CulturePop Culture Killing Eve Review: Subverting The Spy Thriller Genre

Killing Eve Review: Subverting The Spy Thriller Genre

Killing Eve is a dangerous yet oftentimes facetious dance of twisted seduction that not only passes the Bechdel test but flips it on its head.

BBC America’s new thriller, Killing Eve, is the story of an MI5 investigator and an assassin who are both on a mission to find and kill the other but end up becoming mutually obsessed. Set primarily in present-day London, it is fundamentally a cat-and-mouse spy story but manages to be so much more.

The assassin, who has adopted the nom de gurre Villanelle, is played by the lovely Jodie Comer. She works for a secret organisation of powerful people from around the globe called ‘The Twelve’. They are a collective whose actions revolve around maintaining their members’ stronghold in the world.

Image Source: Metro

Eve Polastri (played by the incredibly talented Sandra Oh of Grey’s Anatomy fame), the MI5 investigator, gets tangled up in Villanelle’s life when she makes a connection between several assassinations around the world to a single female assassin. She is subsequently recruited in secret by a senior MI6 official to find this assassin. What follows is a dangerous yet oftentimes facetious dance of twisted seduction that not only passes the Bechdel test but flips it on its head.

A Female ‘James Bond’ – Finally

One of the first things the viewer notices while watching Killing Eve is how similar Villanelle and James Bond are. For starters, both of them have the same job – killing people (except he works for the good guys and she, for the bad guys). There are big guns and hard punches. Villanelle is sexy, dresses exceptionally well and has a distinctive style to both herself and her kills – just like James Bond.

Villanelle. Image source: Express 

Although many would be tempted to argue that Lorraine Broughton from Atomic Blonde has already earned that title, they forget one crucial aspect that makes Bond movies what they are – the sex. In the earlier movies, James Bond has sex with three (sometimes four) women on average in each movie. Over 26 movies, he has had sex with close to 60 women. In conclusion, James Bond has a lot of sex – and he has fun doing it.

Also read: ‘Ghoul’ Review: A Mirror To The Future Of India

Lorraine, on the other hand, has one sexual partner – a woman. The fact that it was a woman was indeed a refreshing departure and would have helped Atomic Blonde’s LGBTQIA+ representation credentials, had the romantic interest not been killed off too soon (reinforcing the ‘bury your gays’ trope) and had Lorraine not reacted to it with one tear. It leaves you with the question of whether Broughton’s queerness was meant to be for the queers to see more of themselves on screen, or for the straight man’s girl-on-girl fetish.

This is where Killing Eve’s anti-hero Villanelle stands out – she is shown to have sex with at least four different people, and she genuinely enjoys it. She has sex on her own terms and contrary to what we’d expect from a femme fatale-esque character like Villanelle’s, she never uses sex to kill her victims (unlike Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Red Sparrow). She simply engages in it because she wants to.

This is something we need to see more of on TV – women owning their sexuality and not being portrayed as passive receivers of sex or needing to engage in it to fulfil their missions. Killing Eve, having been written by one of the most transgressive creators of our era, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, does a wonderful job at this.


Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle, on which Killing Eve is based, is pretty groundbreaking by itself with its depiction of a good proportion of complex, fleshed out female characters. Waller-Bridge goes a step further and genderswaps a few of the male characters in the book and produces diverse women each of whom she has written with utmost care. Even the casting is ethnically diverse (its titular character of an MI6 agent is played by a 47-year-old woman of Asian origin).

(from left) Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Image Source: Radio Times

In Killing Eve, the protagonist is a woman, the antagonist is a woman, the boss is a woman, the best friend is a woman, and the female lead’s old love is a woman. The victims are mostly men. It is a show in which women are finally not killed off to further the plot.

This is not to say that the men are depicted to be vile, misogynistic caricatures or derided in any way. They are simply just secondary to the women’s goals. Each of the male characters, in fact, is written to be way more endearing than in the book. So much so that when they eventually die, it breaks your heart.

Just as the men are not portrayed to be women-hating monsters, the women are also not portrayed to be ostentatiously powerful.

Just as the men are not portrayed to be women-hating monsters, the women are also not portrayed to be ostentatiously powerful. Their worth is staunchly innate and doesn’t require overt displays of ‘badassery’. They are, at the end of the day, just women navigating through life (albeit theirs is much more interesting) – like the rest of us.

The strength of Killing Eve lies in how it does not brand itself as a feminist show. It does not depict powerful women as a novelty. It simply focuses on portraying women as full-fledged people.

The Queer Ambiguity

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a U.S. non-governmental media monitoring organisation founded by LGBT people in the media, defines queerbaiting as the following. Leading fans to believe a character might be queer to bring in new audiences, without ever making that character or relationship canon or explicit on screen, or the project having any intention to ever move beyond subtle hints. They say, “if a character is truly exploring their identity, there should be movement in the story versus sly insinuations and an eventual direction on how the character will move forward.”

This is what some fans accuse the show of doing. In Killing Eve, although the mutual obsession Eve and Villanelle share is established, it is never actually consummated. They don’t even share a kiss. Each of their scenes together is built up to reveal something about the feelings they might have for each other, but always leaves you hanging.

Image Source: The Verge

Villanelle’s sexuality is made clear, but Eve’s remains nebulous throughout. During the one scene Eve admits to having any feelings for Villanelle, she immediately follows it with an act that leaves you wondering if her confession was genuine or just a ploy to catch Villanelle.

It is understandable that revealing too much about their relationship in the first season might be bad for the future of the show, but Killing Eve could definitely learn a lesson or two from Byran Fuller’s masterful depiction of homosexual subtext without indulgence in queerbaiting in Hannibal, which is also essentially a story about the cop and the killer getting obsessed with each other. 

It would be disappointing if the showrunners go on to handle the lead women’s relationship the way Supernatural did – five seasons of queerbaiting with no consummation.

Other concerns fans had were with the ‘psycho lesbian‘ trope that Villanelle seems to fit into, and the realisation of the ‘bury your gays’ trope with two-thirds of the undoubtedly queer characters dead.

A Subversive Masterpiece

Equal parts brutal, suspenseful, hilarious and stylish, Killing Eve is an absolute delight. Stunning visuals coupled with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s quirky wit, this show is a must-watch for all kinds of viewers.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Image Source: Vanity Fair

Waller-Bridge manages to make you laugh in the most serious of moments and makes you fall in love with and feel deeply for all of her characters, even the cold-blooded murderers (without giving them a broken past for you to empathise with). She does so while not appeasing the male gaze and breaking several stereotypes. Killing Eve may have changed the course of TV forever.

Also read: Why You Need To Be Watching Netflix’s Dear White People

Phoebe Waller-Bridge successfully subverted the comedy genre with Fleabag and has now subverted the spy thriller genre with Killing Eve.

Featured Image Source: Medium

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