Imagine an espionage thriller with two gay women, interspersed with a bunch of murders, set in the backdrop of various European cities, with a heavy dose of dark humour sprinkled on top. That’s ‘Killing Eve’ for you. Adapted from the ‘Villanelle’ novel series by Luke Jennings, the show explores the obsessive cat-and-mouse game between the female assassin, Villanelle and British Intelligence Agent, Eve Polastri. Season 3 was released in April 2020 and is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
In the first episode, we find Eve – played by Sandra Oh – frustrated with her boss and bored with the day-to-day mundanity of her marriage. She is in want of something challenging and exciting. Soon, she is recruited as an MI6 secret agent to investigate female assassins. She is fascinated by the psychological workings of these assassins and chases them with a, perhaps questionable, passion. On the other hand, Villanelle – played by Jodie Comer – is maneuvering her way through one too many ruthless murders. They both cross paths when Eve is investigating one of Villanelle’s own murders.
Villanelle is tasked with killing with people in various cities across Europe – almost every episode takes place in a new one. This novelty of locations not only shapes the impeccable cinematography, but also changes the colour palette of the set and costumes. For instance, in Barcelona, we see a set of warm colours and sun, as opposed to Cote d’Azur where the French tricolour establishes the base of the frame. This allows the viewers to experience the city sitting in the comfort of their living rooms. The well-curated, aerial shots are aesthetically pleasing, and the close-up shots between Villanelle and Eve help the audience navigate their state of mind.
One can get all sorts of creative when it comes to murder; Villanelle with her distinctive style illustrates this. Mundane everyday objects like a hairpin, perfume or a jar of chilli powder becomes a murder weapon in her hands. A remarkable quality that makes Villanelle a brilliantly brutal assassin is her chameleon-like inclination, which allows her to camouflage perfectly into the victims’ surroundings. This role-playing that appears so effortless is done by mastering languages, accents and picking up local slang. One of the most essential pieces of the whole charade is Villanelle’s outfits. The costume designer for season one, Phoebe de Gaye, in an interview with BAFTA suggests that Villanelle’s character allowed her to experiment with various looks from feminine to masculine. Consequently, the non-gender-binary affirmative attitude of the makers is revealed visually through the costumes.
Women have been victims of emotional and physical abuse, rape and murder throughout history; they have been on the victim side of the crime so often that people unconsciously dissassociate women with something as ruthless and messy as murder. In the first episode of the show – when Eve suggests the possibility of the assassin being a woman – the idea seems most unlikely and unreasonable to the people sitting at the table because people view women as sensitive caregivers. This has made the idea of women and murderers almost mutually exclusive. While the ghost of gender roles haunts Villanelle, she uses the sexist prejudices that bring women down to her advantage because who finds a beautiful woman sitting across you at a restaurant or a nurse at a hospital “threatening”?
Women screenwriters like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Emerald Fennell keep the feminist sensibilities in check by mocking feminine stereotypes, as well as by undermining the alpha, white male in the series. Ironically, the all white writer’s room for the upcoming season four was called out by fans on Twitter for not being inclusive enough to writers of colour. They pointed out that the show’s lead actress Sandra Oh is Korean, yet there are no Asian writers involved in the show. In a panel discussion with Series Fest, the executive producer, Sally Woodward Gentle, acknowledged the lack of representation by saying, “You look at that room and it’s full of brilliant female writers, we’ve got a really strong LGBTQ contingent, but it’s not good enough and we need to do better.” If fans and viewers keep holding the creators accountable like this, it will open avenues for a more diverse set of writers and crew members.
The two main secondary characters of the show – Carolyn and Konstantin, played by Fiona Shaw and Kim Bodnia respectively – elevate the show’s sense of humor. Eve and Villanelle report to them, hence they are often seen offering caution more often than not. The tone of the show can be grave at any given moment but can suddenly switch to comical – thanks to the dark humor which, at times, emanates from the ridiculousness of the situation and from certain, unanticipated remarks. For instance, in one typical Carolyn-Eve scene, Carolyn glances at a bin and says to Eve, “I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Both hands. Extraordinary.” Hearing it in Fiona Shaw’s deadpan, posh accent loosens the scene up some. A witty little anecdote is the last thing that the audience expects in a tense situation.
Konstantin is central to understanding Villanelle’s character. Around him, we see a childish side of her that constantly demands attention; to Villanelle, he is like a father figure and perhaps the only man on the show who she doesn’t despise. He knows when to push her and when to stop. Both Konstantin and Carolyn have a very calm and composed persona which balances out all the crazy things Eve and Villanelle are always up to.
There is clearly an intense attraction between Eve and Villanelle – part of this intensity stems from the forbidden nature of their relationship, precipitated by the contradictions of their professions. While Villanelle is seen with multiple women, Eve is holding on to her boring relationship with her husband Niko, who is often ridiculed in the show. The show doesn’t mull over sexual awakening as a big theme but normalises it from the beginning. Over the years, there have been many films and TV shows that focus on the consequences of coming out which often results in bullying and teasing. While these traumatising experiences do reflect reality, it is also necessary that we see a world where coming out isn’t that big a deal, if people around you don’t make it out to be. A show like ‘Killing Eve’ comes as a breath of fresh air for the LGBTQ+ audience, while at the same time showing the heteronormative society how things ought to be.
We don’t see Villanelle and Eve together on screen as often as we would like; however, they are constantly on each other’s mind. Eve is bewitched by the ways in which Villanelle kills people and Villanelle finds any way to get Eve’s attention by tactfully threatening her as she flirts with the expensive gifts she sends her. When they look at each other, their eyes are filled with longing, resentment, desire and tenderness all at once. Unlike the ‘male gaze’ that has been fixated at the body of women for years, we see a far more fervent and complex ‘female gaze’.
The sexual tension between the two is filled with the threat of Villanelle crossing the line, taking some extremely dangerous step that knocks out anyone in reach – constantly keeping the viewers at the edge of their seat. Villanelle can be insensitive but, she also has an innocent, quirky side which makes her character so grey at times. Viewers often find themselves questioning how it is they’re rooting for a psychopath? Similarly, Eve – who seems like a regular detective on the surface – also has a darker, impulsive side. She is playing with a fire, fueled only by Villanelle. In the episodes where both of them meet, viewers never know what kind of tragedy is awaiting them.
The two female characters show us how women characters written by women can be far more intricate and well-rounded, instead of mere puppets as they usually end up in the hands of men. With shows like ‘Ratched’ and ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor,’ we saw a rapid increase in women-who-love-women characters in the psychological thriller and horror genre. A refreshing pivot, where we finally get to see independent queer women – at the intersection of desire, darkness and danger – taking charge of their lives.