Killing the anti-heroine

 A still from Killing Eve.

A still from Killing Eve.

When BBC America’s Killing Eve aired its first season, it quickly cemented itself as a favourite of both critics and the masses. Spanning across picturesque locations, featuring an elusive criminal organisation, and even dabbling into a Cold War plotline, the show had the trappings of an iconic spy-thriller series. Yet, none of these elements contributed to the show’s fame, in fact they paled in comparison to the leading pair’s meditative pursuit of each other.

Killing Eve was poised for success as it masterfully navigated the television landscape of anti-heroines, who had been slowly taking over the screen over the last decade. (Spoilers ahead).

Anti-hero vs anti-heroine

In the television-verse, the aughts were ushered in by the anti-hero, the morally ambiguous patriarch who despite his transgressive actions was framed to elicit sympathy from the audience. The anger of Tony Soprano ( The Sopranos) dominated the screen, before the baton was handed over to the anxieties of Don Draper ( Mad Men) and the frustrations of Walter White ( Breaking Bad). These protagonists sought to represent the underdog, whose hyper-assertion of masculinity and extra-legal acts in pursuit of his ambitions were given a favourable treatment by showrunners. Their stories were not written for the audience to connect with, but rather fulfilled a more vicarious thrill that stemmed from the curiosity of the consequences of crossing moral thresholds.

The past decade has seen a reversal in this trend. With an increasing number of women helming productions, shows that centre the anti-heroine instead of her male counterpart have gained limelight. These shows have also been crucial in expanding the scope of characters and stories that women can inhabit. Kerry Washington in Scandal and Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder led the narrative of the ‘difficult woman’ wading through male-dominated professions, breaching the established moral code.

On the other hand, shows like Fleabag, Flack and Euphoria have turned the ambition inwards for their central woman protagonists, for whom the end is an emotional catharsis. Their actions don’t necessarily make them an outlier in society, but intensely make them a stranger to themselves, and eventually to their loved ones.

The anti-hero exists to serve the ravenous fantasy of ‘what next?’ since their gender is denied very little outside of the television screen. Whereas, when you look beyond the cold exterior, the anti-heroine uses her power to progress in her career or claim space in her relationships. Choosing to focus on both these aspects together, Killing Eve, came through as a promising venture into the spy genre.

The making of the anti-heroine(s)

Earlier this month, the show ended its four-season run. If the first season was a mighty splash, then the last one came and went by as a quiet whisper, until the finale that is, which has the show’s fanbase up in arms.

Killing Eve followed the forbidden chase between an international assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and an MI5 desk agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh).

The brutally-witty Villanelle murdered her way through the sunny Tuscan landscape and dreary London hospitals, hopping from one assignment to the next. An all-consuming entity, Villanelle did not embrace stealth and instead demanded attention. She wanted her killings to enamour the public and the police alike. Villanelle is the female placed in the mould of the classic male anti-hero; her motivations are a secret even to the viewers and despite being a cold-blooded killer, she is written to enthral us.

The feeling of a dreadful fondness towards Villanelle is as much an enigma for the audience as it is for Eve.

Working a bland desk-job at MI5, Eve somewhat represents the fanbase of the show. She harbours a taboo fascination for the macabre side of her workplace, displaying a giddy excitement when her sleuth skills produce results. At the same time, she also mirrors the majority of working women in nuclear families.

After years at the desk, Eve is provided an opportunity to realise her potential as a field agent, when tasked with finding Villanelle. Her professional pursuit, however, is roadblocked by her husband Niko.

As she juggles her priorities, Eve emerges as her own anti-heroine. Her insistence on chasing Villanelle puts a divide in her marriage, and her husband in the way of mortal harm. Eventually, Eve’s attraction to Villanelle acts as a catalyst in her crossing the boundary to more morally grey pastures. We see Eve be afraid of, confront, and later ease into her own identity as someone who doesn’t shy away from using violence for defence and later for intimidation. If Villanelle is symbolic of the moral shift in Eve, then Eve acts as a sombre emotional awakening in Villanelle’s harsh life. During their initial confrontations, Villanelle confessed that she longs for “normal stuff…someone to watch movies with.”

After teasing it out for four seasons, the writers finally decide to allow Villanelle and Eve to act upon their attraction and their potential as a team in the final episode. As they embrace each other, after taking down the criminal organisation that has haunted their lives, Villanelle is shot in the back, and dies soon after.

It is revealed that Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), who was Eve’s boss at MI6, had ordered the hit. For a show that never quite fixated on loyalties, the move forward with a plot of “bad people meet a bad fate” feels disjointed. The attempt to establish status quo comes across as desperate in a show that revelled in its ridiculousness and deceit.

A lesson in morality?

Killing Eve never set out to be a lesson in the moral philosophies of the modern times. Stringent loyalty was presented as a shifty, undesirable trait. Early in the show Villanelle reminded Eve that, “if you went high enough, you’d probably find we work for the same people.” When they trade this murky complicated reality, for a more simplistic one that punishes the unapologetic anti-heroine, they mock the audience who were encouraged to look at Villanelle in a different light. Eve too is made to pay for her transgressions.

Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote the first season, had said in an interview, “Every moment in this show exists so that these two women can end up alone in a room together.” To that end, Killing Eve existed primarily as a show about queer women. The secret agencies, the criminal organisations, and their actions, all seem to exist to aid the meeting of these two women, beyond which they carried little relevance.

Villanelle is shown to be explicitly queer as she pursues relationships with both men and women, and it doesn’t take too long for Eve to have her own realisations. Their longing for each other is not couched in shame, until the writers decide that it is by abruptly killing off Villanelle.

Laura Neal, the final season’s showrunner, described Villanelle’s death as a moment of rebirth for Eve. However, the writers don’t need to search too hard to find that violently killing off queer characters is neither a fresh writing choice, nor does it make for a clever plot twist. Villanelle’s demise ultimately served no larger purpose in the plot of the show. The enemies of the state had already been killed off by her and characters that indulged in equally bad actions continued to live on. It was a weak attempt at driving home a point about morality that had never existed in the first place.

In choosing to eliminate one anti-heroine, and leave the other a blubbering mess, Killing Eve ended its show by snatching away the unhindered agency it had granted to its characters, and turned its back on the females it wanted to champion.

The anti-hero of the 2000s, sought to represent the underdog, whose hyper-assertive masculinity and extra-legal pursuits were not written for the audience to connect with, but rather to fulfil a more vicarious thrill of crossing moral thresholds.
The anti-heroine on the other hand mostly centres the narrative of the ‘difficult woman’ wading through male-dominated professions, breaching established moral code. On the other hand, shows like Fleabag have turned the ambition inwards for their central woman protagonists, for whom the end is an emotional catharsis.
A series all about anti-heroine(s) and ambiguous morality, Killing Eve never set out to be a lesson in the moral philosophies of modern times. So when the show traded this dynamic for a more simplistic one that punished the unapologetic anti-heroine, they let the audience down.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 5:53:20 am |