The brilliant Killing Eve is back on UK TV, the second series having already been shown in the US. I’m familiar with the storyline of series two, thanks to an American friend, but don’t worry — I am not going to give the game away.
I have written elsewhere about how there are dark truths behind the comedy-drama of Killing Eve, with shambolic hits and easy to follow trails of evidence reminiscent of some of the activities involving Russian operatives in recent years.
Those who focused on controversies surrounding certain political campaigns will notice resonances during series two of Killing Eve. That is certainly interesting, but I’m even more interested in a bigger picture concerning how we view Villanelle (Oxana), that does not risk me getting stabbed in the eye for giving away plot lines.
I have argued elsewhere that, to a large degree, the history of film has been an exercise in describing psychopaths. From ruthless dictators to manipulative media magnates, to bloodthirsty cowboys and malicious cattle ranchers — to cunning gangsters, sophisticated murderers, callous spies, tyrannical space emperors and corrupt financiers. The enduring interest in such stories suggests the public is captivated by psychopaths, as well as appalled.
There are many things that make Killing Eve different from almost all TV and film tales involving psychopaths. The soundtrack, especially in series 2, is more like that from a quirky French romance of the 1960s than a story about a killer. The wit and style of the killer make her all the more captivating. The fact that it’s half comedy and half violent drama must widen its appeal and, most importantly, it’s a romance. A strange romance, based on peculiar drives that Eve perhaps should be working through with a therapist rather than following, but a romance nonetheless.
The allure of Villanelle is at least as strong as that of most psychopaths seen in film and TV, who are more often men, rarely glamorous, often two-dimensional and routinely someone you are happy to see killed by the end of the film or series. It is not the same with Killing Eve — you want both Eve and Oxana to survive so we can continue watching this strange twisted precarious romance unfold. And that, for me, is the most interesting thing, of many fascinating things about Killing Eve — the audience is sucked into a peculiar relationship with a sadistic serial killer, just as Eve is.
It is important to state that most psychopaths are not killers, much less hyper-intelligent assassins, but the allure of Villanelle reflects something extremely important about psychopaths, and the way in which they can drag you into their barren world — and often chew you up and spit you out when they have exhausted your usefulness. Because the key thing to keep in mind, as you watch Villanelle wreak mayhem in an endless stream of expensive clothes, is psychopaths are NOT nice people. They have something fundamentally wrong with their character, and no amount of tiptoeing around that fact, being nice to them or playing their game will change that.
Behind the shimmering veneer of charm and captivating stories designed to suck you in and manipulate you, is cold disdain, lack of conscience, an exploitative predatory nature, and often a bottomless pit of narcissism. This is why the Villanelle character is so good — she hooked us in. While her character is fantastical (akin to a dark negative image of Lara Croft), within that cartoonish manic pixie fantasy assassin character, played brilliantly by Jodie Comer, is something fundamental and educational.
As someone who has worked clinically with psychopaths, I would suggest that to get the most from following the exploits of Villanelle it is valuable to strip away the alluring and amusing sparkles of her and the story, and to consider the stark reality of psychopathy.
One reason why many people ensnared in relationships with them do not recognise psychopaths for what they are may relate to false impressions given by the entertainment industry. The psychopaths focused on by films and TV shows are often serial killers but, in reality, people are more likely to be affected by corporate psychopaths, those in political office or financial predators influencing economies than meet a serial killer. If you get entangled with a psychopath in your personal life, they are vastly more likely to be a controlling, deceitful and abusive partner than a globe-trotting assassin.
The literature on antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which incorporates psychopathy and sociopathy, can be confusing as a result of the different ways in which individuals use the terms psychopath and sociopath. Some use one or other terms as a blanket description of ASPD. Others distinguish between the two, generally based on the idea that psychopaths are born with their disorder whereas sociopathy develops through life experience.
Sociopaths are more likely to be chaotic and less in control than psychopaths, whose exploitative manner is innate. As consultant forensic psychiatrist Nigel Blackwood, who lectures at Kings College London, put it, sociopaths can be viewed as hot-headed and psychopaths as cold-hearted. The distinction has a bearing on their life trajectories and on the experiences of those around them.
Scans have shown that psychopaths have abnormalities in parts of the brain related to empathy, conscience and remorse. Many clinicians believe that no amount of therapy will repair this significant deficit. The innate neurological flaw of psychopaths means they are more likely to get involved with exploitative behaviours at an earlier age than a sociopath, who is damaged over time.
From what we know of the back story of Villanelle and her chaotic approach to her crimes, there are arguments to place her in either category. We know she had a difficult childhood, but we also know she was extremely violent from an early age. But, as we saw in series one, that sense of vulnerability, and mystery about how she became as she is, became part of the allure that pulled Eve in. Again, this reflects an important reality of dealing with psychopaths. People with high levels of empathy tend to see unfulfilled potential in people and want to engage with and help them, and this is something psychopaths and narcissists will expertly exploit.