By Peg Aloi
Killing Eve is a smart, funny, and often shocking exploration of the complex psychologies of women leading dangerous lives, for whom killing comes much easier than it ought to.
Narratives about anti-heroes have become more pervasive as television’s storytelling landscape shifts and expands into paradoxical realms. An anti-hero is a protagonist whose motivations and actions are not necessarily praiseworthy. These characters may be immensely appealing, even charming: hence, sociopaths and narcissists make great anti-heroes.
The most notable recent example of anti-heroism is Walter White (Bryan Cranston) of Breaking Bad. This beleaguered chemistry teacher, after he is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, decides the only way to provide for his family is to start cooking crystal meth. As his cancer recedes, his greed and ambitions expand. Walt’s normally passive, compassionate nature radically changes once he becomes a full-fledged criminal, power-hungry, dispassionate, even sadistic. AMC began its juggernaut of long-form television in 2007 with Mad Men, shortly followed by the debut of Breaking Bad, and broadcast them back to back on Sunday nights. Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) was, of course, another anti-hero we all grew to love.
Prior to that, Showtime gave us Dexter in 2006. Michael C. Hall played a forensic pathologist who used his expert knowledge of serial killers to track them down and, well, murder them. He turned into a serial killer himself. Dexter is no mere sociopath or narcissist: he’s a psychopath, albeit one who follows very, very strict moralistic guidelines to mete out his own form of vigilante justice.
The narcissistic personality is usually male: this is true in fiction as well as in psychology. But women can be sociopaths too, and television has brought us a few; including the alluring, chaotic, and pragmatic Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) in Weeds (which premiered on Showtime in 2005). Nancy, a young widow, sells weed to make ends meet; her savvy business practices get her involved with high level drug kingpins. Sort of like Walter White minus the cancer, though mitigated with the relatively positive public reaction to marijuana consumption.
Without question, the best exploration of female psychopathic and narcissistic behavior is found in BBC’s Killing Eve, a brilliant crime drama (with many moments of comic brilliance) adapted from Luke Jennings’ novella series Codename Villanelle by the creator of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The series is set in London, but filmed on location throughout Europe, and debuted in April 2018; it has just finished up its second season. Sandra Oh (best known for Grey’s Anatomy) stars as Eve Polastri, who works as a paper pusher for MI-5, but whose theory — that an elusive serial assassin must be a woman — attracts the attention of her supervisor Carolyn Martens (the inimitable Fiona Shaw). Martens puts Eve on special assignment; she is to take on the role of detective and track down the assassin. The criminal turns out to be none other than a Russian operative named Villanelle, played by British actress Jodie Comer.
We meet Villanelle in the show’s first scene. She is practicing smiling at a little girl enjoying ice cream. After finally getting the girl to smile back at her, Eve walks by her and spills the ice cream down the child’s dress. At first, we wonder if she just has a nasty sense of humor. (She does!) However, Villanelle is also a ruthless sociopath who approaches her job with precision and ingenuity. Her victims are mostly wealthy Europeans, some in high positions in business or government. She dispatches them coldly, using methods that are hard to trace. Once Eve understands Villanelle’s methods, she gets too close to her prey and accidentally reveal herself. Villanelle, fascinated that another woman is observing her, decides to enjoy the game of cat and mouse — to the point of leaving messages and clues for Eve. Along the way, we get a taste of Villanelle’s high-risk but glamorous lifestyle: her cool flat in Paris, her sumptuous haute couture wardrobe, her fridge full of expensive champagne
Eve’s work is portrayed as stressful and dangerous. In contrast, Villanelle’s workday is seen as an intricate set of stimulating challenges that encourage her to indulge her expensive tastes. Her handler, a Russian spy named Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), has fatherly affection for her; he praises her flawless handiwork, reins in her reckless disregard for social norms, and reminds her of the cautionary measures that must be taken to avoid being caught. Comer’s performance as Villanelle is stunning, balancing the character’s childlike hungers and frustrations with her icily effective manipulations. Villanelle’s clever disguises and flawless accents are among the show’s most appealing tropes — not to mention the opportunity they give for decadent costumes. Visually and thematically, Eve is thrown into drab contrast with those around her. Villanelle saunters around Oxford in a beige schoolboy ensemble or moans over her latest shopping spree. The unflappable Carolyn is seen in full fencing gear, or smoking from a hookah at a breakfast meeting with Eve. Villanelle and Carolyn lead lives full of curious pleasures and endeavors. Eve’s workaholic tendencies leave her weary and bedraggled. How can she attain the weirdly Zen materialism of her co-conspirators? Sandra Oh is more then up to the challenge of playing a character who learns to admit that her secure, steady life bores her — and discovers that a constant state of terror is a thrill she enjoys.
Eve is happily married to a schoolteacher named Niko (Owen McDonnell), but her obsession with Villanelle begins to take over her life. Her husband becomes concerned about her safety. At the conclusion of Season One, Eve’s decision to shoot Villanelle in self-defense is fraught with emotion. Yet the scrappy Villanelle survives, and she becomes even more determined to manipulate Eve, whom she suspects has more in common with her target than the detective is willing to admit. Indeed, Eve’s focus on bringing down Villanelle is complicated by increasing revelations of Eve’s narcissistic tendencies. These are teased out by Villanelle, who sends her gifts to test her reactions. A shake-up in the investigation means that Eve and Villanelle are forced to cooperate to bring down a spy ring. Villanelle relishes the opportunity to ensnare Eve. As Eve’s personal life falls apart, her emotional connection to Villannelle strengthens, as does the assassin’s growing desire to kindle Eve’s devotion.
A detective’s fixation on the dark side leads to a fascination with a dangerous killer: not a new idea. The set-up is treated with a slightly disappointing glibness in Killing Eve, which is odd, given that both Eve and Villanelle are multifaceted personalities that serve up plenty of surprises. (Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s script in the first season was tighter and more crackling than what the new lead writer for season two, Emerald Fennell, came up with.) The cliffhanger endings of both seasons ensure that viewers will remain hooked on this hugely-entertaining series. But, not having read Jennings’ books, I’m clueless about where this mystery will go next. Killing Eve is a smart, funny, and often shocking exploration of the complex psychologies of women leading dangerous lives, for whom killing comes much easier than it ought to.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.