Kilgrave operates in the background for most of this season’s first half. The show focuses on how his influence affects others rather than making him a prominent presence on-screen, and when he does appear, it’s usually to do something quick and cruel or get knocked unconscious and thrown in the back of a van. The last episode started to devote more attention to the show’s villain by detailing his acquisition of Jessica’s childhood home, but “AKA Top-Shelf Perverts” is when we start to learn what drives Kilgrave and the lengths he’ll go to get what he wants. This is much to the series’ benefit, as it takes greater advantage of David Tennant, whose exuberant, suave, and deeply menacing performance makes Kilgrave a villain that is as compelling as he is despicable.
“AKA Top-Shelf Perverts” opens with Kilgrave inside Jessica’s apartment, pawing through her things, peeing in her toilet, and generally being a huge creep in the home of the woman he abused. That’s pretty bad, but then it gets really bad when Ruben makes the mistake of interrupting Kilgrave’s intrusion by delivering banana bread to Jessica. Kilgrave makes Ruben confess that he’s in love with Jessica, and that’s when the plot jumps away to show the object of Ruben’s affection, getting kicked out of a bar and thrown into a pile of garbage. It’s not especially nuanced storytelling, but it’s certainly evocative, firmly establishing Jessica’s rotten self-image after being told by Luke that she’s a piece of shit.
These early scenes of Jessica highlight her emotional distress after confessing to Luke, and that turmoil severely impairs her judgment, especially when mixed with alcohol. Jessica gets thrown out of the bar while she’s on the job waiting for Jeri’s future ex-wife Wendy to leave her workplace, and then Jessica follows Wendy to the subway platform, where she nearly kills her trying to get her to sign divorce papers. Dangling Wendy over the train tracks, a wasted Jessica, overwhelmed by self-loathing, talks about shame and the “black oozing shit” inside of her, and then she accidentally drops Wendy. Jessica hops down and saves her, but hesitates as the train nears her, paralyzed by a suicidal impulse in the midst of her emotional breakdown. She jumps away at the last minute, but it’s clear that Jessica is dealing with a lot of heavy shit right now. She’s in a miserable headspace, and Kilgrave is about to make things much, much worse.
Jessica goes home, passes out in the elevator, and is helped into her apartment by Malcolm, who takes a bite of Ruben’s banana bread as Jessica crawls into her bed after a long day. It doesn’t take her long to realize she’s lying in a pool of blood, and when she turns around, she discovers a dead Ruben holding the razor with which he cut his throat. This is when Jessica completely shatters, unable to handle the pressure Kilgrave is putting on her by killing people that come into her orbit. No longer confident that she can keep fighting Kilgrave, she comes up with a horrible plan to get herself thrown in Supermax prison, where she will hopefully get footage of Kilgrave using his powers as he makes his way through seven levels of security and surveillance. It’s a horrible idea and everyone tells her that, but Jessica needs to find a way to take herself off the board of this deadly game Kilgrave is playing, and going to a super-maximum security prison will definitely accomplish that.
As a viewer, it’s easy to see just how foolish this plot is, but Jenna Reback and Micah Schraft’s script sells why Jessica thinks this is a logical course of action. Already feeling extremely guilty after what happened with Luke, Jessica can’t keep seeing the people around her killed, and prison is a way of getting out of Kilgrave’s crosshairs that also makes her pay for the murders she’s connected to. Ruben is Jessica’s way of getting the police’s attention, by way of dropping his decapitated head on Detective Clemons’ desk, but once she’s in the interrogation room she brings up Reva because that’s the death she feels most guilty about. The ghost of Reva lingers throughout this entire episode, and even though Jessica doesn’t talk too much about her feelings regarding the fallout of her confession to Luke, the emotional aftershocks are clear in Krysten Ritter’s performance.
Jessica is a woman drowning in fear, guilt, and self-loathing, and it leads her to make really bad decisions. The ever-watchful Kilgrave isn’t going to let Jessica throw herself into a Supermax prison, though, so he goes to the police station while Jessica is being interrogated and positions everyone so that when Jessica and Clemons return to the room, they find a terrifying tableau of people pointing guns at each other at close range. The slow tracking shot revealing Kilgrave’s act is one of the most effective moments of the entire series, turning the suspense way up for Jessica’s first in-person conversation with Kilgrave since she left him to die. You really get a sense of just how frightening this situation is, which sets a great point of contrast when Kilgrave reveals that he’s doing all of this for love.
Jessica thinks Kilgrave is torturing her, perhaps in hopes of getting her to kill herself, but she’s very wrong about Kilgrave’s ultimate aim. This has all been a demented declaration of love, and he wants her to see that he’s the only one who matches her, challenges her, and will do anything for her. These displays of twisted affection are when Tennant’s performance blossoms, and even though he’s still a homicidal stalker sociopath, Tennant shows that the character truly believes he’s expressing adoration for Jessica through his actions. Kilgrave is madly in love, and it’s a totally warped love that isn’t reciprocated in the slightest, but it’s still love. And love is a powerful tool for making characters empathetic, especially when handled by an actor like Tennant who can fully explore the complexity of a character’s emotions.
All of Kilgrave’s methods for showing affection are totally wrong, but he needs to do drastic things if he’s going to get Jessica where he wants her, especially if she’s going to get there of her own free will. He’s not interested in controlling Jessica anymore, and gets off on the challenge of finding a way to make Jessica willingly come to him because she’s the first person that walked away from him. The most telling moment of this scene is Kilgrave revealing why Jessica is so important to him, and it’s mostly because she doesn’t want him:
Before I met you, I got everything I wanted. And I didn’t realize how unsatisfactory that was until you left me to die. You are the first thing, excuse me, person I ever wanted that walked away from me. You made me feel something I never felt before: yearning. I actually missed you.
Kilgrave is used to having total control of someone, so when Jessica walks away from him, it makes her even more special in his mind. He interprets this as her playing hard to get when it’s actually burning hatred, and he thinks that he’ll eventually find a way to break through her hard heart and make her feel the same way. He just has to break her down and rebuild her, and a big part of that strategy involves taking her back to her childhood home. In order to stop Kilgrave’s killing spree, Jessica gives in to his demands and moves in with him in her old house, and seeing Kilgrave in a v-neck sweater rather than his dapper suit immediately softens the character while making it clear that this is all one big performance. He’s put on a costume that projects nonthreatening domesticity, but Jessica isn’t fooled in the least.
The major advancements in the Jessica and Kilgrave plot make this episode a considerable improvement over the last episode, but unfortunately, this show can’t have Ruben’s death without addressing how his sister Robyn fits into all of this. Colby Minifie’s cartoonish performance as Robyn doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the series, and it’s always jarring when she shows up on screen. She may be intended to serve as comic relief, but there’s an abrasive quality to the character that strips away the humor and makes her unpleasant to watch. The relationship between Robyn and Ruben is confusing, and while they may just be those kinds of siblings that have an overly intimate relationship, there’s some unsettling incestuous subtext in Robyn’s obsession with her brother and her jealousy over Jessica becoming his infatuation. The combination of her exaggerated performance and overwrought dialogue kills the momentum whenever she appears, pulling the viewer out of an otherwise engaging episode.
- While the Jeri/Pam/Wendy thread still feels like an afterthought, it gets some significant momentum this week. Robin Weigert gets to play two very different sides of Wendy, starting as the terrified victim of Jessica’s misplaced aggression before vindictively fighting back against Jeri by blackmailing her with evidence that she bribed a jury member in the past, and Wendy’s increasing hostility makes the conflict between all three of them tenser.
- Trish’s mom Dorothy makes her debut in this episode, getting a stern warning from Jessica to keep away from Trish, even if Jessica is in prison. Dorothy is played by Rebecca De Mornay, the female lead in Risky Business, which makes me very excited because I just watched that movie for the first time a few months ago and loved it. Dorothy is broadly drawn in this first appearance, but De Mornay does strong work capturing the character’s cold disposition and hateful opinion of Jessica (or Jessie, as she calls her).
- Trish does the work getting information on Kilgrave’s security detail, and then Simpson forces her out of the investigation as soon as he tracks down their target. Typical machismo bullshit.
- The scene of Jessica on top of the Manhattan bridge with the electric guitar section of the theme song blaring in the background is so corny.
- Why wouldn’t Malcolm just tell Trish about the dead body so that she doesn’t freak out when she suddenly sees a dead body with no real warning.
- I really like the use of muted horns in the soundtrack when Jessica is on the job. It adds a lot of that classic noir atmosphere. I also appreciate the discordant strings when Jessica searches her home for Kilgrave’s gift, which intensifies the chaotic anxiety Jessica feels in that sequence.
- Simpson: “That was intense.” Trish: “Don’t talk.” Simpson: “Whatever you say, boss.”
- “I love Zap Cola ‘cause it tastes great.”
- Dorothy: “Taking you in was the worst decision of my life.” Jessica: “Thanks mom.”
Jessica: “Until what? Until I come home and find my landlady choked out in my bathtub? Or I find you bludgeoned to death with my vacuum cleaner?” Trish: “We both know you don’t own a vacuum cleaner.”
- “I’m a top-shelf pervert.”
- “Next person whose phone rings has to eat it!”
- “I am new to love but I do not what it looks like. I do watch television!”