CULTURE & ARTS

How 'Killing Eve' Chops The Knob Off The Spy Thriller Genre

In the show's finale episode, Phoebe Waller-Bridge takes the typically male-centric genre of cat-and-mouse thrillers and hacks its phallic baggage right off.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of "Killing Eve," has detached the typical machismo found in cat-and-mouse thrillers.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of "Killing Eve," has detached the typical machismo found in cat-and-mouse thrillers.

Warning: Major spoilers ahead. Don’t read until you’ve watched the finale!

Before the ruthless assassin known as Villanelle was Villanelle, viewers learn in the penultimate episode of BBC America’s “Killing Eve” that she was Oksana, a precocious student from a broken home who developed a fixation with her married teacher, Anna. 

“We were told a new student was coming,” the gentle-mannered Anna (Susan Lynch) retrospectively tells Eve (Sandra Oh), the intelligence officer currently and desperately trying to track down Villanelle (Jodie Comer). “History of violence, antisocial behavior. Her mother was dead, her father was a drunk. She arrived at the school and everyone stepped back. Everyone. So I stepped forward. Extra time, extra lessons, extra love.”

The teacher and pupil became close. So close that Anna’s husband, Max, grew jealous. The unfortunate fellow ― Maxie, as Anna tearfully calls him ― eventually became Villanelle’s first victim. She murdered him in the home he shared with the object of her affection, and chopped his dick off for good measure.

“She said the only reason I loved him was because he had a penis,” Anna recounts to Eve. “I told her she might be right.” 

The procedure ― castration, of course ― becomes one of the charming psychopath’s signature moves. In fact, cock-chopping is not only a key plot point in the Phoebe Waller-Bridge-created assassin show, it’s also an apt metaphor for the series overall.

With “Killing Eve,” Waller-Bridge takes the typically male-centric genre of cat-and-mouse thrillers and hacks its phallic baggage right off. She detaches the genre’s prototypical machismo by placing female characters in not one but nearly all of the series’ primary roles: Deranged psycho assassin Villanelle, doughty intelligence officer Eve and unflappable MI6 head Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw) are by far the most fleshed-out characters in the show’s universe.

The latter two are on the hunt for Villanelle, but as the show’s name suggests, the killer hunts back; a mutual obsession between Eve and the subject of her investigation somersaults into the crux of this show. Of course, there are central male characters too: Bill, Eve’s fedora-sporting boss; Konstantin, the burly Russian kingpin; and Frank, the insufferable mole. 

However, by the end of the season, all aforementioned gentlemen wind up dead, as do the many nameless dudes with the grave misfortune of being on Villanelle’s to-do list.

Villanelle splurges on fancy lunch with her hostage, Konstantin's daughter. 
Villanelle splurges on fancy lunch with her hostage, Konstantin's daughter. 

In spy thrillers, crime procedurals and horror flicks, body counts tend to skew female. One of the few pop culture realms that overrepresent women is that of corpses. Intensifying the ickiness of Hollywood’s taste for dead lady bodies is the fact that, as Rebecca Nicholson wrote in The Guardian, “more men are murdered than women in the U.S. and in the U.K. each year. Yet I don’t remember ever seeing the body of a male character caressed by a camera in quite the same way.”

After finishing the first ― and widely beloved ― season of “Killing Eve,” viewers can add a slate of male corpses to their memory banks. Most gruesome among them is dead Frank, whose body Eve discovers in a safe house that turned out not to be so safe. She finds him dead on a bed, in repose, his lifeless physique stuffed into a black-and-white cocktail dress. Splashes of blood are visible on his inner thighs.

“[Villanelle] chopped his knob off,” Eve breathlessly recounts to Carolyn, echoing the language her colleague Kenny used to break the news about Max’s similar fate. Her horrified tone matches the gruesome tenor of the event that just occurred. 

Moments later, however, the camera jumps to a close-up shot of two juicy sausages sizzling in a pan. Villanelle is cooking. The kill, it seems, got her in the mood. 

Whenever penises and other phallic symbols appear in the show, they’re framed as extraneous, laughable and futile ― dead weight. In one scene, Eve meets Carolyn at a butcher shop to debrief her on the investigation’s latest progressions. “Take a minute,” Carolyn advises when Eve gets overexcited. “Look at the sausages.” 

In another, Konstantin is peeing on the side of the road when Eve pulls a gun on him, demanding he tell her the truth. Gun drawn, Eve commands Konstantin to keep his hands where she can see them. “I ... have to put it back,” he stammers sheepishly in response. 

Eve doesn’t end up shooting Konstantin. For a show heavy on bloodshed, guns ― arguably phallic symbols themselves ― rarely prove to be effective weapons. Overall, the show lacks action-packed car chases and shootouts, replacing them with violent ends of a more feminine nature: death by poison perfume, slashed ballsacks and intense neck-biting. 

Eve wandering through Moscow. 
Eve wandering through Moscow. 

The season culminates with a face-to-face confrontation between Villanelle and Eve, unsupervised, in the latter’s apartment. In a twist that betrays the show’s title, it seems Eve is the only person on Earth the assassin hesitates to kill. Instead, the women divulge their feelings for each other ― which land somewhere between bloodlust and lust lust.

The scene is erotic and, like most of the series’ intimate moments, lacks a noticeable penis. This pattern is established early on in the show. In Episode 1, Eve reneges her lukewarm offer to have sex with her husband, Niko, to instead obsess over her Villanelle-centric conspiracies. (Pray for Niko, one of the few male survivors.)

When Eve finally comes clean to Villanelle about being the object of her bonkers preoccupation, the tension between them is insane, fueled both by loathing and desire. Villanelle clearly prefers women to men; Anna and Eve have the distinct bad luck of being her type.

Although Eve is ostensibly straight, her interactions with Villanelle buzz with electricity in a way her humdrum dealings with her husband don’t. The intensity of the feeling burrows a yawning hole into Eve’s orderly, domestic life, opening her up to other ways of living beyond ethical boundaries and societal expectations. That Eve’s burgeoning queerness is inextricably linked to a life of slaughtering innocent people complicates things a bit. 

“I think about you all the time,” Eve tells Villanelle while perched atop her bed. “I think about what you’re wearing and what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. I think about what friends you have. I think about what you eat before you work and what shampoo you use and what happened in your family. I think about your eyes and your mouth and what you feel when you kill someone. I think about what you have for breakfast. I just want to know everything.”

“I mean I masturbate about you a lot,” Villanelle admits.

Teetering between awe and animosity, Eve and Villanelle are hungry for each other and consumed by each other, offering a vision of mutual female desire that doesn’t culminate in penetration or mutual destruction. No penises, no guns. In the end, Eve’s desire to destroy Villanelle wins out against her desire to be with her. Post-confession, Eve eventually drives a knife into Villanelle’s belly in the finale episode. For once, viewers see the composed killer frantic, suffering and desperate.

“I really liked you!” she shouts. 

Unlike Villanelle, Eve is no trained assassin. Moments after thrusting the knife into her target ― and straddling her in the process ― she becomes overcome with panic and pity. She runs to the kitchen, feverishly searching for something to cobble the wound she just created. When Eve returns, her victim is gone. 

And that’s how the show ends. Cut off abruptly, still oozing blood, like a knob gone too soon. We’ll have to wait until next season to survey the carnage in full. 

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