A tense scene between Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh) in Killing Eve.Photo: BBC America
I like to think this is something that doesn’t need to be said, but let’s just throw it out there anyway: Serial killers are not sexy. Or fun. Or funny. They’re monsters. But then fictional serial killers show up in a story as a well-dressed psychiatrist or a good-looking vampire and they’re tapping into a very particular trope that inspires huge franchises like Hannibal and True Blood. Until Killing Eve I avoided anything featuring that trope. Now I’m totally enamoured and have spent the show’s entire debut season trying to figure out why.
In case you missed it, Killing Eve — which just wrapped its first season — is about a cat-and-mouse game between Villanelle, a young assassin played by My Big Fat Diary’s Jodie Comer, and Eve, a middle-aged MI5 analyst played by Grey’s Anatomy’s Sandra Oh. The beats of the story are different from what you may be used to, but the plot is all too familiar if you’ve watched other Sexy Serial Killer affairs. The killer is charming and has an obsession with the person who’s hunting them, and the hunter is also obsessed. They only come together in rare and electric scenes rife with a dark and scary kind of eroticism.
In this regard, Comer as Villanelle is perfect. She’s sexy, charming, and utterly fickle in the most terrifying of ways. You legitimately never know if she’s going to actually take a life, or just smile and walk away. As participants in the Sexy Serial Killer trope go she’s every bit as good as Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lector. She gives us just enough humanity that we can forget how evil she is… until she’s luring a man to his death.
But what’s different about Killing Eve isn’t the serial killer, it’s Eve. She’s the character who elevates this show above the trope. Oh has long been one of the best actresses working on television; I mean, watch this monologue where she talks about staying awake for four days and hearing her best friend’s sister get eaten by wolves on Grey’s Anatomy.
The woman can act, and if she’d been the traditional foil to the Sexy Serial Killer this show still would have been good. But Eve isn’t a foil, she’s the primary focus of Killing Eve, and the show is more interested in exploring her — a messy middle-aged woman who shops at Uniqlo and Gap and is horrified that chickens poop eggs — instead of the serial killer, which helps it transcend the trope.
Because when it comes to stories that have the Sexy Serial Killer trope, the bulk of the narrative, inevitably, is focused on the sexy serial killer themselves. It makes sense! Serial killers in stories, be they vampire, witch, or dude with a knife, are a fantasy. They’re the Beast of Beauty and the Beast taken to an extreme. Their behaviour and approach to life is so distinctly different from our own that it’s fun to play in their world. The hunter, by contrast, always comes off a little boring. They’re all too often average, and while tempted by the serial killer, they are ultimately Good, and need to do Good things, like stop the killer.
These stories are also painfully static. A Sexy Serial Killer inevitably finds their love for the hunter to outweigh their good sense. They twist themselves to be with the hunter. The hunter just keeps on being noble and kind. Yet in Killing Eve, Eve is the one changing.
The show begins by hinting that there’s something off about Eve. It’s not just in her refusal to heed warnings or respect her superiors. It’s in the little moments — like how she can tell her husband how she’d kill him without blinking, or how she stabs herself just to understand what it’s like to exert that kind of pressure.
The key moment, although it’s the quietest one, is after her first real interaction with Villanelle. The two women haven’t even spoken yet, but just stared at one another after Eve puts herself between Villanelle and her target. Eve is shaken by the taut, oddly erotic encounter and decides to head home on a bus. But when she sits down at the bus stop she notices a crack in the glass. Her finger glances over it, her eyes study it, and then she suddenly, violently smashes the glass with her elbow.
It’s an outpouring of all her rage and betrayal up until that point and foreshadowing to the final moments of the season, where she and Villanelle encounter each other again. Eve tracks Villanelle down and after confessing their preoccupation with each other they lie on a bed, a tangle of obsession and lust. In the moment Villanelle seems to have won. She’s worn Eve down like every Sexy Serial Killer before her has worn down every hunter before Eve.
But this is Eve’s story, and while every point in the show has been driving her towards Villanelle, it’s also been driving her towards embracing her own violence independent of Villanelle. When she digs a knife into Villanelle’s belly it isn’t just about what she’s feeling toward the woman herself, it’s about her need to experience the violent acts she’s so obsessed with.
The moment is shocking, and part of that shock comes because we simply don’t know Eve’s full motivation — we only know that this act was as inevitable as their obsession. It’s fascinating, and Eve is a fascinating character — much more than the assassin she’s been hunting. By putting the focus on her story, and using the Sexy Serial Killer trope to support that, Killing Eve has transcended the tired trope, and made it fresh again. Sometimes the hero really can be more interesting than the villain.