Jessica Jones' Alcoholism

"Jessica Jones" is a new cinematic narrative about alcoholism

Posted Dec 26, 2015

"Jessica Jones" is a Netflix TV series based on a Marvel comic superhero of that name.  It is television noir, with a heroine who is traumatized by (a) the death of her family, (b) having been controlled by her boyfriend, an also-traumatized evil supermentalist named Kilgrave, (c) having been forced by Kilgrave to participate in the murder of a woman, the wife of another superhero she ends up having a relationship with. Oh, that character owns and runs a bar.

Like JJ's PTSD, the noirness of the show is multi-determined: by the night-time urban filming; by Kilgrave's lurid, horrifying crimes magically inducing people (via some kind of preposterous telepathy) to mutilate and kill themselves; by JJ's perpetual bad mood; by the neurotic, misshapen characters in the storylines JJ pursues in her new job as a bottom-rung private investigator.

And Jessica drinks, very badly, polishing off whole bottles of booze, often instead of eating or sleeping.

But this isn't a show about alcoholism. In fact, reviewers hardly mention Jessica's drinking, beyond casually noting it. This is because (a) she doesn't act inebriated or become notably more surly when she drinks, (b) there is no talk of AA or her disease, other than some passing remarks by friends and co-workers, (c) although her alcoholism is presumably explained by the traumas she's experienced, that connection is never discussed or played upon.

We learn about drugs, addiction and alcoholism from a million TV sources, including such TV series as "Breaking Bad," "Weeds," and "The Knick."  And, what do they tell us?  They largely confirm our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices about drugs, alcohol, and related addictions.  After all, they're created by cinemasts, perhaps consulting with mainstream experts, who share these beliefs and prejudices: heroin, cocaine and meth are inherently addictive substances that ruin people's lives; marijuana's not so bad; alcoholism, like heroin addiction, is an inescapable disease; you get better, sort of, by going to rehab or a 12-step support group.

But there are signs that JJ (the first season of which is completed) isn't going that route.  In the first place, Jessica has a neighbor strung out on drugs (presumably heroin) who quits at a moment of truth when Jessica tempts him with an available syringe of the stuff.  He becomes Jessica's assistant in fighting crime and evil in the last shot of the opening season—an uplifting scene both for the series and for Jessica's life.

Meanwhile, what are to we make of Jessica's drinking, which seemingly doesn't alter her life course or incapacitate her or detract from her superpowers or make her mood any worse than it already is?  It is compensatory—that's for sure.  She's doing it for a reason. (Ah, there's trauma addiction psychology, a la Gabor Maté, rearing its head again.  Some readers may be aware that I am not a fan of Maté's work.)

This line of addictive psychology is not presented very compellingly.  It's as though it were only a half-hearted plot device thrown in by the show's creator, Melissa Rosenberg.  True, there are flashbacks to a childhood car accident killing her family which Jessica feels guilty about.  Then there is the murder of her lover's wife—although Kilgrave caused that crime and the woman's husband forgives Jessica—or at least has sex with her and fights on her team.

But there just isn't anything approaching the loss-of-control and degradation that we associate with the usual screen depictions of alcoholism. In early films like "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "The Lost Weekend" and their successors the characters' lives are torn asunder by their irresistible need to consume alcohol and their excessive consumption. Jessica Jones is not apparently impaired or distressed by her drinking.

And Jessica, despite her emotional problems, is not a degraded character.  She does have super strength and leaping ability.  She stands up for herself, in particular fighting against the imposition of power over her by Kilgrave.  She helps people (seemingly sometimes despite herself) and has sex—and makes other crucial life decisions—based on her needs and feelings and beliefs, rather than due to the power of alcohol.

It's almost as though drinking is a mechanism that permits Jessica to carry on her life normally, without being submerged by the depths of her depression and misanthropy. In this sense, JJ presents a harm reduction vision of addiction—one that sees addicted people as doing the best that they can under their particular life circumstances, and that tells us it is not for us to decide to deprive them of whatever chemical assistance they have come to rely on.

In other words, the series is bending rather severely the standard alcoholism/addiction narratives by putting these syndromes into life context and cutting down substance use, in even its worst forms, to life size.  People, when addicted, are behaving in some kind of purposeful way, given who they are and where they are in life. This is a forward movement in the view of addiction presented by American media.*

It's hard to believe that AA and disease adherents will enjoy "Jessica Jones"—that is, unless and until she joins AA. Keeping that in mind, stay tuned for my next post in this series, "Jessica Jones Attends AA." In this episode, after looking bored—like she'd rather be anywhere else on earth—Jessica ends up smashing a folding chair over the head of a thirteenth-stepper who puts his hand on her thigh. (I've known people like Jessica— although they don't, for the most part, possess superpowers.)

Stanton's new book (with Ilse Thompson), Recover! An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life, is available in paperback. His Life Process Program is available on-line.


* There is, however, the problematic side plot of a magical drug that allows people to escape Kilgrave's magical mind control.