considered each other best friends, and it’s clear that Trish desperately wants to get back to that level of friendship. Her big role in this episode to play Jessica’s compassionate protector, offering Jessica the opportunity to move back into her heavily fortified apartment, and when that’s turned down, sending a repairman to fix Jessica’s broken front door.

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Unlike Jeri, who doesn’t believe Jessica’s insistence that there’s a mind-controlling sociopath roaming around New York City, Trish knows that Kilgrave is a serious, deadly threat, and she’s taking extra measures to ensure her safety. We’re still far from Trish becoming the superhero Hellcat like her comic-book counterpart, but she’s starting down that journey by training in Krav-Maga, a form of self-defense developed for the Israeli military that is based on the use of reflexive responses to threatening situations. Trish could have easily been forced into a more passive role as Jessica’s supportive best friend, so it’s very nice to see the show take her character in a more aggressive direction that is rooted in the evolution of her comic-book character. (More on that when Jessica Jones starts exploring Trish’s past.)

Icy and ruthless, Jeri Hogarth doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her, and she refuses to take on Hope Schlottman’s case unless Jessica brings her proof that Kilgrave actually exists. Like Jessica and Trish, the casting for Jeri and Hope emphasizes the differences between the two characters, which are particularly extreme in their case. With her short black hair, mature sophistication, and authoritative presence, Moss’ Jeri is the opposite of Moriarty’s Hope, a young blonde ingénue who exudes youthful purity, but is torn apart by feelings of fear and guilt. Hope still looks very much like a girl rather than a grown woman, and her youth motivates Jessica to work on the Kilgrave case. The man stole Hope’s future, and Jessica refuses to let her waste away in prison because of Kilgrave’s sick manipulation.

Finding and catching Kilgrave and proving that he’s guilty of the crimes he forced others to do is Jessica’s big case for the entire season, and “AKA Crush Syndrome” is heavy on the investigative elements as Jessica starts looking into Kilgrave’s movements following the bus crash that didn’t kill him. She pretends to be a nurse to get records from the night of the crash (dropping references to both E.R.’s Dr. Carter and Grey’s Anatomy’s Seattle Grace Hospital in the process), and these moments of disguise are quickly becoming some of the most reliable places for humor on the series, allowing Ritter the opportunity to slip into personas that are drastically different from Jessica’s gruff, sarcastic personality.

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Another great bit of humor comes when Jessica finally has enough of her noisy neighbors, charges upstairs, grabs Robyn by the throat and slams her up against the wall. “Now, I don’t give a bag of dicks what kinky shit you’re into. Just be into it quietly,” Jessica tells Robyn, who has been berating her brother Ruben (Kieran Mulcare) while he cooks cordon bleu in his tightie-whities. “Self respect! Get some,” Jessica adds as she walks away, and while the reality of that situation would be pretty frightening, the exaggerated nature of Robyn’s character plays into the comedy of the scene. I have a hard time understanding the point of Robyn and Ruben, who feel like they belong in a different show than the rest of the cast, but at this point, they work well enough as Jane’s pesky neighbors with an unsettlingly close relationship.

“Stylish” is a word that has come up a lot in discussions of Jessica Jones, and “AKA Crush Syndrome” continues to push the neo-noir aesthetic in the music and camerawork. This episode may not be quite as aggressive as the premiere when it comes to the visual elements—in particular, the color contrast isn’t as heightened here—but Sean Callery’s score and Manuel Billeter’s cinematography maintain the distinct style established in the premiere. Callery’s evocative jazz compositions increases the tension while reinforcing the mood, and a simple scene like Jessica looking over clues at her desk becomes much more engaging when paired with the slinky music. An important thing to take note of in these early episodes is the placement of the cameras, often showing the action from behind a window or around a wall or across the street. It gives the impression that Jessica’s movements are being watched, creating an atmosphere of paranoia that is directly tied to Jessica’s mental state. “I’m not safe anywhere,” Jessica tells Trish. “Every corner I turn I don’t know what’s on the other side. I don’t know who’s on the other side.”

Jessica has reason to be terrified based on the chilling scene that finally reveals what Kilgrave is currently up to. The character’s face is hidden, and instead we see the confused reactions of his victims in the moments before he speaks to them, turning their confusion into happy complacency when he forces them to do his bidding. It’s so easy for Kilgrave to walk into someone’s life and completely upend it, and the scariest part is that these people appear to be totally content as they serve the every whim of their new master. The scene is very effective at building up Kilgrave’s threat level, and keeping Kilgrave just out of frame maintains the disturbing mystique that the show has given him. Kilgrave is not a human being right now; he’s the malevolent, manipulative voice of pure evil, and the show doesn’t try to make him empathetic in any way at the start.

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“AKA Crush Syndrome” is heavier on the superpowers than the series premiere, with the Luke Cage (Mike Colter) storyline trading out sexual action for a superpowered bar brawl where Jessica and Luke learn about each other’s special abilities. As the first big action sequence of the series, the bar fight is high-energy but there’s also an appropriate level of restraint in the choreography, particularly for Luke, who can send men flying across the room with the flick of his wrist. Colter is more annoyed than enraged during the fight, which adds an element of humor to the action as he begrudgingly beats up the husband of the woman he’s been sleeping with and the rugby teammates he brings to Luke’s bar in hopes of getting revenge.

While technically referring to the medical condition that forces Kilgrave to replace his kidneys after the bus crash, “crush syndrome” gains a double meaning in the context of this episode, which builds on Kilgrave’s obsessive crush on Jessica and Jessica’s crush on Luke. Jessica’s crush intensifies when Luke shows up at her apartment (Trish is right: Jessica should really get a lock on that door) and dramatically reveals his unbreakable skin by taking a chainsaw to his diamond-hard abs. “You can’t fix me. I’m unbreakable,” Luke says, and while the line may be heavy handed, it does its job and makes Jessica fall for him even more. It’s the start of a new phase in their relationship, and finding another person like her makes Jessica feel less isolated as Kilgrave singles her out for extended psychological torture.

Stray observations

  • It’s not hard to (incorrectly) assume that Jessica and Trish have some sort of romantic past together given the implied intimacy of their conversations and the way Rachael Taylor is presented when she visits Jessica’s office. That scene reminds me of the typical noir moment when the beautiful female client walks into the private eye’s office, and while that’s not Trish and Jessica’s actual dynamic, my mind still adds sexual undertones to their tension because of the genre convention.
  • Continuing to pull inspiration from Alias, this episode begins with a police interrogation scene very similar to the one in Alias #3, although this one doesn’t end with Jessica being saved by Matt Murdock. However, it does feature the introduction of the great Clarke Peters (The Wire, Treme) to the cast as Detective Oscar Clemons, which is an acceptable trade-off.
  • Jeri’s wife knows about her affair with her assistant, a reveal that would have more impact if we spent any extended time with Jeri and her wife.
  • Jessica: “I shouldn’t have done that.” Luke: “Because it’s messed up, or because you got caught?”
  • “Live your life, woman! I gotta go clean up some shit.”
  • “God didn’t do this. The devil did, and I’m going to find him.”
  • “Lady, you’re a very perceptive asshole.”

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