The Mythic Blueprint of Killing Eve, Part 4: Killing the Beloved and Radical Reinvention
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 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.
Mythic time is always timeless. It is, as Karen Armstrong writes, “about something that happened once, but is also happening all the time.” Myth adheres to another chronology as well: you can’t go back, only forward or down. As in a dream, myth doesn’t ‘remember’ solipsistically, within its own confines. It is memory itself, accessed through the present moment, a vertical phenomenon.
Thus a change made in the present transforms all past iterations. When Inanna resurrects, she does so entirely, and her reality makes a coordinate change. The gaze “of death” she gives to Dumuzi represents a new mode of perception, detached and discerning. Her strength — one shared by all the great heroines — is rooted in the pliability of her persona, and not fidelity to a singular role. Whatever direction she turns, whatever that new role, she will embody one hundred percent.
The timelessness of the mythic realm bestows an inherent unity; Inanna doesn’t look back because there’s nothing to look at. She cries out Ereshkigal’s name in praise, but doesn’t seek her or return to the site of her slaying. ‘Why’ it happened is irrelevant. Inanna unhooks from what her slaying might have meant to her slayer.
Some stories teach us how to embed with destructive forces, and others how to confront and leave them. The Descent is among the latter. Inanna merges with her dark sister, extracts her powers and exits. She will take the gift but not the story or its players; she doesn’t chase the catalyst.
In the world of television, however, success and duration are synonymous; they’re meant to last, season after season — and that requires certain dramatic devices. What functions as a catalyst or inciting event in myth (Inanna’s death and flaying) liberates the heroine and provides momentum to end the story. But the catalytic element in a TV series (Eve and Villanelle’s mutual fascination) becomes an enslaving vice, the very force that will help perpetuate the drama.
As Marshall Mcluhan said, the medium — in this case one that intends to be unending — truly is the message.
In Killing Eve, our heroine is pried out of a mid-life rut by an inciting character (Villanelle), only to fall into a pit of obsession. As season 3 opens, we discover that Eve has survived the shooting, but is in subsistence mode, chopping up chicken carcasses at a Chinese restaurant and living in self-medicated squalor.
Nico is in an asylum, her team has scattered, Villanelle has vanished, and so too, it would seem, are the means for Eve to have learned anything from her experience. At the first nudge from Carolyn, she is raised from the proverbial dead, back in the game and in league with Villanelle. Their rapprochement takes place in a mirror-ball-dappled House of Dreams, an old dance hall where they greet each other with wistful affection. As beaming couples twirl around them, Villanelle asks Eve if she ever thinks about the past. “All the time,” sighs Eve. “It’s all I think about.”
Eve’s inner life is confined to the compulsive repetitions of addiction and fascination, the inverse of mythic timelessness. For her the present is always and only the past, which is simultaneously the future. “When I try to imagine the future,” says Eve to Villanelle. “I just see your face over and over again.”
Myth, writes Armstrong, “is primarily a guide to behaviour.” By applying the dimensions of the sacred and the timeless to lived experience, myth achieves its primary purpose: to bring tragic and paradoxical truths into a coherent whole. Though Palaeolithic peoples lived closely with and revered animals, they had to kill them in order to survive. Stories and ritual from this period centre in the hunt, reconcile its terrifying risk, and the psychological distress of causing another creature’s death.
According to Armstrong, when trapped in the seams of an enigma, myth gives us an orientation away from eddies of self-analysis and doubt that “prevent [us] from acting effectively,” and allow us to stand in our choices with greater conviction. Those choices must be adapted or invented, but the myth is meant to guide us toward their essence.
As a vehicle for the myth’s unfolding, the heroine embodies capacities one or several dimensions greater and more concentrated than our own. Her deeds become symbols that provoke powerful unconscious responses from us. Drawn down from the ethers with imagination and feeling, we metabolise her wisdom through action. Her being becomes our doing, her doing our being. She’s not to be imitated per se, but presents internal powers that can be invoked and applied to difficult choices.
When Inanna emerges from hell, what she brings back is discernment. We can imagine her raw and open, her mind newly retrieved from the deepest unconscious sleep. With speed and purpose she and the galla advance through her realm, and as the central players of her life appear, Inanna observes them without emotion. Her new-found potency becomes solidified through a shocking act: she indicts her husband Dumuzi as usurper of her throne, then watches coolly as the galla savage him with axes and attempt to drag him to the underworld.
Just as the archetypal hunter models a necessary boldness and decisiveness in the hunt, Inanna’s detached appraisal of kith and kin, and her willingness to ‘kill’ the one with whom she shares the most intimate bond, model the essential ruthlessness of individuation for some women. Her previous roles — daughter, wife, mother, ingenue, helpmate, sexual object — are questioned and redefined. Conditioned behaviours — fawning, pleasing, deferring, seduction, apology, martyrdom, and performative ‘goodness’ — heretofore so easy and automatic in their expression — are examined as wastes of life energy that diminish power.
Her outward-moving emotional tentacles, finely calibrated toward approval or disapproval, are withdrawn and sensitised to personal pleasures and autonomous drives. Though it might seem ‘monstrous’ to others, she must, at pivotal moments, decide to sever herself from pleasing but outworn identities and attachments in order to inhabit her full self.
The tyranny of imposed identities is derived from their narrow, opportunistic scope, but also from their implied expectation of stasis; one is allowed to exist only as fully or change as radically as another can comfortably bear.
Change often requires a greater capacity to tolerate — even savour — the discomfort and displeasure of others. Inanna shows us, in extremis, what it is to choose growth and freedom over conditioning and belonging, what it is to ‘serve one mistress’ instead of the arbitrary demands of a contingent love.
In television, however, such rebellions are seldom borne consciously. If myth taps the unconscious and puts in story form the means to align with the core of reality and human thriving, then television functions more as a form of play; it reveals our fantasies and fears, uncurbed desires and unspeakable urges.
Play explores the unconscious from the vantage point of the id, of pure instinct. Its theorists contend that children often spin imaginative scenarios from the darkest material — death, abuse, social rejection and banishment, violation, loss, evil, greed, domination — as a kind of rehearsal, preparing their psyches to confront such events and their inevitable pain.
Television adds the delights of both voyeurism and moral superiority to this shadowy ‘play.’ Its protagonists are frequently less than heroic: they say what they shouldn’t say, do what they shouldn’t do. They act outside the bounds of middle-ground morality and put our human absurdity on full display. Serial television is the medium of fascination par excellence, able to capture our unconscious attention by enacting our terror and longing in the most vivid and ‘realistic’ fashion.
In other important ways, television is also entirely unlike play, as it requires no imaginative or embodied participation — no element of risk — from the audience. Like many instruments of fascination, it induces stimulation and passivity all at once, but robs both of their respective powers to invigorate or truly rest.
Jerry Mander, (is that your real name?) in his cranky-but-prescient 1978 manifesto, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, writes, “To relax the mind, one needs to cease thinking. In Zen meditation, something called ‘empty mind’ is desirable because once achieved, renewal begins. When you are watching television, images are pouring [in], and your mind is not calm or empty. It is occupied.”
“Occupied,” here, could mean for Mander both definitions of the word — of busy-ness and also conquest, a ‘take-over’ of the creative and imaginal faculties. “When the mind is quiet,” writes Mander, “One produces one’s own new imagery, or experiences a new sense of one’s place in the world.”
This self-orienting “quiet” is the space into which mythic stories penetrate. They are meant to call forth symbols and guidance whose function, according to Joseph Campbell, is “to keep us in sync — with ourselves and the environment in which we live,” a task at odds with the explorations of most television shows. The tension and momentum in serial plots is more often rooted in the Freudian principle of “the wish and the prohibition, a collision between the psychological and the sociological.”
In ‘dark’ but successful (i.e., popular and long-running) shows made in the last decade (a random sample: Mad Men, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Dexter, Ozark, Weeds, Killing Eve) this wish/prohibition clash goes as follows: the central character compulsively breaks the law and/or social taboos to fulfil a private desire, thereby accumulating a hidden inner life that cordons them off from family or society. Their secrets devour more and more internal space and demand greater extremes of behaviour (As in Freud’s model, there’s no ‘win-win’ in the human psyche; if you grow one side, the other side contracts).
Ultimately, their moral thresholds extend until they become ‘liberated’ as rule-breaking outsiders who are also caged by their secrets. Like most addicts, the protagonist comes to be defined not so much by who they are, but what they’ve gotten away with. If there is a repeated ‘myth’ in contemporary television, it’s concerned with the freedoms and pleasures of moral exile, and what people do when no one is watching. Ironically, what most people are doing when no one is watching is watching TV.
Whatever psychic spells it might cast, television has also been, at least for the past decade, the most powerful delivery system in pop culture for depictions of feminine subversion, for richer, deeper and more complex portraits of women. It has been a haven for female characters who tend to fall into the margins of cinema and popular music: the contradictory, the relentless, the unfaithful, the greedy, the unlikable, the unfuckable, and, as is the case with Villanelle, the irredeemable.
It is as if the exiled aspects of the feminine, combed out of one-dimensional portraits and roles in movies and literature, were smuggled into a baggier, more elastic medium that could accommodate maximum nuance and empathy, one that usually ‘lives’ in the centre of the domestic sphere. Like all over-constricted life energies, the feminine shadow has grown in the dark and erupted in the place where its powers were once confined: the home.
Killing Eve combines the thrills of the wish/prohibition formula with extremes of feminine subversion: women acting out what they really want and what they’re really capable of. Villanelle and Eve give us two sides of the same coin, an id unchecked and semi-checked, respectively. Their dynamism is derived more from enantiodromia than either character’s will toward autonomy. One gradually becomes a little more like the other, but as a duo they remain static.
The completion of their tortured, exhausting, compulsive pull into each other remains elusive, as it must, because full assimilation would provide resolution. It would mean an end. The apotheosis of each demands a flattening, of Eve’s humanity and Villanelle’s incorrigible ‘bigness,’ the very elements that make them so watchable. That would be the myth: the path of integration, of endings and lessons extracted and lived — and it would likely make for terrible television.
A mythologist might say that we forsook the myth for television and movies. We chose catharsis over wisdom, the timeless for the relevant. But what if Killing Eve were a myth? What would it be telling us, orienting us toward? What are its archetypes emanating?
In the last episode of season 3, Villanelle and Eve meet on London Bridge. “Help me make it stop,” pleads Eve, and Villanelle positions them back to back.
“Now we walk and never look back,” Villanelle tells her. “Don’t turn. Just walk.”
For those expected to be tirelessly relational, to perform for a culture its emotional and moral labor as benign givers and good girls, the most taboo fantasy is one of indifference, the ‘no fucks given’ dream of emotional autonomy. Take away the sociopathy, the killing, the narcissism of Villanelle and strip her down to that singular power: indifference, and the sovereignty and playfulness it engenders. There is our aspirational archetype.
Eve is our heroine, the everywoman — us — longing to express the full range of her powers, her light and dark, to cast off confining roles and live without apology, to stop concealing her urgent desire for power and passion, to shed her need to live safely and be good, and to know what she wants precisely, and go after it as Villanelle would, with the remorseless efficiency of a great white shark.
In her way are a lot of bad sweaters and cheap merlot, are self-doubt and guilt and ambivalence, obligation, memory and habit, the psychic debris of childhood and trauma, are all her self-abandoning obsessions and projections; there is the terrible inertia, the tug and traction of the past, of who she once was, and who she thinks herself to be.
But what if she could?
What if she could traverse the bridge, going god knows where, but commit to it and keep walking? What if you could just…pivot? Simply let go and go forward, pocket the lesson and leave the rest behind?
What if, like a great heroine, you could shed one skin and adopt another? What if a deeper, more spontaneous self could emerge moment to moment, unconfined by the past, each whole-hearted, each immersed, invested — but free?
“Don’t turn. Just walk.”
That is the pith of all dreams of reinvention. We don’t thrill to the actual change, but the fantasy of its simplicity.
In the myth, Inanna will make the change. She will leave hell and never look back. This is television; of course Villanelle and Eve must turn and look. With that twin gaze of helpless fascination and familiar longing, the series manages to end in both an old-fashioned duel where both parties lose, and a cliff hanger that promises — and leaves us wanting — more.
1. Armstrong, Karen, A Short History of Myth, 2005
2. Brinton-Perera, Sylivia: Descent to the Goddess, 1981
3. Brooks, Douglas, Durga Lecture Series
4. Bentley, Toni, The Surrender, 2004
5. Campbell, Joseph, Pathways to Bliss, 2004
6. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, 1957
7. Hannan, Hollie Jeanne, Initiation Through Trauma, 2005
8. Hill, Gareth, Masculine and Feminine, 1992
9. Malcolm, Janet, Forty-One False Starts, 2013
10. Mander, Jerry, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, 1978
11. Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel, Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth, 1983