The Power of Suggestion

I think my favorite thing about season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones was the villain Kilgrave. And yes, partially that’s because he’s played by David Tennant (oh Doctor my Doctor), but his mind control superpower also makes him one of the most nefarious villains in the Marvel universe. Kilgrave robs his victims of their free will. When he tells you to do something—like cut your own arm off, or shoot your parents—you do it, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to.

Another recent comic adaptation I’m fully obsessed with is AMC’s Preacher. The titular Preacher, Jesse Custer, gains a mind control ability very similar to Kilgrave’s after being possessed by a cosmic being known as Genesis. This “Word of God” forces others to obey his commands. The details of the two abilities are different. Kilgrave’s is caused by a virus, meaning it’s possible to become immune, as Jessica Jones is in the series; Jesse’s power is so far undefendable, even working on vampires and angels. Jesse can choose when to use his power, while Kilgrave’s is on all the time; Kilgrave’s commands expire, while Jesse’s seem permanent. At the basic level, though, the two abilities are the same. They speak, you obey.

There’s a point in the Jessica Jones plotline where she wonders what could happen if Kilgrave’s powers were used for good. She experiments briefly with being his moral compass, ultimately finding that he’s too far gone. This is a failing on Kilgrave’s part as an individual, not necessarily of the powers. In Jessica Jones, the question remains: what could happen if mind control abilities were given to the good guys?

Preacher answers that question. Well, sort of. In theory, there’d be no more moral figure to imbue with the Word of God than a preacher. In practice, Jesse Custer is not your typical holy man, but he’s a generally good guy who means well most of the time. Since no well-rounded character is ever fully-good or fully-evil, we’ll call him an apt foil to Kilgrave, if on no other basis than his role in the narrative (he’s our hero, and Kilgrave was the villain).

The first thing that happens when Jesse uses God Voice: he tells one of his parishioners to “open his heart” to his mother, and the parishioner goes to her nursing home and cuts his heart out. So unintended consequences—that’s one inherent down-side to mind control, but we can write that off morally to Jesse’s inexperience with his new ability. He was trying to help; he just didn’t get the words right.

A more troubling example is what happens to Eugene. Jesse at one point uses his powers on Eugene’s behalf. When Eugene protests this, calling it “cheating,” Jesse is offended. They argue, Jesse gets angry, and in an emotional moment he tells Eugene to “Go to Hell”—with God Voice. Eugene vanishes.

This is a grayer area of unintended consequences. Jesse knows about his God Voice, now; he knows what will happen when he uses it, even if he instantly regrets it. Like Kilgrave complains about at several points in Jessica Jones, having mind control means constantly keeping a tight rein on emotion, being conscious of every word you speak (and largely eliminating metaphoric speech, especially things like “go fuck yourself”). With the possible exception of Buddhist monks and Vulcans, no mortal could be expected to maintain that kind of control all the time.

Beyond that, even, is the source of Eugene’s initial protest. Jesse didn’t ask Eugene if he wanted divine intervention. Jesse used his own moral standards to make a decision that affected other people at a deeply personal level: he forced one human to forgive another. Forgiveness that isn’t earned is cheapened, and inherently unsettling. The possession of free will is, for many, one of the basic aspects of sentience, an important facet of humanity. Taking away a person’s free will robs them of their autonomy. It’s one thing when Jesse uses his power in self-defense—in terms of basic human needs, survival trumps free will by most people’s accounts. But when he uses it to impose cognitive states, like forgiveness and faith, it’s harder to justify his intrusion.

It’s probably for the best Jessica Jones couldn’t reform Kilgrave, as much as I loved his character and would’ve geeked the fuck out watching that partnership. I trust Jesse Custer with God voice slightly more. His in-born morals are strong enough to avoid the most blatant abuses, and he’s got Cassidy for an external moral compass (because what else are vampires good for?), but he’s at best chaotic neutral when he uses his power, however much he tries to be good. Even the best of men couldn’t be trusted with the ability to change how people feel and think—or perhaps I should say, by using it, they’d no longer be the best of men.

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