Words || Jasmine Phillips
The premise for Killing Eve is fairly simple: a bored MI6 desk worker becomes obsessed with the female assassin she is trying to track, and the assassin becomes equally obsessed with her in return. The two engage in a heart-racing back and forth, sending each other quaint clues (and love letters) as they inch closer to capturing the other.
The show could have so easily been a typical queerbaiting thriller whose plot revolves around the classic deviance of woman-on-woman sexuality – and yet, it is a beacon of representation with a steady sapphic following.
Sandra Oh stars as the eponymous protagonist of the series – Eve Polastri. The show is actually an adaptation of a novel titled Codename Villanelle in which I believe that the only physical descriptions of Eve refer to her as a married woman in her thirties who is “dowdy” with a “mass of curly hair”.
Within our wider context, it is no shock that Sandra Oh did not initially see herself in this role.
Despite an impressive resume of television credits, Oh admitted at a recent AMC Networks summit in Manhattan that she was in fact incredibly confused by her audition, and had even asked the directorial team which part she should be reading for. She was shocked to discover that she would be playing the lead role.
“Even this far down along in one’s career,” Oh said. “[A]s an actor of color or just myself this far along I still could not see myself in this leading role”.
While Oh might be embarrassed to admit this humility now, it is unsurprising that actresses of colour do not see themselves in lead roles. TV Statistics collected by Women and Hollywood demonstrate that, for speaking roles in mainstream television shows produced 2017-18, African American women made up 19%, Latina women made up 7% and Asian women made up just 6%.
This is not the percentage of main or recurring cast members. This is the proportion of speaking roles.
So, yeah. The fact that Sandra Oh couldn’t compute that she was reading for a strong lead role? Sadly is just a reflection of the state of our wider society.
Beyond the Polish surname, the character of Eve Polastri possesses a capacity to captivate that simply is not awarded to non-white characters. The actress who played Eve Polastri needed to emulate a beauty and a spirit strong enough to intrigue the psychopathic Villanelle. She needed to have an aura of allure that was overlooked by many – but not by Villanelle.
Killing Eve, it seems, enjoys playing with fire – this power could have so easily been spun into a misogynistic caricature of a woman. With a protagonist who has an “unusual beauty” that “most people would not understand” we could so easily have been granted a manic pixie woman, with no substance behind her.
But oh. Oh. That is not what we got.
Killing Eve emphasises the features of its protagonist that are genuinely overlooked. It spins dominant Eurocentric ideals of beauty on their head and thrusts forward Eve Polastri – a middle-aged, Asian woman who goes consistently unnoticed due to these identities – and it gives us a detailed and explicit deconstruction of how each of these things make her entrancing. It does not exotify Oh or exploit her ethnicity for this; it is always self-reflexive in its understanding of the structural social inequities of women of colour.
Honestly, I’m just. So used to giving.
And now I get to receive.
Oh is masterful in how she wields this power, and the critics for the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice and the Screen Actors Guild seem to agree if her triple whammy knockout for Killing Eve’s first season is anything to go by.
Here is the sitch: the key thing that Killing Eve understands (and that straight white girlpower heist media like The Hustle does not) is that representation is visibility.
And that to be a woman over 35 – and a woman of colour no less – is to be invisible.
This understanding underpins the entire series at every level.
As Eve is introduced to a fresh investigative team, her new colleague greets “Welcome to MI6. An old Etonian on every corner waiting to steal ya job”. The two women, both nonwhite and over 35, glance over at the Oxford alum. He is at least ten years their junior and is clearly not here on merit.
The new team gets closer and closer to capturing their new killer – someone who is not Villanelle, who dislikes the attention and goes unnoticed. Eve stresses that they are searching for someone who no one pays attention to.
“They’re not important, they’re invisible. It’s the kind of woman who people look at every day and never see.”
The woman, in the end, is the same demographic as Eve herself – Chinese, over 35, dresses as a cleaner to carry out her kills. She uses the invisibility that her appearance affords her.
Even the premise simply makes sense – of course Eve Polastri is bored by the tedium of middle-aged life. She is a determined, bold and brilliant woman in the prime of her life, who has worked her ass off to get where she is, and she is stuck in a desk job filing paperwork.
She is bored and unfulfilled.
The relationship between her and her husband is delicate and complex. Niko tries to support and understand Eve, but years of marriage and mediocrity have eroded away aspects of her identity that she is uncovering for perhaps the first time. At the beginning of her search for Villanelle, Eve is entirely open and honest with Niko – but he grows openly and increasingly concerned and frustrated with her.
Which, like sure. She’s obsessed with a killer and people are dying around her, like it’s not exactly a healthy hobby.
But you chose to marry a spy from MI6 dude. Embrace the quirks.
Their conversations otherwise comprise of – well, nothing at all. They discuss dinner more frequently than any other topic (aside from Villanelle), and they grow apart in their incapacity to hold a proper conversation with each other.
By the beginning of the second season, Eve is unable to tell Niko what is truly going on. The two of them have become entirely disconnected, with Niko remaining in the world of normal, middle-aged, married life, and Eve immersed into Villanelle’s world.
Eve is not invisible to Villanelle.
Villanelle is entranced by everything about the older woman, and she regularly sends expensive gifts. Parisian clothes, boutique perfumes, designer dresses. Eve is showered in attention and appraisal.
For those of you who have always had this attention and approval from society, it is difficult to understand why this connection is reciprocated. Villanelle is a killer, after all – she is dangerous, and she is uncontrollable.
But she is entranced by everything that makes Eve invisible to the wider world. She sees her and understands her, and she marvels at her beauty without fetishizing her.
This gaze might be the gaze of a psychopath.
But it’s a female gaze, and Eve blooms under it.