Why Kilgrave's Power on Jessica Jones Is an All-New Kind of Mind Control
Spoilers for season one of Jessica Jones follow!
David Tennant has gone on record saying that there's a disturbing "wish fulfillment" aspect to Kilgrave's powers on Jessica Jones. After all, who wouldn't want to be able to do anything they want all the time with impunity? But while Tennant is referring to our secret wish to be in control of others, Jessica Jones explores the other side of the "wish fulfillment" coin. The depiction of mind control in Jessica Jones is different from any I've ever seen before, as it serves as a sort of Rorschach test for the victims' deepest, darkest fears about themselves.
At first, Kilgrave's mind control seems fairly simple: he tells someone to do something, and they have to do it. Hope didn't want to kill her parents, she was forced to. But at the same time, the characters make it clear that he's terrifying because he doesn't just make you do things, he makes you want to do things. He made Jessica want to be with him, he made Malcolm want to spy on Jessica, he made Hope want to kill her parents, etc. There's an "echo" in the back of their minds with their own thoughts, but their conscious mind wants to carry out Kilgrave's orders. As Hope puts it, "I didn't want to... But I wanted to."
This is fascinating on a psychological level, and makes the show's exploration of rape even more resonant. Most rapes aren't violent, but coercive, which makes Kilgrave's actions and his victims' feelings of shame much more true to life. Jessica and Hope weren't violently raped, but they weren't in control of their actions, like women in real life who are raped when they are too intoxicated to truly consent. And like many rape victims, both women need to be convinced that it wasn't their fault, because they are haunted by their memories of their actions when they were in an altered state of mind.
This comparison to drugs and alcohol is most explicit in Malcolm's case. Kilgrave maintains control over Malcolm over a long period of time by getting him hooked on drugs, so even when his mind control wears off, Malcolm still feels compelled (and I used that word on purpose) to report to him. He guiltily tells Jessica that he technically had a choice, but Jessica doesn't hold it against him. She knows that drug addiction acts very much like mind control, and the idea of "choice" becomes an illusion when under duress. Or, more cynically, she knows that people are fallible, and that behaving selfishly in a moment of weakness doesn't indict Malcolm as a person.
It gets a little bit dicey, but satisfyingly complex, when it is revealed that Jessica "broke free" of Kilgrave's mind control because she was horrified that she had killed Reva. On a mythology level, it makes little sense that there would be a psychological component if Kilgrave's powers are really the result of a virus for which they can develop a vaccine, but that's an argument for another time. On a narrative level, it introduces the notion that a "strong will" can resist Kilgrave's mind control, which has a whole set of potentially offensive implications about both rape and drug addiction. If Jessica could break free of Kilgrave, does that mean Hope was too weak to do the same when he forced her to kill her parents? Could a stronger version of Jessica have broken free earlier than she did, and stopped herself from being raped by Kilgrave or killing Reva?
These are uncomfortable questions to ask, and I think there's a possibility the show should have explored them more in order to avoid insensitivity, especially since the rest of the season was extremely sensitive to social issues. But I have to admit, it makes Kilgrave's powers much more complex and interesting. One minor character in the Kilgrave support group (which is very similar to AA or NA), confesses that Kilgrave forced him to abandon his son at the very moment that he secretly wished he could. Kilgrave's powers traumatize the characters not only because their minds were violated, but because they are afraid that he has revealed some truth within themselves, whether it's true or not. Jessica objectively knows that she didn't want to be with Kilgrave, but you can tell that when he starts taunting her about their time together, part of her is afraid that she consented. Hope insists that she fought "so hard" not to kill her parents, with whom she had a strained relationship, because she's afraid that she didn't fight hard enough. Wil insists that he's "not that guy" after he attacks Trish, but by the end of the season, we know that on some level, he is that guy, Kilgrave or no Kilgrave. Kilgrave ruins his victims' lives not because he forces them to do things they don't want to do, but because he forces them to face their worst fears about themselves.