Killing Eve, the brilliant and hilarious drama about the British intelligence operative pursuing a female assassin, is back with a new series soon.
Eve is a normally deskbound MI5 officer who got to join a small MI6 unit tracking the movements and grisly murders of an alluring Russian woman known as Villanelle. The show is based on Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novella series.
I started watching the show after seeing a lot of mentions of the word ‘psychopath’ in relation to Villanelle, who is actually called Oksana, as a result of a long-standing professional interest in anti-social personality disorders.
In some ways it is cartoon or videogame-like, with Oksana not unlike what Lara Croft might have been if she had a different background. Super sharp and could seem almost superhuman if she wasn’t so reckless. Due to this, combined with her huge sense of mischief and sadism, she manages to turn what are meant to be discreet assassinations into spectaculars. This inflames the interest of some in the intelligence service, including Eve.
Set in the present day, with CCTV omnipresent, Oksana is so flamboyant in her methods of murder and mischievous in her baiting of her handler and other elements of the intelligence community that she is quite otherworldly — or at least indifferent to our reality. She could be described as a manic pixie dream assassin (a variation of the manic pixie dream girl archetype), but I think this fun description could mask darker realities.
In terms of exhibiting a variety of antisocial personality disorder symptoms, the actress Jodie Comer does this brilliantly. Even if her character wasn’t a killer, her perceptions and choice of words would still single her out as fairly unusual. Her callousness shines through and her contempt for the ‘weakness’ of normal human feelings is vivid.
It is important to state that most psychopaths aren’t killers, let alone serial killers, let alone ingenious assassins working for shadowy covert groups. I’ve worked clinically with quite a few psychopaths and most are not that fascinating. They play games, they try to manipulate mental health teams, they lie, and they exploit other service users if they can. But to experienced clinicians, their games become transparent and tedious.
As a journalist, I’ve followed turf wars and gangland hits, and they are rarely fascinating. One thug getting another thug to shoot yet another thug in the face or stab them is dull. There is no glamour.
So, what makes Killing Eve so fascinating? We know from the history of film that female killers captivate people, even more so if they are beautiful — and more so still if they are assassins. Involvement with the mysterious world of espionage also ticks boxes.
In Killing Eve, as well as spies, bloodbaths, witty dialogue and international capers, there is a strange romantic entanglement. Eve is completely fascinated by Oksana, to the degree that she risks her life and that of colleagues to interact with her. Oksana is excited by the fascination that Eve has for her and takes risks to get close to her. She also had a strange bond with her handler and a tutor before him.
All of the above are ingredients that make Killing Eve captivating TV, but without one thing I haven’t yet mentioned, it could seem as far-fetched as later episodes of Sherlock. That ingredient is the reality of Putin’s Russia, and the way in which his secret service baits the West.
After Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, two Russians came under the spotlight. They had been in Britain briefly, supposedly to soak up the charms of Salisbury, using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Once under the spotlight, the pair claimed to be attracted to Salisbury enough to fly thousands of miles in a rapid round trip to see an old clock and cathedral spire in the small Wiltshire city. They claimed to be innocent men working in the fitness industry.
Putin himself claimed they were civilians, though they were subsequently revealed to be Russian military intelligence officers. In late September 2018, investigative website Bellingcat identified ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ as GRU Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, and the site later named ‘Alexander Petrov’ as Dr Alexander Mishkin, also of the GRU. The numbers on the cover passports the pair used were only three digits apart.
This week Bellingcat named a third Russian as a suspect in the Skripal poisonings. It is claimed he is Denis Sergeev, a high ranking Russian military intelligence officer. Travelling under the pseudonym Sergey Fedotov, the site says he came to the UK at the same time as the other two accused. His passport was issued by the same desk in Moscow that issued cover passports to Mishkin and Chepiga.
As we watch, with morbid fascination, Villanelle’s blood splattered trail of destruction, aided only by some bad wigs, it is worth considering why the botched assassination of the Skripals was carried out as it was, and accusations responded to by the Russian state as they were.
Has Russian military intelligence just got sloppy — with almost sequential passports, ludicrous cover stories, shoddy old nerve agent (though it did kill innocent civilian Dawn Sturgess after it was discarded), and using modes of transport that leave a wealth of CCTV images? Or is the Russian state deliberately doing things so badly that we must conclude that it is sticking two fingers up to the West?
Another mission, that has been described in the media variously as bungled, blundered and sloppy, appears to connect to the Salisbury poisoning. The allegation is that four Russians were attempting to hack into the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Netherlands.
They arrived on 10 April 2018 at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on diplomatic passports. After being greeted by an official from the Russian Embassy, who helped them hire a car, they drove to The Hague Marriott Hotel. The hotel overlooks the OPCW’s international headquarters. At that point, OPCW scientists were busy testing samples taken from Salisbury, and would subsequently verify them as Russian-made Novichok.
The Russians were found sitting in the car with multiple mobile phones, cameras and hacking equipment. They had photographed the headquarters from numerous angles, including from inside their hotel. After a reconnaissance phase, they fitted the car out with a Wi-Fi antenna, ready to hack once in range of the building. However, the Dutch security services, with help from international allies, had wind of the plot.
As police moved in, the Russians tried to destroy their equipment. One of the phones recovered had been activated through a cell tower next to the GRU’s headquarters in Moscow, and one of the four was found to have ordered a taxi from the street outside GRU barracks to go to the airport on the way to the mission. He kept his taxi receipt.
The fact that a laptop found in the car revealed they had been researching the Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland, which had also been tasked with testing Salisbury samples, and the group had already bought train tickets to Bern, might suggest this was a botch rather than a deliberate attempt to catch attention and mock Western authorities.
Or both things could be true. Russian military intelligence could have got sloppy and when busted they stick two fingers up to the West. Just as Oksana kills with relish and fearlessly leaves a trail of destruction that is easy to follow, Putin’s Russian state could be doing whatever it likes without fear of effective reprisal.