Killing Eve Is A New Breed Of Spy Thriller

Killing Eve is unwilling to indulge in the usual male gaze-y tenants of spy thrillers and we're all the better for it.

Killing Eve is an armchair detective’s fantasy come to life. Eve gets to go from desk drone to the best (and only?) person for the job. It’s her instincts and many hours of research in her free time that catch Carolyn Martens’s eye. But in this mish-mosh of detective procedural and spy show, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has corrected many of the gendered pitfalls of both genres, offering us instead all the suspense and none of the existential feminist dread. 

There’s something freeing about the fact that much of the usual crime BS – rape, slut-shaming, overly humanizing a charismatic male killer, a system that lets white men off the hook – is off the table. It’s not to say that things like sexual violence don’t happen in the world of Killing Eve. In fact, many of Villanelle’s (Jodie Comer) targets engage in them, whether personally or as a matter of business, in the case of a human trafficker. But these things happen off-screen. Like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, Killing Eve doesn’t need to traumatize viewers in order to conjure up deep feelings. 

A mainstay of detective procedurals is the sexy undercover episode, when the female lead is forced to dress in something skimpy or a showstopping floor-length gown with a high leg slit (so she can get shit done!) and much of the episode throws her together and pulls her away from her male love interest at crucial moments for maximum sexual tension. Instead, Killing Eve has Eve trudging through the motions of buying a nice, non-scandalous dress that she wears under a raincoat from the UK version of Columbia or EMS. No shopping or makeover montage here. Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase and sending her gorgeous – though not particularly revealing – clothing. 

There is no male love interest on Killing Eve, for which the show is completely unapologetic. Said more plainly: Killing Eve doesn’t care about your boner. Eve is happily married, and the show is more concerned with portraying the friction that comes from her job bringing her such joy and sense of purpose, while it terrifies her husband in a combination of safety concerns and a fair bit of jealousy. What does it look like for reasonable adults to feel very differently about a huge part of one partner’s life, and how do they move forward from that?

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Killing Eve thwarts any attempt at even a b- or c-couple, making it clear that if you’re looking for chemistry and sexual tension on this show, you’re going to have to fine it between Eve and Villanelle. Kenny and Elena are the likeliest B-couple, but instead Kenny’s story focuses on the familial surprises of Carolyn being his mother and the possible identity of his father. Elena, on the other hand, spends her screen time on her rapport with Eve, and her admiration for Carolyn’s work. Carolyn is clearly a force, with multiple former partners vying for her affection in Russia, but she has no interest in anything so ordinary as a love story. Bill, Eve’s former boss, is happily married, so there’s not even a possibility of directing unrequited attention toward Carolyn. 

The cat and mouse structure of the show allows us to see the crimes from the perspectives of both the killer and the detective. The temptation with crime on screen is to either be so understanding of the killer that the audience roots for them to, if not commit more crime, at least get away with what they’ve already done, or to dehumanize anyone who breaks the law, in a form of pro-cop, pro-criminal justice system propaganda. Particularly if we’re talking about a man, there’s often the use of “cool” deaths, feeding into the idea that as long as it’s badass, the morality is relative. Even in true crime, which at least nominally tries to convey that murder is bad, victims are often shunted aside with little screen time, in favor of dissecting the mindset of their killers, something we see spilling over into the way news media covers “sweet, quiet” male perpetratorsof violence versus dead female victims. 

Killing Eve won’t let us get away with either posture. We spend enough time with Villanelle to root for her, but Eve is in many ways our true protagonist. Every time Eve breaks the law in her pursuit of Villanelle, it is called out, often by Eve herself. From the very first episode, we are asked to wonder if Eve’s singular focus on Villanelle isn’t at least a little responsible for the deaths of innocent people, like the girlfriend under protective custody in the hospital and later Bill. With the inclusion of traitorous MI6 agents like her crappy former boss Frank and the possibility of Carolyn’s betrayal, which feels more personal, it’s clear that this is no ad for the virtues of law enforcement. In fact, the entire premise of the show is that much of the law enforcement machine was incapable of catching this killer. 

Killing Eve flirts with the concept of romanticizing its killer, toying with our perspective on Villanelle by alternating between murders that feel self-righteous (sex trafficker) and those that undercut our ability to root for her, like terrifying, indiscriminate violence (everyone at the hospital.) It would be easy to imagine Villanelle as some kind of feminist avenging angel, a walking empowerment model in couture and functional black boots. But Killing Eve is picking at all the tropes, not just the ones that directly harm women, and that means calling out the audience for falling in love with our resident psychopathic murderer. 

Killing Eve undercuts the romanticized view of Villanelle by exposing us to the emotional horror of Villanelle’s murders. Bill’s death is the kind of choice a lesser show would not have the audacity to make. How does Villanelle come back from that? The answer seems to be that she doesn’t. Unlike so many other assassins in entertainment, Villanelle’s victims aren’t just bad guys or anonymous goons. Phoebe Waller-Bridge won’t even allow us to fall into the easy feminist narrative of Villanelle only killing terrible men, those who commit violence against women. 

More than being an entertaining, off-killer entrée into the procedural and spy genres, Killing Eve pushes both genres forward, asking more of the genres and the audience enjoying them. Killing Eve simultaneously undercuts the gratuitous violence and sexification that plague the genres, as well as the romanticized view of crime and law enforcement themselves, forcing the audience to reckon with the sickening implications of both sides of the coin.