A still form a promotional shot from the series "Killing Eve."

AMC/BBC America

Women and Power

AMC/BBC America

‘Killing Eve’s’ Women Recast Invisibility Into a Super Power

The critically acclaimed international spy thriller delves into what it means for women to be stereotyped, categorized, underestimated, and ignored—and turns it into an asset.

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A man prowls the streets sniffing around women, saying hateful things to sex workers, and feeling like a big shot. It’s a scene that’s been on our screens so many times before. A woman catches his eye, and he follows her down a dark alley. This being a crime show, we brace ourselves for this worst.

Except this is Killing Eve, so it’s nothing like what we’re used to.

(Spoilers ahead)

On another show, a sex worker’s nameless dead body would be splayed across our screen for titillation purposes while a couple of hard-boiled detectives joke about how she couldn’t have been that good of a girl or tell us for the millionth time that sex workers make easy victims since they work outside the law and have few people to come looking. Instead, Killing Eve’s villain, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), posing as a sex worker in Amsterdam, revels simultaneously in her anonymity and her adoring crowd as she guts a man while his wife looks on.

From the beginning, Killing Eve has been a tale of gender and power. No one suspected that a series of grisly murders could have been carried out by a woman because of some antiquated notions of what it means to be ladylike and who is even capable of violence. No one, of course, except for Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), an intelligence agent wasting away on desk duty. It was those same antiquated notions that allowed Villanelle to get close to her victims in the first place, since they couldn’t possibly see her as a threat. But as the critically acclaimed show closes out its sophomore season, it delves deeper into different facets of what it means for women to be stereotyped, categorized, underestimated, and ignored, and how power expresses itself in different settings.

Villanelle uses the guise of someone servile, often an ingenue, to approach her victims. Ultimately she is always in control, only briefly allowing them to believe that the status quo has not been disrupted before she puffs the perfume, twists the knife, or stabs them in eye, sometimes even dropping her accent as a signal that something is not right. Eve said in the most recent episode that the key to maintaining control with Villanelle is letting her think that she’s in charge. It’s a dynamic Villanelle and Konstantin (Kim Bodina) toyed with, and she found moments to assert her power over her handler, like when she let him know that she knew his daughter’s name. Power comes in many forms, and Villanelle knows she must wield every kind.

The only time we’ve ever seen Villanelle truly vulnerable was when she was on the run this season and found herself trapped in the home of an apparent good Samaritan, Julian (Julian Barratt). Alone and injured, Villanelle used emotional manipulation and her appearance in an attempt to maintain the upper hand, but even an international assassin has sick days. Over the course of the previous season the audience had learned that Villanelle nearly always has the most power in a given situation, but her injury made her vulnerable. Even the deadliest woman on Killing Eve is still a woman, and still subject to Julian’s disturbing, male power-tripping fantasy of treating women like dolls he can manipulate and tend to, rather than fully realized human beings.

On Killing Eve identity is not a liability but an asset for specificity.

The second season’s major innovation is the inclusion of a second killer, known as The Ghost. In some ways the antithesis of Villanelle, The Ghost is methodical, quiet, discreet, even occasionally humane, depending on the victim. The Ghost is able to operate undetected specifically because as an immigrant woman of color, she lacks power across multiple axes. We see The Ghost occupy a number of service roles to heighten her invisibility. She’s a nail technician, a cleaning woman, just about any anonymous, low-paying profession dominated by overlooked women of color. In a critical scene we see a faceless woman going about the business of cleaning an office and killing a man inside it. What’s remarkable about the scene isn’t really the homicide; it’s the fact that Killing Eve didn’t particularly need to alter the way it filmed this scene to hide The Ghost’s identity. She was merely filmed the way cleaning women are always filmed—like they don’t matter to the story. Killing Eve invests in the transgressive interplay of women, power, and visibility, asking us to question who and what is visible—whose work, which experts, which kinds of people. The show surfaces a number of daily invisibilities, like the labor that largely falls to women and the unseen yet increasingly powerful networks that help the privileged get ahead. The smug prep-school prodigy Hugo (Edward Bluemel) always seems to have a friend he can call for a favor whenever they need a hand, even though he’s clearly more junior than multilingual Jess (Nina Sosanya), a Black detective who is unimpressed by the white men in power surrounding her. Even Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), MI6’s fearless and flawlessly groomed leader, has a network that’s less extensive than Hugo’s, which seems to be inherited due to wealth, family, school, or some combination of the three.

Hugo is the show’s avatar for all things toxically male and privileged. The construction of Hugo—and his frequent power-posing around the office, something that is shot from such an angle that it is shown for how truly awkward and confrontational it is—reminds us that male power posing is not a neutral act—it’s a way of taking up space in a literal sense, as well as intimidating others in the room. Women and nonbinary folks know this, but to show it from the female gaze, that is, to render it visible rather than allowing it to hide as a false default, acknowledges the reality of people other than cis men.

Hugo might expect to one day run the team, or at least answer to someone who looks and acts an awful lot like him. But Killing Eve has laid out a hierarchy of women filling a number of character archetypes normally reserved for men. Carolyn Martens is a chessmaster whom Eve admires and fears even before she meets her. She manages to have relationships with a number of Russian agents without being a femme fatale or honeypot. Carolyn maintains her no-nonsense police-chief persona, the grizzled veteran who ultimately believes in our protagonist but also pushes back against some of their naivete. Like most on-screen men, Carolyn doesn’t have to choose between being capable and sexual; she gets to be both. Unlike the warmer and less experienced Eve, who struggled at first to get her former supervisor Bill on board with her leadership, there’s never any question as to whether Carolyn is “bossy.” She is simply the boss.

The show’s heroines aren’t only powerful, but unabashedly feminine—and it’s not a liability. Eve and Carolyn have had several conversations about makeup, most of which are about products to stay looking what one might call “fresh-faced” or even “awake” as after their flight to Moscow in season one. Unlike the lipstick Villanelle snuck into her purse more recently, Eve isn’t asking Carolyn about show-stopping colors, but rather for skincare that makes a person look hydrated and well-rested, two things that are probably easier to purchase than acquire naturally when you travel the world tracking down double-agents and assassins. These are the kinds of conversations that real women have, and rather than passing off the no-makeup look as effortless, Killing Eve has continually invested screen time in showing us that it takes time, money, and know-how to find the products to look as good as these women do.

Eve herself plays the role of our rebellious upstart, the rookie law enforcement officer who out-thinks just about everyone else on the job. She ignores advice from others, even when it might be a good idea—like when the expert in psychopaths suggests she drops the case for her own health and safety. She pushes away Kenny, distrusts Carolyn, and sleeps with the young, attractive Hugo, fulfilling a well-trod trope. It might be dangerous, but she’s the only one who can do it, right? This kind of latitude is rare for female characters. Eve is not put through her paces but rather rockets to the front of the class, time and again.

Imagining utopias is a difficult task to wrap one’s head around, and the deeper we go into the current political hellscape, the less appealing a straight up, exhausting dystopia tends to be. But Killing Eve splits the difference with its canny mix of wish fulfillment and a possible future, giving us a vision of a women-centric world with the highest visibility of all: unapologetic power. What if systemic imbalances and microaggressions were recognized and acknowledged with a perfectly arched eyebrow and a well-timed one-liner? What if workplace leadership was meaningfully all-women, three levels deep? What if the men in our lives actually supported us, and the privileged prep-school bro was seen as the joke that he is? In the world of Killing Eve, the women are front and center, unapologetic in their power, the way they call out existing unfair power structures, and their ambitions for the future.

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