What’s Killing Eve Polastri?

Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) from Killing Eve contemplates a crack in a bus shelter before smashing the glass

In Killing Eve the name of the protagonist invites us to consider the series as a tale of temptation. In a blackly comical drama that explores the pursuit of a reckless political assassin, it is difficult to resist theorising about the relationship, not only between Eve Polastri (played with frazzled charm by Sandra Oh) and killer Villanelle (whose unnerving charisma is portrayed by Jodie Comer), but also between Eve Polastri and Eve, fruit-of-the-tree-of-knowledge-eater from the book of Genesis.

On the trail of the glamorous assassin, Eve Polastri experiences alternating bouts of horror and fascination. As the story unfolds, the flippantly comic script by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge creates something of a red herring. What initially appears to be a black comedy about a hapless MI5 pencil-pusher and a bloodthirsty sadist evolves into the charted moral downfall of a woman entranced by a psychopath. Or, put more glibly, Silence of the Lambs meets Fight Club.

It is hard to view Killing Eve without a growing sense of unease, and it is not simply a product of the tense atmosphere of a story about contract killing and hunting down the perpetrator. Much of the discomfort the viewer experiences is in witnessing Eve’s ambivalent approach to the villain of the piece. For example, when providing details of Villanelle’s appearance to a police sketch-artist, Eve’s description borders on the poetic, and she is clearly struck by the beauty of the murderess. On another occasion, Eve endangers the lives of two colleagues when she refuses to drive away from the armed and advancing Villanelle, apparently for no other reason than to experience a close encounter with the object of her obsession.

Perhaps most disturbingly, following a trip to Berlin where a close colleague had been murdered by Villanelle, Eve’s stolen suitcase is returned by hand to her London home. Eve’s stuff is gone (into Villanelle’s wardrobe), and the suitcase now contains elegant clothes and a bottle of perfume, along with a note to say, “sorry baby” (possibly a reference to the murder of the aforementioned colleague). Initially horrified, Eve later dons an exquisitely tailored dress, sprays herself with the perfume, and revels in the sight of her own form in the mirror (the spell is broken by the arrival of Villanelle in her flat, an ensuing fight in the bathroom, and a surreal meal of leftovers, culminating in the theft of Eve’s smartphone).

Killing Eve protagonist Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) wears a dress sent to her by Villanelle with a note to say "sorry baby"

Eve’s behaviour deviates from that which we have come to expect from television detectives. In addition to catching a killer, she is engaged, consciously or not, in the process of learning to be herself and shedding the real and imagined constraints that have her trapped in frumpy clothes, a boring job and a stale marriage. Some may come to suspect that the “killing” to which the title refers is more of a metamorphosis; Eve is being liberated with the help of a murderous psychopath with a penchant for wavy, black tresses.

However, for other viewers, the name of the protagonist will strongly suggest that this is not really a liberating story of a woman finding herself. The theme of loss may, in fact, be more prominent than that of finding, as the killing of Eve is enacted by the protagonist herself as she succumbs to temptation and destroys her life.

Almost counter-intuitively, serial killing doesn’t normally invite much engagement as a moral issue (with the exception of the treatment of psychopathic killers in bringing them to justice). It is so obviously wrong that it is a convenient trope for on-screen evil, and the perfect backdrop for good characters to demonstrate their goodness. No major moral dilemmas necessary; only the relentless pursuit of justice by the protagonists, some of whom may be flawed, but only to the extent necessary for them to be relatable.

This is where Killing Eve moves away from the serial-killer-hunting template. Eve’s fascination with Villanelle clouds her judgement. While other characters refer to her mission to “save the world” (her husband says this reproachfully, and her boss matter-of-factly), the protagonist is distinguished by her oscillation between a desire to do good and restore order, and a longing, which she herself barely understands, to be close to a monster.

The nature of the temptation to which Eve is subject might not be immediately obvious, and perhaps an expert opinion would be helpful in defining it. St. Augustine of Hippo would likely understand this story quite differently from many a contemporary viewer, not least because he regarded fiction as a kind of suffering-lite, which can “only graze the skin”, whereby “it swells and festers with hideous pus” [1]. He can, however, shed some light on how it is that a respectable and likeable character like Eve Polastri can enter a slow descent into moral oblivion.

A major difficulty in understanding the temptation of Eve is in pinning down her motive in pursuing Villanelle. Simple glory is seemingly not what Eve is seeking. Nor is she unequivocally committed to limiting the damage done by the object of her fascination, as evidenced by the scene in which she refuses to drive away from Villanelle to safety, with two frightened colleagues in the back seat.

A major driver is that Eve’s fascination with the psychology of Villanelle borders on infatuation (her description of her first impressions of the assassin’s appearance, mentioned above, betrays this), and the attraction seems to be rooted in something more than a hitherto unexplored bisexuality. We see in her casual, halting experimentation with self-harm, and her alarm when she shatters a cracked pane in a bus shelter, that she is intoxicated by the very idea of overcoming her inhibitions. While condemning Villanelle outwardly, she marvels at the murderer’s sheer lack of natural restraint.

Had Eve been more familiar with the Confessions of St. Augustine, the incident at the bus shelter might have alerted her to something insidious about human motivation, which in turn might have prompted her to tread more carefully in the wake of Villanelle.

Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) from Killing Eve contemplates a crack in a bus shelter before smashing the glass

Augustine’s theft of pears, famously recounted and scrutinised in book II of the Confessions, places human motivation under the microscope. More bored than hungry, he and his friends steal pears only to throw them away. Augustine notes that since he had no need for the pears, the real motivation was a desire to do evil for its own sake. “Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden…The evil in me was foul, but I loved it” [2], he confessed.

There are echoes of the theft of the pears in Eve’s swigging and smashing of Villanelle’s champagne stockpile in the final episode, though the true pear-theft moment in Killing Eve, it could be argued, is the devastation of the bus shelter. Ultimately irrational and senseless, it is also thrilling and oozes existential significance.

Eve’s pursuit of thrills of this nature forms a deadly compound with her natural curiosity. Early in the series, we see her curiosity fuelling experimentation with self-harm. Curiosity is another trait that St. Augustine treated with suspicion. In book X of the Confessions, Augustine uses the example of a mangled corpse to illustrate the perverse nature of curiosity:

“People will flock to see one lying on the ground, simply for the sensation of horror and sorrow that it gives them…It is to satisfy this unhealthy curiosity that freaks and prodigies are put on show in the theatre, and for the same reason men are led to investigate the secrets of nature, which are irrelevant to our lives, although such knowledge is of no value to them and they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing” [3].

It is a very difficult warning for the modern mind to accept, having been cultivated in the midst of a secular society that venerates science and knowledge. In the internet age, unfettered access to information is widely regarded as essential for human progress. For Augustine, compared with other types of temptation, the temptation of knowledge is particularly dangerous, “because it is more complicated”. He is wide-ranging in his condemnation: “This futile curiosity masquerades under the name of science and learning” [4].

To put this harsh denouncement into context, Augustine spent many years grappling with the temptations of knowledge and cleverness. In his youth, he had rejected the Bible for its simplicity, instead preferring writing that bore the marks of rhetoric, the art of communicating well. He was guilty of what we might call intellectual snobbery, and the result of this was that he at first rejected as crude what he later came to regard as a source of divine revelation. In the end, he came to lament the “clever” period of his life, leaving behind a promising career in rhetoric.

A wholesale denouncement of science and learning seems a bit excessive to us today. However, in an increasingly secular society, when a definition of goodness is once again up for grabs, it is legitimate to ask if we sometimes make the mistake of assuming a close relationship between goodness and cleverness, idolising science and technology as the keys to a pragmatic brand of salvation.

It is worthy of note that an idiot wouldn’t be in Eve’s position. Her fascination with psychopathic killers suggests a high level of curiosity and intelligence. Could these have been the key to her downfall? Is it possible that in her fascination with killer females, Eve was already primed to fall from grace? Augustine noted, “there are some things in man which even his own spirit within him does not know” [5]. Does Eve recognise the danger in her fixation?

In Killing Eve, we have a clear example of the quest for knowledge going awry, and perhaps it is the part of the passage about mangled corpses above that says, “they wish to gain it merely for the sake of knowing” that we should heed here. Had Eve been guided by a clearer notion of catching a killer, preventing more killing, and ensuring justice is served, her curiosity might have been less dangerous. However, she seems unsure of her own motives, yet relentless in her pursuit. In this condition her soul is imperilled because she is seeking knowledge without a good reason. She can pretend that she is tracking a killer in order to prevent further suffering, but the truth is she is bewitched by the glamour of Villanelle.

Augustine felt that people generally fail to examine the state of their souls before seeking knowledge, observing that, “men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves” [6]. He doesn’t even touch upon the implications of gazing upon murderous psychopaths without a keen grasp of one’s own moral condition, but we can assume that he would not consider it advisable.

An unreflective approach to morality is manifested in the attitudes of some of the other characters on screen. The second episode opens with a scene where a young woman spies a murder in progress from a distance, picks up her phone, and calls her mother to ask if she needs any groceries. Later in the series, Kenny, the computer whizz kid employed to hack into prison records and security cameras, realises that Eve is attracted to Villanelle. Eve even flippantly refers to Villanelle as her “girlfriend”, and in spite of his mental dexterity when it comes to infiltrating high-security computer systems, he is decidedly unmoved by this revelation of potential moral degeneracy. Perhaps his indifference echoes the attitude of some of the programme’s audience.  In an unreflective desire to be entertained we enter into the universe of the programme with little regard to our own moral condition and the effect the consumption of this story has on us.

Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) meet at Villanelle's flat in the final episode of Killing Eve.

Once Eve has expressed a kinship with Villanelle, it is clear that the barn door of the abyss has been left wide open. Augustine recognised the role of friendship in the theft of the pears: “This was friendship of a most unfriendly sort, bewitching my mind in an inexplicable way” [7]. We are not given any clear answers about whether Eve’s approach to Villanelle is intended to cultivate trust with a broader aim of apprehending her and stopping the killing, although we are led to suspect that Eve lacks the discipline for that. She has been driven by curiosity and frustration from the outset, and we might struggle to believe that she has been playing a long game, even when she pushes the knife into her quarry in the final scene. [8]

If Eve knows that Villanelle represents something morally repugnant, why does she allow herself to be manipulated into something resembling friendship? Parity between Killing Eve and the events related in Genesis might also extend to Eve and Villanelle’s relationship. Insights contained in St. Augustine’s work Genesis Understood Literally suggest that Adam might have accepted the fruit from Eve because of the power of Earthly love to draw us away from God.

John O’Meara translated the following passage in the Maynooth Review. While, as O’Meara acknowledges, Augustine ultimately admits that he does not know what motivated Adam and Eve to sin, he was clearly open to the suggestion that the love Adam felt for Eve was not always going to motivate him to do good. This time it is through Adam that we can locate another piece of the puzzle of how it is that an intelligent, reasonable person like Eve Polastri can be morally derailed. Her moral objectivity is clouded by something difficult to express; somewhere shy of love and affection, but going beyond a detached kindness or mercy.

“[Adam] felt sure [Eve] would waste away if she did not have his support and were alienated from his mind. The disagreement would be the end of her. He was… overcome…by a certain loving benevolence through which it usually happens that for fear of turning a friend into an enemy we offend God”. [9]

The notion of love clouding judgement can also explain how it is that momentary flashes of realisation produce fluctuations in Eve’s attitude towards Villanelle; Eve has not been utterly overcome by love. We see this in her response to Villanelle’s attempt to portray herself as a victim over dinner in Eve’s home: a resounding “bullshit”. It culminates in the motivational fog that shrouds the final scene, in which we see Eve trashing Villanelle’s apartment, being apprehended, appearing to soften, and plunging a knife into Villanelle’s abdomen.

So, to what extent is the infatuated Eve guilty? The viewer does not for a moment entertain the idea that Villanelle’s conduct is defensible—by any secular measure, she is guilty of several counts of one of the few remaining transgressions widely regarded as gratuitously evil. The extent of Eve’s culpability, on the other hand, is much more conceptually slippery, so much so that she might appear at first glance to be an innocent victim.

A clue that Killing Eve’s creators are conscious of the issue of Eve’s culpability comes in the form of an exchange between Villanelle and Anna (Villanelle’s former teacher, lover, and victim’s widow). Villanelle and Anna’s simultaneously utter claims that the other, “seduced me”. Both guilty to some extent, they cry seduction to acknowledge weakness while limiting their culpability. Eve is also subjected to a kind of seduction. To what extent was she “seduced”, and how culpable is she?

Furthermore, do viewers ask these questions? Do they see the story as one of a fall from grace, or do they see a quirky drama about a bored woman with a penchant for criminal psychology discovering latent sexual desires? Augustine reproached himself for consuming fiction and watching theatrical tragedies on account of their power to distract us from our own miserable condition and moral defects:

“I learned to lament the death of Dido, who killed herself for love, while all the time, in the midst of these things, I was dying, separated from you, my God and my life, and I shed no tears for my own plight.” [10]

Perhaps, as a penitent former rhetorician, Augustine might also have sympathy with the view that humour and snappy dialogue send a message to the brain to stop evaluating the moral dimension of what we are witnessing. Could it be that the flippant tone of much of the dialogue in Killing Eve masks the alarming reality that this too is a tragedy with the power to corrupt?

Perhaps, with its comedic script, and spotlight on a charming monster and her amusing devotee, we the unthinking viewer are passively soaking up an idea: Fly to the sun, eat the fruit from the tree, drink full and descend. It is in the spirit of our age to set out to explore the limits of morality, as we once set out to explore the continents. We take this idea not from Villanelle, who continually waves the red flags of wickedness, but from Eve herself.

Are we invited to regard Eve’s fascination as a merely a quirk of her personality, or are we in a position to assess the moral implications of her conduct, and the state of her soul as her instincts lead her closer to the epicentre of moral oblivion?  It seems reasonable to conclude, from the unfortunate events of the final scene, that at heart the tale is one of a bright and likeable protagonist straying from the comfort of a place in civilised society into the darkness of amorality. We cannot regard Eve as simply a passive victim. She is deliberate in her actions, driven by a dangerous motivational cocktail of curiosity, boredom, and an intellect lusting for a more dangerous variety of pear.

[1] St, Augustine (1961) Confessions Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin,  book III ii p. 57

[2] Ibid. book II iv p. 47

[3] Ibid. book X xxxv p. 242

[4] Ibid. book X, xxxv p. 241

[5] Ibid. book X v pp. 210-211

[6] Ibid. book X viii p. 216

[7] Ibid. book II ix p. 52

[8]  It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Eve was acting entirely deliberately, although her reaction to stabbing Villanelle is one of astonishment and horror. Hopefully we will learn more about what was going through her head in series 2.

[9] John O’Meara (1984) ‘St. Augustine’s Understanding of the Creation and Fall’ Maynooth Review, Vol 10 pp. 52-62, Maynooth: Faculty of arts, Celtic studies and Philosophy NUIM p. 61

[10] St, Augustine (1961) Confessions Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin,  book I xiii p. 33

Written by Ellen Wilson

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