The Mythic Blueprint of Killing Eve, Part 3: Pleasures of the Bad Girl and the Queen of Hell
Killing Eve is rebellious, seductive, and shrewdly on-trend. Seasons 1–3 also retell an ancient myth about wild feminine power and subversion.
Pop Archetype is a series that explores the way timeless myths and archetypes bubble up through the cracks in popular culture. While the plot of the myth might take new twists, and the heroines might play under different masks and guises, the essence of the story remains the same. We look at what gets lost, what’s restored and given new energy, and how the medium changes the message.
Villanelle would kill for free, but killing is her job. How does Villanelle kill? She kills in fetching dark wigs, and on-trend clothes with dead-on accents; she kills with a hair pin snatched from an expertly highlighted chignon, with poisonous perfume, with guns and garden hoses, neck ties, suspension bondage, salon equipment, steering wheels, tuning forks, plastic bags, her bare hands (choking, punching, neck-snapping), spices, subway trains, city buses, golf clubs, gases, axes, hunting knives, fire, and pills. She neuters male corpses and puts them in drag, guts and trusses one up in a De Wallen window brothel, stuffs a toilet scrubber down another’s throat. If there’s time and she’s feeling indulgent, she’ll tell her mark what she’s about to do to them, share her thoughts on the afterlife, and listen as they beg.
She takes her inspiration from art, from fashion, from the pleasures of character creation, at which she is painstaking, a miniaturist really, crafting a necklace from macaroni and glitter-glue to play a dotty school-yard misfit, or commissioning a perfume so that she might smell like a “Roman centurion.” She finds the look, the dialect, the cup size, the gait; to be invisible to a mark who prefers Junoesque blondes, she becomes a brunette and binds her breasts.
Her kills and recon have drama, humour, a gift for mise-en-scene. She devises a role then plays it, working from the outside in, donning costumes, a new language, inventing backstories. She can collaborate, improvise in the moment: to thrill a voyeur, she slits his throat before a mirror so they can both watch him die. In staging and style, she’s an artist, but the kill itself is all technique, clean and precise. She wastes nothing, but does enjoy a bit of confessional repartee with her mark, to taste them, draw them out, locate their chinks.
She will make a fool, amuse herself. None of this humanises her victims; their lives mean nothing beyond her power to end them. Rather, it’s a kind of savouring, like smelling your food before you eat it. When it’s done, she asks that they meet her gaze, and breathless, she milks the last moment, enthralled by the sight of their life force draining away.
Villanelle is an auteur of the hit, an assassin who transforms her kills into a performance art that allows her to embody a multiplicity of selves. What would otherwise be an anonymous and dirty job becomes a medium of self-refraction and play, a realm where she can ‘take on the flesh’ of another, enacting the full rhythm of death and birth. For every sham persona she creates, one real person must die. Throughout, she will steer the narrative, even if it means prodding the lifeless palm of a freshly dead woman to make it wave her a cheery ‘bye-bye.’
Villanelle’s insistence on imprinting what should be clandestine acts with her flamboyant style, and minutely choreographing their trajectories call to mind what Janet Malcolm once wrote after observing the “obliviousness” of photographer Thomas Struth as he laboured behind his cloth: “To enter the state of absorption in which art is made requires reserves of boorishness that not every exquisitely courteous person can summon but that the true artist unhesitatingly calls upon.”
Her choice of costume is frequently sly, meant to induce and express internal states. It’s also aggressively feminine; when called in for a psych evaluation by the Twelve, Villanelle shows up in an extravagantly flouncy pink tulle dress and couture combat boots, making sure to mention her “heavy period” to the two middle aged Russian men interrogating her. She often wears the rosy and livid hues of engorged labia or the reds of menstrual blood: a burgundy silk robe, a ruffled cranberry blazer over a T-shirt with silk-screened lips across the breast, a long fuscia skirt, worn while gorging on Fairy Bread at a cafe, a campy hot-pink fuck-me dirndl with a pink pig’s mask. A scarlet red jumper tied at the waist with a snake-belt.
She is essentially the inverse of Eve, a woman in a male-dominated world who wields a uniquely feminine aesthetic as a tool of power, and screams her identity through the details of a disguised and uncredited role.
One can’t, however, mistake her for a feminist, or one of those noble graffiti artists toiling unseen in the favelas of Brazil as an act of artistic purity, or to democratise beauty, or to sand-mandala their way to a reconciliation with the transient nature of existence, or…whatever. No, Villanelle simply can’t help herself; she’s a sociopath with an unlimited budget, and part of the reason she takes the risk of telegraphing her style through the violent spectacle of her work is that she wants so badly to be seen. The fact that Eve recognises the anonymous killer is a woman, and one with a florid imagination and notable style, is an aphrodisiac to Villanelle.
Though she brings a baroque sensibility to the act of killing, for Villanelle there’s no richness or poiesis in death itself. As she tells a mark before stabbing and castrating him, “Your eyes will just…empty. And your soul goes in. People think your soul or personality leaves your body when you die; I swear it just goes further in. It falls so far in, it just becomes so small that it can’t control your body anymore. It’s just in there, dying forever.”
She and Eve are both ciphers, but of different species. Villanelle, internally empty, and absent of any feeling beyond desire, is all shameless gut-want and gratification. Eve, without specific desire and a strong embodiment, is trapped in projection and doomed to chase the figure who manifests the bull-dozing will, violence, freedom, and gluttony she has suppressed.
Eve has the same dynamic with Villanelle that the nebbish Narrator has with cartoonishly masculine Tyler Durden in Fight Club, an alter who lets him live out his every tamped-down urge: “I dress how you want to dress, fuck the way you want to fuck, I’m free in ways you wish you were free.”
When Nico gets wind of Eve’s continued entanglement with Villanelle, he confronts her, yelling, “You’re not saving the world, honey bunch! You’re getting off on sniffing out a psycho!”
She slaps him hard and pushes him hard. Then pushes him again. “You don’t want that in your life,” he says, appalled. “Whatever that is. Trust me.”
But she does want that; Eve wants the force that will annihilate the stagnant, ‘this-will-do’ energy that pervades her life with steady, caring Nico and set her free from a quicksand of frustrated longing. Insensible, however, to the demon driving her, Eve can only swing into raw sadism, throwing her confusion and pent-up wrath at an oppressively devoted man. Before the first slap, she tries to goad him into a shouting match. Even her rage seeks permission.
It could be argued that Eve doesn’t actually possess a body until the fifth episode of Season 1, when Villanelle ‘gives’ her one. The gift begins with Villanelle ‘stripping’ Eve in Berlin by stealing her luggage, and then returning it filled with adornments of Villanelle’s choosing: expensive clothes and shoes in Eve’s size, and a bottle of perfume named ‘La Villanelle.’
Eve has an apes-around-the-monolith moment as she riffles through its luxe contents, and then proceeds to enter her own body through the gaze and touch of Villanelle. She casts off her scuffed little moccasins and puts on a satiny, skin tight dress, the heels, dabs on the perfume, and looks at herself wonderingly in the mirror, touching and seeing the contours of her own body as if for the first time.
The gift achieves what Villanelle intuited: Eve needs to be filled and dominated. When Villanelle finally appears and puts a knife to Eve’s breast, she leans in for a sniff. “Are you wearing it?” she asks, meaning, Are you wearing me?
Ballerina turned writer turned sexual explorer Toni Bentley writes of her own pre-nooky ceremony: “I knew from public performance that artifice, ambiance, and ritual could propel the participant into a state of truth and beauty far more effectively than thoughts or good intentions.”
Likewise, Villanelle recruits her killer instincts and flair for performative world-building to seduce Eve; she dresses her, anoints her, and imposes her chilling, alien presence into Eve’s domestic milieu as an act of erotic domination.
A true submissive is turned on by the strength of another’s desire for her. To enter a dom-sub play, she empties herself of will and tunes in to sensation. She is utterly in the present, riding a series of aesthetic moments over which the dom has full command. When Eve sees herself in the mirror she flushes with shock and recognition; Villanelle has taken over Eve’s atrophied desire muscles and given her a silhouette that feels so very right. By putting on the dress Eve implicitly enters a play of submission with Villanelle that’s not “show me what you want,” it’s “Show me what I want.”
Show me what I won’t let myself want. Show me how to want myself.
Villanelle thus becomes dangerously necessary to Eve as the embodiment of her shadow and the bestower of what she lacks. This is also a form of displacement. Villanelle is a void; what she fills, she also makes empty. Without her, Eve runs the risk of having to feel what Inanna becomes: discarnate, incomplete, hung on the hard peg of reality, in need once more of an external animating force. She would have to schlep back to the inertia of home and job and marriage, and the kind of flattened, default states that serve as the perfect canvas for misadventure.
After Bill’s death, marriage hanging by a thread, Eve breaks into Villanelle’s apartment, located, bien sur, in a fashionably frayed part of Paris. There she sees the girlish grandeur in which Villanelle dares to live: gold-fish bath fixtures, kitted-out vanity, Piper-Heidsieck stacked in the fridge. Eve guzzles the champagne and wrecks the place.
But there’s no payoff. We’ve seen the apartment before, so the primal, voyeuristic pleasure of finally peeking at the intimate details of Villanelle’s life doesn’t arise. We don’t even buy the moment as genuine revelation; Eve knows the animal she’s hunting, and might have guessed at the voluptuousness of her lair. We’ve just been dragged through the Russian juvie-gulag where Villanelle cut her teeth as a teenager, and by its dismal light can see the apartment as something of a triumph.
The fun of watching Villanelle is fuelled by our complicit love for everything she consumes. Eve’s trashing of it feels banal, the usual puerile impulse that follows what arises first when stumbling on an uncommon power: the urge to be on one’s knees before it.
Beneath her indignation at the “assholes win” of it all, the more subtle thing Eve registers, and that we can share, is an itchy realisation about Villanelle’s true power: there’s greatness in her excess. Where Eve is merely obsessed, Villanelle is committed; where Eve is liberated only in moments of petty tyranny, Villanelle practices her freedom relentlessly through violence and beauty.
She’ll go big and do it in style, a trait for which most classical heroines are punished. The western canon is strewn with the bodies of small-town girls with quicksilver libidos who simply wanted too much: Becky Sharp dies rich but friendless, Madame Bovary gags on poison, Moll Flanders returns to England “in sincere penitence for [her wicked life],”Anna Karenina tosses herself on the train tracks, and Nana dies in a Parisian bedsit, face half-eaten by smallpox, “a shovelful of putrid flesh.”
A dread of being savaged by the small gods crouches in the back of most women’s psyches, ready at the first signs of outrageous ambition or appetite to jump up and slam the bunker door. Inanna herself is abandoned by the divine fathers when her plans exceed heaven; two of the three say ‘I told you so, sweetie,’ and leave her to rot in hell. Yet here is Villanelle, bigger than death or common decency, and navigating it all with serious panache.
“I feel nothing,” Villanelle says at an AA meeting where she’s posing as an American trust-fund boho. “More and more and more and more. No matter what I do I don’t feel anything. I hurt myself, it doesn’t hurt. I buy what I want, I don’t want it. I do what I like, I don’t like it.”
Most pleasure is electrified by boundaries, and Villanelle has none. She kills with impunity and purges through beauty (shopping sprees, threesomes), acts of catharsis that go where most catharses go: right back to the status quo. When not killing or shopping, Villanelle is terminally bored, left to a vacant inner realm where chaotic emotions threaten to engulf her.
In Season 2, Eve ‘hires’ Villanelle to seduce but not kill a spoiled tech CEO connected to several murders. He picks at her, smelling a rat. She bashes him in the face with a book. It’s not enough. She leaves in a dissociated trance, her unspent aggression a giant abscess that needs to be drained.
She walks the streets, enters a kebab shop, gazes at its sweating cylinders of meat, at two lamb’s heads propped on a tray. They offer some relief, a gut-stimulus she can follow. Two drunk girls clatter in; they’re going to scrape their pennies together for some chips. These poor, dumb girls. We next see them walking through the dark with Villanelle prowling behind. She resolves it with sex this time, instead of the intended kill.
The scene captures the turbid, dislocated state in which hell-bound Ereshkigal lives — and must live in for an eternity. Ereshkigal was once an ‘above ground’ grain goddess named Ninlil. She was married to Enlil, the god of wind, who raped her repeatedly under different disguises, forcing her to carry and give birth to “monsters.” The gods sent him to hell as punishment and Ninlil followed. Once they entered the Great Below he became Gugulanna, the Bull of Heaven, and she Ereshkigal, Queen of Earth.
As goddess of the harvest, Ninlil was a celebrated daughter, embodying what Gareth Hill describes as the positive static feminine, or “the great, self-regenerating round of nature,” which primarily supports the values that sustain collective life and family.
Agriculture goddesses govern sowing and reaping, growth and death. Their constructive ruthlessness works in broad strokes; they nurture the communal good, but not individuation. Similar Death-Mother figures like Kali or Durga perform an analogous role, but in the realm of spiritual awakening. They might ‘reap’ one’s private demons (the ego), but do so for trans-individual purposes, and not to foster personal uniqueness.
Ninlil is violated so terribly that her power splits off and goes “underground” (i.e., unconscious). There she uses it to uphold the inexorable law of reality, that of death. She ‘reaps’ in adherence with nature, but also, as she embodies feminine instinct divorced from awareness, she reaps arbitrarily, out of her own triggered rage and desire for “justice.”
Ereshkigal presides over a tribunal of masculine judges and sexless demons, who both police the boundaries of her realm and enforce her will. In Hell, Ninlil’s natural lawfulness curdles into blind adherence. She then personifies the negative static feminine, compulsively loyal to patterns out of a desire for dominance.
She borrows temporary feelings of internal worth and security from an imposition of external control. This facet of the feminine pole replaces life-giving cycles with rigid, neurotic habit and unquestioning loyalty to and from kinship groups. She is exemplified in the possessive mother who encourages the dependence of her children, or the dry-drunk who arrests behaviours for animal survival, but does none of the transformative inner work.
Her endless cycles of ‘productivity’ are punctuated by pressure-relieving, and often violent, emotional purges or repetitive lateral movements that exhaust her creative faculties. On a collective level, especially in highly stratified cultures, this ‘purging’ takes the form of clamorous festivals or cathartic theatre, which enable the continuity of a strict hierarchy.
Nothing in the field of the negative static feminine is allowed to graduate or ascend, as this would remind her of her own inertia and be experienced as a betrayal. Her sense of significance is derived from watching others ‘wither on the vine’ of what she suffers and endures, and her unconscious reflex is toward competition, even with her own children, as she feels pride at her ability to energetically drain or outlast others.
Paradoxically, her secret longing is to have her suffering acknowledged, and for it to engender a ‘specialness’ in the eyes of others. Her ‘vulnerability’ is generally a mawkish and simpering display. She wants to be chased, overwhelmed with pity and empathy and rewarded for her survival; she wishes, at long last, to finally receive the intimate love of the mother, and the ‘blessing of the father’ who failed to protect her from the brutality of men.
The ‘Hell’ to which Inanna descends and from which return is “forbidden” is in fact Ereshkigal’s traumatised psyche turned inside out. Inanna presumes that she can simply ‘visit’ her sister’s domain without consequence, and this enrages Ereshkigal, for whom there’s no escape.
The world above recoils from Ereshkigal, and Inanna’s light-filled, regal presence enforces her sense of being a dark ‘other,’ albeit a feared and exalted one. Though she seems to have the power advantage over Inanna, Ereshkigal perceives her little sister only as a threat, which then incites her aggression.
Inanna, a generation younger, has experienced union with the masculine as pleasure and not violation, she’s beloved by her people, and feels entitled to her freedom — especially that of passing between realms. She has a strapping, hungry air, is adaptive, open to the unexpected, and trusting of herself in whatever circumstance to ‘hit the ground running.’ Her one law and language is that of Eros and she seeks under all conditions to not merely survive, but thrive.
Inanna emanates life, her face mobile and embellished with the energies of fully expressed and digested emotion, a principle over which she rules: “Downheartedness, calamity, heartache — and joy and good cheer — is your domain, Inanna. Tremble, afright, terror — and dazzling and glory — is your domain, Inanna.”
Ereshkigal’s unlined visage reveals her internal emotional ‘freeze,’ the veritable Petrified Woman she has become. Inanna moves: bodily towards what she desires and internally through deeply felt and wide-ranging emotions. Sarcasm and cynicism are utterly foreign to her; she is the gnosis that comes from whole-hearted participation.
Inanna’s capacity to be active in her desire and yielding to her feeling makes her an artist of life’s experience. She strides through, uninhibited, internal barriers down. Brinton-Perera notes that Inanna “craves and takes, desires and destroys, and then grieves and composes songs of grief.”
She’s felt the intransigence of the father gods, but not been brutalised in the way of Ereshkigal, and can’t empathise with her suffering. Inanna freely chose her descent out of an instinctive desire for wholeness, whereas Ninlil followed her rapist out of a displaced sense of power. As Brinton-Perera writes, “A woman suffering Ereshkigal […] falls easily into the underworld as into a vortex, or she follows a beloved man with psychopathic or psychotic tendencies, who can lead her into the depths.”
As she is over-identified with her wounds, she can’t break free; to return, to be brought to the full ‘light’ of consciousness would be to risk intolerable shame. She imagines the gaze that will meet her is the one she has cultivated: critical, defensive, and perceiving only in binaries. She makes the impossible choice to break relationship with her deepest self in order to stay in relationship with an unworthy man. When he finally dies, Ereshkigal doesn’t then turn toward her generative powers but to the lost procreative, aping the labour of a cryptic pregnancy, giving birth only to dust.
Like Ereshkigal, Villanelle is respected and feared as a bringer of death. She too has gained status and power in a role that rewards her worst proclivities and deepest traumas. In season 3, Villanelle attempts to liberate herself by clawing up the ranks of the Twelve while under the gimlet eye of Dasha, the trainer who “broke” her, and through a redemptive return to her mentally ill mother and family of origin.
She then turns to father-figure handler Constantin for rescue, and finally cold-pitches herself to Carolyn as an employee. She’s flailing. The fantasy of unearthing one’s authentic self is as seductive as that of reinvention; Villanelle falls for both. When all Hail Mary’s end in more death and rejection, she realises there’s no escape.
What is most inspiring about Villanelle is her hubris: she crosses every threshold, breaks every taboo, and claims every pleasure and privilege as her due. What is most moving about her is that the transgression she now craves, that of intimacy, requires permission. Charm, lying, coercion and brute force don’t work in this realm, and Villanelle has no other means. She’s omnipotent but helpless. In Season 3 we see her seeking entry where she has no power, and finally wanting something she can’t have.
Flickers of a tragic awareness poke through: her ‘protectors’ and patrons have simply milked her pathologies and weaknesses, ensuring she will have no life ‘aboveground;’ Villanelle thought she was free but she was merely indulged. She functions as Sacred Monster to the Twelve and to Eve, who exploits her as well, gorging on a proximity to darkness without having to pay the ultimate price. Eve is, like Inanna, smugly ‘light passing,’ convinced that she can play in darker domains without cost or consequence.
As Villanelle’s jealous love for Eve grows, she, like any narcissist, enmeshes with her, making Eve feel close by making her “the same.” She implicates Eve in an appalling act, ensuring they will share the psychic momentum of dark memory, the intense bonding that can come from hardship or violence.
Under a ruse of self defence, Villanelle goads her into killing her new handler with an axe. Eve flinches, but after the first good whack, really goes for it, howling with berserker rage. As they flee, Villanelle looks back at Eve’s butchery, burying her face in Eve’s neck with all the flush and glee of a woman surveying a hotel room trashed during an illicit tryst.
They journey underground through Rome, and eventually stumble into a palatial hell-scape, the ruins of Villa Adriana. “We’ll go to Alaska!” Villanelle proposes, cheerfully indifferent to Eve’s shock and horror. The gulf between them opens again. Eve claims the one power unavailable to Villanelle: she can go back. She can still belong to the world ‘above.’ Villanelle in turn, claims her last power, her one law and only language — that of death. She initiates Eve as Ereshkigal initiates Inanna: she slays her and leaves her to rot.
Ready for resolution? Check out the final instalment: