In a recent trailer for the second season of BBC America’s dramatic thriller, Killing Eve, we’re treated to a brief but comic exchange between the flamboyantly modish serial killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and an enthusiastic passerby, a scene that seems both inevitable and winking.
Villanelle is situated in the most picturesque of settings—writing at a sunny café table alongside a sun-dappled channel—and, ever aware of her potent physical charms, she has dressed to rival this comely backdrop: her porcelain skin glows against a satin, rose pink blouse, knotted at the waist, just above a full magenta skirt. Chunky gold art deco earrings gleam from her ears, and her honey blonde hair is pulled back from her face in a low, soft knot, though the wind teases out stray, soft strands that flitter above her face like halo thread.
“Wow, you look amazing!” exclaims the pretty blonde in a yellow fitted blazer—she is holding a vintage camera, and a red designer bag hangs from her wrist. “Can I take a picture of you for my Instagram?”
“No, no, of course not,” Villanelle shoots back, and the presumed Instagram influencer—or blogger, though her polished appearance implies that she has ascended the hierarchy—scurries away, head down and clearly mortified. Villanelle, in turn, is repulsed by what seems to her a frivolous request. “Get a real life!” she calls after the young woman.
Knowing what we do of Villanelle, her reaction is characteristic: funny to witness, but decidedly and callously cruel. It also demonstrates her opaque self-understanding. It’s not a little ironic that Villanelle tells this avid young woman to “get a real life,” when her own livelihood is something of a gritty, blood-bathed inversion of a social media influencer’s lustrously filtered lifestyle. After all, an influencer’s success depends upon their ability to broadcast and sell a certain narrative of identity, often one that is stylish and healthy according to conventionally exclusive metrics. Starting a public social media account is certainly not a possibility for Villanelle, whose work as an assassin demands her ability to blend into a scene—she loves a flourish, and so struggles with this job detail somewhat—and to seem, to crime scene investigators, utterly improbable and unsuspicious. “Fashion blogger” would, in fact, be an excellent cover.
To hit her marks, Villanelle, like so many social media influencers, must constantly and compellingly enact a role, but in her case, plurality is fundamental—she is a nurse, a sex worker, a waitress with aspirations of developing her own line of perfumes. And yet, always, her femininity and disarming, Pre-Raphaelite beauty are central to the mission. A female Instagram influencer weaponizes her femininity in a corporate sense; for Villanelle, the act is chillingly literal. She does not traffic in “sponcon,” and her bacchanalian tendencies are at odds with Goop-y wellness ideology, but her life is, in its way, sponsored by The Twelve, the shadowy organization that has hired her to carry out their dirty work. Her dreamy Paris apartment, that candy pink organza frock
—these are, if purchased by her, the trappings of her own business arrangement, perks of the gig.
She might not always be “likable”—that perpetually re-adjusting needle of male-attuned calibration—but she is desirable in nearly every sense.
When the two women regard each other, the effect is one of a Carrollian looking glass. Here is what Villanelle might have been, divested of the sociopathy and hedonism, and whatever she might protest, she would have loved it. Her grandiose vanity, at least, would have been nourished, her materialistic delight glutted, and the yawning maw within her, so ravenous for love, fed with the adoration of faceless admirers, to whom, by virtue of the asymmetrical arrangement, she owed practically nothing.
Get a real life, sneers Villanelle. But when you are a savage killer, brutally beautiful and unrepentant, and your survival is predicated on existing just beneath the blinking radar—and when you risk everything because of your feral attraction to the woman who has been tasked with tracking you down—it’s nearly impossible to discern how, according to your capricious calibrations, a “real life” might look.
Yet, when I hear Villanelle issue this insult, I squirm self-consciously, her voice following the chastened young woman, but boomeranging through the fourth wall and into my stomach. I’m disinclined to use the phrase “the Instagram influencer is all of us,” but our identification with her is palpably insinuated. The first season of Killing Eve, the most recent project of writer, director, and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, introduced us to Villanelle and all the violence, whimsy, and luscious sensuality that renders her an ineffably magnetic figure. She might not always be “likable”—that perpetually re-adjusting needle of male-attuned calibration—but she is desirable in nearly every sense.
Of course, as others have aptly established, Villanelle is not always so breezy and attractive; by the conclusion of the first season, she is battered and exhausted and altogether aggravated. She can be as churlish as she is winsome. And her alias is no coincidence. In literature, as Jia Tolentino points out, “villanelle” refers to a poem with the rhyme arrangement “aba”
—gesturing to the character’s paramount vulnerability: lucid, trackable behavioral patterns. A villanelle’s framework hangs on its repetition, a structure that encourages its writer to dwell upon obsessions (think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night,” one of the form’s most famous examples, in which the speaker ruminates, with increasing fervor, over the resistance of a passive death).
Villanelle inspires obsession; this is, after all, the premise of Killing Eve. But, as we quickly ascertain, she is equally susceptible to them. She falls in love with certain types of women (generally those with luxurious dark curls—thus, Sandra Oh). She does not always dispatch her marks in the same way, but she’d like to—the hairpin, if ill-advised from a strategic standpoint, does make for a stunning weapon. Russian born, she is drawn to anything French, and it’s the language she most prefers to speak (in Victorian literature, this would be a tremendous tell that a character was deviant—Lady Audley, when she is finally cornered, speaks French).
And yet, we’ve made Villanelle’s preoccupations our own, and in so doing, become thoroughly preoccupied with her. This avid interest, dare I say obsession, has rendered her something more of an influencer than may be immediately discernible. Earlier this year, as starlets floated down the red carpet just before the Oscars, a slew of viewers, myself included, remarked upon the clouds of bright pink tulle enveloping Kacey Musgraves and Linda Cardellini like soft spun sugar, not to mention the general ubiquity of the color—they’re channeling Villanelle, we exclaimed.
I am weary of the term “strong female lead,” but wearier still of their paucity: even now, most onscreen, non-superheroic female characters who are unimpressed by men are killers.
It can be dangerous to hold someone, fictional or real, in esteem for superficial reasons, but this is not revelatory information, and Killing Eve is not didactic television. Just as we do not need to be admonished against admiring Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) of Basic Instinct (1992) or Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) of The Last Seduction (1994), we understand that Villanelle, for all her frenetic feminine charm, is—if not utterly devoid of warm tendrils—above all else a self-involved and wholly merciless murderer. Simultaneously, the titular Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), an MI5 functionary who, to her great elation, is promoted to MI6 and tasked with hunting down Villanelle, becomes obsessed with the mission, not for altruistic reasons, exactly, but for intimately personal ones: fascination with Villanelle’s skill; desire to avenge Bill (David Haig), her friend and mentor who Villanelle killed; and, ultimately, the increscent homoerotic burn that entangles hunter and hunted.
This is not a narrative that parcels out what and who is right, placing them in steadfast opposition to evil, but instead dwells in the specificities of two women’s endlessly flawed impulses, yearnings, and motivations. Eve may be “better” than Villanelle, so to speak, but as Alice Bolin suggests, this might be a mere accident of inclination: “Eve would never actually be able to kill someone.” We’d often regard this as a marker of moral robustness, but in this case, it is “a kind of merciful cowardice,” particularly when we consider how brashly Eve tosses others across Villanelle’s lethal sights. Bolin makes the astute point that, in the case of Bill’s death, Eve carries hefty responsibility: she is the one who urges him to accompany her on the Berlin operation where he was killed, after all. And she does, in the end, stab Villanelle in the abdomen—she promptly freaks out after doing so, but she does it all the same.
Still, the question of Villanelle’s influence lingers. When I watched the trailer for the second season, I laughed at Villanelle’s exchange with the sweet-faced Instagram personality—it’s funny, after all—but the contours of the moment felt weighted, sly. Someone explicitly asks to render Villanelle a work of art, and Villanelle, who revels in any opportunity to exploit feminine aesthetics—she kills a man with an ornate hairpin!—refuses. On the one hand, it’s yet another moment in which Villanelle resists being reduced to the sum of her parts: her creative flourishes are extensions of her own power, and they are hers to deploy and discard as she sees fit. Setting aside the ways it might compromise her safety, she would never commit to the objectifying stasis of someone else’s photograph.
In the meantime, we’ve elevated Villanelle to couture iconography, relishing her ensembles and, with a compulsive verve to match Eve and Villanelle’s cat-and-mouse antics, we share shots of Villanelle lounged on the sofa in pink tulle. Catherine Tramell, and to a lesser extent, Bridget Gregory are similarly canonized. Catherine, mile-long legs crossed, in the carnal black mini dress, of course, but also swathed in serene, neutral tones, strolling on the beach. Bridget, like liquid in the long forest green dress she wears as she slips into a limousine, her con successfully fulfilled. I am weary of the term “strong female lead,” but wearier still of their paucity: even now, most onscreen, non-superheroic female characters who are unimpressed by men are killers. Perhaps it’s no wonder that we long to frame film stills and hang them over our mantles, that we want to wrap ourselves their clothes—the draw is not only sartorial, it’s a matter of control of—there it is again—influence: Villanelle, dressed in pink, not giving a fuck, while others fall at her feet.
Nobody is telling us not to love Villanelle, or even that we must contend with what it means to do so. But the stakes of emotional investment in a female killer are fundamentally different from our interest in male anti-heroes, like the toxically masculine Walter White. Like Eve, we want to locate something sympathetic within this angel-faced villain, to learn that she was somehow victimized. Determined to tell a different story about Villanelle, we rage against the one set before us: that she is a bonafide sociopath, that a life lived according to sound morality would bore her to tears—which, come to think of it, might be the first time we see her cry. But it’s too enticing, the hope for some recuperative detail. Then setting her photo as our desktop background, lusting after her, and designing our wardrobes based on her predilections might seem somehow more rational.
But Villanelle is a fictional character—she can’t get a real life—and so maybe it’s absurd to think too much about it. It’s safer, in any case, because Villanelle, however much she wants to be adored, is uninterested by love’s redemptive possibilities. Her own obsessions gesture not to underlying tenderness, but to the full-bodied thrust of id: a poem of desire and blood. And unlike the social media influencer, Villanelle hasn’t sought a platform. She is more or less content with her shadowy notoriety, and she doesn’t stand for anything but the kaleidoscopic meanings we hoist upon her, again and again and again.