Killing Eve and the Riddle of Why Women Kill

The show’s assassin, Villanelle, insists on being taken at face value. To search for a noble motivation is to trap oneself in her psychological labyrinth.

Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh)
Villanelle (Jodie Comer) corners Eve (Sandra Oh) in her own home (BBC America)

This article contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Killing Eve.

The eponymous blood-spatter expert of Showtime’s Dexter refers to himself as a “very neat monster” in the show’s pilot. A serial killer who exclusively targeted the guilty, Dexter (Michael C. Hall) lured viewers into his web through a grotesque but well-reasoned veneer of moral relativism. Barry’s titular character (Bill Hader), a hitman who suddenly finds himself drawn to acting, is a hapless schmuck. His attempts to break away from organized crime are thwarted not by shadowy mob figures, but by Barry’s difficulty overcoming his own selfish motivations. Dexter charmed because he was a meticulous sociopath, dedicated to his craft. Barry is just your average guy trying to making it in Hollywood, bumbling along in love and life while occasionally killing some people. They straddle opposite poles of masculine performance: Dexter, the mad scientist; Barry, the relatable dreamer.

Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a different kind of assassin altogether. After she kills, she luxuriates in her Paris flat, collecting ornate trophies from her kills and draping herself in the finest fabrics. She is cocky, playful, and ostentatious. She stabs one elder statesman through the eye with her hairpin; she triggers a fatal asthma attack in one “breathy” female target using poisoned perfume. Villanelle’s beauty—her rather literally weaponized femininity—disarms her victims and anyone attempting to stand in her way. Through its first season, the BBC America drama’s greatest success has been in how alluring it makes its villain: to both Eve (Sandra Oh), the British agent hellbent on tracking her down, and audiences. Villanelle is a complexly written, deeply frustrating character—traits most often associated with charismatic male antiheroes. She doesn’t meet the entertainment industry’s perpetually moving goalpost of female characterization, likability, yet she is nearly impossible to not root for.

Still, Killing Eve cleverly resists the temptation to foreground the possibility of Villanelle’s redemption. Even in the finale, which aired Sunday, Villanelle disrupts all expectations of character reinvention. Through the season’s last moments, Villanelle remains cold, calculating, and callous. She attracts sympathy and then immediately deploys it against whomever she faces; intimacy is a means to violent ends. Villanelle can lie on her bed alongside Eve after a gutting confession and then still shoot at the woman when cornered. The juxtaposition is jarring, but the character remains cunning and compelling. She shows moments of questioning, but never surrenders to regret. There is no dormant nurturing instinct, no young protégé she protects even as she wreaks havoc elsewhere. Villanelle insists on being taken at face value; to search for a noble motivation is to trap oneself in her psychological labyrinth.

Even through the finale, Villanelle pantomimes weakness to bring her targets closer; she tries some damsel-in-distress cosplay with Eve, confessing that all she wants is “someone to watch movies with.” Villanelle often displays demure feminine behavior, but Killing Eve never posits that she is any less apoplectic or sociopathic than her male counterparts by virtue of her womanhood. The show instead teases out how gendered expectations of violent behavior—namely, that women are incapable of enacting it unless driven to madness by trauma—allow Villanelle to commit atrocious acts while remaining largely undetected, especially by male targets. She is no heroic femme fatale who slashes throats in the name of justice—simply a woman who knows her pretty face can be a potent anesthetic to her targets’ flight instincts. She does not follow in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie’s Mrs. Smith and reluctantly abandon her post for love, nor does she try to make the world a better place through revenge murders like Maggie Q’s Nikita. Killing Eve also takes care to never position Villanelle as “one of the boys,” a manipulative assassin trained in some uniquely violent dogma of male handlers. Villanelle’s dysfunction is her own.

There is no moral impetus that drives Villanelle’s murders, no guiding principle behind her choices to save some targets, and not others. In one particularly deadpan scene in Episode 2, a therapist assesses Villanelle’s fitness for continuing her line of work by asking what she thinks of her employers, the nebulous organization that commissions her hits. “I respect their privacy,” she replies, without skipping a beat. Villanelle’s drug of choice is power, not purpose.

The web Villanelle spins becomes more complex throughout the episode, her kills gradually coming closer to home. The season’s first three episodes are tightly written, transporting viewers across European country lines with the ease of an intracontinental flight. Killing Eve doesn’t revel in the gore of its assassin’s exploits like other shows that exalt their murderous protagonists. Even so, Villanelle’s kill scenes are creative and sometimes uncomfortably sexy. The fifth episode brings the tension between Villanelle and Eve—the relationship that animates the series—into sharp focus. Having broken into Eve’s home, Villanelle flirts shamelessly with her startled host only to break down at the dinner table. Villanelle claims she simply wants a way out of the life she’s been conned into, though Eve remains unconvinced. The scene eerily foreshadows the confrontation on which the season ends: Eve stabs Villanelle as the two lie in bed, then runs into the kitchen to grab first-aid supplies—only to have a bloodied Villanelle shoot in her direction and then flee the apartment altogether, thus extending their deadly game of cat and mouse.

The complexity of these two characters might lead some viewers to dub Killing Eve a “feminist” show; but to do so, with this or any of creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s female-driven shows, reduces the work to its political value rather than fully considering it alongside its aesthetic or thematic components. To write a character like Villanelle, a woman motivated by bloodlust, greed, and spite, is not an inherently revolutionary act, even amid the dearth of complex female archetypes in pop culture. What distinguishes Killing Eve isn’t just that Villanelle is a categorically transgressive female character; it’s also that she’s interesting. Villanelle subverts feminine stereotypes, but that alone doesn’t qualify her for entrance into the elusive stratum of Positive Female Representation™. It’s far more entertaining to watch her carve a jagged space into the serial-killer canon than it is to ponder whether she’s worth looking up to as a role model. Waller-Bridge saddles neither Eve nor Villanelle with the burden of palatability, and instead fills in the characters’ contours with humor, fear, longing, and more. If Mindhunter, Dexter, and Barry are attempts to get inside the psyches of violent men, Killing Eve is an exploration of what delicious, devilishly entertaining chaos can ensue when someone thinks to do the same for women.