Killing Eve Chose Cruelty

Let’s talk about the galling ending of Eve and Villanelle. Photo: David Emery/BBCA

Have you ever experienced a desire so fierce it becomes physical — resting in the pit of your stomach? Coiling tighter and tighter, ever more desperate to be sated? At its best — as in its first season in 2018, by the maestro that is Phoebe Waller-Bridge — Killing Eve uncovered the complications and delights rooted in desire, the oblivion of supreme pleasure and what happens when gratification is shot through with venom. Even its uneven second season, headed by showrunner Emerald Fennell of Promising Young Woman infamy, had some gristle to it. Yet what followed was a scattershot third season so forgettable that, even though I recapped the entire thing, I barely remember its specific grooves. Then there was the final season — an insult to the talents of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer as well as the audience itself.

The fourth installment to the series, but particularly its last two episodes, demonstrates how far the show has fallen from the dizzying heights of its premiere. Gone is the delicious fashion pivoting on moments of transformation in the manner of fairy tales. Gone is the supremely precise characterization, replaced with a confused internal logic that jockeys the characters according to the needs of its threadbare espionage plotting. Gone is the spry presentation, achieved through blocking, editing, and costume and production design. But most important, gone is the tense cat-and-mouse game between Villanelle (Comer) and Eve (Oh) that acted as the engine. Killing Eve is a study in how jumping from different showrunners each season can leave a series without a profound singular voice — and it is evidence that a shallow understanding of representation and the female gaze isn’t enough to create a memorably good, cohesive story that gives a damn about the women onscreen. It amounted to a finale that gave once perpetually ravenous viewers a paltry version of what they wanted before snatching even that away.

In its final season, Killing Eve obsessively focused on the Twelve — the secretly powerful international organization that groomed and employed Villanelle as an assassin. Both Villanelle and Eve are determined to see the slippery organization meet its end for reasons both personal and moral. But this hunt has always been the least intriguing aspect of the series, best as a vehicle for the real motor of the narrative: the ragged lust and barbed longing between Eve and Villanelle. We’ve all experienced enough James Bond and John Le Carré to clock how tired Killing Eve is in the espionage department. The Twelve provided the money that explained the lushness suffused in Villanelle’s life as an assassin. The Twelve also provided a web into which Oh’s MI6 agent could get drawn, her mysterious supervisor, Carolyn (played with a steely force of will by Fiona Shaw), giving us a sense of Eve’s dedication outside of Villanelle. But by the final season, Eve is peripheral, with the focus turning tighter instead to Carolyn and Villanelle’s former handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), and the game they’re playing. A black-and-white flashback episode to the late 1970s explains the two were involved in the Twelve when it formed as an anarchist group intent upon disrupting the world through chaos. “Don’t Get Attached” teases out a series of revelations about the otherwise inscrutable Carolyn — we learn about her gay father, who was blackmailed by Konstantin and died by suicide thereafter. Carolyn’s reaction to her father’s death cements her chilly, focused-on-the-job-above-all-else nature. Shaw gives Carolyn a curious mystery, but the more the show reveals about her — and her allegiance to no one but herself — the more she becomes a buoy for a spy saga forcing the show’s leads further and further out of touch. Watching episodes like this brought to mind a host of questions: Where are all the tactile joys? The lust? The assured complication?

One of the most delectable aspects of Killing Eve’s fledgling season is how Waller-Bridge privileged details over espionage plotting — for example, the fashion (from costume designer Phoebe De Gaye). Villanelle became a window into the kind of gorgeous living Eve never imagined for herself but enjoyed deeply when she got a taste of it. Burberry coats in dusty pink. Flowy Chloé tops in aquamarine. A Dries Van Noten patterned suit. And, of course, the Molly Doddard dress of baby pink tulle that made Villanelle look like a cupcake spiked with poison. It felt enveloping. And the fashion wasn’t just about beauty; it was about transformation. Consider the sleek black-and-white Roland Mouret dress Villanelle gifts Eve in the first season. When Eve sees herself in a mirror, she is taken aback and pleased with the very woman she’s faced with. But in its final season, there isn’t a single startling fashion moment; the costuming is drab, functional. Part of the forceful wit and pleasure of the series was in the art of looking, a frenzy of scopophilia that prompted many conversations about the power of the female gaze. (Even though I don’t agree with the essentialist framing, I enjoyed the conversation the first season sparked.) But in the years since the show premiered, the term has fossilized as shorthand for elevating the visibility of women directors, screenwriters, and craftswomen as if any woman looking through the lens will do. When it was revealed in 2020 that Killing Eve had an all-white writers’ room, certain failings bound up in this approach snapped into focus. I won’t mince words: The show’s disinterest in the interior life of Eve signified not just bad writing but a strain of racism.

In the final season, Eve takes a back seat not only to the espionage — remaining steps behind everyone too often — but to the games others are playing, their backstories, their lives, their needs. Eve has come to live a narrow existence wholly focused on taking down the Twelve due to all she has lost. This reality is alluded to in a karaoke scene, in which she witnesses the people who are no longer in her life, like Bill (David Haig), Elena (Kirby Howell-Baptise), and her former husband (Owen McDonnell). As the show became more entrenched in the Twelve, Eve’s desires outside of espionage began to wilt. Oh is an actor of remarkable lucidity; gorgeous, with a clarity of emotion that pierces the soul. But no actor, no matter how skilled, can remake or make legible what the writers don’t put on the page or allow room to develop. The season has Eve doing a number of crepuscular deeds: shooting Konstantin, blinding the assassin and former Twelve acolyte Gunn (Marie-Sophie Ferdane) — who has her own sexually fraught dynamic with Villanelle — watching as Villanelle kills the haughty and chilly Hélène (Camille Cottin). The Hélène who became a proxy for Eve’s longing for Villanelle — kissing, slipping into a bath, striving to re-create the same orgasmically rich dynamic Eve previously had with Villanelle. Instead, the feelings audiences wanted explored with Villanelle are mapped onto another.

Comer and Oh have remarkable chemistry. As Villanelle, Comer is wild and voracious, bruising and bruised. She and Oh are able to foster a vivid emotional and sexual sport with a specifically feminine twist: Do these women want to kiss or kill? Over the seasons, Eve and Villanelle devastatingly lose interest in each other, but the final episode, “Hello, Losers,” forces the characters together again. Using Hélène’s phone, Eve is able to discern where the Twelve is meeting — on a boat with a wedding as cover. Traveling together once again, Villanelle and Eve soften. In the home of an exceedingly saccharine couple, Villanelle grazes the bullet scar on Eve’s upper back, remnants of a wound that came from the wrong end of Villanelle’s gun. They stare at each other with longing and implied understanding. But of what? Eve proceeds to feed Villanelle candy in the van they steal from the couple. They eat curly fries, teasing about their different tastes in condiments. Finally, we get what audiences have long wanted — a true passionate, sexual kiss. In the middle of a desolate road, Villanelle kisses Eve on the cheek. Eve grabs her hand, pulling her near. They kiss with heat and passion and curiosity as the music swells with whispering sweetness. They giggle from shared pleasure and I assume have a romp in the van, but we don’t see it.

Eve and Villanelle’s relationship was once the televisual equivalent of biting into an overly ripe, bruised plum and letting the juice drip down your chin. Years later, that fruit has gone to rot. Villanelle and Eve are able to get on the boat with the members of the Twelve. And while Villanelle kills them all in an anticlimactic scene cast in royal blue lighting, full of CGI blood, Eve officiates the wedding above as her cover. When they embrace on the deck afterward, it’s a moment of reprieve. “I did it, Eve.” “Don’t you mean we did it?” Eve lovingly counters. But the succor quickly curdles when an unseen sniper shoots Villanelle in the shoulder, forcing them to jump into the cold London waters. As they try to find a safe shore, Villanelle is shot again and again and again, a halo of blood enveloping her. And so a series about queer women obsessed with each other ends with a Bury Your Gays trope. Eve furiously swims toward the dying Villanelle, but she remains out of her reach, as Carolyn watches from a dry perch, clearly the one who engendered this hit. Eve is unable to touch even Villanelle’s fingertips before she sinks to the bottom of the sea, her blonde hair masking her face. Not long ago, Eve was told, “You have to find a new ordinary. Whatever happens next you can choose.” But nothing has been a choice for her. She’s a pawn, for the writers and the characters within the series. Her story line is ultimately left a dangling thread. Now the series is planning a Carolyn backstory spin-off, making Eve’s claustrophobic and slapdash ending feel all the more insulting. Her story is a closed circuit without the electricity that once made the show a force. Just as Villanelle remains out of her reach, so does our understanding of who Eve is and what lies for her on the other side.

Killing Eve Chose Cruelty