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“Who Is She?”: How ‘Killing Eve’ Challenged the Girl-Power Trope

The miracle of the show was the way it subverted the audience’s expectations of strong female characters

Sandra Oh in ‘Killing Eve’ BBC/Ringer illustration

“Oh, Lord, it’s Carolyn Martens,” Eve’s coworker Elena gasps in the first episode of Killing Eve, peering through a wooden office door where a meeting—for which a hungover Eve is very late—is already in progress. “I’d nail a cousin to work with that woman,” Elena whispers to Eve, breathlessly. “Stone-cold badass.”

Low-ranking British intelligence clerk Elena (played by a hilarious Kirby Howell-Baptiste, the only actor to appear in both Killing Eve and the other new show to which it’s most often compared, Barry) is introduced to us as the blunt, straight-talking sidekick. When everyone else in the room is dancing around the particulars of the fetish of a murdered Chinese colonel, Elena is the one who cannot help but blurt out, “He liked to have his balls clamped.” Elena’s professional girl-crush on her professionally superior “shero” Carolyn becomes something of a running joke throughout the series: In the fourth episode, as Eve and Elena chat while making the drive to the small English village of Bletcham, Elena stammers, “Did she say anything about me?” The core reason Elena admires Carolyn, we learn in this scene, comes from the fact Carolyn has supposedly “saved the world” more times than an admirer like Elena can even count. But no one is as they first seem in Killing Eve, not even the supporting characters. By the appropriately blood-splattered season finale, it will be clear that Carolyn is not the “stone-cold badass” moral crusader she appears to be from the outside, and Elena’s idealism will look so earnest and easily explicable that it will seem medevaced in from another show.

Adapted from a series of novellas by the British author Luke Jennings, Killing Eve was brought to television by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star and creator of the mordant comedy series Fleabag. Even in the crowded terrain of Peak TV, the feat Killing Eve managed was rare: Right up until its finale on Sunday night, its ratings kept climbing, which is likely the result of positive word of mouth. And that’s basically why I first gave it a shot, a few weeks after its premiere.

I started watching Killing Eve because I was not yet in the mood to start up the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, a show I respect and admire but too often view as TV homework. This comparison might seem a non sequitur at best or a lazy parallel between two “female-driven” TV shows at worst, but in truth it was mostly a practical consideration: I usually have enough free time to keep up with only two or three shows at once, and, having just finished Barry, there was a vacancy in my roster, preferably for a plot-driven and darkly comedic series. People whose taste I trust kept recommending Killing Eve, and most of them were women. I vaguely and naively assumed that meant there would be some kind of feminist-crusading element to the killings on the show. So, too, does Eve (a brilliantly exasperated Sandra Oh), but only before she figures out what kind of show she’s on—and the dearth of legible morality in the story in which she now finds herself. “What did he do to you?” she asks Villanelle in that climactic scene in Eve’s own apartment, as the object of her obsession puts a knife to her throat. Of course I expected the motive to emerge then, and for this story to become, say, a more conventional rape-revenge tale. But the answer never comes, because “What did he do to you?” was the wrong question in the first place. A better one would have been, “What did you do to him?”

“No longer just illuminating, instructive, provocative, or a way to waste a few hours on a Saturday,” Lauren Olyer wrote in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, the cultural products we consume in our free time now bear the burden of being deemed “necessary”—the most popular new critical buzzword in these trying times. “The word is a discursive crutch for describing a work’s right-minded views, and praise that is so distinct from aesthetics it can be affixed to just about anything,” Olyer noted.

What made the first season of Killing Eve so thrilling to behold in real time was that it seemed in on this very joke, even as it transcended it. In its depiction of a ruthless and ruthlessly fun-to-watch female assassin who, the viewer had to admit by midway through the series, killed for reasons no more noble than the fact she just loved to do it, the show often felt like it was throwing our own “feminist,” you-go-girl justifications for watching it back in our faces. “Killing Eve makes a specific insight that’s less about female depravity than why other women are drawn to it,” my colleague Alison Herman wrote of the show a few weeks ago. “It’s my favorite series of the year so far, not least because it makes me feel more than a little called out.”

I watched Killing Eve in the time of incels and the Irish abortion referendum, against a backdrop of rumored #MeToo comebacks and the general fatigue of having to read about more (seriously, more?) male misbehavior. In daily life, battle lines have felt so starkly and irrevocably drawn that the murky ambiguity of Killing Eve’s moral universe was a huge part of its refreshing appeal. It didn’t pander, at a time when so many things do. It flirted with gender essentialism only to spit it back into the viewer’s face like poisoned perfume. Not all women are heroes, the show reminds us; and not all men are villains (poor Bill, we hardly knew you). And while it might not seem so in the age of the “necessary” show, I found Killing Eve to be infinitely more respectful to its female viewers than the kind of art that makes me feel morally superior simply by watching it, or by being female. Waller-Bridge is, bravely, too smart for that—and thank God. Killing Eve’s miraculous first season had for me the same appeal that Eve had for Villanelle. It made me feel, however squirmily, seen.