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Killing Eve and Why TV Needs More Female Villains

Sandrah Oh as Eve and Jodie Comer as Villanelle in Killing Eve

Television viewers love a good villain. Why? Well, for starters, they’re usually more fun to watch than the designated hero. After all, they get all the great outfits, the good one-liners, the dramatic entrances, and the flashy cars.

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Our obsession with villains has escalated to the point where even most heroes these days come pre-packaged with an intriguing streak of grey. They’re not bad, per se, but they’re certainly not the squeaky clean white hats of TV years gone by.

The modern television landscape is filled with intriguing, complex villains. There’s the Man in Black on Westworld, The Commander on The Handmaid’s Tale, Negan on The Walking Dead, Wilson Fisk on Daredevil, and more.

These characters all have many things in common. They’re complicated. They’re messy. They’re strangely appealing in spite of their varied, obvious, and often frightening flaws—and they’re also all men.

This is part of the reason that BBC America’s latest original series, Killing Eve, feels like such a revelation. Not only does the series reinvigorate a tired genre trope by gender-swapping the standard “good cop chases bad killer” procedural, but it also reinvents the idea of what makes a compelling villain, by making her a woman.

Villanelle, the uber-talented assassin at the heart of Killing Eve’s story, is every bit as dark and reprehensible as any of those men who’ve come before her. She’s violent and manipulative, cunning and selfish. As a killer, she’s both dedicated and creative in her execution of her craft. To put it simply: She’s good at what she does, and she doesn’t feel bad about that fact. She kills people because she’s paid to do so, yes, but more importantly, she enjoys it. At her core, Villanelle is a ruthless and unrepentant sociopath, and that’s precisely what makes her so interesting to watch.

Far too often, female villains are not given the same depth afforded to their male counterparts. Most are motivated almost exclusively by revenge or heartbreak, as if what it really takes to become a killing machine is to be wronged in some way by a man. (Or, occasionally, to lose a loved one.)

Here, Villanelle is simply, unapologetically evil, and allowed to delight in her own derangement. The wide, joyful smile on her face as she turns to hunt Eve’s boss, Bill, through a nightclub is Villanelle in her purest form—an unstoppable predator with zero qualms about what she’s about to do—and that’s exciting in a way we haven’t seen on TV in a long time, at least not in this particular form. Women don’t often get to acknowledge even feeling simple rage in this way, let alone take what appears to be delight in such brutal actions.

The other remarkable aspect of Villanelle’s personality is that she’s a female killer who embraces being a woman as a central piece of her identity. She loves French clothes, Italian fabrics, and posh lodgings. She has a closet positively bursting with fabulous outfits fit for any occasion, whether that involves scaling a drainpipe in order to stab someone or going on a murder mission with an ex. She flirts by sending the objects of her affection stylish clothes that fit perfectly. She murders someone with perfume. She is unapologetically feminine, but those preferences only serve to color in her character, not define it.

More importantly, Villanelle understands the power that her gender gives her in the world in which she’s chosen to work, and Killing Eve itself often leans into that assumed double standard. Thanks to her appearance, her victims don’t immediately see Villanelle as a threat. She’s overlooked or underestimated regularly, and she’s able to use her gender as a shield or distraction in ways that men cannot. (A murder-by-hairpin in Tuscany, for example, turns on the fact that her target basically assumes she’s a sex worker.) Villanelle herself counts on the fact that others—read: men—usually see her a certain way, and revels in the freedom that playing to that ideal provides her. Her manipulation of these sexist expectations is simultaneously terrifying, oddly empowering, and a ton of fun to watch.

Killing Eve is appointment television for many reasons. It features two female leads in the sort of mystery thriller that’s almost always headed by men, and which usually features women only as love interests or victims. Furthermore, it allows one of those women to be as massively entertaining a villain as any man that’s come before her in a similar role. The show doesn’t apologize, make excuses for, or otherwise soften the monster that Villanelle is. Rather, it just allows—even encourages—us to enjoy her, in all her psychotic glory.

Not for nothing, but this approach really works. Despite the fact that we witness Villanelle murder several people in increasingly brutal ways—she bites out the jugular of a fellow inmate during a mission in prison—we like her, even though we know we shouldn’t. Much like Eve herself, we as viewers find ourselves drawn to this woman, and often rooting for her success in ways that should probably make us fairly uncomfortable. This isn’t an unheard of reaction to charismatic villains, however—just look at how many fans root for Marvel’s Loki or the X-Men’s Erik Lensherr, who are generally horrible but wildly popular figures as well. The difference is, once again, that Villanelle is a woman, and we’re not used to seeing a female character presented in this way.

More shows should follow Killing Eve’s lead, to be honest. Conflicted wives or sexy femme fatales are usually the limits of what television bothers to give us when it comes to “bad” women. It’s much more exciting to see a female character who so openly embraces everything women are not supposed to be or do. Give us more female characters who push the boundaries of right and wrong or who challenge conventional morality in interesting ways. We need villainous women just as much as men.

(image: BBC America)

Lacy Baugher is a digital strategist and writer living in Washington, D.C., who’s still hoping that the TARDIS will show up at her door eventually. A fan of complicated comic book villains, British period dramas and whatever Jessica Lange happens to be doing today, her work has been featured on The Baltimore Sun, Bitch Flicks, Culturess, The Tracking Board and more. She livetweets way too many things on Twitter, and is always looking for new friends to yell about Game of Thrones with.

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct <em>Geekosystem</em> (RIP), and then at <em>The Mary Sue</em> starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at <em>Smash Bros.</em>

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