When I was a child I noticed a stark difference in my mother’s actions. When we were alone she was never physically affectionate. If anything she could be distant and cold, a question I was always trying to find an answer for. But when we were around her friends she’d be the mother I always wanted. She was warm, gregarious, enveloping. But it was a performance, one whose ebbs and flows I studied with intensity to understand her. There is something about this schism that rooted itself in my mind. Vestiges of it continue to affect the story I tell myself about who my mother is and how she fits into my life. I’m reminded of that by this week’s episode, “Are You From Pinner?”, in which Villanelle seeks answers for the long held questions she’s had about her mother, her family, and what their history says about her present.
Written by Suzanne Heathcote and directed by Shannon Murphy, “Are You From Pinner?” searches for answers about Villanelle’s beginnings and what they say about who she is now. And while the answers found feel too pat, too final, Jodie Comer’s performance is a masterclass in portraying conflicted emotions.
In rural Russia, Villanelle walks down a sun-dappled stretch of road, blaring music from her headphones, heading to her family’s home. Finding the door open, she tentatively enters the home surveying the detritus of familial life: photographs of her mother and stepfather punctuate the walls, food is being cooked on the stove, a television hums with life in the living room. She’s found by her very young half brother, Bor’ka, who asks who she is in Russian. Villanelle pointedly replies in English even as other family members pour into the room wondering about this stranger. It’s only when her brother Pyotr enters that the truth comes to light: she’s Oksana, his sister they long thought dead of a fire in an orphanage.
While the older family members discuss this shock, Villanelle spends time with Bor’ka, who is obsessed with Elton John. He asks her what food Elton would eat in Athens, Istanbul, and Vienna, as he’s delighted by the scope of her life outside of their familial bond. When Villanelle hears her mother, Tatiana (Evgenia Dodina), is coming home, she rushes into a panic trying to escape. When Tatiana sees Villanelle she drops her bags on the floor and embraces her tearfully, whispering her birth name, “Oksana.” Comer maximizes Villanelle’s discomfort with such affection. Her body stiff, her face flickering through emotional states. She seems frozen in her mother’s embrace, unsure of how to proceed or make sense of what she’s experiencing.
As Villanelle spends more time with her family, playing card games, looking through scrapbooks at her childhood pictures (she did have a bulbous head as a baby, apparently), a picture rises to the surface of a family that lives by silence. Or at least they remain silent when it comes to Villanelle’s dead father. But this is exactly whose memory she seeks to dredge up. She asks about him when she notices the scrapbook is absent of any picture of him, only for her mother to change the subject.
Villanelle clearly carries two primary familial wounds: the loss of her father and her animosity and outright distrust toward her mother. It’s understandable why she reserves her ire for her mother. She’s not only the person Villanelle holds responsible for putting her in the orphanage, she’s all Villanelle has left. She can’t reckon with who her father really was, only make him into a golden-hued figure who can do no wrong, even as the episode’s closing argument suggests he was worried Villanelle would do something to the family. But there’s something frustratingly basic about the psychology underlying this episode. Consider the exchange between Pyotr and Villanelle when she happens upon him beating the hell out of a stray couch, which he tells her he does so he doesn’t beat up people. Villanelle, like the devil on his shoulder, suggests he just beat up people. He’ll feel better.
Villanelle: “You really don’t remember dad?”
Pyotr: “What was he like?”
Villanelle: “Funny. Strong., Taught me how to fight. He was much better.”
Pyotr: “Than what?”
Villanelle: “She was mean.”
Where this episode fails is properly unpacking statements such as this. We get a sense of how her mother is mean at the Harvest Festival that gathers together nearby towns, although directorial choices obfuscate the gravity of her cruelty, making it hard to make sense of Villanelle’s perspective at times.
The Harvest Festival is stitched together with food and games — target practice, balancing pails of water, carnival-like challenges made to trick the player, which Villanelle wins handily to the chagrin of the booth owner. She also excels at dung throwing, crushing the competition and vaulting toward first place, which comes with the prize of a standing fan. Pyotr and the family warmly cheer her on, but there’s a sense that Tatiana is uncomfortable with this, a miniscule hesitation in her clapping and a strained look that crosses her face that speaks to what happens at the end of the episode. When Bor’ka loses a baking competition at the festival, Tatiana sits down next to him and whispers to him solemnly. We can’t hear what she’s saying to him, it’s obscured by the jaunty music playing over the scene. Later, when the festival plays music and features an absurd dance troupe, Villanelle has to stop Bor’ka from hitting himself. When she tries to figure out why he’s doing that, he admits their mother told him he was stupid and embarassed the family for losing. Is this when Villanelle decides on the violence she will mete out later in the episode?
Back at home, Villanelle chops tomatoes only to turn around with what looks like blood under her eyes. She makes a strange croaking noise, trying to scare her mother. But Tatiana isn’t amused.
Tatiana: “Clean your face.”
Villanelle: “Can you do it?”
Tatiana: “You are not a child.”
Villanelle: “I want to feel like one. Please.”
There’s something about this exchange that feels a bit on the nose, but it is also a starkly emotional moment where Villanelle reveals the truth about herself and her desires. Her mother cleans her face, gently and slowly. Villanelle leans into the grooves of her touch, Comer’s face lighting up with childlike awe and care. But the moment is quickly dashed when her mother says, “I want you to leave the house. I don’t want you to be here anymore.”
Villanelle may think she’s a part of this family but she isn’t. She’s an interloper, trying to craft years of trust and connection in a few days. “You’re not part of this family. You do not belong here,” Tatiana says, to which Villanelle counters, “What are you going to do? Take me to the orphanage?” Villanelle isn’t the child she once was. She has a power her mother isn’t fully aware of. What follows is a tense exchange between these two women. “You will not bring your darkness into this house,” Tatiana says, standing firmly. “You are the darkness. You’ve always been the darkness,” Villanelle replies in kind.
This scene illuminates as much as it obscures. Why does Tatiana believe Villanelle “ruined” her? How did this darkness manifest when she was a child, beyond burning down a floor or two of the orphanage? There’s something frustratingly rote about pinning Villanelle’s complexity on her simply always being bad, about her having an inner darkness even as a child that led her to be the assassin she is now. I think it’s more intriguing to consider the ways opportunities and tragedies shaped Villanelle, that she wasn’t made this way but became who she is now.
Their conversation ends with Villanelle kneeling in front of her mother, unable to finish her sentences, eyes filled with tears, only to choke up saying, “I think I need to kill you, Mama.” They stare each other down, mother and daughter, mirroring each other’s animosity and emotional raggedness. We don’t get to see Villanelle kill her mother. She’s only seen as a dead body strewn on the floor after Villanelle turns on the gas stove, spills gasoline on the floor, and leaves a flaming lighter nearby. To get Bor’ka out of the house, Villanelle leaves him a letter encouraging him to go to the barn for a surprise. When he arrives, waking up Pyotr who sleeps in there, he finds an envelope bursting with cash and a note urging him to see Elton John as he so desires. The house explodes behind him, remaking his family and life in the process.
In many ways, this episode raises a lot of questions about the show’s outlook on what drives a person to do bad things. Its psychology is too neat, its answers only half illuminating. But the episode is a great showcase for Comer, who demonstrates the complexity of emotion and thinking of her character even as the script comes up with simplistic answers as to why she is the way she is. The final image of Villanelle, which mirrors her entrance in some ways, is an emotional gut punch. Villanelle wears the ’80s jumpsuit her mother altered for her. She’s bobbing her head, shaking more than dancing to the music in her seat on the train. When she opens her eyes, they are full of tears. Comer’s performance in this brief scene runs a gamut of emotions: sorrow, manic joy, confusion. Villanelle’s heartbroken, and Comer wrings this moment for all it’s worth. She overcomes the episode’s issues to speak to the ways Villanelle narrativized her own childhood in a way that’s more complex than the script itself. But beyond Comer’s tremendous performance, “Are You From Pinner?” proves to be a lackluster diversion, leaving me anxious to return to the wider world of Killing Eve next week.