CW: domestic abuse
As a killer, Villanelle has always had camouflage as one of the most crucial tools in her arsenal. But unlike the more traditional male assassins who use ubiquity to get close to their victims without arousing fear or suspicion, she has disguises — elegant fashion plate, sultry seductress, wide-eyed waif — that succeed not because they make her unremarkable but because they do the opposite: They attract and disarm; they allow men to perceive her as enticing and innocuous, as a feminine object not to be feared but rather to be sought, conquered, protected, or some unsettling combination of the three.
Rather than trying to escape the overconfidence and entitlement that oozes from toxic masculinity like a weeping sore, she welcomes it, weaponizes it, and then slides it back between their ribs. And why not? There are few resources so plentiful and potent. As long as she can turn the raging egos and libidos of her targets into weapons aimed at their own heads, she will never be unarmed.
And so, after waking up wounded, penniless, and poorly dressed in a grimy laundromat, she heads to a nearby grocery store and finds an easy target in the freezer section: a middle-aged man named Julian who is flattered and flustered by her glances. “I need your help,” she says tearfully, reaching for his hand at the checkout counter. She points to a random man outside the store, claims it’s her abusive stepfather, and begs her stodgy white knight to help her leave unseen.
After they “escape,” she quickly praises him as “such a gentleman,” and of course that’s the moment when the hook finally catches in his mouth. “I have a spare room if you need somewhere for a night or two,” he says. “You’d be completely safe, of course.” Cue alarm bells going off in the minds of hundreds of thousands of female viewers, because that’s basically the “Nice Guy” Pledge of Allegiance. No one is more eager than Nice Guys™ to designate themselves as “safe spaces” where damsels can be sheltered from the predations of other men — all the better to isolate Milady and make her vulnerable to their own bespoke set of creepy advances.
Julian also decides to mark the occasion with a biblical verse about being nice to randos: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This gestures toward another alarming fixation of Nice Guys™: putting women up on pedestals as perfect, virtuous “angels,” then lashing out and acting betrayed when the objects (emphasis on objects) of their affection reveal themselves to be actual human beings. So it goes for Villanelle once she arrives at Julian’s house, which doubles as a sinister doll museum. In case the metaphor is not hammer-skull obvious, dolls are feminine-coded toys that are meant to be played with and put on display, and yes, that’s how Julian treats women too.
What begins as low-key infantilization — “Look at your hair, it’s all messy, silly,” says Julian, patting it into place — quickly metastasizes into more disturbing behavior that raises more flags than a matador parade. When Villanelle’s stomach wound grows infected, he dismisses her pleas for medical attention as the ravings of an overemotional “hypochondriac.” (In this regard, he has much in common with the medical profession, where women’s pain and suffering is systematically minimized, ignored, or dismissed as melodrama, sometimes with life-threatening consequences.) “Will you just stop badgering me for five minutes?” he bristles when she asks again, as though she were nagging him to take out the trash rather than begging for life-saving antibiotics. Later, when he leaves the house, he locks her in; after he catches her trying to call for help, he tears the phone out of the wall and flies into a fury, calling her selfish and manipulative.
He’s right, of course, that she manipulated him, although his diatribe about female duplicity ignores what these sorts of petulant MRA arguments about female manipulation always ignore: that more often than not, women aren’t playing these games out of some sort of Machiavellian compulsion to mess with men’s heads. Instead, they’re engaging in survival tactics, often in situations where few other options are available to them — and unavailable by design. Being female is a rigged game, but heaven help the woman who tries to Kobayashi Maru her way out of a scenario with no visible win states; she will not be praised as a canny tactician but rather denounced as a scheming whore.
So it goes with Julian, who looms over the visibly ill Villanelle, screaming about how ungrateful she is for attempting to leave him, and — per the Nice Guy/Domestic Abuser handbook — demanding the creepy transactional reward that was always lying in wait behind his supposed largesse. “What do I get? What do I get?” he fumes, his body language growing more and more menacing.
While watching some asshat run the DARVO playbook on a woman is never pleasant, it’s particularly upsetting to see Villanelle terrorized by the solipsistic bullshit of a human sweater vest. She’s always been defined by her fearlessness, her defiance, the sub-zero number of shits she gives. That’s always been part of her psychotic charm, the thrilling, transgressive bit of wish fulfillment that comes with seeing a woman who isn’t defined by fear, or guilt, or insecurity, or what anyone else thinks of her.
Here, as she convalesces in Julian’s creepy dollhouse–slash–Misery sickbed, we see her afraid for the first time, and it’s difficult to watch, especially when things get physical and Julian grabs her, chokes her, throws her into walls. But it’s also the first time she seems truly vulnerable and human, and it makes it all the more satisfying when she finally grabs a knitting needle and drives the sharp end deep into his neck. “This is what you get, Julian,” she says, watching him bleed out.
She stumbles barefoot into the street, clutching her side, and finds a new handler, Raymond, waiting for her. She decides pretty quickly that he’s an asshole too, but when she tries to get out of his car, he locks the door again and again and again. When she tries to force her way out, he shoves her face into the window, choking her nearly into unconsciousness before finally letting up. “You’re on a very tight leash from now on,” he says, laughing, before adopting the paternalistic tone of a kindergarten teacher and telling her to take antibiotics.
Sound like anyone else you’ve seen this episode? Villanelle is out of the shitty-domestic-abuser frying pan and into the shitty-domestic-abuser fire, but considering how she resolved her conflict with Julian, I can’t say that I’m particularly optimistic about Raymond’s long-term prospects. If we’ve learned anything from Villanelle this episode, it’s that you don’t need to be an invincible terminator to destroy your enemies and see them driven before you; you can be vulnerable, you can be wounded, you can feel weak and afraid and find a way to crush them anyway. Wasn’t that always Villanelle’s most effective gambit, after all? To let men underestimate her, to let them think she was powerless, that they were in control right up to the moment when she cut their throats.
Since Villanelle took so much pleasure in answering this question for Julian, I can’t help but wonder: What will Raymond get when he finally asks for it? I’m certain she already has an answer in mind and can’t wait to reply.