On TV, women who hunt killers often follow a predictable path. BBC America’s latest throws out the rulebook.
A quick flip through your cable channels will reveal that–at least according to the network execs in charge of programming–we’re obsessed with women who kill. This is a frequent topic on true crime podcasts, documentaries, and reality series alike. Why do these women do it? How do they do it? Even those who are turned off by true crime have probably heard at least one morbid fact on this topic. For example, women use poison more often than men, and men use guns more often than women.
But what about women who hunt killers? Pop culture is equally saturated with these ladies, women like The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling or The X Files’ Scully, Veena Sud protagonists or Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: SVU. Just as women who kill can be boiled down to a psychological profile, a “type,” so to can their fictional hunters–or at least the kind we’ve seen on TV over the past few decades. Unlike their male on-screen counterparts, these women aren’t typically motivated by revenge (though some are, like Arya Stark or horror rape-revenge heroines) but are, as they would probably say, just doing their jobs. They’re strong, either because something bad happened in the past to make them strong or because they need to demonstrate stoic leadership to fit into their boys’ club surroundings. This means that when, in a rare moment under pressure, they cry or get scared, it feels earned and their emotions are catching.
The list of tropes goes on: these women detectives and secret agents also have trouble holding down romantic relationships, and often get preoccupied with One Big Case as if solving it will fill some unnamed void in their heart or put right the broken world. In short, even the best of this subgenre of female characters–the mystery-solvers and rule-breakers who are mainstays on assorted “most badass” lists–have become impossible to watch without some awareness of how rarely their descendants in the crime genre have evolved beyond simply being “strong” women. Ultimately, the intertextual implications override the text itself. Many newer crime-solving women feel like little more than a set of cliches, beholden to predictable story beats that plague pilot season year after year, and occasionally bleed over into the rest of the year when those pilots give way to long-running procedurals.
Enter Killing Eve, a show where a woman uses poison, guns, knives, cars, and sex-related tools to kill all sorts of people. Killing Eve, a show where the woman who hunts her is bubbly, funny, and practical, happily married and preoccupied with the crimes at hand simply because she thinks they’re cool. As told by writer-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who also shattered expectations with Fleabag), Eve is a cat-and-mouse saga that’s up to its eyeballs in entertainment value and creativity.
The ultra-addictive crime series debuted on BBC America earlier this month, and though it’s since been compared to Orphan Black, it more precisely feels–in its plot, it should be noted, but not in its form–like Hannibal’s heir apparent. Without even knowing one another’s names, assistant-cum-British Intelligence operative Eve (Sandra Oh, in a welcome return to television) and alluring, sociopathic assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer, stealing every scene she’s in) quickly develop a heavily psychological and semi-erotic relationship for the ages. Eve, bored with her desk job at MI5 and giddy at the thought of chasing a killer, isn’t easily shaken by the talented and theatrical Villanelle, even as the latter begins leaving her signs of affection like a cat dropping a dead mouse on the doorstep. As the tableaus evolve and the two face off in more ways than one, parallels to Hannibal Lecter and his most precious prey only grow more apparent–though Killing Eve never veers completely into darkness and injects levity wherever possible.
While some crime series already feel thin part-way through their first seasons, the central dynamic in Killing Eve is fresh and entrancing enough to sustain the series for several years–which is great, since the show has already been renewed for a second season. The series is based on a set of recent novels by Luke Jennings but is brought to life thanks to Waller-Bridge’s writing and the unstoppable lead actresses. Scenes with Villanelle almost always veer into unexpected territory, as the only predictable thing about her character is her penchant for wry unpredictability. While Eve tries to figure out why Villanelle kills, it’s clear to us that the latter just loves her job–performing joyful bloodthirst with no sympathetic motive in a way that refuses the usual murderess narrative again and again.
Killing Eve deserves a spot among the ranks of Jessica Jones and the gone-too-soon MTV series Sweet/Vicious as series that utilize the female gaze–all three have women showrunners–to kick those aforementioned strong women tropes to the curb in favor of detailed and exciting character arcs that (unlike, say, the later seasons of The X-Files) truly value the women they concern. None of these series are afraid to buck tradition, but even more impressively, they also know when to lean into expectations in order to de-construct the DNA of these archetypes, ultimately building something powerful and profound.
Make no mistake, lady detectives and secret agents have been great before–if you want to look further into history, just ask noir superfans–and they will certainly be good again. For now though, in the age of peak over-saturation, shows like Killing Eve are worth clinging to like a life raft in a sea of garbage.