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Sex & Love 'Killing Eve': queerness, subtext, and monstrous womxn

Jul. 8, 2019
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You should never tell a psychopath they’re a psychopath. It upsets them. 

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The summer of psychopathy is how I remember the three months between ninth and tenth grade. What swallowed my brain and catapulted me into a dark, unclear passion, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to ever go, not me, not a nice girl, braces and clouded glasses, a girl who always used her inside voice, a girl who sort of wanted to be seen but more so feared anyone looking anywhere in her vicinity. I found a book called The Psychopath Test in a quiet college bookstore and everything normal, everything nice peeled away, left an obsessive fifteen-year-old with her interest speeding away from acceptability. There was nothing feminine about this. At a summer program I learned anatomy, spent hours in a cadaver lab and walked to the bookstore with the stench of formaldehyde burrowed into my skin. Book after book, the annals of a long-studied but little-understood topic, so much maleness, so much callousness that never really surprised me because it always seemed to be committed by men. 

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As a child, I always coveted the Bad Boy. I wanted him, but I see now that most of all, I wanted to be him. Vehemently, secretly, these gruff, disaffected white men with their violence and their anger, their unfeelingness, how women seemed to exist as experiences more than actual people, always peripheral, always in distress even in their sass and grit. I wanted to not give a fuck—but Nice Girlness made me give so many fucks, about everyone and their feelings, especially the feelings and needs of men. The Bad Boy went unpunished and uncriticized, sexualized and made heroic, misunderstood in his turbulence, never hysterical or unlikeable or bitchy. The Bad Girls on screen never appealed to me. Their femininity eclipsed all else; to be a girl was to be a Girl, they seemed to imply, and no amount of strength or intellect or power really matters if it’s not done “girlishly.” 

And yet. I wanted to find a bad girl who wasn’t impeccable, who wasn’t a femme fatale in her ultimate dependence on men but rather, a girl who was just plain bad, a badness that has nothing to do with men. 

About a month ago I found a show called Killing Eve, and like a blade in the dark, anger began to become just as girlish and female as any other emotion. The Bad Girl became the Bad Woman. The creator of the show, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, also wrote the brilliant play and BBC series Fleabag, two seasons that hold some of the best television I’ve ever watched. Waller-Bridge writes “unlikeable” womxn; she delivers the messiness, full-hearted and fully-fledged. She lets womxn be ever-changing and self-destructive without ever exploiting the “female trainwreck” trope. Killing Eve is so unlike the majority of other “spy shows” because of Waller-Bridge’s writing—none of her characters exist to make you comfortable. At that precipice of discomfort, a ledge with a fatal drop but an unparalleled view, art emerges. 

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Killing Eve is breathlessness and unforgiving humor and unfettered female rage. It is the proverbial glass ceiling sneered at, shot straight through, bullet-torn and translucent without telling you everything. Killing Eve is about womxn. It is imperfect and frustrating and intoxicating. This isn’t a summary; I won’t thoroughly describe the plot or recap the episodes. To give the most concise background, it focuses on two womxn: Eve, an agent for the British intelligence agency M15,  played by Sandra Oh, and the inimitable, ruthless female assassin Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer. Over the course of Season 1, Eve grows obsessed with Villanelle and becomes hell-bent on catching this uncatchable, expert killer. The obsession is, to say the least, mutual. 

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Amongst all that psychopathy research of mine, I noticed a gaping hole where womxn should’ve been. Surely they existed, too, I thought—perhaps, though, they’re more careful not to reveal their condition. Not to say all psychopaths become serial killers, but historically speaking, female serial killers are much better at killing than the men. They get caught less, and tend to carry on their heinous crimes for far longer. Their methods aren’t usually flashy or messy; as any true crime fanatic would tell you, womxn don’t overkill. Meaning, they’re doing a job; they’re not killing to make a show of it, to unleash the fullest, most unrestrained bludgeonings within them. 

It’s not usually for the attention. This is evident in Villanelle, until it isn’t. She revels in her villainy, transcends our conceptions of female-enacted cruelty. Still, she loses interest in the practical. Her occupation as an assassin slowly frays, becomes merely a guise to drape over her profuse desire to kill. She gets sloppier, releases her fullest cruelties. Villanelle doesn’t fit into the categories of female villainy that we rely on; she is bad because she is bad. And what’s most compelling: Villanelle owns her badness. She shrugs at her victims, unaffected by their desperation. When one man pleas with her not to kill him, he cries, in a last-ditch effort to appeal to her humanity, “I have children!”

But Villanelle doesn’t really have that humanity. Paraphrasing, she replies, befuddled, “Why would I want your children?” The casting-off of maternalism, that oh-so-feminine trait, is one of the most subversive qualities about this show. She doesn’t give a shit about children. She later proves this when she kidnaps her sort-of-friend, sort-of-boss’s child, and holds a gun to the kid’s head without flinching. She relies on murder as an abscess in her boredom, a slash of sharp red against an empty background. We love her nonetheless. 

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Culturally, we do not want to believe that the desire between womxn can undo everything. We want such love to be cutesy, all gentleness, lightweight. We do not want to believe such love can upend lives or shatter institutions. We do not want to believe it too can become a gnawing, devouring creature all its own, more potent than any form of heterosexuality. When queer love begins to unstitch the fabric of one’s life—when it begins to overpower a womxn’s relationship to a man—we say it’s gone too far. Eve and Villanelle wreck themselves over each other, and we are thrown into this black hole of their connection, their resentment and anger and want. 

Eve’s obsession with Villanelle and her crimes catches up with her, and her once-pristine marriage to a tender but uncomprehending husband begins to crumble. You get the feeling, though, that her obsession isn’t what causes the relationship to dissolve—rather, it’s her refusal to deny herself that obsessiveness. You see how this marriage to a nice, rather bland guy has been shaky for a long time prior to Villanelle, see how it’s never really been enough for someone as ambitious and curious as Eve, and you realize that this nice guy is, perhaps, good but his ego is more fragile than you’d thought. 

Who can blame her? Villanelle slips under our skin. Elusive, charismatic, with the capacity to shapeshift personas, she entices us, her laugh a giggling squeal, a contradiction in her every action. Villanelle pushes the amorphous blue of my sexuality toward the ever-itching feeling that I, well, maybe don’t need cis men, like, ever. She slashes open the clogged-up throat of my femininity and lets my complexity spurt through, pulls me toward me through her melodrama. She outsmarts men, outsmarts everyone, until Eve. Villanelle can fail, can break, but never on the account of some violent old man; only for the cleverness and grit of a brilliant, relentless woman.

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The deficit of quality television, literature, all media, really, for a queer girl draws me to Killing Eve more so than anything else. I boil over with exhaustion at every tantalizingly homoerotic film or show, wanting so much and accepting so little. Yet I find myself less critical of this show because of its entanglement with complexity. Villanelle thrives in such spaces: loosening morality acts as an uncapping, a means of letting her do whatever the fuck she wants, womanhood not a cage anymore but a knife, a room unlocked and torn apart. Killing Eve constructs a space for the needlework of queer desire, and feels less like queerbaiting to me than a sly understanding of how, historically, such desire has had to function: in the subtext. She is not a good person, but still, Eve wants her in many ways, admires her more than she should; we, the viewers, want her to succeed, admire and root for her too. 

I find myself deep into the painted-over histories of bad womxn not because I condone evil, but because for so long violence has been a language owned by men and made frivolous, ridiculous in womxn. These womxn make feminism more complex: they require us to view and understand women in their full, unfettered humanity by making us look their cruelty in the eyes. We recognize that womxn can be cruel too, can be malicious and wicked and rage-spun. They can be monstrous; everyone, anyone can be monstrous. A murderess discomforts us, disorients everything we hold fixed and reliable about gender. 

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My new favorite genre: womxn writing about their obsessions. Womxn imparting the female gaze upon brutality. I listen to My Favorite Murderer and Criminal Broads, read books—The Fact of a Body, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of a cold case, of a brutality we usually never get to own or tell ourselves. The best part of Killing Eve, though, that still feels rare: it’s a womxn obsessed with a womxn. We are gazing upon female brutality; we shudder and laugh still, our fascination with Villanelle more avid than that with Manson or Bundy. Villanelle is more interesting and just as awful. 

In Michelle McNamara’s pulsing darkness of a book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, she upends her life for her obsession—or rather, that obsession upends it for her. Without asking. She spends years engrossed in the unsolved case of the serial rapist and killer she names the “Golden State Killer.” She died halfway through writing the book, but her words grated against a cultural nerve, transcending the true crime nerd community, her furious, spiraling fascination and relentless drive to put together, even solve, the case is something to witness. She pursues a vicious killer with a pounding and unbreakable heart, fierce, her writing so human, true, and still so tenacious. She obsesses over what womxn aren’t supposed to think about, except as a reminder to lock our doors and hold our keys between our fingers at night. Her obsession becomes a strange, entrancing doorway we get to step through, a dark, familiar room we enter, an engagement with the most mystifying needs within ourselves. She follows her obsession; her family does not deter her, and it pierces open a world where womxn are permitted to chase after things as “selfishly” and ruthlessly as men. The Golden State Killer was caught after her death, but he was caught. It matters. She broke ground.

In the book, McNamara comments, “In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.”

Indeed, in Killing Eve, monsters can be female too. Villanelle refuses to vanish. She asserts her evil and eschews conventional morality; she wields Eve’s gaze and turns it on her, wields our gaze and turns it on us.