We gays have three favorite uses of hyperbole: I’m living, I’m SCREAMING, and I’m dead. Since we live in a straight world that simultaneously ignores and threatens us, exaggerated emotion and action is only reasonable.
Killing Eve, the critically acclaimed BBC television drama adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, dramatizes the three stages of queer hyperbole — living, screaming, and dead — by making its central tension the mutually obsessive relationship between a high-femme assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and a high-strung MI5 operative, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Will they or won’t they fuck? Will they or won’t they kill each other? The show ended its first season with a brilliant answer: Eve and Villanelle finally get in bed, Eve pulls the classic straight girl “I’ve never done this before” move — then stabs Villanelle in the stomach.
Killing Eve, early on, succeeded in walking the line between signaling and screaming. Murdering someone on the dance floor? Turning tokens of femininity like perfume and lipstick into weapons? Stabbing your crush in the gut? In the first season, everything is in quotation marks.
But in the second season, which will end this weekend, on May 26, the suggested becomes literal. “She did it to show me how much she cares about me,” Villanelle explains in the season premiere — referring to Eve’s failed attempt at murdering her — taking the penetration to indicate that the assassin and the assassin chaser are now literally girlfriend/girlfriend.
From then on, Season 2 of Killing Eve falls short of its delightful beginnings because all of its queer subtext has become text. Whereas the first season focused on the implicit queer magnetism between the leads, the second season makes it obvious — even to the straights. Every secondary character intrudes on their attraction, prying, “What is going on with you and Villanelle?” “What is going on with you and Eve?” I have the same questions, but now that the show is so self-aware of its central tension, the quotation marks have been edited out, and the thrill of it all is gone.
Without the queer appeal of hyperbole, we have too much screentime with Eve’s mustache of a husband or some smarmy intern, demanding to be let in on an open secret.
Season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell has explained, of Killing Eve’s two leads, “We wanted to see what would happen when they were legitimately together because so much of what makes up obsession is the fantasy of it. Because suddenly it’s not your sexy secret anymore, it’s part of your day job.”
It does indeed feel like the show is not our “sexy secret anymore.” In Season 1, Eve investigates a series of highly stylized killings throughout Europe, intrigued by the idea that the assassin is a woman. Villanelle, in disguise, first spots Eve on the job is equally intrigued, and starts leaving clues specifically for Eve. Other things happen, ostensibly, like a plot point about a shadowy crime organization called The Twelve, of which Eve’s MI5 boss, Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), and Villanelle’s handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), may or may not be a part. But nothing in the show is as thrilling as the relationship between Eve and Villanelle.
This season, the subplot involves a surveillance billionaire, a new assassin, and Villanelle and Eve working together on the connection between the two. But instead of the show’s tension tightening around Eve and Villanelle, the drama focuses on their professional networks bearing down on them.
Now that the show has more buzz than ever, the flamboyance throughout feels forced. Instead of alluding to Villanelle’s childishness, for example, we see her strutting around in children’s pajamas and locked up by a man who collects dolls. The hyperbole can’t exist for the sake of its own drama anymore, and the show doesn’t commit enough to cross into the realm of camp. Without the queer appeal of hyperbole, we have too much screentime with Eve’s mustache of a husband or some smarmy intern, demanding to be let in on an open secret.
My girlfriend and I have a running joke when we are out somewhere and we see a man occupying space in a way that offends us: We simply pretend he is not there, editing him out of our vision. It’s a joke that’s been particularly useful when watching film and television. For example, “Who is that awful Englishman showing up at the end of Ocean’s 8?” “I’m sorry, I don’t see any man there, only impeccably tailored women’s suits.”
This trick has proven more arduous in Season 2 of Killing Eve, because suddenly, men are everywhere — as if anyone watched this show for any reason other than Oh and Comer.
Though Eve makes a political point in suggesting that the new contract killer they’re searching for is someone likely to go unnoticed, namely, a middle-aged woman of color, the characters who take up the most space this season are men. There is the murderous tech mogul, Aaron Peel (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), set up to be Villanelle’s psychopathic foil, and even less deservedly, a romantic foil. There is Niko (Owen McDonnell), Eve’s husband, who is just too good of a guy to fulfill his wife’s domination fantasies — until he’s angry enough at her.
Then there is the preening Hugo (Edward Bluemel), who hits on Eve by trying to insert himself into her attraction to women, a classic straight guy move: “What’s the deal with you and Villanelle? She fancies you, doesn’t she?” Eve replies, “Everything isn’t about sex, Hugo,” to which he predictably retorts, “Isn’t it?” At least Hugo is sharp enough to call his tryst with Eve a “threesome” (or, to my eyes, a proxy fuck) because Villanelle is in her ear.
Hugo and Niko aren’t just in the way — they drive the narrative until it seems to follow their theory that Eve is not so much into Villanelle as she is into danger. The men would sooner believe that she has a murder fetish than that she’s simply queer. Worse, the show seems to believe them too.
One possible reason for the show’s shift in focus is the departure of the wry-witted Waller-Bridge for the more heavy-handed Fennell, who has said what she’s “most interested in is how women win in a world where the deck is stacked against them ... I think Eve and Villanelle were lucky in [Season] 1. It’s what happens when that power is diminished and you have to make something new … I think the feminist statement maybe in [Season] 2 is if you are a woman and you are vulnerable, how do you exact power?” Perhaps being a hired hand for capitalists is just being a girlboss.
And perhaps that’s why there are so many men getting in Eve and Villanelle’s way in Season 2 — as if men are the only real impediment to women being together.
This is all to say that Season 2’s queer curiosity has been straightened out. So many scenes from this season feel like a straight vision of what it means to “Slay, queen!” That creepy man tried to keep Villanelle like a doll, so his house was filled with dolls — get it? That jerk cheated on his wife, what a pig, so he’s getting gutted like a pig, yaaass! We’re now a far cry from the sort of thematic queer feminism that had Villanelle in Season 1 assassinating a man at a fetish parlor — not because he deserved to be punished for going to a fetish parlor, but because he was her mark, and work is work.
In her New Yorker review of the second season, Emily Nussbaum wrote that “the idea that undergirds the show is a potent one, that femininity is itself a sort of sociopathy, whose performance, if you truly nail it, might be the source of ultimate power.” I would argue, however, that the show isn’t about the power of femininity. It’s about femme power, femme cruelty, femme treachery — an explicitly queer power, one that doesn’t suffer cis men.
Since the first season, the show has been devoted to femme camp: a performance of femininity’s sumptuous surfaces covering the void underneath. Villanelle’s most iconic look is Season 1’s pink chiffon dress with black combat boots, which she wears to a meeting with a shrink who will determine if she’s fit for her job. She’s “feminine,” with a wink. She dresses to suit the occasion, showing how her engagement with reality is all a play of surfaces.
When Eve, in Season 2, rifles through the bedroom of the woman with whom her husband has shacked up, Gemma (Emma Pierson), she is disgusted by the straight femininity on display: the lingerie, the mechanical ballerina that tinkles in her jewelry box. If, as Susan Sontag wrote, camp sees everything in quotation marks, then what Eve finds toothless is Gemma’s uninterrogated femininity. “Hope you like missionary,” she remarks as a parting shot, to which Gemma redundantly replies, “I do, actually.”
As for Eve’s chapsticky style, well, my friend Tzipporah has remarked that you always know a closeted lesbian because she’s wearing the most layers of clothing in the room. And as Villanelle asks of Eve during their dinner date, “Is that a shirt...attached to a shirt?” Straight audiences might not clock Eve for queer right away, even if she does wake up screaming beside her husband in the very first episode. The subtext is there for a reason.
Jill Gutowitz wrote that the show depicts “that unhealthy queer urge to sweat and boil and tease without ever actually consummating a relationship.” I wouldn’t mind if the show lingered entirely in those unhealthy queer urges; but since the tension came to a boil at the end of Season 1, it’s now back at a low simmer.
The psychosexual queer girl coming-of-age drama (Thelma, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Heavenly Creatures) exists as a genre because sometimes the first step in coming into your own as a queer woman is having an obsessive relationship where the boundaries blur between your identity and hers. What better way to achieve the lesbian urge to merge than to join eternally in death? After all, coming out is a form of killing the old you.
The men would sooner believe that Eve has a murder fetish than that she’s simply queer. Worse, the show seems to believe them too.
Killing Eve is certainly the right show in the year of our goddess 2019. These days, straight women are sublimating their rage against men by expressing their desire for starlets to strangle them, run them over with a car, step on their necks — but they don’t necessarily have the guts to scream, “Fist me, Sandra Oh.”
Not that I’m eager for straight women to start. The show portrays a familiar dynamic for queer women: attraction to a straight-identified woman who flirts with a violent desire for something she doesn’t understand, but that makes her feel like she’s living. (“I feel wide awake,” Eve says, when asked by the MI5 psychiatrist how she feels thinking about Villanelle all day long.) Sometimes that’s a first step for a baby gay; sometimes, though, these women just go back to their boyfriends.
Nussbaum points out that “murderous rage seems, right now, like a relevant basis for female bonding.” But I’m not ultimately interested in queer narratives being used by straight women for their tragic misandry. Killing Eve’s second season drags under the weight of straight rage — when Eve and Villanelle could simply turn away from the men and toward each other.
In my favorite moment of Season 2, Eve gingerly places her fingertips on the back of a man standing precariously close to the edge of a train platform as if to say, move, she’s gay. Killing Eve shows that flirting with a dyke death drive can be fatal, even for bystanders (sorry, Gemma). Don’t say you’re screaming unless you’re literally ready to be dead. I hope that the season ends with that energy, and starts living instead of demurring that, oh, after all, it was only just experimenting. ●
Natalie Adler has a PhD in Comparative Literature and writes about queer feminism and leftist politics.