SPOILERS for Killing Eve Seasons 1 and 2
As the canon of strong female leads continues to expand, we’re met with exceedingly more room for deviance. We’ve had our taste of the empowered female lead, the girl next door, and the quirky, lovable lead, but our palettes are primed for someone with a bit more bite. Girls need to see girls making the wrong choice and not saying sorry. Enter Killing Eve’s Villanelle.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, mastermind behind Killing Eve and of course, Fleabag, presents us with a portrait of a woman that does not shy away from the disdainful.
Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is not a femme fatale or a Vamp. Her power is not derived from her sexual prowess or appeal, despite her magnetic pull on her co-lead, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Villanelle is committed to her heinous acts without looking back and we get pulled down this windy path of childish impulse and devilish fun alongside her.
Yes, Villanelle murders countless people, both assigned kills and those just-for-fun. We watch her make calculated choices even when she seems to be acting on a whim. Though to dismiss Villanelle, as is commonly done with characters like her, as a “psychopath” downplays what makes her so movingly complex.
Admittedly, she very well might be psychopathic, but that psychopathy can’t be an easy excuse in Killing Eve’s narrative. If we write her off as a psychopath, we give her a relatively boring inner-life to explain away how she could act so coldly, kill with such calculated malice and flair. We, in essence, take away her power of choice. Yet we see time and again just how much of a thrill she receives from making the wrong choice.
At the start of the series, Villanelle knocks a child’s ice cream dish over as she exits an ice cream parlor, just because she wanted to. No apology. Just the small smirk and glint in her eyes we’ll grow to know intimately.
In a series built around Villanelle’s excellence in assassinations, the first action we see her take is somehow more shockingly vile than cold-blooded murder. At first glance, Waller-Bridge is tempting us to cast her into the “Unquestionably-Morally-Repugnant- Villain” category (and I would argue she is truly a villain and not an anti-hero), but Villanelle (and Phoebe Waller-Bridge) doesn’t let you off the hook that easy.
Her devilish actions and the consequential trademark grin are intoxicating to both her and us because they seem to say to the viewer, “You too can make any choice at all: even the bad one.”
Villanelle is gifted by Waller-Bridge with this irrevocable power of supreme choice. Villanelle is not only free to make any choice she wants, but she’s encouraged to make the bad one. Waller-Bridge writes a character so full of nuance in her coyness and playful behavior that we can’t help but root for her.
Our alliance to Villanelle does not go untested. Season two showrunner Emerald Fennell packs a complicated punch at the close of season two that tests just how far we’ll go with Villanelle. She finally does what we always feared, or maybe hoped, she would: she pulls the trigger on Eve Polastri.
The heinousness of killing her could-be lover is delightfully understandable. Eve won’t leave her husband for Villanelle, despite all Villanelle feels she has done for her and despite the deep connection they share. Villanelle’s hand has practically been forced to the trigger, otherwise she wouldn’t be Villanelle. She has no use for Eve now. The pain of rejection is too much to handle, so she reverts to what she knows best. We can’t be mad at her. This is who she has always been and who we have been trained to accept.
Villanelle’s ability to get away with all this and remain one of the most compelling characters on TV is for a reason.
In her, women have finally been given an outlet to see themselves as flawed, complex people whose screen time is not spent being demonized, sexualized or diminished. Finally, we can see one of the worst (or, perhaps, best) versions of ourselves worthy of being treated with care.
Comer’s Villanelle gives us no easy way out of her moral destitution. In comparison with other blood-soaked feminine cinema, like Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation (2018), our villainous heroine is not dawning mini-skirts or rifles to exact her revenge on the patriarchy. In stark contrast to Levinson’s film, where at a crucial moment one heroine could choose to enact revenge on a transphobic piece of male garbage but instead decides to put the gun down, Villanelle pulls the trigger, slits the throat, stabs through the eye every single time.
Each of these characters add to an otherwise depleted arsenal of women with weaponry they know how to use, but Villanelle unlocks something new in our cultural consciousness.
Since the beginning of time and the beginning of cinema, boys have always been allowed to be bad. We praise them for it: on TV, in real life, and the worst men of history remain names we learn in school. Even the legendary DC Villain The Joker has a fan club that’s honestly border-line gross, and in the world of heteronormative rom-coms you wish you didn’t like as much as you do, the good girl always falls for the bad boy.
Even though Western myth and religion would like to have you believe women brought suffering into this world, truly owning your depraved vindictive state is an intrinsically male privilege. However, the days of demure women zipped into home life are long gone.
Characters like Villanelle are pushing that evolution into its inevitable next phase: women as fully autonomous beings who need no permission and no forgiveness to make the choices they want to, even the bad ones.
When we allow girls to be bad, we allow them to be human. The answer to knocking down hetero-normative patriarchal ideas around preserving girlhood is not to treat or see women as infallible harbingers of moral law, but to see them as people, capable of making mistakes. And, most importantly, having fun while doing it.