By Cynthia Vera
Killing Eve – written and co-produced by Fleabag’s very own Phoebe Waller-Bridge – is a thrilling spy/serial killer drama on a mission to showcase the complexity of female characters. Through the brutal violence, a wicked sense of humour and an unhealthy obsession, this BBC show loudly and proudly rejects traditional archetypes of female roles that are still lingering within Hollywood.
The gripping tension of the cat-and-mouse game between the psychopathic and very stylish assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and determined MI5 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is the main catalyst of the series and is integral in re-characterising the idea of the ‘Strong Female Character.’ Conventionally, this lead character is driven by revenge after a traumatic event or heartbreak at the hands of a man. She isn’t like other women; she swears, she’s vaguely mysterious, aggressive but not too aggressive, she’s smart but not too smart, she oozes sex appeal and knows how to use it. She’s Gone Girl’s ‘Cool Girl.’ A contemporary Femme Fatale who is empowered and confident. A broken killing machine who lacks real complexity. This repeated and boring formula of the strong female character plastered across our screens never feels genuine enough.
Enter Villanelle, she isn’t just a pretty face with a great taste in fashion. Villanelle is an emotionally complex character, motivated by her own selfish desires and pure enjoyment of killing. She’s unapologetically evil, a dangerous and talented predator who takes tremendous joy in her brutal actions and manipulation of others. Whilst she remains a ruthless assassin, her cunning ways, childish nature and twisted sense of humour make her an undeniably endearing anti-hero. She is not superficially depicted, nor is she overly sexualised. She’s self-aware of her femininity and understands the power that her gender gives her but rather than letting it define her, she uses it to her advantage. Villanelle embraces being a woman – indulging in French clothes, favouring rich Italian fabrics, sends subjects of her affection stylish clothes and red lipstick. Yet, she can kill someone with perfume or a hairpin and walk away with a blissful smile on her face. She doesn’t shy away from her femininity at all, if anything it’s a weapon to her. Whilst she oozes sex appeal like many female villains before her, her understanding of the social expectations – a very beautiful girl in equally feminine beautiful clothes – gives her power. In that her targets underestimate her because of her gender. Her manipulation of these sexist expectations is very cunning, empowering, and not to mention extremely fun to watch.
The show doesn’t make excuses for her actions or even try to soften Villanelle. Rather, it encourages us to enjoy and even root for the monster that she is, in all her glory. Waller-Bridge allows Villanelle to be developed into a multidimensional character with a complicated background that is gradually peeled away. Her past is dug up by the MI5 detectives and of course by her own accord, although she is an unreliable narrator of her own life, leaving audiences wondering ‘Who really is Villanelle?’
Killing Eve is exciting for many reasons. Waller-Bridge’s portrayal of female sexuality through Villanelle and Eve is another vital example of presenting complex female characters. Her sexuality is recognised as a piece of her personal identity, it’s who is she as opposed to other women in television who are far too often portrayed as sexual objects for male enjoyment. Much like her femininity, Villanelle’s bisexuality is not the central focus of her character, making for a realistic and honest portrayal of sexuality. The relationship between Villanelle and Eve which quickly leads to an unhealthy obsession with explicit sexual tension is another prime example of the rich female characters. There are numerous moments in the show when it feels like the women are about to kiss, yet viewers are denied of this.
Some have criticised the show of queer-baiting, the idea of implying a same-sex relationship to appeal to LGBTQ+ viewers, but this undermines the complexity of their relationship. As queer and sexually charged as their dynamic is, it can never be romantic. That’s what makes it so seductive and fascinating to watch. Their relationship is more about power and having the upper hand in the cat-and -mouse game of theirs. Villanelle and Eve are so infatuated with each other, they want to know and understand each other fully but also destroy each other. Eve doesn’t just want the glory of catching Villanelle before she kills again, she wants to understand what makes her kill and why. Both women seem to hold a deep admiration towards each other. There’s an undeniable intimacy between the two characters. Sometimes watching their interactions feels somewhat invasive like when Villanelle steals Eve’s clothes then wears her scarf.
Their relationship is far more complicated than just a sexual attraction to one another. It’s fierce, exciting yet ambiguous in nature, which is exactly why it would have been very disappointing had Eve and Villanelle slept together or ended up happily ever after at the end of the series. To conclude their relationship in such a manner would have fell flat and weaken Waller-Bridge’s characterisation of complex female characters.
The boldness of featuring two interesting female leads in a genre that’s almost always dominated by men, and usually utilises women only as either love interests or helpless damsels in distress is energising and refreshing! Hollywood, are you taking notes?