Death and Sex in Killing Eve: A Psychoanalytical Study


In my first post after quite a long hiatus after exams, I’m challenging myself a bit to write about television rather than film.

In April 2018, Killing Eve entered the airwaves with a bang and was an international phenomenon. Many saw it as revolutionising the union of dark comedy and psychological thriller in television, largely by the grace of Fleabag’s sharp and witty Phoebe Waller-Bridge who adapted the script from Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novellas. The watertight script, married with the immaculate production, flawless performances and innovative concept, produced one of the most thought-provoking and enthralling shows for a long time, as shown by the haul of Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations and wins it brought in. I think what makes Killing Eve so different from shows that struggle to have such an impact is the simplicity of the concept at a glance: two completely different women who form a relationship. Yet it is of course much more complicated than that, therefore allowing the writers to continue to develop the complexity of the central relationship without reaching at straws to find new ways to keep the wheels grinding on, as so many shows seem to do these days.

I managed to binge both seasons of Killing Eve in a week whilst still doing my A Levels as I became completely addicted to observing these ever-developing details and intricacies in the film-making, the writing, the acting and the narrative itself. Watching the show whilst simultaneously revising for my English Literature A Level exams, in particular whilst studying the plays A Streetcar Named Desire and The Duchess of Malfi, proved to provide quite an interesting perspective as a spectator. It essentially allowed me to take into consideration the heavy philosophical and psychological ideas that draw these texts so closely together, more specifically centred on the nature of desire and the push and pull of our primal instincts, which one could suggest forms the nucleus of Waller-Bridge’s narrative for the show. In essence, it’s a cat-and-mouse chase between two incredibly intelligent women whose circumstances have lead them to fall into the trap of blurring the lines between subjective moral obligation and indulging in their own gritty and primitive desires, the majority of the latter being their extraordinary, inexplicable obsession with one another. The irony of this of course is that their primary roles in the narrative would lead us to see them as binary opposites, with Eve (Sandra Oh) being a fiercely driven MI6 agent and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) being a highly skilled assassin, yet the strange perversion of these archetypes allows us to closely compare them as individual women, perhaps concluding that their similarities outweigh their differences.

Even beyond the two central characters, it seems that every character, no matter how virtuous they appear to be, have their own obtrusive vices, in turn opening up a broader conversation about how underneath our carefully built identities and image, perhaps we aren’t so different from one another, and that it is the nature of the human condition to provide us all with both good and bad instincts which we cannot always control. In this post, I am mainly going to focus on psychoanalytic theories that could help us explore the relationships between characters and their individual drives, demonstrating how through the medium of television, subversive and taboo psychological concepts can be tackled head on and transformed into a full on experience for the audience.

BBC America. (2018). Killing Eve

The show’s narrative exposition successfully lays down the foundation for the two central characters, in order to begin growing the complex intermingling of their individual drives. We start, as most narratives do, with a cliche for the writers to later play with and expand; Eve is the nobody and Villanelle is the somebody. Villanelle leads an exhilarating life of performative assassinations and luxury living, whereas the most exciting thing to happen in Eve’s life is falling asleep on both of her arms and waking up screaming. Though it is an exaggeration, it immediately foregrounds Waller-Bridge’s dark comedic slant to the narrative, establishing from the start that whilst it is categorically a crime drama, it doesn’t attempt to take itself too seriously either which I think really complements the construction of Villanelle’s character especially, leaving the spectator feeling oddly violated and perplexed as to why they are growing to like a cold-hearted assassin. In fact, one of the phenomenal things about Waller-Bridge’s characters is how she experiments with maturity, especially through Villanelle’s hilariously endearing childishness, from knocking an ice cream onto a child in our first encounter with her to her giddy excitement over children’s stickers at the hospital in season 2. Combined with her clear amorality and lack of conscious sympathy for her victims, this could signify the base, primitive nature of her psyche that the writers intend to establish in order for us to understand her a little more. In this sense, we can see a similarity with Eve’s childish opportunism within her MI6 job, shown through her consistent disobedience towards her authority figures such as Bill (David Haig) and Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), and assuming her own intellectual superiority by carrying out her own personal investigations which draw her straight to Villanelle.

With both Eve and Villanelle, this blurred nexus between professionalism and primitive impulse could draw in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of Eros and Thanatos, or the life and death drives, which outlines the idea that every person is driven by two instincts. The “Eros” instinct entails the desire for continuation of life, survival and pleasure, leading one to make practical and productive decisions or ones that satisfy the ego. The “Thanatos” instinct deals with self-destructive behaviours that are mostly channelled outwards through aggression, subversion of authority and inwardly through self harm or addiction. Together, they form a back-and-forth pull within the psyche that dictates our behaviours, yet Freud’s original explanation of the theory is significantly more complex, and I found that Killing Eve articulated this complexity extraordinarily well.

BBC America. (2019). Killing Eve

Something I love about the show is that at any point you never know whether the characters want to kill each other or have sex with each other, the perfect example being the extraordinary altercation in Villanelle’s bedroom between her and Eve at the very end of season 1, as just when you think they are about to kiss, Eve digs a knife into Villanelle’s stomach, taking them both by surprise. Through the immaculate screenplay and exceptional performances of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, we see that neither of them are certain of what it is that they desire, to triumph over the other as an assertion of ego or to satisfy their profound intellectual and intimate interests in one another.

Taking into account Freud’s distinctions between the id, ego and superego, and considering that the Eros instinct is suggested to satisfy the ego, or the rational set of principles a person holds, one could suggest that whilst it would seem to be the opposite way round, Villanelle is largely driven by the life instinct. Her ultimate goal and means for survival lies in having control over others, both sexual and homicidal, as being an assassin grants her the luxury and freedom that is essential to her. As a result of this, having Eve, who essentially becomes her muse, under her complete control would be the ultimate victory of her ego, as demonstrated by the season 2 finale in which Villanelle stubbornly exclaims “you’re mine!” as Eve realises that she has become the puppet that Villanelle has always wanted her to be. Taking textbook psychopathic behaviour into account, it is important to recognise that whilst Villanelle shows some indication of conventional love and affection for Eve, she must ultimately serve no one but herself, therefore the statement “you’re mine,” could mean that Villanelle intends to triumph over Eve whether she is alive or dead, as she does not hesitate to shoot Eve in the back once she rejects her. In fact, other than in that very final part of the season 2 finale where she spontaneously punishes Eve for going against her, Villanelle’s death drive only seems to appear in season 2 episode 4 when she realises that Eve has started to lose interest in her, leading to a lonely drugged out spree in an Amsterdam nightclub where she inevitably unleashes her aggression in a violent outburst. For the majority of the time, however, Villanelle’s ego seems unbreakable, complying neatly with the conventional psychopathic behaviourism of confidently assuming total power and control, not doubting her intentions for a single moment, even after attempting to kill Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), one of the few people she shares a close familial relationship with, she feels no remorse. She knows she has Eve under her control and that allows her ego to spiral upwards as Eve sinks lower and lower into her chaotic conflicting desires.

Eve has a more typical psychological makeup, having a solid superego of ingrained values and morals through societal conformity, juxtaposed with Villanelle’s superego which has been completely stripped, perhaps as a result of some childhood trauma that is hinted at throughout the show. Taking symbolism into account, Eve appears to be almost an outlier, being an Asian-American immigrant among her mainly White-British colleagues. I also think it is significant that her sense of home and comfort is located with her partner Niko (Owen McDonnell), whose Polish background possibly suggests that he is also somewhat an outsider in British culture and so Eve can relate to him, perhaps suggesting that she has never felt completely comfortable or settled, indicating an inner urge to seek similar people , no matter their background. This could therefore imply something about her fanatical obsession with female psychopaths, the connection that ultimately draws her and Villanelle together, as she explains that she is fascinated by what would lead a woman to become a serial killer, yet we come to learn that it is less of a casual interest and more of an engulfing obsession. It is fair to say that throughout season 2, we see Eve drastically failing at her job apart from when it regards Villanelle, as her accumulated understanding of her proves useful in solving the case of another female assassin, The Ghost.

Yet it does begin to seem like Eve is working less for MI6, and more for her own personal satisfaction in her quest to dig deeper into Villanelle’s mind. I am very fond of the particular scene between private school posh boy Hugo (Edward Bluemel) and Eve in season 2 where Eve scolds him by saying that not everything is about sex; he simply responds “isn’t it?” I find it very telling that it is Hugo, the lewd and privileged schoolboy, who is speaking Eve’s truth at this point, effectively exposing her fa├žade and pulling her down from her column of professionalism to a dark, seedy world of sexual impulse and opportunism, a world which Hugo in particular is not fooled by. It neatly puts into perspective the balance between Eve’s virtues and vices, the latter becoming more and more prevalent in front of her peers as her infatuation with Villanelle continues to grow.

We’re led to doubt the legitimacy of Villanelle’s words when she says “we are the same,” yet there is evidence to suggest that the only real difference between them is Eve’s loaded superego and Villanelle’s lack of influence from society. This, in turn, poses the question: is Eve a psychopath? If it weren’t for her integrated role in society, would she be like Villanelle? The answer isn’t made clear, but the possibility is definitely experimented with throughout both series, from the first episode where she practises cutting her leg to subtly puncture a vein, to her increasingly Machiavellian ways of controlling those around her, defying Carolyn and putting Konstantin’s family in danger just to get to Villanelle, and even firing one of her most valuable assets, computer hacker Kenny (Sean Delaney) when he refuses to let her put herself in danger.

It is clear, however, that Eve’s means for survival does not depend on a ruthless lifestyle like Villanelle’s, but on traditional life: her marriage to Niko, her job and her friendships – the life that she urges to escape from, indicating that her self-destructive Thanatos drive is more dominant. It is perfectly illustrated in the lipstick scene in season 2, the red lipstick from Villanelle connoting innate sexuality and desire, yet a hidden blade inside it cuts Eve lip whilst she applies it, encompassing Villanelle’s fatal charm and Eve’s remarkable attraction to it as she presses onto the cut with her finger, seeming to bask in the euphoric feeling of the pain. From this, we could take the idea that the show primarily follows Eve as her repressed id slowly causes her downfall, almost like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Eve’s turbulent state of mind is revealed to Villanelle after she manipulates Eve into killing her handler Raymond (Adrian Scarborough) in an attempt to prove that they are, in fact, the same. The grotesque bloodbath traumatises Eve to the point where she denies her love for Villanelle, who consequently shoots her and leaves her lying in a pool of blood as the season finale ends, emblematising Eve’s ultimate downfall and Villanelle’s bitter victory.

BBC America. (2019). Killing Eve

Whilst it seems that Eve is killed by her psychopathic soulmate, it is doubtful that is what the show’s title directly refers to, mainly because it is highly unlikely that Eve is actually dead at the end of season 2 in order for it to continue. If we attempt to complete the title of the show which poses the question of “who is killing Eve?”; the answer is most likely Eve herself, through her desire to understand Villanelle both intellectually and intimately, a very typical “curiosity-killed-the-cat” type of situation. It is a lot more difficult to unpick Villanelle’s interest in Eve, however as Villanelle says to Gabriel (Pierre Atri) in the hospital “Sometimes when you love someone you will do crazy things,” perhaps meaning that killing Eve is her ultimate act of love, or perhaps proving her love for Eve to herself, as Villanelle’s focus ultimately lies in protecting herself and her freedom before anyone else. Regardless, the debate as to who is killing Eve is still open, allowing season 3 to provide us with the gloomy aftermath of the finale which may reveal more details.

Before summarising all this, I would note that the possibilities for analysis of the characters in Killing Eve are endless, these are my own and could be interpreted very differently, truly in itself demonstrating the mastery behind the creation of the show and all its wonderful and chilling complexities. I think it is common for us to go about our lives half aware of the dark, grotesque corners of our mind that we attempt to suppress in order to conform, yet sometimes we can’t help but say or do things we can’t even explain without exposing this side of us, and Killing Eve takes this idea by the reins and turns it into an exhilarating voyage through the corrupted/uncorrupted human psyche. Through the writer’s constant manipulation of the audience’s sympathy, a sense of ambiguity is created as to who the protagonists or the antagonists are, and that in itself creates the debate of whether we truly know the difference between good and bad, if we are trusting the right people, who is controlling who, and whether we actually know who we answer to. As Villanelle says to Eve during one of their first encounters, “I think if you looked high enough you’d find out that we actually work for the same people,” implying that if we dissect the conventions of society, we might find that we are all just as base and corrupt as each other, psychopaths and secret agents alike.

Killing Eve season 3 is due to drop mid 2020, and we are all impatient to find out what really happened in Rome. Keep an eye on this blog for my reaction to the next season and whether my interpretations of the show have changed…

BBC America. (2018). Killing Eve