Superheroes, Spells, and Sexual Abuse: A Conversation With Melissa Rosenberg and Sera Gamble, EPs of 'Jessica Jones' and 'The Magicians'

Krysten Ritter as titular heroine Jessica Jones, Stella Maeve as Julia in ‘The Magicians’
Krysten Ritter as titular heroine Jessica Jones, Stella Maeve as Julia in ‘The Magicians’

Leading up to the 20th anniversary of the March 10, 1997 premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Yahoo TV is celebrating “Why Genre Shows Matter” and the history of how these shows have tackled universal themes (i.e. how much high school sucks) and broader social issues.

One is a show about a sarcastic, reluctant hero with superhuman strength, a drinking problem, and a stalker who can control minds. The other is about a group of twentysomethings attending a magical university and discovering a Narnia-like land, which are both being terrorized by a powerful Beast.

As different as The Magicians and Jessica Jones seem on the surface, there are actually some pretty significant similarities, starting with strong, smart, take-no-crap female leads. Both series also brilliantly tackle the sensitive subject of sexual assault/abuse and the traumatic aftermath survivors contend with within the context of their respective genres.

To discuss their experiences bringing those stories to the screen, we connected Sera Gamble, co-creator/writer/executive producer of Syfy’s The Magicians, with Melissa Rosenberg, creator/writer/executive producer of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and discovered that while they’d never officially met, they’re fans of each other’s shows. (Warning: Spoilers ahead, if you’re not caught up on both series.)

Yahoo TV: Both of your shows are adapted from source material — The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman’s book franchise and Jessica Jones is a character in the Marvel comics canon — that contain sexual abuse/rape storylines. As you were first discussing how to bring those plot points to TV, what was important to you?

Sera Gamble: We felt that sexual assault was really the core of the Magicians story. The reveal that the Big Bad [The Beast] evolved into a monster as a defense mechanism to protect himself because he was being sexually abused as a young boy struck my partner, John McNamara, and me as a really amazing use of fantasy, and it felt psychologically real. It was non-negotiable for us. We really wanted to tell that story. It kind of became the guiding mechanism for the whole show; just the idea that fantasy is used to explore darkness and the human psyche and the various evils that we do to one another and to human beings.

Mackenzie Astin as the trickster god Reynard on ‘The Magicians’ (Credit: Syfy)
Mackenzie Astin as the trickster god Reynard on ‘The Magicians’ (Credit: Syfy)

When we got to [where] Julia is assaulted by a trickster god, it’s a very graphic rape scene. What was important to us was to be honest and unflinching about it. We didn’t want to find any trapdoors that we could go through that made it less personal for the audience. So for example, we could have made the creature that assaulted her look less human and we chose not to. We wanted him to feel as human and present in the room as possible. Most important for us, when we filmed that scene, was to stay in Julia’s point of view, to make sure we were telling her story, and that she never became the object of the story. She was always the subject of the story.

David Tennant as Kilgrave, with Ritter in ‘Jessica Jones’ (Credit: Netflix)
David Tennant as Kilgrave, with Ritter in ‘Jessica Jones’ (Credit: Netflix)

Melissa Rosenberg: We definitely [wanted to come from] a place of being honest with the story, the character and her experience. You have a responsibility when you’re dealing with things like this, and it’s better storytelling to stay true to character. We honestly did not set out to deal with the issue at all. It was a storyline in the source material for a character and her backstory. In the comic books, Jessica wasn’t actually raped — she was an imprisoned voyeur to it, and we just wanted to make it a more personal experience and more realistic. We really were just telling the story of this character and never said, “Okay, we’re going to tackle the issue of rape or domestic violence or any issue like that.” We’re just going to tell her story and be responsible about it and be honest with the character. And so when it aired, there were initially all these think pieces on how it addressed rape and domestic violence. And then we were like, “Yes, that’s exactly what we intended to do!” [Laughs.]

Gamble: I’m so surprised to hear that, Melissa.

Rosenberg: Obviously we were dealing with an issue, but we never approached it that way. I think that’s what you’re saying, Sera, [about coming] from an honest and responsible place. The minute you step on a soapbox is the minute people stop listening to you.

Gamble: I totally agree with that. It’s in our source material — the child abuse as well as Julia’s rape. In The Magicians novels, the boy is molested by the guy who wrote their fictional version of the Narnia books. It’s just a sentence that’s tossed off very dryly in the books. We made a much bigger meal of that because it felt like such a psychological key to the character. But I agree, when we’re in the room talking about it, we never feel like, “Oh, isn’t this a great opportunity for us to get political, feminist, or sociological?” We do that to make sure we’re not accidentally saying the opposite of what we mean. Sometimes that can happen. You don’t want to accidentally let a story go down an alley that makes it seem like you’re standing on some soapbox that’s completely antithetical to what you actually believe. But if you tell a story with that character, if you try to get as deep into them as you can, naturally these issues spin out. They’re issues because they’re problems in our culture.

Related: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ EP David Eick Revisits 5 Episodes That Remain Relevant

How did making a sci-fi/superhero/fantasy show affect the storytelling or enable you to tell the story? Kilgrave has mind control and can make you do whatever he wants and then tell you and himself it’s what you wanted. Reynard the trickster god pretends to be what you need and then uses and abuses you and kills your friends. Both attackers are chilling in the way they can randomly decide someone’s fate to suit themselves.

Rosenberg: Because we had mind control, it lent itself to the metaphor of domestic violence and the thinking that you can’t leave or the other psychological aspects of [abuse] as well.

To me, it seems you can tackle this terrible subject that is a real problem in everyday life and maybe it is easier for people to digest because it is an alien, a god, or an evil villain with superpowers instead of an average human criminal.

Rosenberg: It makes it more interesting for me. It’s a heightened world, and I think it brings a different set of issues than something Law & Order: SVU would bring. You can turn on the TV any day of the week and you’ll see stuff about rape or the dead girl with her underwear around her ankles. I’m not saying we do it better. What we get to do is explore the same human experience these issues bring up, but in a heightened context. It gives you a different set of stories to tell and avenues to explore.

Gamble: I’d agree with that.

Rosenberg: It’d be a short conversation if we just agree with each other all the time.

Tennant as Kilgrave (Credit: Netflix)
Tennant as Kilgrave (Credit: Netflix)

While the villains are different, they have some common ground in that what they do requires some amount of manipulation, whether through mind control or trickery and magic.

Rosenberg: Yeah, and I think a sociopathic frame of mind. Their victim is an object rather than a human being, and they have no remorse, no guilt. It’s a very human, very real portrayal of a rapist who is about it for the power and the inability to experience anyone else’s experience.

Gamble: I think when we’re writing, there’s a gut check that happens where you know that a story with these fantasy elements is working. The gut check tells you that the metaphor holds up against real life and that the set of powers that you’ve given your villain feels like how it feels to be manipulated by a man who has nefarious intentions. About domestic abuse: there’s something in the metaphor of whawrt you guys did on Jessica Jones Season 1 that feels similar to the feeling of aggressive passivity that’s pushed down on a woman in that kind of situation. That kind of progressive grinding away of her will. Certainly, when I was watching Jessica Jones, I felt a lot of that. It came through really clearly.

By the way, we talked a lot about Jessica Jones in our writers’ room. Everyone had watched it and we all did our homework. Basically, we watched your show and Outlander. We were really informed by the way you guys handled that material. Probably one of the most helpful things about Jessica Jones is that it’s about a woman named Jessica Jones, right? It’s her story. She never shrinks back into the victim corner because she’s the lead of your show. That shouldn’t be rare, but it kind of still is. So it was a good guiding principle for us in writing Julia’s storyline.

Rosenberg: Interesting.

I assume the Outlander thing is because they handled man-on-man rape…

Rosenberg: There’s plenty of it on man-on-woman rape in there, too.

Good point. That whole time period was kind of rife with rape.

Gamble: Yeah, it’s a super rapey time period.

Charles Mesure as The Beast (Credit: Carole Segal/Syfy)
Charles Mesure as The Beast (Credit: Carole Segal/Syfy)

I felt Sera took viewers on a very interesting ride with The Beast. When he first shows up, he is just willy-nilly killing folks and poking out eyes. There are no redeeming qualities, and you start thinking he is pure evil. But then you learn his story and realize he did what he needed to do to survive his trauma, and suddenly I had mixed feelings and felt sorry for him.

Rosenberg: The idea of good guy/bad guy, the black and white of it, is not very interesting. It’s very simplistic. Hitler didn’t think he was a bad guy. He thought he was terrific, you know? I don’t think a lot of people who are abusers necessarily think of themselves as bad. They think it’s her fault. If only their wife wouldn’t do these things… What Sera’s done with The Beast, and what we tried to do with Kilgrave, is humanize them in a way to make them relatable at least. That’s an incredibly fine line. You can never apologize for them, but [you need] to make it impossible for someone to say, “Well, I’m not that guy,” as opposed to “Oh, well, actually I’ve had that thought.” It makes it a more complex and interesting story.

Gamble: Something we’ve talked about a lot is that trauma itself is a really dangerous thing. Certainly all people who are victimized don’t become victimizers, but a lot of victimizers started out as victims. What we take away from that, and what we talk about a lot in our writers’ room, is that trauma is insidious and it doesn’t go away. When something awful has happened to a human being, it’s only reasonable that they try to medicate and soothe themselves and they try to get back some kind of power. That can go in a lot of really dangerous directions. Again, we felt the same way: we didn’t want to excuse people’s bad behavior. It’s not okay to go out and kill people obviously. And, as much as it might feel like it would make you feel better in the moment, it’s not okay to pass along that feeling of pain to someone else. But it is a human response that we recognize. We talked about a lot of different versions, because it’s in the news every day in so many ways. Sometimes, certainly when we were writing this storyline, I would be out in public and feel like everywhere I looked there were people who are just radioactive with their own trauma and trying not to hurt themselves or others. We live in a really violent, manipulative, insidious culture that damages a lot of people that we’re writing TV shows about.

It certainly feels that way these days.

Rosenberg: It definitely does.

Gamble: It’s not getting better.

At the end of Season 1, Jessica kills Kilgrave. Julia has set out to kill or vanquish Reynard. Do you feel responsibility to get your characters justice?

Rosenberg: It came down to what was going to be the most satisfying story for this character. Not necessarily that she gets back on top. I mean, in our case, one of the first rapes of Jessica was basically when he turned her into a murderer by forcing her to kill Luke’s wife. That was almost more of a profound rape than the actual physical violation. This is why she spends most of the season not wanting to kill him, but wanting to bring him to justice. She doesn’t want to kill anyone else. She wants to prove that was him, not her. When she does kill him, it’s a very complicated moment because he has succeeded in turning her into a murderer. She killed him with her bare hands. Yes, she has found her answer to him, but she has now become what he wanted her to be. That becomes part of her psyche moving forward. We weren’t interested in “she kills him and then she’s fine.” As Sera said, it doesn’t go away. It lives with you.

Maeve as Julia (Credit: Eike Schroter/Syfy)
Maeve as Julia (Credit: Eike Schroter/Syfy)

Gamble: The cure for rape trauma is not to kill the rapist. If only it was anything remotely that simple. There is the simple truth that people who are going around and killing and raping people should be stopped from hurting other people. On that level, there’s heroism to what our characters are doing on both shows. Julia has a personal reason to avenge herself, but she also is aware that this guy is out there and keeps doing bad things to other people.

I don’t want to give away what happens this season, but we try to constantly throw things at Julia that highlight the fact that you can go down some very, very dark roads in your attempt to fix a complicated problem with simple steps. This is probably one of those universal truths that’s hovering at the bottom of stories like this. It sounds like you guys in your room were talking about the same stuff. There’s no response that Julia can make to this that doesn’t have lifelong repercussions. The damage has been done and she’s just kind of scrambling around. She’s in over her head trying to figure out what the best of the bad options are for her to cope with it, and to try to stop things from escalating.

Related: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: Joss Whedon Looks Back — And Forward

Both Julia and Jessica first decided to turn off the pain in a form of denial: Julia by having someone put in a mental block; Jessica by drinking. Despite the fantasy or superhero setup, these ladies are going through the stages of grief in basically the same way one does in real life.

Rosenberg: Yep. Pretty much.

Gamble: Everything Julia does this season is essentially a metaphor for what you’re talking about. First, she magically and literally tried to remove the memories and get that from her mind. She considered the possibility of cutting the piece of her soul out that was feeling the pain. Then she was on a monomaniacal quest to find the perfect spell that would give her enough power to defeat Reynard. It’s somebody trying to deal with sticky, painful stuff that she can’t get away from. It’s standing between her and her life.

Obviously, neither of you set out to make a show about sexual abuse, which can still be a taboo topic, and it makes me wonder how executives reacted at Syfy and Netflix. Do they handle that part of the story differently than they do the other sequences?

Rosenberg: I haven’t had that experience. We still get notes. If it had not rung true to them, I think they would have stepped in. But they’ve completely supported us every step of the way in terms of storytelling.

Gamble: Syfy was also 100% supportive. They wanted to make sure that we knew what we were saying with these storylines. I wouldn’t say that they treated Julia’s rape scene like it was just any other scene. It’s really graphic, violent, and it can be extremely triggering to people. They wanted to make sure that we had applied a really high level of critical thought to every single shot, frankly, in a great way. Bill McGoldrick [EVP of Scripted Content for NBCUniversal Cable] managed to find the one shot that seemed not to be in Julia’s point of view. It seemed to be more in the point of view of the victimizer and made her more secondary. He was right so we pulled that shot. I don’t think it was just another day at the office for them. I think they were excited that we were able to tackle this kind of thing on the show. It’s part of what appealed to them about the source material.

Co-creator/EP John McNamara, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil, Arjun Gupta, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Maeve, Co-creator/EP Sera Gamble, Jason Ralph of ‘The Magicians’ (Credit: Mike Coppola/Syfy/NBC/Getty Images)
Co-creator/EP John McNamara, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil, Arjun Gupta, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Maeve, Co-creator/EP Sera Gamble, Jason Ralph of ‘The Magicians’ (Credit: Mike Coppola/Syfy/NBC/Getty Images)

The thing I like is despite tackling serious issues one minute, there is actually a lot of sarcasm and humor in both shows. You’ll have a serious conversation and the next scene is…

Gamble: Pretty lowbrow d–k jokes kind of humor. We’re not even trying to lie about it.

There must be a different vibe in the writers’ room when you are working on the rape episode, Sera, than when you’re dealing with a Dirty Dancing homage.

Gamble: It’s a slightly different vibe. But you’re not always talking about the deep emotional moments of a scene. First, you have to make sure that the scaffolding of the script works, so a lot of conversations are very mechanical and technical. There was a similar kind of conversation about [the Reynard plot]. She’s going to follow the clues. She’s going to think it’s this Goddess they’ve been seeking and receive the spell here. The spell is going to trigger Reynard, and then he’s going to kill these people and rape Julia and Katie is going to get away. When you’re breaking a story on that level, blessedly you’re not living inside a rape victim’s experience 100% of the time. First, you make sure that the story really works, and then when you break away to write the script, and I wrote that one, then it’s a different feeling. It’s not quite as carefree as transcribing your favorite monologue from Dirty Dancing.

Same with Jessica Jones, Melissa?

Rosenberg: Yes. Dealing with the darker recesses of the human psyche can get very bleak, very fast, and as a viewer, it is hard for me to stay with a series if it just keeps giving me bleak after bleak. That’s not to say I’m not interested in exploring darker themes, but balancing it is essential. You can’t take oneself too seriously, and you need to give audiences moments to breathe. One of the reasons Jessica is so much fun to write is that she is quite funny. Her humor is a defense mechanism for her.

Gamble: I don’t know if you agree with this Melissa, but nobody wants to tune into the sad victim story every week, and nobody really wants to write it every week either. A big reason I became a writer was because it’s a safe way to explore all of this really scary stuff. It’s a way to reach out and have a taste of great love and deep friendship and all of the other stuff that we write about, too. You get to embody all of it while writing. It’s not like I’m dreading writing the scene because it’s violent, visceral, and damaging. Exploring the darkness is part of what’s interesting to me. It all goes hand in hand.

Mike Colter, Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Creator/EP Melissa Rosenberg of ‘Jessica Jones’ (Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix)
Mike Colter, Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Creator/EP Melissa Rosenberg of ‘Jessica Jones’ (Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix)

There are victims who have lived through this trauma, and we have talked about how triggering seeing the topic onscreen can be. Have either of you had a moment where you realized what effect your shows can have on people watching?

Rosenberg: We were so focused on making the show that we weren’t really anticipating or preparing ourselves for the kind of feedback that we got from the audience or critics. The most moving responses were Twitter and Facebook comments from survivors who saw themselves in the experience and felt empowered by it. It was pretty inspiring. You have that moment of humility. I really didn’t see that coming to the degree it did. I just wanted people to watch and be entertained.

You just wanted a second season and instead got all of that.

Rosenberg: Exactly. That was part of what led to us getting a Peabody, which was the highlight of the whole run. Like, oh, this superhero story actually mattered to people. You work your whole career to contribute to the conversation in general, and to have done something that started its own conversation [on an important issue] is beyond gratifying.

Gamble: I think probably the most interesting, meaningful conversation I had about it was with a woman who told me that she felt the story really personally because she’s savvy about what happens to TV shows. She asked if the idea had been floated to not tell the story at all because the climate can be “this is triggering for some people, so perhaps it’s not appropriate.” She said that not telling stories about the sexual assault of women is a way of silencing the experience. If you want to de-stigmatize it, you have to talk about it.

I feel similarly to Melissa in that we weren’t in the room going, “We’re really going to do some good for the American people.” We weren’t thinking that at all. We wanted to tell this story as specifically and honestly as we could. I’m a woman and a person who lives in the world. I care about human beings, so on that level it’s important to me to tell that story responsibly. I don’t have political aspirations with the storytelling. But that conversation stuck with me, and I’ve been thinking about it even as we are in the editing room cutting episodes that take Julia’s story to the next place and the next. Shying away from telling a story like this is really insulting. It can be seen as saying that victims of this kind of assault are broken in a way that we shouldn’t talk about. When put to me that way, it fired me up and made me more interested in sticking with the story and being unflinching about it.

The Magicians airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Season 1 of Jessica Jones is streaming on Netflix.

Read more from Yahoo TV’s “Why Genre Shows Matter”:
15 Genre Shows That Helped Shape TV Today
‘Battlestar Galactica’ EP David Eick Revisits 5 Episodes That Remain Relevant
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Anniversary: Joss Whedon Looks Back — And Forward