This article contains major spoilers for the Killing Eve season one finale.
Author Kameron Hurley (The Stars Are Legion, The Geek Feminist Revolution) recently did an episode of her podcast Get to Work Hurley on the subject of “why psychopaths get rewarded in capitalism.” In it, she says:
Capitalism rewards psychopaths and narcissists. That’s how the system is set up. In order to excel at it or “win” capitalism—which, there is no win, which is why we’re all suckered—you must think in terms of short-term profit and you must regard people as things, as a means to an end. So you must be able to pretend at feeling things, but not really feel them.
Naturally, this got me thinking about the first season of BBC America’s Killing Eve, a show that is about a psychopathic assassin and the MI6 agent who begins to act like a bit of a psychopath in order to catch her.
Like any good show, Killing Eve is a story that can be analyzed from many different directions. After listening to Hurley’s podcast, I couldn’t stop thinking about the show as an exploration of late-stage capitalism, even if that’s not what the show’s creator or the book’s author originally intended. (#TheAuthorisDead) As a story that is very aware of and actively subverts the spy genre tropes that have come before, it’s pretty easy to apply a socioeconomic/political lens to this literal killer show.
What is “late capitalism” or “late-stage capitalism”? Well, the Atlantic describes it like this: “‘Late capitalism,’ in its current usage, is a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class.”
As an apparent psychopath, Villanelle is the perfect person to succeed in a capitalist world. She doesn’t care who she hurts or kills, as long as she gets her hefty paycheck and gets to go home to her fancy Parisian flat at the end of the day. She is basically TV’s more sexy, thrilling version of a Wall Street banker, but with better taste in clothes. It’s this obsession with shopping that really ties these two themes—consumerism and mindless killing—together. We may be able to love shopping while hating capitalism, as Laurie Penny argues, but, in the same way our culture likes to glamorize the life of serial killers, our capitalism sells us a story of how consumerism can save us; Villanelle is the child of those two beguiling, powerful stories.
Villanelle is a clever character, one who understands her place in larger systems better than most weapons. In the first episode, Villanelle spends time looking in her mirror, applying makeup, and wondering aloud at how beautiful she is. Villanelle is so many of the things capitalism tells us we should be: rich, beautiful, young, white. She understands the kind of power these traits grant her under the capitalist system she has been brought into, and she revels in that power. She douses herself in it like the La Villanelle she named herself after.
Killing Eve is nothing without its extreme juxtapositions, and we get to see what Villanelle looks like when she is robbed of the privileges and abundances of capitalism and thrown back into the drab, dismal Russian prison she inhabited before becoming an assassin. Visually, she is so very far away from that capitalist ideal of glitz and glamour, choice and abundance. She has traded her designer clothes for a muted prison smock and bandana. This is what westerners tend to think of when they think of Soviet Russia and the democratic country it grew into.
Traditionally, at this point in the discussion, this set-up narrows into a debate between capitalism and communism. This is a problematic dichotomy, and one that has been utilized to particular effect in the spy genre in particular. The spy genre had its true heyday during the Cold War, with classics like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or The Manchurian Candidate grounding their stories in the tensions between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the capitalist Western world.
Currently, the Cold War spy drama is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. In a time when tensions between the United States and Russia are on the rise and Americans themselves are beginning to interrogate capitalism (or at least the symptoms of its unsustainability) more than ever before, we have seen a resurgence of the Cold War spy genre in TV shows like The Night Manager, Deutschland 83, and The Americans, as well as films like Atomic Blondeand Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
While Killing Eveplays with the tropes of the Cold War spy genre, with workaholic westerner Eve facing off against Russian Villanelle—the final episodes of the first season are set in a very utilitarian, aesthetically Communist Moscow that is visually at odds with the rich opulence of the Paris Villanelle chooses to spend her free time—it moves past the dichotomy of the Cold War Spy drama into something else. Here, Villanelle and Eve are part of the same, flawed system. (At one point, Villanelle even muses to Eve that, if they went high enough, she suspects that they’d find they work for the same people.)
In this spy drama, there is no system that represents the moral high ground—there is no capitalism vs. communism—there is only one global hierarchy that sees people as pawns and values capital above all else, whatever we may call it. Frankly, we don’t have a very good name for it yet. We are too concerned with trying to preserve a nostalgic illusion of past global order to speak on the subject clearly… at least in mainstream storytelling.
Refreshingly, Killing Eve isn’t interested in hitting the same narrative and thematic beats as the decades-old Cold War spy drama. This is something new—call it a spy show for the age of late-stage capitalism. We don’t yet know who the Twelve are or what they want, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were a cabal of bankers—very rich, powerful CEOs on both sides of the East-West divide (if that is even a helpful demarcation post-globalization) intent on keeping their power. Psychopaths or narcissists who are able to explain away the harm they cause in the name of maintaining wealth, status, and power. Heck, they could even be “the good guys.”
Capitalism is increasingly becoming defined by economic inequality; it cannot exist without exploitation of labor, without the haves and the have-nots. When we first meet her, Eve is living in the montonous drudgery of capitalism—a life of breakfast meeting croissants and lazy nights with her bridge-playing husband. She is far from a have-not, but she isn’t one of the powerful elite, either, and the predictability of it all is killing her. Let’s not forget: Eve is the kind of woman who stabs herself with a knife and smashes bus kiosk windows—ostensibly, in the name of “work,” but really just to feel something.
With Eve’s pursuit of Villanelle and her peek into Carolyn’s world, Eve is given a glimpse of what the few “fat cats” who thrive under capitalism get to do—the power they get to wield—and, in a subversion of how most women are represented on TV, she is understandably hungry for more. She takes turns trying Villanelle’s brand of psychopathy, along with the designer clothes Villanelle sent her, on for size. She learns from the lies Carolyn tells in the pursuit of her own, shadowy goals.
This all leads to the Season 1 finale, in which Eve goes all the way with her charade of capitalist psychopathy, stabbing Villanelle when she is at her most vulnerable and thinking she can feel nothing doing it. But that’s one of the biggest lies of all, isn’t it? That late-stage capitalism doesn’t hurt those who do the hurting, too. That it doesn’t rob all of us of our support systems, our values, our time, our energy. That it doesn’t chew and spit up the Eves and the Villanelles of the world alike, leaving all of us to do its own dirty work.
In the season finale, Eve blames Villanelle for the loss of her job—unemployment being the ultimate sin under capitalism. She blames Villanelle for the problems in her marriage—a result not of Villanelle’s machinations, but of Eve choosing to prioritize her working life far above her domestic life. This is not only a refreshing subversion of traditional gendered stereotypes, it is one that also shows the danger of extremes— in particular extremes in productivity-obsessed capitalism. The episode is called “God I’m Tired,” a line that Eve herself delivers when she finally catches up to Villanelle; it’s a mantra that most people in late-stage capitalism can relate to.
Meanwhile, when Eve asks Villanelle what it is that she wants, it is basically the modern American dream: Villanelle wants to make a lot of money doing her job and go home and watch movies with someone. Basically, she wants to Netflix and chill (when it comes to Eve, in both the sexual and non-sexual definitions of the phrase). If that isn’t a value of most aspirational middle and upper class Americans I know, then I don’t know what is.
When we first meet up with Villanelle in the series premiere, she is a woman thriving under capitalism. Over the course of Season 1, capitalism turns on her, too. Because every human gets screwed over in some way in the end in a failing system that values capital above humanity—even for those people who value capital over humanity themselves.
“The problem with being a jerk, I’ve found,” Hurley’s podcast continues, “is you aren’t able to form real, human relationships. You can never let yourself love anything or give up anything or just give anything. You keep everything held tight to you, all your resources, and when shit hits the fan, it’s just you. Selfishness is a super great short-term strategy—again, like capitalism, right? … It’s not so great long-term.”
Something tells me that, as Killing Eve continues into a second season and hopefully beyond, Eve and Villanelle are set to learn this lesson the hard way.