close reads

The Decadent, Visceral Pleasures of Killing Eve

Photo: Gareth Gatrell/BBCAmerica

Within the first few pages of Angela Carter’s decadent novella The Bloody Chamber, a feminist retelling of the Bluebeard myth, is a moment that stops me cold. It’s early in the heroine’s courtship, after she is swept up in a romance by a libertine with a dark reputation: “And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift. His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.” Here, beauty and violence dance alongside each other. Consumption takes on a certain multiplicity — our heroine is at once draped in the riches of her paramour as he and others around her consume her with their eyes.

It’s something the women of Killing Eve know all too well.

The show’s two leads — the malevolently glamorous assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and the dangerously curious MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) — communicate their innermost desires through proxies. Scarfing down pasta at a lavish restaurant acts as both come on and threat. Gifts of dresses are the first act in a long waltz of seduction. Mirrors take on multiple thematic dimensions as these women study their reflections, searching for something they can’t name. Eve and Villanelle consume each other and the world around them with unapologetic zeal. While it has been evident since the first season that food and fashion are the rich seams of the series, it took me until the third episode of its second season to realize the exact tenor of these motifs.

At first blush, the gold-encased lipstick Eve finds in her purse in “The Hungry Caterpillar” is just that. Lipstick. Labeled “Love on an Elevator,” it acts as Villanelle’s method of taking responsibility for a murder that lacked her signature ostentatiousness. But it’s also Villanelle’s form of a love letter. Sandra Oh infuses a bright spark of lust within the scene as she studies the gift. Later, when Eve slips the lipstick across her lips, you can hear the smear. The lipstick is the color of freshly spilled blood. And as Eve becomes seduced by her own reflection, her lip is ripped open by a blade nestled in the center of the lipstick. She touches the wound, teasing it ever so gently, not despite the pain but because of it. She’s dazzled to feel something, anything.

The second season is woven around such moments. They are emblematic of the ways fashion and food speak to its leads’ sublimated desires, but they’re also how Eve and Villanelle communicate with each other: through wild consumption that builds into the closest thing the show has come to a genuine sex scene between the characters. When Eve and Villanelle dress up, they paradoxically reveal truths about themselves that they could never communicate otherwise. When they consume food with wild abandon and use others for a visceral fix, they reveal the dark undercurrent of their unspoken desires — not only for each other but for yearnings they dare not name.

Helmed by new showrunner Emerald Fennell, Killing Eve’s second season trades in the precise mordant wit of series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge for something more garish and horrifying. Established roles are reversed and refracted, turning the season into a hall of mirrors. Here, Eve is hunting down Aaron Peel (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a highly controlling, voyeuristic tech billionaire who has been hiring assassins to kill people who stand in his way. In a gambit that can be described only as reckless, Eve brings Villanelle into the off-the-books investigation so she can get closer to capturing him. The more fascinating story thrums beneath the surface of this stylish espionage: Slipping further under Villanelle’s spell, Eve allows her natural intelligence to give way to rash abandon, which undermines her at work and at home; meanwhile, Villanelle is showing genuine affection and sorrow over Eve in ways that fly against her diagnosis as a psychopath.

It’s easy to be seduced by Villanelle as Eve has been. She offers a window into a life most women never get the chance to lead, a life defined by pure female desire and rage unfettered by financial worries, domestic obligations, and the quotidian violence of men. When she walks through a quiet velvet night and comes across two young women scared of what the shadows may hold, she is the monstress, not the prey. When she wears a frothy pink dirndl and pig mask to lure her mark into an Amsterdam brothel before stringing him up and gutting him with mocking joy, she’s acting on an impulse many women have felt: to lash out at the prosaic wolf who slips from come-ons and compliments to violent insults in the span of a blink.

Villanelle is wild and wildly self-possessed. Each of her outfits is impeccably tailored and luxe, with designs from the likes of Alexander McQueen and Helmut Lang draping her gorgeous form (and launching a mini cottage industry that tracks what she wears with rapt attention). She tries on identities the way other people try on clothes, revealing yearnings and interests that she normally wouldn’t. While Villanelle acts as televisual wish fulfillment, a touching melancholy comes to the surface this season in Jodie Comer’s performance, suggesting that her character doesn’t consume with such hearty gusto out of a simple lust for life but from a need to fill the void inside her.

The question of what animates Villanelle’s reckless consumption has been teased since the series premiere (when she devoured ice cream while watching a young child the way an alligator studies prey), but the sixth episode of season two makes the answer clear. While in disguise as Billie, the New York Instahottie, to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get closer to Aaron’s sister, Villanelle for once is honest about herself: “I have real trouble telling the truth. I don’t understand the concept of it … Most days I feel nothing. I don’t feel anything.” Her voice drops to a husky whisper. “And it’s so boring.” The camera creeps into a close-up, focusing on her vacant eyes as they turn tearful and her lips trembling as she confesses, “No matter what I do, I don’t feel anything. I … I hurt myself, doesn’t hurt. I buy what I want, don’t want it. I do what I like, I don’t like it. I am just so bored.”

With Eve, Villanelle feels something beyond this crushing boredom. As Variety critic Sonia Soraya wrote during Killing Eve’s first season, “Villanelle sees a side of Eve that Eve would rather not show the world. Quite romantically, that side is communicated by her unruly, fabulous hair. Villanelle comes to practically fetishize it, recognizing — accurately — that Eve could be a wilder woman than she’s allowing herself to be.” Much of the second season has been spent underscoring how Eve acts as a mirror to her. “He’s too normal for you,” Villanelle notes about Eve’s marriage to Niko. “You’ll never understand how much harder it is to be nice and normal and decent than like you,” Eve counters. “Like us, you mean,” Villanelle bluntly notes, leaving Eve speechless.

If Villanelle looks at Eve as a mirror, Eve looks at Villanelle as an escape into feminine excess. Villanelle can and has discarded people in ways Eve cannot. Yet Eve has adopted her sense of risk taking and disregard for those who get in the way of her desires. She’s curious about the life Villanelle leads, so she replicates her craven attitude — a development that Fennell and the directors have carefully interwoven into the second season. It’s a slow arc, building from moments when Villanelle acts as a clear aphrodisiac for Eve even as the assassin is the very reason Eve’s marriage is crumbling. In episode six, when Niko comes in from the rain furious after learning Eve stabbed Villanelle in Paris, their argument evolves into foreplay. “Do you want me to love you, or do you want me to frighten you?” he bellows. Eve says she doesn’t know, but delighted lust glides across her face and body like silk. In an earlier episode, a near-kiss with her younger MI6 colleague Hugo (Edward Bluemel) shows Eve wearing desire with the bravado that comes from trying on a new leather jacket.

Eve’s quest for sexual release through proxies reaches a crescendo in the penultimate episode of the season. Hugo and Eve are in Rome, shadowing Villanelle’s progress with Aaron and listening on a Bluetooth earpiece to Villanelle’s breathy, teasing sighs. “Are you going to listen all night?” she asks, her voice taking on a flirtatious lilt. “You should let yourself go once in a while.” Eve turns to Hugo asleep in bed. Her face marked with curiosity and need, she wakes Hugo by straddling him. The scene cuts before they go any further, but Eve’s and Villanelle’s morning afterglow — as well as Hugo’s anger over being used for what is actually a threesome — tells the story.

In the season finale, Eve and Villanelle are finally stripped of their proxies, and the electric tension between them is laid bare. We get exactly what we think we want: Eve and Villanelle are irrevocably bonded by a reality-shifting murder. No, I’m not speaking of Aaron’s grisly fate when Villanelle, in a single, swift motion, slits his throat and forces him to watch in the mirror. I’m talking about when Villanelle manipulates Eve into brutally killing her former handler Raymond (Adrian Scarborough), a loathsome patriarchal figure. As Villanelle guides Eve in the act, I found myself exclaiming, “Do it!” with an intensity that matched hers. With that first spray of Raymond’s blood, Villanelle closes her eyes in pleasure. But Eve isn’t emboldened by her entry into murder — she’s sickened by it.

As Fennell recently told the New York Times, “It is incredibly violent, and I think the audience needs to feel what it would be like to kill someone. It’s got to be unbelievably distressing and violent and horrible to kill someone if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Eve now comes face to face with the cost of aligning herself with Villanelle: her very soul. In this way, Killing Eve is deeply indebted to film noir, a genre whose backbone is the ways people lose their soul in the face of desire — from the stories of lone stylish assassins (Le Samouraï) to femme-fatale-led worlds that suggest something radical nestled in the folds of fashion and consumption (Black Widow, Leave Her to Heaven, The Last Seduction) — but it’s a noir operating at the tenor of a fairy tale. Watching how two soulless psychopaths, Villanelle and Aaron, circle one another, prodding for wounds until they come to a strange point of mutual recognition, it becomes clear which fairy tale Killing Eve is queering: Bluebeard.

Even if you’ve never read Charles Perrault’s tale or Angela Carter’s tremendous retelling, you know the outline of this tale: A young woman is swept up in a romance by an imposing gentleman of great wealth and complicated reputation. He lavishes her with fine clothing and jewelry and all her heart desires, giving her the keys to his grand estate, but warning she is forbidden from one room. In this room she discovers his past murdered wives, then uses her own intelligence to escape — or is doomed by her own curiosity, depending on the storyteller. It’s a work about obsession from the initial seduction to entrapment.

Bluebeard reverberates across pop culture in works like Netflix’s delightfully demented You, the achingly trenchant Gaslight, and much of Alfred Hitchcock’s work in the 1940s, like Suspicion. As Farran Smith Nehme wrote about Joan Crawford’s 1950s noir Sudden Fear, “Women have always been drawn to Bluebeard films, seeing in them outsized versions of the fears and dilemmas they may face themselves — as well as heroines who are able to get out from under abuse, whether physical or psychological.” The Bluebeard myth acts as a critique of the ways women’s internal lives have been curtailed by romantic and societal forces around them. In this manner, Aaron acts as a neat Bluebeard analogue in Killing Eve, given his overwhelming wealth, his obsession with control, his need to transform Villanelle by buying her clothing, and his desire to consume her by watching her gorge on the fine experiences he provides — including allowing her into his chamber of horrors, where he collects videos of the murders he engendered. But what is revealing about Killing Eve is that it doesn’t tell a neat story. Instead of Villanelle becoming Aaron’s victim, she acts as a mirror: By the end of episode seven, she and Aaron find themselves in a place of mutual recognition, one void recognizing another. It’s the dynamic between Villanelle and Eve that proves the richest reconsideration of Bluebeard.

The Bluebeard myth has become a valued context to consider the patriarchal ways women’s lives have been controlled, particularly in the realm of romance. But that isn’t necessarily how it began. In her tremendous study From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner notes that, in the wake of Perrault’s telling, the tale “often comes with a subtitle, ‘The Effect of Female Curiosity,’ — or in case we should miss the point — ‘the Fatal Effects of Curiosity’ to bring it in line with cautionary tales about women’s innate wickedness: with Pandora who opened the forbidden casket as well as Eve who ate the forbidden fruit.” What has defined our Eve more than her curiosity? Furthermore, Warner notes, “In myth and fairy tale, the metaphor of devouring stands in for sex.” This is true of Killing Eve. Villanelle and Eve consume food, couture, and other people as stand-ins for the sex they aren’t having with each other.

Killing Eve creates a thoroughly queer Bluebeard not just by placing two women at the story’s center of gravity but in the quicksilver distinctions between them. Villanelle isn’t always a harsh Bluebeard figure, and not just because her wardrobe is shot through with overwhelmingly warm hues of hot pink, menstrual red, and coral. She feels something when she’s with Eve; she cares for her on some twisted level and in her own way believes she is freeing her. Eve isn’t a clear-cut victim undone by her own curiosity; instead, she is strengthened by it, stretching her skills as an MI6 agent. In Killing Eve nothing is fixed, including the distinctions its characters fall into: Bluebeard and his innocent heroine, villain and victim, dominant and submissive. This builds to the stunning season finale, “You’re Mine,” which gives the audience what we think we want — Eve and Villanelle working together to murder her former handler — only to rip it all away.

When I watched “You’re Mine,” I wanted to see Eve and Villanelle run off together à la Bonnie and Clyde. But that isn’t their future. As Eve herself notes, after finally seeing Villanelle more clearly, “You want me to be a mess. You want me to be scared. But I’m like you now.” Here, the mirror Villanelle expects Eve to be cracks. Eve isn’t a void; she’s brimming with emotions and desire. And Villanelle isn’t a savior but a monstress meaning to collect Eve, not love her.

The Bloody Chamber ends with the heroine being saved by her mother before Bluebeard’s sword can slice through her neck. It’s a glorious image of a woman atop a horse, the ocean rearing behind her before she puts a single bullet in Bluebeard’s head. Eve has no such heroes to come rescue her from the bloody chamber she has found herself in. Instead, this chamber is a woman: Villanelle is the one who shoots, leaving Eve to bleed out among the desolate ruins of Rome. The price of Eve’s curiosity is paid in blood.

The Decadent, Visceral Pleasures of Killing Eve