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A Brutal ‘Killing Eve’ Twist Challenges Our Villanelle Obsession (Column)

Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve seen “Do You Know How to Dispose of a Body?”, the season 2 premiere of BBC America’s “Killing Eve.”

The return of BBC America’s “Killing Eve” means the return of restless agent Eve (Sandra Oh), sly assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), and their deliciously depraved (and undeniably sexual) tension, all of which fans have been loudly craving for months. But the season 2 premiere also drives home one of the show’s most abiding and crucial components in such a ruthless way that it almost feels like a pointed reminder to those, including Eve herself, who might have forgotten it in the depths of their obsession: rooting for Villanelle does, in fact, mean rooting for an unrepentant killer.

Picking up literally 30 seconds after the explosive season 1 finale, “Do You Know How to Dispose of a Body?” begins with a shellshocked Eve and a critically injured Villanelle scrambling for sanity and safety in the wake of a surprise stabbing. We’ve never seen either character more shaken, lost, or vulnerable. But it’s still a jolt when Villanelle, having charmed a scarred preteen into helping her escape from the hospital, greets his moans of agony with what seems like a sympathetic shoulder to cry on before efficiently snapping his neck, killing him immediately.

When I first saw this moment, I actually jumped at its sudden, efficient brutality. But I was still surprised to see some chatter the next day about whether or not, in killing a child, Villanelle had finally gone too far.

Sure, the show was careful to not have Villanelle hurt her handler’s daughter last season, even though she threatened to do so whenever she got annoyed. But killing people has always been Villanelle’s raison d’etre; she loves doing it, and has never expressed an ounce of remorse. Honestly, the most surprising thing about this kill isn’t the fact of it, but that she only snaps his neck after he cries “I’d rather be dead” like she’s doing him the kindness of granting his desperate wish.

So maybe a better question than “does this kill make Villanelle more irredeemable than before?” is “what does it mean for us to be so entranced by and invested in Villanelle, even after bearing witness to this new and undeniable depth of ruthlessness?’

It’s a question as old as antiheroes themselves. “Killing Eve” has always painted Villanelle as an aggressively feminine inversion of the typically brooding male archetype — which, as the show emphasizes again and again, is a key component of her success as an assassin. She can either blend in with her surroundings as an unassuming background player — one that men in particular wouldn’t take seriously — or stand out in luxury garments that exaggerate her striking looks. Her playful girlishness provides a stark contrast to the many stoic depictions of coldblooded assassins; her wicked temper is matched only by her ferocious followthrough.

Many of the best moments of the series — not to mention Comer’s extraordinarily deft acting — come thanks to this push and pull between Villanelle’s inherent magnetism and the viciousness at the spine of her life. But when an audience gets truly invested in an antihero, the lines between intrigue and idolatry can become alarmingly blurred. (See: “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White.) Wading even an inch into the vast ocean of the “Killing Eve” fanbase — which, to be clear, very much includes myself — often means getting completely subsumed by drooling adoration for its leads, their sexy tension, and yes, the way in which Villanelle so smoothly stalks and eliminates her prey. The show doesn’t need to soften that truth in order to tell its story. In fact, doing so would betray a core tenant of its character. The writing plays into our obsessive reaction to Villanelle the more we get to know her; Eve, after all, mirrors it exactly.

And yet: it’s still worth remembering just who we’re falling in love (and/or lust) with, here. Villanelle is charismatic as hell, but she’s also a mercurial killer who relishes the chance to outdo her own atrocities, and making us face those dueling facts head on is what the show does best. Making us blink and reconsider what it means to be so enthralled with it — and Villanelle in all her devious, murderous glory — is exactly the point.

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