Disclaimer: Contains major spoilers for Season 4 of Killing Eve
Killing Eve has, not to put too fine a point on it, a killer repertoire. Sapphic psychopathic assassins, Sandra Oh, dark humour, an enemies to lovers storyline and a head-banging soundtrack among others, make this show one of a kind. Off to one of the strongest starts in television entertainment when it was released in 2018, it was smartly written, brilliantly cast, and beautifully shot. It took a seemingly ordinary spy thriller formula and turned it on its head, creating a subversive and daring story that was as inventive as it was fearless. It also had what has been called arguably the worst ending to any TV show ever, putting even the woeful finale of Game of Thrones to shame.
Killing Eve follows MI5 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh at her best), who is disillusioned with her monotonous desk job until she catches wind of a female assassin operating internationally and working for a powerful organisation called the Twelve. Her kills are flamboyant and attention-seeking, and her murder of high-ranking government officials without a trace makes her a valuable target. This is where Eve’s path crosses with her archnemesis turned ally turned lover, Russian assassin Oksana Astankova or as she prefers to be called, Villanelle (an electric Jodie Comer in what has widely been considered her breakthrough role). Caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse with both women equally matched in skill and smarts and both equally obsessed with each other, they must find a way to live with and without each other—and both proving equally difficult. The show’s leading ladies are backed by a brilliant cast of supporting characters, all fleshed out and individual in their own ways. The drily witty and impenetrable Carolyn Martens, head of the Russia desk at MI6, played by an impeccable Fiona Shaw, and Villanelle’s handler and father figure-slash-best-friend Konstantin Vasiliev (Kim Bodina) take more central roles. The show itself is violent and gripping, thrilling and emotional, at once morbid and hilarious with that particular brand of humour that is so specific to its first writer and showrunner, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag). She handed the baton to trusted fellow writer Emerald Fennell (who went on to win an Oscar for Promising Young Woman) for the second season, who proved a worthy successor. Under her deft hand the plot was moved along masterfully and characters’ natures and whims were stayed true to. Season 3 was considerably less spectacular, but season 4 is where they really fumbled the bag.
With a lacklustre storyline, uneven characterisations and rushed, uninspired knots tying up plot threads, even Oh, Comer and Shaw’s as-usual excellent performances could not save a dully written season. Killing Eve season 4 undoubtedly remains a big step down from its predecessors’ signature explosive charisma and colour. But what got to audiences the most about the final season was the finale—or, more accurately, the last three minutes of the finale. After teasing long-time viewers who were rooting for Eve and Villanelle to finally get their happy ending in a universal win for sapphics everywhere, the two embrace after a victory against the Twelve, only for Villanelle to be brutally gunned down and killed seconds later. Her body sinks into the Thames, with Eve reaching for her in vain. The reason for her death was never explained, and every question about it was left unanswered. In one last middle finger to the fans, Eve rises to the surface of the river and screams her heart out, devastated and heartbroken, all while the show’s signature bold letters spell out ‘THE END’ in bright bubblegum pink before the credits roll. It felt like a slap across the face, a cheap shock value ending that threw away four seasons of character development. A savvy, modern and most of all different show—different from every other dry crime thriller where the queer couple gets an unhappy ending that we’ve seen—ultimately bows to tradition and becomes like all the others. After years of teasing a relationship between Eve and Villanelle (there was a brief, one-second kiss in season 3, and no mention of it after that) we finally saw a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the finale of season 4, with most of the episode dedicated to their flirty, banter-filled rapport and palpable sexual tension. Viewers finally got the confirmation that yes, Eve and Villanelle are in love, and they could have a future together free of the Twelve and everything that’s come in their way since they first met in season 1—only for the hope to be snatched away seconds later.
Burying your gays in media is a tiringly common trope where a queer couple embrace their love and accept who they are, only for one or both of them to be killed immediately afterward. Shows like The 100 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fell to this trope, as do most movies where queer relationships seem doomed to fail or end in heartbreak or death. It’s an outdated and archaic trope now, something that’s generally associated with movies and shows released in the late 90s and early 2000s when being gay was still somewhat taboo. We started to see queer characters and relationships treated with more respect in the 2010s, with shows like Orange is the New Black, Schitt’s Creek and Hannibal giving us stories about queer characters who are not merely reduced to their queer-ness. Killing Eve seemed like it was headed down the same path, only to take a sharp left turn at the very end, disappointing fans everywhere.
The phenomenon of burying one’s gays was once seen as being a ‘realistic’ portrayal of queer relationships in media—the world is so cruel to people who do not conform, and it’s rare that real-life queer people get happy endings with those they love. But when every single gay person on TV and in film faced devastating loss or died or faced insurmountable homophobia and not a single example existed where they just got to be happy like the straight people around them, it started to get tiring. Eventually the trend was seen less as being realistic and more as being homophobic. Killing Eve is not a conventional show in any sense of the word. Revolving around psychopaths and spies and assassins where many beloved characters die gruesomely and regularly, it didn’t seem to be above doing the same to Eve or Villanelle if the circumstances were right and the stakes were high enough. But it always gave the impression of being better than doing so as a cheap gimmick for no discernible reason, and while both women are embracing, dizzy with victory and finally happy and together. It felt cruel and almost like a parody of the show’s habit of subverting viewers’ expectations, as if the showrunners were trying to emulate the first two seasons’ shocking endings but failed to consider that they were well thought-out and built up to.
The ending, however, was foreshadowed to be bleak from the very beginning of the season. It starts off with Villanelle wanting to reform herself and stop killing, something that was hinted at in the previous season finale. However, she does so by incongruously turning to religion, and joining a church to bring herself peace. She is plagued with visions of Jesus (who presents himself to her as herself in drag in trippy, bizarre sequences that leave viewers wondering whether or not to take any of it seriously), is baptised and volunteers at the church to try and change. While this does not last and she finds that she cannot separate herself from her past and her nature, the whole thing felt forced and very unlike the self-assured, arrogant assassin who loved her job and never apologised for anything, be it her affinity for murder or her sexuality.
Villanelle unabashedly loves women and unabashedly loves killing, and making her turn to Christianity in an attempt to “reform” herself felt sour on several different notes. Laura Neal, season 4’s showrunner, also described the ending where Eve bursts out of the Thames after Villanelle’s body sinks to the bottom and screams to the heavens as her ‘rebirth’ and a ‘baptism’, one where she washes off the sin and blood of her old life and marks the beginning of her reintegration into normalcy again. This reeked of conservative religious belief and felt so unlike the show and characters everyone knew and loved. From the very beginning of the show Eve has been different, secretly delighting in violence and showing a capacity for cruelty and killing that first draws her to Villanelle. She loves her husband and loves her life, but something is fundamentally lacking—something she finds in Villanelle and embraces as the show goes on. She tries and fails on several occasions to distance herself from it and go back to her old life, and at the end she finally gives up and embraces her nature as well as the woman she loves. Calling Villanelle’s death Eve’s rebirth essentially regresses from four seasons’ worth of character development and brands Villanelle as the reason Eve has changed so much. She becomes the embodiment of everything that has gone wrong in Eve’s life—which is not true. Before Villanelle, Eve never showed romantic or sexual interest in women, something she even states outright. But the two’s instant mutual obsession had passionate undertones from the very beginning, and turned decidedly romantic and intimate as the show went on. This then makes the claim that Villanelle’s death can mean Eve goes on as she was before ring in even poorer taste, and shrouds the entire last season in homophobic implications. To see a show as audacious and unapologetic as Killing Eve end on a note like this, one that is as conformist as it is tragic, was one of the most disappointing experiences in TV history.
Villanelle’s death begged the question of why we got an ending like this in 2022, when we have shows and movies that show queer people in happy relationships that do not end in tragedy. More and more queer media are gaining traction—books like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and The Song of Achilles and shows like Heartstopper and Our Flag Means Death in their near-unanimous regard and popularity have shown that being queer is no longer just for indie publications and studios. Queer experiences have has entered mainstream media and are for everyone to enjoy. There is no longer a fear of being boycotted and ostracized for portraying queer people and couples, and queer creators are also rising to the forefront of this newer generation of artists bringing us more diverse stories about more diverse groups of people.
Killing Eve was once counted among these shows, but with its lacklustre final season and orthodox ending, it will go down in history as the show that killed its main queer character with two minutes to go in the series finale’s runtime and no explanation whatsoever. To make matters worse, the Villanelle novels by Luke Jennings, on which the show was based, ended with Eve and Villanelle (now going by her birth name Oxana again) leaving everything behind and running away together. They settle down in the outskirts of St. Petersburg and keep quiet profiles, leaving their past lives behind. Oxana gets a linguistics degree and the two of them live in blissful but vigilant happiness, in love and safe. The show then changing that ending and killing Villanelle felt especially callous, even more so considering the fact that its driving force was the relationship between the two leads. We can chalk it up to a simple matter of poor choice in showrunners or bad writing, a total and utter lack of understanding of the characters, or religious beliefs making their way into a decidedly unholy show. But whatever the cause for the show’s ultimate failure one thing is for certain, and that is that Killing Eve’s greatest flaw was that it bowed to tradition and conformity when its strength was in its deviation. In withholding happiness from the women whose love made the show what it was, it will forever be known as the show that buried itself along with its gays.
Image Credit: BBCA
Pritha Deshpande is a Literature and Cultural Studies student at FLAME University and an aspiring writer and policy journalist. Her idea of a good time is getting cozy at her desk writing with socks on and a scented candle lit. Pritha is an editorial intern at ALMA Magazine.