I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. I’d seen it, read about it, but was never really confronted with its lethal distillation of beauty, affront, and risk. 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 Eve is a whole new genre of costume drama.
Eve’s sense of style—borderline grunge—is the foil to Villanelle’s haute couture. The government agent’s closet 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 targets in international locales—Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and so on—demands a new persona and a different outfit. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: Villanelle wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be read as a disguise intended to obscure the murderer’s identity. But in Killing Eve, fashion-cum-costume is both signature and calling card. Villanelle’s games of dress-up are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization. Each ensemble speaks to a different manifestation of Villanelle: Sloane Ranger, Oxford undergrad, baby doll ingénue, Russian peasant, and, of course, pig-faced wench. Even Villanelle is a cover story, as it were. Her real name is Oksana.
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. This is precisely what Villanelle does to Eve. She reverses the hunt and becomes Eve’s stalker, suddenly appearing in her London home, keeping tabs on her husband, even murdering the husband’s flirtatious co-worker. Villanelle, like fashion itself, is a dictator. She is desperate for Eve’s allegiance.
Villanelle’s sartorial intelligence is evenly matched with her murderous 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. Consider the scene where Villanelle flees a hospital in a pair of bright blue pajamas she borrows from the boy in the next bed—just before she kills him. The snug fit and goofy pattern would smother another woman, but on Villanelle they slay, making a literal cartoon of both violence and fashion, while winking at fashion’s flirtations with camp. Villanelle subverts the status quo that Eve is supposed to defend. Not even children and their pajamas are taboo. Villanelle regularly plays on (and with) the alleged innocence of youth, not only by dressing like a child but also by deploying children as lures and fatal distractions.
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 the outfits 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. Without Villanelle, my experience of fashion would still be confined to museums and tabloids. Clearly, I’d never seen it truly worn. It took a psychopath to make me realize that when fashion does its job, it truly kills.
Fashion’s inherently dangerous nature—think of the femme fatale—accounts for why so many of us are unable to submit to it as completely as Villanelle. Apart from going broke, there’s the fear of being erased by someone else—though usually not murdered—in the art of incorporating a designer’s ego into our own. Instead, we settle for something we like to think of as “personal style”—which is code for the mashup of knock-offs, basement bargains, and vintage finds that make up our personas.
Villanelle is able to carry off fashion because it underscores her artifice. Jodie Comer pulls it off because, like Villanelle, her job is to be someone else. The character-actor manages to do something more extraordinary. She makes “fashion” an actor as well, yielding something exponentially more powerful—something close to the tour de force we usually associate with literature. To paraphrase Karle Ove Knausgaard, Killing Eve draws the essence of what we know, or think we know, out of the shadows. The show magnifies the inherent risk of fashion, making it synonymous with a truly hysterical personality disorder with no compunction about killing.
*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.