'Killing Eve' Finally Gives 2 Women a Batman-Joker Relationship

killing eve
BBC America

Stories about female obsession are usually predicated on that obsession running one way. Just look at Single White Female or The Neon Demon. The core notion is that there’s some paragon of femininity that other women would kill to become. In the spy genre, this usually plays out in reverse: female spies and assassins are either disposable dalliances, or Mata Haris, destined to relent for the sake of the hero, and as a result of that weakness, meet their dooms.

The new series Killing Eve offers up something entirely new (and overdue): female obsession that runs both ways.

Unlike its genre predecessors, Killing Eve features a pair of women who are obsessed with each other in equal measure. Poking her nose around a recent spate of murders, Eve (Sandra Oh), a paper-pushing, MI5 security officer, finds Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a professional assassin. Eve's instantly taken with her; she’s already a serial killer obsessive, and Villanelle’s glamorous lifestyle represents a complete opposite to her dull duties as a government desk jockey. When Villanelle discovers that she’s been sniffed out, she starts to develop her own obsession, delving deeper and deeper into Eve’s life as their paths start to run perilously close together. In any other show, we’d be clear on which one of them is the villain and which one is the hero, but series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Amazon's Fleabag) doesn't settle for the simplistic dichotomy. These are two women with a distinct relationship.

kiling eve
Sandra Oh as Eve | BBC America

Even the basic narrative of Killing Eve rejects the familiar. Eve has the appetite of Walter White, pursuing a life that’s more thrilling but also more dangerous without considering the way the consequences might ripple onto the people around her. She makes choices that end up leading to tragedy, going after Villanelle even when she’s not supposed to, and then keeps making them anyway. But that semi-antihero thread is less interesting than the obsession driving it. Everything she does -- including wading into gunfire rather than trying to get away from it, despite having a witness in tow -- she does in order to get closer to the killer of her affection. Villanelle is doing the same, starting to veer off of the course that her handlers have set for her in order to find Eve in the metaphorical garden.

Like every great drama about obsession, there’s a thread of, “Do I want to be you, or be with you?” running through the whole thing. Here, however, those two questions aren’t mutually exclusive. Each woman wants something out of life that seems to be embodied by the other, and that desire weighs both ends of the scale (though, as the series progresses, that scale starts to tip). What makes Killing Eve so enticing to watch is the height to which that obsession climbs: The closer the two women get to each other, the more psychosexual their relationship becomes. For once, these changes aren’t being made in a vacuum; it isn’t a case of one woman trying to ape the other, as per Hedy Carlson’s slow transformation into Allie Jones in Single White Female. Instead, Eve and Villanelle push and pull at each other, each woman imposing her desires onto the other, rather than just internalizing them and trying to change themselves. At one point, Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase, later returning it with an entirely new set of clothes, all in Eve’s size.

To that end, it feels wrong to speak of Eve and Villanelle as opposing forces. They’re not friends, either, though it feels like a more apt description. They’re Batman and the Joker, with a little more flexibility as to which character does what. There’s no winning or losing in the game between them, at least not in any way that can be clearly defined.

killing eve
Jodie Comer as Villanelle | BBC America

The wrestling between them also serves as a commentary on the expectations placed upon women by society, as both Eve and Villanelle are struggling to break from the roles that have been marked out for them. Eve’s domestic life isn’t unhappy, but it is a little unfulfilling. Part of that manifests through wardrobe; whereas Eve’s looks are purely functional, Villanelle’s are stuffed to the gills with luxury goods. Her job requires her to look and perform in a certain way, to conform to the typical standard of beauty in order to better get what she wants. But for all that she’s good at her job, she finds her role limiting. She wants more, which is where Eve comes into the picture.

This sort of narrative has only recently been afforded to women. Batman and the Joker, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty -- all of the great pop culture antecedents are centered around men. Eve and Villanelle are immediately as compelling, if not more so, given how mutable they are. They’re not fixed in their roles; if anything, they want to break out of them. Their attempts affect and are inextricable from each other, to the point that, despite the stylized, heightened nature of the show, it still feels terribly real. Obsession isn’t always a one-way street.

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Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine's Vulture.