Killing Eve Season 2: Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh's spy thriller upends the genre by subverting gender stereotypes
By Gaurav Jain
Our eponymous hero works for Western intelligence (British or American, doesn’t matter) and is suddenly thrust into it because their specialised skills and knowledge are needed to stop a Russian assassin. Said assassin has been hired by a shadowy evil organization that wants to destabilise the world…as we know it.
James Bond? Jack Ryan? Jason Bourne? Ethan Hunt? Heck, Wolverine?
No, it’s Eve Polastri, a British analyst played by Asian-Canadian actor Sandra Oh on the hit British TV series Killing Eve. As it happens, the Russian assassin is also a woman – Villanelle, birth name Oksana Astankova, played with lightning flair by English actor Jodie Comer. The show focuses on Eve’s hunt for Villanelle and their ensuing tangle of passion for each other.
The show was a wild sleeper hit in its first season and just concluded its second season with a cliffhanger finale. Its unusual blend of dark comedy and high jinx thrills has won it a clutch of awards, including multiple BAFTAs, Golden Globes and a Peabody. And it was recommended on more critics’ annual-best-of lists than any other show last year.
Just because you’re engaged in the serious business of stopping a serial killer doesn’t mean you can’t still discuss, and consume, food, hairstyles, clothes, perfume, sex or any other number of things on Killing Eve. And that’s just the start of how this show upends the usual rhythms of the spy and serial killer thriller.
“Women don’t stab,” says Gabriel, Villanelle’s roommate in hospital, in the second season’s first episode. This young boy has already ingested the firm clichés of gender behavior. Villanelle, of course, was trying to tell him how Eve stabbed her just as they were about to kiss lying next to each other in bed.
The show slyly rubbishes female stereotypes – in front of a putrefying cadaver in a morgue, you might expect the female novitiate Eve to swoon and feel faint. When offered water (or whiskey) by her older female companions, Eve says, “A burger!” The medical examiner completely understands, explaining that the smell of formaldehyde makes people crave meat. Next shot, we see Eve and her MI6 boss Carolyn Martens, played with glacial glee by Fiona Shaw, finishing their snacks and exclaiming over the dead man, “God, that was delicious.”
And it loudly stomps on male stereotypes of the spy game. In the tradition of unexpected high tech gear, Villanelle leaves Eve a lipstick. It doesn’t have a poison or a bomb, but rather a mild secret blade that erotically pricks Eve's lips, who appreciates the gesture.
Eve is devotedly frumpy with a shuffling gait, while Villanelle is casually stylish with an arched eyebrow. In all of Villanelle’s flair for flamboyant and ensemble clothes, and her obsessive and minute picturing of how Eve should look, we actually never see much skin on either. For all of the costume changes, we don’t really see any undressing or the obligatory ‘suit-up scene’. And for all the erotic tension and implied coupling between multiple characters, we never get a sex scene. In any other show with the typical male gaze, we wouldn’t have Eve riffling through her husband’s seducer’s drawer of bras, we’d have Eve in a bra.
Turns out, you don't really miss that stuff.
Villanelle doesn’t sleep with the decent-but-crazy suburban guy who takes her under his roof when she’s lost. Not even when he clearly wants to. She’s not a Russian ‘sparrow’ spy trained to seduce; she doesn't need to use sex as a weapon. She doesn't need to because she's so good at so many other things. She was trained to be an assassin, and that’s enough. Just like any other dude in the business.
Oh, and she's also not 'dead inside' as a woman due to her training, like the sexy but sexless Black Widow.
Villanelle’s self confidence, her attention to craft and professional commitment are again very different from the male assassins we usually see on screen. The men’s psychopathology is usually wrapped in violence (John Wick) or wisecracking (Jason Statham’s Arthur Bishop), sexiness (James Bond) or outright daring (Ethan Hunt). Instead, Villanelle is all Prussian competency and mercurial charm. So much so that we start to identify with her moodiness, her swings between ardency and slackerdom. We have to remind ourselves that this woman also likes to see the light go out from her victim’s eyes when she slices or guts or poisons or shoots them.
Despite so much else going on (there’s a tired side plotline about a megalomaniac billionaire who wants to monetise and weaponise everyone’s private data), the show’s central dynamic remains the magnetic contrast between middle-class Eve and millennial Villanelle, and their obsessive infatuation with each other. The second season cements Comer’s quicksilver Villanelle as the real star of the show, with Eve becoming more passive and in thrall to the former’s millennial desires and attention spans. Imagine Solomon Lane, the malevolent and shaggy-bearded villain in the Mission Impossible movies, ardently caressing Tom Cruise’s smooth cheek, slowly leaning in for a kiss, and you’ll get a sense of how far Killing Eve has queered the genre.
This unique dynamic wouldn't have sustained between Eve and a male opponent, which would inevitably condense into being about ego or lust, or both. Instead, we get a show about completely unexpected ideas – bourgeois stability vs. following your secret desires, the slipperiness of our identities and how much to let go of them, how you can actually feel pretty great by being the worst version of yourself.
“We all want Eve to go bad,” said showrunner Emerald Fennell recently in a media interview, “but the pleasure of Killing Eve, for me, is showing it in a way that is far more honest and weird and distressing than what we expect. Because the truth is so much weirder and creepier, particularly for women, because we spend so much of our time hiding how we feel, particularly when it comes to sex and anger and all those kinds of dark emotions.”
The women dare each other to be truthful and to save the lies for the men. Carolyn tells Eve as she’s trying to re-recruit the latter: “There’s no need to play the reluctant ingénue with me. Save that for your husband. Tell him I forced you to do it. It’ll make it easier.” Eve has no possible retort to this sound logic, and Carolyn walks off in triumph.
The women are constantly taking the mickey out of the men, preying on them through a pretense of womanly vulnerability. Villanelle does this constantly, whether with her kill targets or seeking help from men (she recruits one male savior pretending to be escaping her cruel stepfather in the distance). When Eve pretends to be the receptionist at her hotel to fool a gnarly killer, the man doubles back to ask her one more thing – will she have dinner with him? Apparently he’s just not used to a woman talking to him with such patience and politeness.
This sort of humour is specifically female, with proudly feminine preoccupations and inside jokes. The women seek candy when they’re in physical pain and when they’re in mental anguish. Villanelle cringes at the prospect of having to wear someone’s gauchely sparkled crocs as part of an escape disguise. A female colleague remarks to Eve about the latter’s marital troubles, “Nothing a bj and a compliment won’t fix, in my experience!” Carolyn reveals to Eve that the secret to her always looking fresh is her moisturiser made of pig placenta. “It costs a fortune and it smells like arse,” she says. “I don’t mind smelling like arse,” Eve promptly replies. “I’ll send you the link!” says Carolyn. Villanelle’s code phrase on the phone to her employers is a quote not from a famous spy or gangster movie but rather from Clueless: “It's Cher Horowitz. I failed my driving test.”
All this works because the primary theme of Killing Eve is not any of the ponderous ones we’re used to – the fate of the world, or defeating a deadly nemesis, or ever more inventive ways to kill people and escape villains, or even love. This show is actually about the struggle we all have against the returning tedium of our lives. Eve and Villanelle accept that excitement can be morally bad and knowingly run the risk of getting killed, all because they’re just trying not to be bored — which is what we all are doing all day long.
Gaurav Jain is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger (TLF), India’s leading online feminist magazine.
Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 13:34:45 IST