Dave Soltysik, Head of Media Studies and A Level Examiner
In my third blog post about the new long form television dramas for A Level Media Studies I’m going to take a look at Killing Eve, a critically acclaimed, darkly humorous spy thriller co-produced by BBC America and Sid Gentle Films.
The drama was praised for its female representation, both on and off screen, with all four series’ showrunners being female. The show centres on the female cat and mouse game between Villanelle, a ruthless but endearing anti-hero defined by her charisma and wit, and Eve, the drama’s complex but flawed protagonist.
When the series was first broadcast in 2018 it quickly gained critical acclaim. The show is based on Luke Jennings’ Villanelle series of novels. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and writer of the BBC comedy-drama Fleabag, was head writer for the first season.
Students can explore the drama’s success by visiting the Rotten Tomatoes website and researching critics’ reviews of the first season which has a 96% Tomatometer score, reflecting its positive critical reception.
Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is the drama’s main antagonist, a ruthless anti-hero with endearing traits; her charisma, wit, and light-hearted demeanour are used to mask her psychopathic impulses. The drama’s protagonist, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), is a female MI5 agent obsessed with tracking down the elusive Villanelle. Her dry humour and sharpness combine to produce a highly rich and complex character. This article from the Women’s Media Centre offers interesting perspectives on the representation of gender in the drama.
Encourage your students to consider the casting of Killing Eve in relation to the spy-thriller genre. They can explore how the portrayal of Eve Polastri differs from that of a typical spy-thriller hero like Jack Bauer in 24. While Bauer is a hyper-masculine figure who is tough and stoic, students can explore how Polastri is portrayed differently in certain sequences of the first episode.
Another interesting contextual consideration is the extent to which Villanelle subverts the stereotypical traits of a femme fatale. On the one hand, she is a masterful assassin who uses her charm, beauty, and sexuality to manipulate her targets and evade capture, while on the other hand, her agency and freedom is notable.
Killing Eve is an interesting set product to study because of its distinctive take on genre. Students may consider how the drama fits within the wider spy and thriller genres. I like to expose my students to a variety of television dramas and films before undertaking a micro analysis of the set episode. Students could, for example, watch the first episode of 24, Homeland, The Americans, any of the films in the James Bond franchise, The Recruit or Atomic Blonde films. This allows them to garner a broader macro understanding of genre before applying this knowledge to the set episode of Killing Eve.
There are several elements that make Killing Eve typical of the spy-thriller genre, such as the MI5 setting, the cat and mouse game between Villanelle and Eve, the multiple fight sequences (though these largely feature women which is interesting in relation to genre in itself), and the use of props.
The drama also features elements of black comedy, through the witty and wry script. The hybrid elements of the drama could be discussed in relation to Neale's genre theory. Students may explore why Killing Eve uses tropes from several genres and how the female cast and perspective subverts audience expectations in relation to the fairly generic espionage storyline.
Students could also examine the intertextual references present in the drama. Killing Eve incorporates subtle nods to other espionage thrillers such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, while putting a contemporary spin on the genre by subverting traditional roles. Another aspect students may analyse is how the cat and mouse genre convention, which is a defining feature of the thriller genre, has been influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s films including Psycho and Vertigo and its impact on Killing Eve. The New York Times article provides additional insights into this aspect of intertextuality in the drama.
The success of the drama could be argued to stem from its more progressive representations. The drama has been praised for its representations of gender and sexuality, as well as for subverting the male gaze. Rather than objectifying women, the drama could be seen to portray female characters who are in control of their own bodies and desires; the characters are presented as complex and three-dimensional.
One approach to exploring representation of the central characters, Eve and Villanelle, is to give students different adjectives to describe the characters and have them analyse specific sequences from the show. Through this activity, students can consider how the sequences and the different elements of media language contribute to the character’s representation.
Villanelle: ruthless, highly skilled, mysterious, charismatic, cunning, manipulative, bold, violent, nonchalant, etc.
Eve: obsessed, intelligent, resourceful, determined, flawed, impulsive, sharp-witted, professional, quirky, unconventional, etc.
The representation of the other characters is also interesting, such as the competent and authoritative portrayal of Carolyn Martens, a senior member of MI5. Her independence, ambition, confidence and high-ranking position all construct a female character who defies stereotypical gender roles and expectations.
While the spy and thriller genres are stereotypically dominated by men, the males cast in Killing Eve are in minority roles. In fact, the male characters tend to avoid typically masculine roles, making their counter-stereotypical representations particularly interesting. Villanelle’s handler Konstantin is portrayed as a mysterious man who is loyal and acts as somewhat of a father figure, offering her encouragement and direction.
Eve’s husband, Niko, is shown as being kind, considerate and supportive. Although we don’t see much of him in the first episode, he can be viewed as the episode’s donor (according to Propp’s character types) because he aids her in translating Kasia’s testimony helping to identify that the assassin is in fact a woman. Bill, Eve’s boss, is kind, sympathetic, and lenient and Eve often takes the lead in the investigation in both the first episode and beyond.
Students can consider these diverse representations in relation to theoretical perspectives. Here are some possible considerations:
Killing Eve is an excellent addition to the long form television drama offering – the multifaceted characters and modern twist on the spy-thriller genre offer students a rich introduction to television as a media form as well as a range of opportunities to understand both micro-level concepts and the wider institutional nature of media production.
For more information about the changes to set products for A Level Media Studies and resources to support you, see the Media Studies set products page on our website.
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Dave Soltysik is Head of Media Studies in a large comprehensive secondary school and sixth form in Hertfordshire. He is an A Level and GCSE examiner and moderator. Dave is passionate about exploring innovative, fresh and relevant approaches to teaching Media Studies and ensuring that it remains a vital part of the curriculum.