Killing it.

Sandra Oh as Eve Pilastri and Jodie Comer as Villanelle in “Killing Eve”

I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. The British television series written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,* follows the neurotically symbiotic relationship of MI6 spy Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Their mutual fascination builds up around a vortex of casually grizzly murders and frenzied responses. The violence is made palatable, and more than that seductive, by the script’s wickedly black humor, the actors’ physical comedy, and a mesmerizing deployment of fashion. Killing Eveis a whole new genre of costume drama.

Eve is the foil to Villanelle’s fashioned excess.  The American MI6 agent’s wardrobe is a study in neutrals, while her counterpart’s is as highly keyed as her sociopathic personality. Villanelle fears nothing, certainly not color. Her wardrobe is as eclectic as Eve’s is predictable. But then Villanelle’s costume changes are part of her job. A succession of new targets in different locales – Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, and so on – requires adopting a new persona and a different outfit. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: she wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be called a ‘disguise.’ In Killing Eve, Villanelle’s games of dress-up (with all the naiveté the phrase implies) are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization, for which her wardrobe is the perfect metaphor.

Villanelle in Alexander McQueen vintage mourning dress, Season 2, Episode 5

However, Villanelle’s outfits aren’t only worn in the service of a hit. They are also the objective of the hit. She works for these indulgences. How else could she afford them? Though for all her hard work Villanelle doesn’t have a style or a look. She wears fashion. That was my epiphany: The point of a Molly Goddard bubblegum-pink tulle dress or a black Alexander McQueen mourning dress is that it shatter norms and normality (which is precisely what Villanelle does to Eve). I already knew this; I’d just never felt it.  

Villanelle’s sartorial intelligence mirrors her cunning. Together they whip up a maelstrom of psycho-sensual effects. Fashion is hyper-present, but not self-consciously serious, no more than the character, herself. To wit, in one scene an injured Villanelle flees from a hospital in a pair of bright blue, outer-space-themed pajamas borrowed from the boy in the next bed (before she kills him). The pajamas make a cartoon of both violence and fashion. 

Villanelle preparing her hospital escape in pajamas, Episode 1, Season 2

Jody Comer’s flamboyant portrayal of Villanelle charges every scene with Sandra Oh’s Eve, who is taunted by the Russian’s uncanny ability to insinuate herself into her life, when it should be the other way around. The reversal of roles starts early in Season 1 when Villanelle sends Eve a spaghetti-strap dark blue dress that fits her perfectly. At this point they’ve yet to meet, so it’s uncanny that Villanelle knows her size. In this power-play-by-fashion, the tacit message is ‘I know you. I know you better than yourself.’ Eve is given a sliver (the dress really is slinky) of the forbidden fruit that Villanelle offers:  absolute freedom, a state of being promised by fashion and reached by narcissism.

For all that, the show doesn’t devolve into the sinister. Villanelle wears her crimes like her dresses – lightly – leaving Eve to feel frustratingly inadequate, even though she has the higher moral ground. Sandra Oh describes the dynamic in more familiar terms, saying: “A lot of people wish they were more fearless and more confident and a lot of people wish they had a lot more style.” Though most of us don’t wrestle with our envy so literally. Not because most of us can’t afford ‘fashion,’ but because we have a harder time surrendering to its dominion. 

The remarkable thing is how Jody Comer (a.k.a., Villanelle) conquers fashion so thoroughly. I wonder whether another actor could animate them so powerfully. Or am I confusing the actor with the character? Can they even be separated in the mediated moment? It takes a particular body to infuse the clothes with the risk they represent.  Otherwise, I would have figured out fashion long ago, at least by virtue of seeing it in a museum.  Clearly I’ve never seen it truly worn.

*Waller-Bridge also wrote and starred in Fleabag, for which she wonthree Emmys and a BAFTA Award in 2017. Season 3 starts April 26 at 10 p.m. on both BBC America and AMC. The show’s costume designers are Phoebe de Gaye (Season 1) and now Charlotte Miller.

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