Villanelle is on her way to her next kill. She’s wearing denim cutoffs with a pretty, sheer, sky blue blouse and has just jumped off a badass motorcycle in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. She pauses. Apparently hungry, she crushes a mouthwateringly ripe tomato over a petite piece of bread and eats it.
This pointed moment of indulgence defines Villanelle. If we’re talking strait-laced binaries – the tired, traditional dynamic offered in most cat-and-mouse narratives – Villanelle is the baddie, and a charming one at that. Played by Jodie Comer (Dr Foster and My Mad Fat Diary), she appears opposite Sandra Oh’s character Eve (the goody, let’s say), in BBC America’s critically acclaimed crime drama Killing Eve.
Villanelle is a hired assassin, and she’s bloody good at her job. At the other end of her Tuscan motorcycle ride is a man who is soon to be stabbed in the eye by Villanelle’s clever hairpin. With it, she’ll inject him with poison (yes, through the eyeball), and she’ll visibly enjoy that moment more than her earlier, enviable tomato-based snack.
On the other side of the coin is desk-bound MI5 agent Eve Polastri. We first meet her desperately hungover, clutching a croissant and being ushered into a Saturday morning meeting. A Russian politician has been assassinated in Vienna and the big bosses have assembled the team to discuss the case.
Eve is smart – unabashed by the presence of Carolyn (played by Fiona Shaw), the well regarded head of MI6’s Russia desk, Eve suggests that the killer is probably a woman, which all of the men in the room quickly dismiss. Eve is also fantastically reckless – her longtime obsession with female assassins drives her to pursue the Russian case solo, visiting the witness (his girlfriend), illegally recording the interview and having her Polish-speaking husband Niko and teenage family friend Dom translate it for her. Turns out the killer is indeed a woman.
In these two female leads, writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (the same Phoebe Waller-Bridge who wrote Fleabag) has managed to subvert everything we’ve come to expect from spy dramas. As the narrative progresses and Eve and Villanelle’s journeys eventually lead to each other, we discover a reality rarely – if ever – fully realised on television: that female characters don’t need to be defined by the traditional tropes of femininity. They don't need to be positioned as the sexy spy-man's love interest, or decisively on the side of good or evil. There is, as we know from our real-life experiences, plenty to explore in the nuances of their individual characters. The beauty of the complex woman, right?
Villanelle is an enchanting, psychopathic killer. The urge to kill radiates from her coy, disarming smile and the lavish lifestyle that her occupation affords her. She lives in the achingly cool Parisian apartment of our shabby chic dreams. She dresses impeccably, and lives indulgently for her pleasure and her pleasure alone. "Villanelle is designing her own life," Waller-Bridge explains. "It's not about Villanelle looking cool, it's about Villanelle feeling cool, for her." You get the sense that the ice cream she devours on a date with the sweet, unassuming young man she pursues in a fleeting attempt to be "normal" is a moment she enjoys alone, even though he's walking by her side, eating exactly the same ice cream. Refreshingly, there's nothing sexual about her kills, her attire or the way she presents herself, and when she's actually having sex, she rides on top with the fierce determination with which we've only seen a man fuck a woman. She's enigmatic and terrifying, but as co-star Fiona Shaw explains: "You agree to all sorts of pornographic murders in [Killing Eve] and you enjoy every minute of it."
"In Killing Eve, women aren't resolved by their domestic circumstances, they're in the world. They're killing people or they're stopping people from killing people or they're trying to stop people killing people. So, they're just breathing the oxygen of the universe ... I think it's also that they're not necessarily good or nice, but they're endlessly charming," Shaw adds.
Sandra Oh's Eve isn't exempt from this, of course. She's our relatable access point into this almost familiar world where the spy and villain are as mutually appreciative of each other's skillset as they are positioned to take the other down. Eve is reluctantly invested in her marriage, a bit scatty in her approach to work but talented nonetheless. Much like many of us, she's unenthused by the mundane realities of life – no matter how stable and conventionally "perfect" it may seem to an outsider. She's unknowingly witty to the audience and her onscreen contemporaries while Villanelle consciously finds the understated humour in just about everything.
Here we've got two women without easily defined needs. It's not men they're missing, it's not work, it's not money, it's not sex – in those respects they're as fine as any of us are. Besides the brilliant writing and the onscreen talent, which bring an already gripping story to life, the beauty of Killing Eve is that it's about two women exploring themselves as they search for each other. The series allows its female characters to explore womanhood beyond the contexts in which women are normally defined, ie. domestic worlds far removed from expert assassination and a secret intelligence agency. In this way, Killing Eve defines femininity as transgressive and justly exciting without being about femininity at all. The women at the centre of the narrative are allowed to be women without typically televised boundaries. They're fashioning their lives as they go, indulging in it, laughing at it and fucking the rest of the world up a bit in the process.
Killing Eve airs on BBC One on Saturday 15th September 2018 and will be available on BBC Three via iPlayer