The spy thriller has long been a staple of television and film, and one that revels in heightened masculinity. Killing Eve, BBC America’s recent entry from Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag and UK’s Crashing fame), is notable for its feminist take on the genre. Instead of merely swapping out men’s roles for women’s, Killing Eve completely reimagines the genre, building the show from the ground up with a distinctly female perspective at its foundation.
Rather than focusing on catfights, tight outfits, glasses of wine in the bath, and honey traps, it covers: women struggling and fighting to be listened to, the sexism of male bosses (even the good ones!), and husbands who assume being busy with work actually means you’re cheating on them.
While the books that the show is based on are by a man (Luke Jennings), the show feels distinctly by and for women. Waller-Bridge made some important changes when translating the story to the screen, like gender-swapping Eve’s boss Carolyn Martens and her assistant, Elena Felton. This populates the world of Killing Eve with a stunning range of women.
Of the four main women, two are over forty and two are women of color. All are fully realized characters, with assets and flaws, dark sides and redeeming qualities. There’s also less of a hierarchy within Eve’s team—though Elena and Eve admire Carolyn and look up to her, Carolyn trusts them and values their input. Eve and Elena work more like a team than like a superior and subordinate, reflecting the kind of flat, collaborative environments that are most often associated with women’s management styles.
There is, of course, a danger to examining anything with a gender lens. For one, it relies far too much on not only a gender binary, but on very traditional gender roles and norms. Of course one of Killing Eve’s best qualities is that it pushes past the edges of what women are generally allowed to be on screen, but it still resides in a binary reality, at least so far.
The show is much less heteronormative, however. Some critical interpretations of the show have bent over backwards to read Eve and Villanelle’s relationship as completely platonic, all evidence to the contrary. Killing Eve revels in the ambiguous weirdness of their cat-and-mouse, spy vs. spy relationship, and the sexual tension is a strong component of that. Villanelle hasn’t labelled herself, but we know she’s had relationships with women, some of which we’ve seen on screen, and she also expresses her attraction to women, as well as occasionally sleeping with men.
When women are traditionally included in spy narratives, it’s most often as a love interest or as bait. Bond girls immediately come to mind, with their sexually suggestive names, tiny outfits, lack of personality or motive, and completely disposable nature. When women are allowed to be full characters, it’s often as damaged damsels to be rescued, or characters who go through so much violence on screen that one wonders if it isn’t celebratory, like Jennifer Lawrence’s recent Red Sparrow. Even otherwise-great depictions, like Atomic Blonde, Alias, or Black Widow and Agent Peggy Carter in the MCU, largely limit the number of women characters, often placing a lone badass in a sea of men.
Eve suspects that Villanelle is a woman right from the first time she hears about her. She’s the only one in the room who thinks so, and it’s clear that others find it impossible due to ingrained patriarchal thinking, even if they aren’t actively misogynist. We later learn that Carolyn Martens also suspects that the killer is a woman, a thought she keeps to herself because, in addition to the idiocy of some of her coworkers, she’s concerned about who she can trust.
The inability to see women as villains belies deep-seated views about the roles of men and women, a prejudiced thinking that women are subject to as well as men. It may be counter-intuitive, but thinking that women are incapable of violence is a way of seeing them as only experiencing part of the full range of humanity. It reinforces the problematic and gendered notion that women are inherently empathetic care givers, as though the compliant kindness so many of us show is innate, rather than programmed in and reinforced throughout our lives.
Many of Villanelle’s kills are strategically based on her being a woman, whether the physicality of it or the societal expectations. She goes in as a nurse, a maid, and a sex worker, her gender and her presumed inability to threaten anyone affording her access. We see her zip herself into a suitcase, something it’s hard to imagine a man doing, even in spite of Villanelle’s height. The sheer number of important moments that happen in women’s restrooms on this show is unrivaled. It’s where Villanelle kills a beauty magnate with deadly perfume, and where Eve and Villanelle first meet, in the kind of moment that women strangers share all the time—a quick bit of advice or a request for help with a stranger.
There’s a level of realistic, day-to-day detail in Killing Eve that’s typical of Waller-Bridges projects but so rare in the rest of the television landscape. At one point, Eve answers the phone while on the toilet—it’s a small moment, but also the kind of thing so many women do all the time. Rather than pretending women don’t have basic bodily functions, as polite society generally does, it’s merely a part of life. What to wear on a mission comes up several times, and we watch Carolyn and Eve navigate the egos and libidos of their male colleagues and counterparts, especially while in Russia.
Villanelle pushes back on the men in her life in many ways, including by reveling in certain aspects of her body and her femininity. Villanelle discusses her heavy period in a way that’s completely normal to those who have them but almost entirely absent from television. Even better, she uses it as a tactic to make men uncomfortable, something many of us learned to do early on. She tells Konstantine that she’ll wear bra inserts to have a more favorable outcome with the therapist, exposing the kind of mental gymnastics many women engage in every day, whether dressing down to avoid certain attention or up to project a specific image. Taking it a step further, she refers to them as chicken filets—I don’t know any woman who calls them anything else, yet so few men would know what that is without prompting.
Villanelle’s clothing, which warrants its own exploration, almost always includes sensible footwear like her black boots. She has serious style, but she also needs to be able to climb a drain pipe or outrun a target. Villanelle’s eccentric style is reminiscent of Sex and the City, in that it is unapologetically frivolous, uniquely her own, and clearly not for men. She wears discordant outfits like the enormous pink tulle dress or a pussybow blouse with jorts, the kind of thing that men complain isn’t pretty, simply because it doesn’t satisfy them.
It’s the details that make Killing Eve so specifically women-oriented: the interactions in the bathroom, borrowing lipstick from a coworker, the way a love interest fills the role of a disposable Bond girl. It’s not the first to do it, but Killing Eve adds to the relatively small club of women-centric spy thrillers with its sense of humor and the fact that women occupy so many of the roles, rather than just having one Smurfette-style badass.