Reading Eve (Or, Killing Eve is Over)
I’m less optimistic about the future of Killing Eve these days. But not, maybe, for the same reasons as a lot of other people.
Just prior to the UK premiere of season two, Sandra Oh gave an interview to Gay Times which many people understood to deny any sort of sexual dynamic between Eve and Villanelle. I’m not sure we should draw that drastic of a conclusion, but the fact of the interview does mean it’s less likely that season three will contain a “romance” between the two main characters (whatever form that might have taken).
The reason I’m leery of season three, though, is that I don’t think there should be another season at all. The 16 existing episodes of Killing Eve constitute a complete narrative, which would be weakened by adding more plot.
My immediate reaction to the end of season two was that Eve’s rejection of Villanelle undid the narrative work of the entire season. We were back at the start again; next year would see them separated and slowly coming together, just as before. Setting aside predictions for season three, the season two finale feels like déjà vu because the first two seasons do in fact have the same basic structure.
Eve and Villanelle spend the first half of both seasons circling around each other, always just out of range. The first half of each season ends as they come within sight of the other. Season one, episode four ends with Eve seeing Villanelle properly for the first time, as the assassin chases down Frank Haleton (they saw each other briefly in the first episode, but didn’t realize who the other was). Season two, episode four ends, by contrast, with Villanelle expecting to see Eve and seeing Jess instead, when Carolyn sends the latter to investigate Villanelle’s Amsterdam job. Villanelle’s failure to see Eve, where and when she expects to, is her character’s first major crisis.
Episode five of each season is when they meet. In season 1 Eve dresses up “for” Villanelle, trying on the clothes Villanelle bought for and sent to her. Villanelle then invades her home, and they have their first real interaction. On this occasion Villanelle has all the power: Eve is taken by surprise, Villanelle holds a knife to her throat, and Eve begs her not to hurt her husband Niko.
In episode five of season two, they meet again in Eve’s house, but the power dynamics (appear to) have shifted. This time it is Villanelle who dresses for Eve, and Eve who summons Villanelle to her. (Even Villanelle removing her shoes at Eve’s request parallels season one, when Eve removes the shoes given to her by Villanelle.)
v rings the door bell instead of breaking in this time. she's more tentative, less sure of where she stands so can't confidently burst in and say heyy. she puts up a front with the ridiculous outfit but she easily falters and gives up control immediately in taking her shoes off— blablabla (@debbieswilder) May 4, 2019
Instead of being threatened, in season two Eve willingly swallows the “poison” Villanelle gives her. It isn’t actually poison; Villanelle’s prank, convincing Eve that it is, and sending her retching to the sink, is what finally allows Villanelle to regain some control of their interaction. She then (once again), holds a knife to Eve’s throat, but Eve is no longer afraid.
The second half of each season sees Eve and Villanelle becoming increasingly close (both geographically and emotionally), and Eve becoming increasingly self-destructive in order to secure that closeness. In the sixth episode of each season, Eve has a fight with Niko that damages their relationship: in the first she reacts violently when he claims (correctly) that she places her job and Villanelle over him; in the second she follows Niko to Gemma’s house (the co-worker with whom he is staying), begins to trash her bedroom, and effectively destroys any chance of salvaging the marriage.
The finale of each season is when Eve faces up to what she’s doing. At the end of the first season, she ignores Carolyn’s orders to return to London and instead follows a lead to Villanelle’s apartment in Paris. After trashing the place (a common theme!), Villanelle returns and they acknowledge their mutual obsession. Eve makes as if she is succumbing to Villanelle’s seduction, then stabs her. At this point Villanelle’s crimes still overshadow Eve’s desire; in particular the murder of Eve’s colleague Bill in episode three.
Since Eve has clearly never stabbed someone before and panics, Villanelle is able to escape, and the first season ends.
In the second finale, Eve only realizes how far she’s gone when it’s too late. Once again she ignores Carolyn’s orders to return with her to London, in favor of remaining with Villanelle. This time, though, it’s clear Carolyn is finished with her. Moreover, in the last episode of season one Eve could barely stab Villanelle, let alone kill her; this time, however, she murders Villanelle’s handler Raymond with an axe. Not only that – she kills to protect Villanelle, who Raymond is choking to death. Bill has been forgotten.
Villanelle has been controlling Eve’s life for a long time, but here the metaphorical control becomes literal. Eve lets Villanelle teach her how to kill. Then she allows Villanelle to guide them from the hotel, to an underground passage and out of Rome. Villanelle asks Eve what she wants for dinner, and Eve answers mechanically, fully under the spell. Then Villanelle takes out her tiny gun.
It’s not clear if Villanelle intentionally reveals to Eve that she has had a gun the whole time. She draws the weapon in response to birds suddenly taking flight, and it’s not like her to be spooked by something like that. More likely Villanelle wants to confirm that her control on Eve is total, that even if Eve realizes that Villanelle was never in danger from Raymond, to know that Eve doesn’t regret killing for her sake.
Unfortunately for Villanelle, though, this is what breaks the spell. In that moment Eve understands that Villanelle doesn’t love her, and more than likely can’t love her. At no point has Villanelle been truly honest with Eve; at no point has Eve truly understood her. Now, finally, Eve is able to see past Villanelle’s towering charisma, and the fantasy they’ve (together) built around it, and recognizes that she has thrown away every other thing in her life in exchange for a violent psychopath who is playing with her like a toy.
And instead of continuing to play Villanelle’s game, instead of trying to stab her again or trick her, Eve just walks away.
So Villanelle shoots her. Because when she realizes that Eve is no longer hers to control, no longer “special”, Eve’s power over Villanelle dissipates as well. We thought we saw Eve’s influence over Villanelle grow over the course of the season, along with Eve’s self-possession and professional success. She tracked down the Ghost, brought Villanelle into the fold, felt more and more wide awake.
But as real as it seemed, it was a dream.
In the initial discourse around Oh’s interview, I was talking to a friend who read the show as glorifying the cruelty of Villanelle. They asked what the show is ultimately about, and my answer was obsession.
Eve begins the show bored, both personally and professionally. She spends her time researching female assassins, who seem to live lives of danger and excitement entirely unlike her own. So when Villanelle arrives, gorgeous, deadly, and equally fixated on Eve, it’s her dearest fantasy in the flesh.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with fantasies involving situations that would be impractical or unsafe in real life. Imagining ourselves in dangerous, bizarre, or traumatic scenarios can help to process our emotions and desires. Eve’s fantasy is entirely unremarkable (you only need to browse the fan fiction to see how many identify with it).
I won’t deny my own obsession either. I desperately wanted the sexual tension between Eve and Villanelle to manifest in something more than the queerbaiting we usually get from network television. The magnetism that Villanelle uses to deceive Eve worked on me as well, and so the finale and its aftermath felt like a fever breaking. Only with a bit of distance did I recognize how unrealistic, even within the frame of the show, it would be for the women to “get together” in any capacity. Eve begins to succumb to antisocial impulses, encouraged by Villanelle (who uses phrases such as “people like us” to normalize her behavior), but her sociopathy (and ours, hopefully) is not at the level of Villanelle’s. Eve imagines pushing a rude tube passenger onto the rails in episode five of season two, but ultimately, of course, she doesn’t do it. Likewise, she won’t stay with Villanelle once she realizes how she’s been manipulated. This isn’t a smutty romance where sheer sexual attraction can override everything else in a person. At bottom, Eve is not like Villanelle. But in her obsession she lets herself believe otherwise, until far too late.
Now there’s something I want to make clear. Eve is not a psychopath like Villanelle, but they are both gay, no matter what Sandra Oh says. She lets Villanelle dress her, she chooses Villanelle over her husband, she listens to her voice when she fucks Hugo (I’m using “gay” in a broad sense – Eve is attracted to men as well). When Jess brings up how kids these days want to bang Dr Who characters, Eve immediately names a female character as her choice. But with that said, if the story ends here, at the end of season two, is there not an element of queerbaiting? According to this reading, the slow-burn romance between Eve and Villanelle was a fantasy, snuffed out by the events of the finale.
In other words, what is the purpose of queerness in the narrative? Is Villanelle anything more than another instance of the yandere lesbian trope?
I think there are a few ways in which it is more than that. One one level, it’s simply an extension of how the show subverts spy tropes generally. Villanelle is an inversion of the Bond girl, but instead of the cool, hyper-competent male spy we have Eve, a woman and also someone with a much more realistic set of capabilities.
There’s also the established history of women in particular being intrigued by serial killers, but the dynamic between a female analyst and a male psychopath would, apart from being generally uncomfortable, would result in a much more obvious power differential. That would make it hard, if not impossible, for the second season to present Eve as gaining the upper hand over Villanelle.
Lastly, what might be an overly ambitious take:
A common criticism of popular media with queer characters is that those characters are used to claim that the piece of media itself is thereby progressive or even radical. Sometimes this turns on a verbal dispute over whether something can be “queer” without being more broadly subversive, but it’s certainly true that queer characters do not, by their very presence, make a work revolutionary. A story about women in love can still uphold the structures that oppress us. But of course this criticism only exists because the presence of queer characters does often give us an impression of (for lack of a better word) “wokeness”. Given how reactionary most popular culture is, even the least amount of queer coding is enough to gain (not earn) a following.
This might point to a way we can look at the queerness in Killing Eve. Eve’s obsession with Villanelle is partly fueled by dissatisfaction with her dull, conventional life. The fact that the object of her new fascination is a woman gives Eve’s self-destruction a feeling of being liberatory, both to her and to us, in a way that it would not be with a man. But despite her attraction being entirely genuine, Eve is not any sort of progressive heroine. She is an agent of an imperialist security state who recruits a serial murderer to torture a woman for information about a competing intelligence agency (Aaron Peele’s thinly disguised Facebook equivalent).
With that sort of perspective, cheering for a relationship between Eve and Villanelle because of their queerness starts to feel like the same behavior we criticize when it comes to other media. The fact that they would be two women in a relationship should not let us forget that they are both cruel, manipulative people, and this is not a story that was ever going to have a happily-ever-after. But I think some of us (myself, certainly), were willing to forget this.
Should that, then, be read as the purpose of their sexualities? Is the queerness of Killing Eve just another element that the narrative uses to let Eve convince herself (and us, ourselves) that things are other than they are; that Eve, as well as Villanelle, are other than what we allow ourselves to believe them to be? And if so, isn’t that still queerbaiting, even if on a meta level?
At this point I’m not entirely sure myself. But I think that however we read the queerness in Killing Eve, we shouldn’t look to the forthcoming third season for answers. The two seasons we have can and should be read as complete. Partly for the reasons sketched above; there’s clearly no future for a “relationship” between the women. At best they will collide again and break apart with even more force. But another iteration of that pattern, which we’ve already seen twice, is entirely unnecessary.
Episode eight of season two already closes out the narrative in several ways. The brutal yet mundane ending is a counterpoint to the slow, dramatic way that Eve’s and our fantasy was built up throughout the show. The wake-up is jarring, like the slap to the face that brings Eve back to herself after witnessing the murder of Peele.
The structure of the two seasons also takes on new meaning. The way the seasons iterate – the basic structure repeating, with the details changing – reinforces that Eve is trying to live out a pre-written narrative. Rather than recognize Villanelle for what she is, Eve projects a fantasy onto her. So when things don’t go as planned, we try again, to get it right the next time. But Eve becomes increasingly detached from reality as her imagined relationship with Villanelle is fleshed out and takes on life. When Eve gets her feet back on the ground, so to speak, and sees Villanelle clearly, there’s no going back to that scripted world. We’re left in the real, unsentimental one, where there’s nothing stopping Villanelle from killing Eve.