The perfect amorality of Killing Eve

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The perfect amorality of Killing Eve

Birdie Thompson/AdMedia/Sipa USA

One has to leave conventional morality at the door in order to like Killing Eve — even more so than for the thriller genre in general, where, so far from caring about any character’s death, we welcome the “thrill” that it brings. Our obsession, here, is with a psychopathic assassin working for an international criminal organisation called the Twelve. Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer is witty, charismatic, sardonic, beautiful. The slow-burn romance between her and her MI6 pursuer Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) ends up casting Eve in the role of the everyperson — the viewer. Seventy seconds into the opening episode, after a small girl in a café has failed to reciprocate Villanelle’s smile, the latter knocks the kid’s ice-cream into her lap on her way out. Bam: here is Killing Eve’s gate-keeper moment. All who pass through it are on the side of the sardonic, amoral young woman, and not the innocent if irritating little girl.

But the series not only possesses an amoral joie de vivre, but also its own morality, one that is a million miles from Hollywood and all its pieties. Killing Eve is twisted, ironic, deeply rooted in knowledge of the world’s evil, but with its own wisdom and compassion. It speaks directly to a world in which straight-faced, simplistic pieties often fuel conflict. Think of the turmoil into which the feminist movement has been thrown by the issue of transgenderism – or the sincere horror at atrocities that was used to justify invasions of Middle Eastern countries. If a morality that presents itself as innocent in our wicked world can so often be shown to be ill-advised, counterproductive, or in bad faith, then perhaps a flamboyantly amoral television series can help us towards a subtler, more modest and ultimately more serviceable morality.

Paradoxically, this subtlety is sometimes disguised as overstatement. Take, for example, Killing Eve’s feminism. Superficially, this is exaggerated to the point of misandry. Not only are the two leads, and most of the major characters, women, but they are more interesting, charismatic and successful than the men. Accordingly they are rewarded with greater longevity, often at Villanelle’s own discretion. She collects the penises of her male victims, claiming to pickle the “good” ones. What does she do with the not-so good? “You don’t want to know.”

Villanelle has decidedly more sexual interest in women than men, and apparently “converts” Eve, who starts out married to a man. The formation of all-female groupings (the third lead is thrice-divorced head of the MI6 Russia desk Carolyn Martens, played by Fiona Shaw. Lesbian self-sufficiency is a trope of second wave feminism. By contrast, third wave feminism is more apparent in Villanelle’s confident promiscuity. She weaponises her attractiveness, and spends much of her earnings on designer clothes, (the series shuns the relentless brand-naming of Luke Jennings’s novellas, on which the TV show is based). In theory these modes clash, and both clash with the misogynist association of lesbianism and psychopathy (as in Basic Instinct) which Villanelle’s character apparently amply reinforces. At first glance, then, the feminism on show here is both extreme and incoherent.

But a closer look shows there are significant exceptions to the misandry. Villanelle’s handler Konstantin (memorably played by Kim Bodnia) is a man who not only survives but becomes progressively more likeable over the three seasons. He, not Eve, is Villanelle’s true double: murderous, manipulative, disloyal, impossible to know or remotely trust, but always a delight to have on screen, and charismatic to the point of loveability. Given their similarities it is no surprise that both arc simultaneously towards disillusionment with their work for the Twelve, and a desire to escape into Cuban beachside retirement, or durable marriage, respectively.

It is in the moments when Villanelle actively tries to kill him, or does nothing to save him, that sympathy for her character is most strained. By contrast Carolyn, who executes her MI6 boss Paul Bradville for being a double-agent for the Twelve, spares her former lover Konstantin at the last second, leaving him to walk away unscathed at the third season’s last episode. The dominance of women could have been asserted absolutely in this finale, but it isn’t. Instead it is acknowledged that women can love men. The series’s moral centre — kind, loyal, normal Niko Polastri — is indeed battered about considerably by the plot, but survives an assassination attempt so that he can tell Eve to “PISS OFF FOREVER”. He may yet have something up his sleeve for Season 4.

More importantly, the position of women in society is presented as being in such a mess that it needs a bomb put under it, and the jagged edges of second and third wave feminism in this series are the exploding particles. Admittedly, the series depicts a world in which women can hold senior positions within organisations, but it is also one in which many men continue to assume a right to dominate and patronise. Between the commissioning of Season 1 in 2016, and its US airing in April 2018, the #MeToo movement arose, with allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. This series has almost entirely female producers and showrunners (but if the production staff were all male, no one would find it worth comment).

Above all, Killing Eve stresses that women should not be underestimated, by making it dangerous for the character who make this mistake. A major plot line in Season 2 concerns “the Ghost” — a different female assassin, whose success is partly attributable to her being a middle-aged Asian woman adopting low-paid service roles; as such, she is entirely overlooked by her victims. When jejune Cambridge graduate Hugo asks Eve why this is her theory about the killer’s identity, her tart reply is: “because you just interrupted me to ask me that question”.

Villanelle, by contrast, is underestimated precisely because of her youth and beauty, to various men’s costs: the Italian mafioso she is sent to assassinate thinks she has been sent to him as a present; Julian, the hapless but creepy bachelor who mistakes Villanelle for an abused and abusable child, is murdered still more grotesquely; a chauvinist American golfer hilariously falls for Villanelle’s assertion that she needs help finding a golf ball because she was “brought up in a family where men were men and women were women, and women liked their men to be men”.

All of this is achieved with mordant wit, brio, dark comedy, élan, impatience and mischievousness, and therefore it is in striking contrast to the seriousness and outrage that has characterised much of the #MeToo movement. Rage saturates Lisa Hilton’s 2016-18 Maestra trilogy, which also concerns a beautiful, psychopathic, working-class daughter of a neglectful mother made good who lays all around her to waste. But where Judith Rashleigh, the hero of those books, is filled with what Nietzsche would call ressentiment, Villanelle’s dominant affect is jouissance.

Another other obvious contrast is with Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which started as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013. She gained the commission for Killing Eve on the strength of it. Fleabag is a middle-class everywoman, who comforts other middle-class women with the thought that that their travails and embarrassments are not unique and could be considerably worse. But Fleabag is not inspirational, unlike Eve.

The range of Killing Eve’s feminism suggests that the current situation requires a greater breadth; that different kinds of feminism each have their own validity, and must somehow be made to live together. This is paralleled by the difference between the women, as emphasised by their modes of dress. There is dowdy, disorganised, intuitive Eve; glamorous, effortless, psychopathic Villanelle; sophisticated, efficient, eccentric Carolyn; normcore, kind, sane Anna. Some feminisms would celebrate one of these women over the other; Killing Eve celebrates them all. There’s no need — watching this series as a woman — to feel either compelled to, or guilty that one pays considerable attention to clothing or appearance. The range of physical types and ages of the characters is similarly equable; Carolyn and Dasha (Villanelle’s handler in Season 3) are both excellent parts for late-middle-aged women, a rarity in the world of acting. But there is no envy on either’s part for Villanelle in the flush of her young beauty; both are too busy living their own lives and building on the success of their long careers.

This amicable diversity among female strengths is reflected at the level of the creative team; each season has a different woman as its showrunner. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s first season is shocking and exuberant; Emerald Fennell’s second season is both more lurid and more sombre; Suzanne Heathcote’s third season is the most affecting and thoughtful. Overall the producers wanted to permit such diversity, not enforce uniformity.

One unifying feature, however, applies to the series as a whole, in its outright rejection of sentimentality. For this reason, the exceptions to the feminist generosity described above are the female characters associated with this limitation. Niko’s friend and primary-school teacher colleague Gemma, who has a musical jewellery box with a rotating ballerina, unrequitedly loves Niko, and tries to manipulate him into loving her; and (to a lesser extent) the needy, limited Geraldine who believes in self-help, self-expression and vegetarianism (a notable point in a strikingly carnivorous series). Fiona is killed by Villanelle; Geraldine is repeatedly wounded by her mother Carolyn. After she has read out her lovingly handwritten list of everything she had ever wished she had said to her, and asks her mother to reciprocate, Carolyn opens a book at a blank page and announces simply: “Dear Geraldine, I think it’s time you left”.

Indeed, the series consistently cuts through sentimentality like detergent through grease. Children are valued for their knowingness (Konstantin’s fourteen-year-old daughter Irina inflicts this on him with a vengeance), but not for their innocence. The opening scene with the girl and the ice-cream illustrates this, as does the scene in which a baby flicks a piece of food at Dasha, and is promptly placed in a public rubbish bin for her pains. Only once is any desire to have children evinced, in Villanelle’s moment of stunned jealousy at discovering that Dasha has a son.

The rejection of sentimentality even correlates to a stern kind of morality that undercuts the surface amorality. In Season 3, like Bond in Skyfall, Villanelle journeys back to her unhappy childhood home, where she and her mother argue over the relative influences of nurture and nature. Villanelle explains her murderous conduct by the fact that her mother abandoned her to an orphanage; her mother replies it was because there was always something evil about her. Though the mother is unsympathetic, her words are allowed some weight; the series is not going to let anyone off the hook on grounds of childhood trauma. By contrast in the novellas the child Oksana’s first killings are given considerable justification: she kills the gangsters who killed her father, on whom the police could pin nothing, and the man who sexually assaults her beloved teacher (in the series she simply murders the teacher’s husband out of jealousy). Although Villanelle promptly blows up her mother and assorted step-relatives, she is arguably shaken by the conversation, and she starts to turn from the Twelve. All the killing may have served a feminist turn, of kinds. The revulsion and the rejection of it reinforces it even more.

That said, there is a cynicism to the series’s morality which is particularly apparent in its treatment of institutions. In Bond films, by comparison, MI6 is always, ultimately, on the side of both victory and righteousness. Bond’s methods may strain the patience of his bosses; he is frequently if unsuccessfully put under restraint by them; but by the end of each film they are reconciled. Occasionally a former agent goes rogue (such as Raoul Silva in Skyfall); occasionally the institution is itself misguided (as in a Quantum of Solace). But on such occasions Bond invariably pulls MI6 back to the side of right. Our point of entry and allegiance to this organisation is a spy with a license to kill; his victims are invariably either evil or collateral damage; killing in the name of the British state is therefore part of the unquestioned premise of the entire franchise.

In Killing Eve, however, this is not so. Our entry point is a desk-based agent charged with tracing an assassin. This makes it the more shocking when it is frankly acknowledged — if not demonstrated — that MI6 itself carries out murders. In Season 3’s last episode, Carolyn meets Villanelle in the Royal Albert Hall, that symbol of the British establishment, while listening to Mahler’s tenth symphony – symbolic of the high culture that it consumes. Villanelle says she wants to accept the job offer Carolyn had made to her in Season 1. “You want to kill for us now?” “No”. “I’m confused. What would you do for us?” A killing-averse Villanelle accordingly fails her MI6 job interview.

In Season 2, MI6 is shown to engage in torture. The captured “Ghost” assassin is put in a hanger in the middle of an English forest and interrogated in ways that are very “enhanced” indeed. Eve invites the temporarily-conscripted Villanelle to interrogate her. The latter asks: “Are you sure this is even legal?” Eve responds: “What do you care?” “I’m just looking out for you… Would you like to watch?” On refusing, and shortly afterwards being given by Villanelle the information that she was looking for, she asks: “What did you do?” “Nothing you didn’t ask me to,” is the answer. The successful torture of a prisoner, and the employment of a criminal to do so, are presented as being inextricably linked.

The scene is exemplary not just of MI6’s illegal methods but of the fluidity of its personnel’s allegiance. In Bond’s MI6, employees are either firmly honourable or firmly traitorous; in Killing Eve they shift about. Carolyn’s son Kenny, who “lives in the internet. He can find anything, track anything, trace anything, monitor anything or anyone,” first engages in this surveillance for MI6, and later for a private research agency, Bitter Pill. This characterisation, if true, means that he has as much power as the internet guru Aaron Peel who appears in Season 2. He in turn closely resembles the panoptical Blofeld of 2015’s SPECTRE who himself, as it happens, has successfully infiltrated MI6’s own intelligence system. Carolyn has a budget to fund spying on MI6 in case of suspicions about it; she herself recruits Villanelle and Konstantin to work for it. Eve’s boss in Season 1, Frank, and Carolyn’s boss in Season 3, Paul, are both in the pay of the Twelve. Meanwhile Eve veers in and out of MI6 employment while gradually becoming a killer herself, killing the Twelve’s handler Raymond in order to save Villanelle, and Dasha — just for the hell of it.

The fluidity of the distinction between state and criminal organisations is still more clearly illustrated by Jennings’s Codename Villanelle novellas. Teen killer Oksana Astankova, having been recruited from a Russian prison to work for Konstantin, is sent on a training programme that starts with a boot camp in Essex with “a former Special Boat Service instructor”. She is then “attached to a NATO Special Forces cadre” in Germany, tortured during a “Resistance to Interrogation programme” at a “US Army facility in Fort Bragg, North Carolina”, and finally trained in a variety of further state and private outfits in Germany, Ukraine, Russia, France and the UK. The source of Villanelle’s powers, then, rest at least as much in state as criminal organisations.

Konstantin’s daughter, Irina, is not taken with her father’s claim to be a state employee. “Working for the Russian state security service, Irina — that’s a big deal.” “Do you think I’m a moron?”, she responds. “You might pretend to be working for the FSB, you might pretend to be helping MI6, but we both know who you’re really working for — yourself”.

This begs the question of what the Twelve is, and how far it is distinct from state bodies. Codename Villanelle opens with an account of a meeting by an Italian lake. From the discussion of problems they are having with a Sicilian mafia boss, it becomes apparent that they are an international crime syndicate whose end is simply making money. This puts them in the same category as those more humdrum Bond villains such as Auric Goldfinger, Kananga in Lie and Let Die, or the Man with the Golden Gun, who simply want to be rich — and in a different category to the madder ones of higher motives such as Orlov in Octopussy, who wants the Soviet Union to invade Western Europe, Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, who wants humanity to live under the sea, and Drax in Moonraker, who wants it to live on the moon.

As translated to television, the Twelve is more like SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, which is shadowy, has shape-shifting Blofelds and subgroups, and, as its name suggests, has an interest in violence for its own sake. In its survival between Fleming’s various novels and the various films, it likewise has an aura of being beyond control. The Twelve also have a whiff of Murder Inc., the New York assassination consortium set up by cooperative Italian- and Jewish-American mafias in the 1930s and 40s. But, like the Assassination Bureau of the 1969 film of that name, they also have the aura of being indiscriminately for hire. This would account for the apparent randomness of Villanelle’s assignations: a sex-trafficking Russian politician; an Italian mafia boss; a French businesswoman; a Chinese diplomat who had apparently uncovered a Chinese mol;, a Catalan political agitator; and a Romanian politician. As Carolyn says, there is “No trace. No pattern. But most importantly no one owning up to it and somebody usually does,” — before swiftly contradicting herself: “She’s on a payroll, there’s a pattern, we just haven’t worked it out yet”. By the end of the third season we still haven’t worked it out.

The organisation depicted in the TV series is more powerful-seeming, more ethically-subversive than that of the novellas — it is uncertain who they are and what their limits are. Its employees Frank and Hélène (Villanelle’s ultimate boss in Season 3) both characterise it by the abstraction “chaos”. Frank says: “There is a sequence, a pattern to these kills, they’re destabilising from the ground up.” “To what end?”, asks Eve. “Chaos”. Similarly, Hélène hugs Villanelle during an interview and tells her: “Do you know why I love you, Villanelle? Because you’re an agent of chaos, and I love chaos. Chaos disrupts, it rips apart and starts again, it’s like a forest fire, it burns, it kills, it’s monstrous but it’s beautiful.”

Certainly, the institution of the Twelve is an agent of moral chaos in the series, since it throws everything into question. One of the most cynical exchanges in the series is between Eve and Villanelle in Season 1: “Who do you work for? Why are you killing these people? Do you not know?” Villanelle counters: “Do you know who you work for?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Yes.” “Really? I think if you went high enough you would probably find we work for the same people”. Eve has no answer.

There is also the faintest whiff of the absurd about the Twelve (a portentously Biblical name). One is reminded of the awesome Colonel Psev in the December 1965 episode of The Avengers episode ‘Two’s a Crowd’, who turns out to be a fiction invented by his four supposed underlings to assist their end of infiltrating a meeting about Polaris missiles. The moment of revelation has something of the bathos of the ending of The Wizard of Oz. Killing Eve even contains a moment of laughter at absurd conspiracy theories concerning all-powerful bodies: Villanelle’s mother’s stepson Fedya earnestly tells Villanelle that Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” was filmed “in Nevada”. They “never went to space” because “they don’t want us to know that earth is flat” [sic]. Moreover, “There is secret organisation that make influence on every government in world.” His girlfriend Yulia adds, “And they will cause downfall of planet and you won’t laugh.” Fedya asserts that all intelligence agencies “have people working for this organisation”, and Yulia concludes: “And you know what they are? Lizards”.

The political moral of all this is bracing. It amounts to a call for cynicism, and for an understanding that states only in theory have a monopoly on violence. This very supposed monopoly renders them non-innocent. There is a limited amount we can do to oppose the evil in the world. Chaos is in all of us.

Just as James Bond was created by Fleming against the backdrop of the old Cold War, so Luke Jennings created Villanelle against the backdrop of the new one, which had been escalating throughout Putin’s presidency and the Western response. In 2002 the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; in 2004 NATO expanded into the Baltic states; in 2008 Russia and Georgia went to war; from 2010 NATO missile bases were planted in Eastern Europe; in 2014 Crimea was joined with Russia; from 2015 Russia and the United States supported opposing sides in Syria; in 2016 US intelligence services asserted that Russia was interfering in the American election — and in 2014-16 Codename Villanelle was published. When Killing Eve was first screened in 2018, the “Russiagate” narrative concerning the American election was at its height.

The Twelve is largely Russian and most of the Russian characters are killers (even, by the end of Season 3, the fourteen-year-old). As in the Bond films, Russians are played by non-Russians, despite Russian actors now being far more accessible (partial exceptions are Kim Bodnia as Konstantin, who is Polish-Russian-Jewish-Danish, and Yuli Lagodinsky as Irina, who is Russian-speaking British-Israeli; full credit is hereby given to Comer for a realistic Russian accent).

Most of the series settings, from Aberdeen to Andalucia, are beautiful, no matter how horrific the events Villanelle performs in them. Russia is the exception. The Moscow of Season 1 is represented on the one hand by a brutal grey prison under a grey sky guarded by warders in camouflage uniforms, and on the other by a city centre that seems to have been filmed with a brownish, grainy filter and that feels oddly dated. The hotel in which Eve and Carolyn stay was last decorated in the 1970s; two Russian flags slump grubbily over its entrance and seem implicated in its gloom. The Moscow of Season 3, by contrast, has a hard, glamourous modernity — but it is also somewhat nightmarish, and the music (by series composers David Holmes and Keefus Ciancia) invariably shifts accordingly, once the scene moves there.

On the other hand, the first time Carolyn arrives in Moscow she announces to Eve: “God, my bones come alive in this country”, and she proceeds to spend the rest of the taxi-ride from the airport preparing her makeup for an encounter with two ex-KGB lovers from the nineteen-eighties. She and they proceed to discuss the possibility of “tit-for-tat” access to prisoners and exchange of information.

Beyond this, there is a strong sense that the negative representation of Russia is overdone, and that the series is in fact subtly parodying Russophobic excess. For example, the utopian Polish and dystopian Russian villages look remarkably similar and were in fact filmed in two Roumanian villages; in the Polish one geese walk happily across the road and children wave cheerily; in the Russian one an Alsatian barks at the end of his rope and a lorryload of logs nearly runs Villanelle over. The Russian village houses Lumpenproletariat such as Fedya and Yulia, whereas the Polish village consists exclusively of joyous kids, matey blokes and nice old women.

The series seems to be similarly aware of the other ironies of its filming locations: Bucharest doubles for Sofia, Berlin, Paris and Barcelona; one of its train stations is Irina’s swanky Moscow school, while the Romanian city of Timisoara was, surreally, filmed in Kensington. The ice rink where Villanelle cheers on Irina’s hockey match is in London, while the air field on which Irina takes Villanelle for a ride is RAF Upper Heyford, Bicester. Irina’s Moscow detention centre is filmed in a London tower block.

In Grizmet, Villanelle’s village, a likeable young relative is obsessed by Elton John, and the whole family break into a rendition of one of his songs. The scene of Villanelle and her mother’s first embrace is surreally scored by an English brass band. Any English sense of superiority to bizarre Russian conspiracy theories is undercut when Fedya concludes his harangue about lizards with: “This man in England, David Icke, very smart, knows many things.” There is more than a hint of Borat in the dung-throwing competition at the village’s harvest festival, and in Villanelle’s award of an electric rotary fan as the festival’s first prize, but she concludes the day by saying “Pyotr was right. This is fun”. She has no such innocent fun anywhere else. Villanelle learns from her visit how Russia has changed, and is thus able to challenge Dasha, who relishes her impending return there: “Do you think anyone in Russia cares about a bendy KGB crone? Russia has vegans now. Did you know that? You go into a restaurant and ask for a stroganoff and they’re going to laugh in your face.”

Even the incident in Season 1 episode 2 when Villanelle assassinates French businesswoman Carla de Mann with a poisoned perfume has an equivocal relationship to the new Cold War. It first aired in America on the 15th April 2018. On 30th June, Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley were admitted to hospital suffering from what was on 4th July confirmed by Porton Down to be Novichok poisoning; on 8th July Sturgess died. On 24th July Rowley told ITV that he had found the responsible perfume bottle in a cellophane-sealed box in a dump; on 5th September police said they had “no doubt” that the perfume was connected to the incident of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

On 15th September the episode was aired in the UK, now resonant with, and perhaps subliminally reinforcing the belief that Russian assassins had caused the death of a West European woman with a poisoned perfume. Meanwhile, a perfume called Villanelle that had coincidentally been launched in March 2018 by Belgian parfumier Kamila Aubre found orders for that scent mysteriously going through the roof. This very month the BBC is dramatising The Salisbury Poisonings as a three-part series. The intertwining of art with life is one of the many confusions that Killing Eve creates.

This flamboyantly-amoral series, then, issues its own quiet discouragement against assuming virtue in oneself and sin in others. It does so at the level of the individual, the institution and the nation. It displays various admirable ways of being a woman and of defending women. It is amused by and enjoys life, even in a world that is inevitably corrupt. It remains cannily above manipulative conspiracy theories, but accepts that real conspiracies exist. Long may it hold out its warming, if flickering, light in these dark times.

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  • Well argued: 72%
  • Interesting points: 79%
  • Agree with arguments: 65%
35 ratings - view all

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