Spoilers ahead for season one of Killing Eve.
Killing Eve, BBC America’s newest drama, is a twist on the usual espionage genre: the James Bond character and the charismatic, elusive nemesis are both women. Our hero, an M15 security officer named Eve (Sandra Oh) finds herself caught in a cat and mouse game with a sadistic assassin who calls herself Villanelle (Jodie Comer), one in which the pair’s growing obsession with each other ventures into homoerotic territory. It’s a recipe that, if executed poorly, could have fallen prey to age-old issues dealing with LGBTQ representation on-screen, like queerbaiting or male-fantasy lesbianism. Yet even with its shocking finale this weekend, Killing Eve escaped those criticisms entirely, thanks to a few specific choices — including the decision to let Villanelle and Eve confess, if not fully act on, their feelings for one another.
In the final, explosive scene, Eve has found and broken into Villanelle’s Parisian apartment. Villanelle comes home, and the two have a standoff, mirroring an earlier scene where Villanelle breaks into Eve’s home to “have dinner” with her at knifepoint. This time, Eve is out for revenge: Villanelle has murdered one of her only remaining leads in identifying the assassin’s employers, and her job is in jeopardy. At the same time, she admits she’s also there because she’s obsessed with Villanelle. “I think about your eyes, and your mouth, and what you feel when you kill someone," she confesses. Villanelle responds in what might qualify as a heart-to-heart for an unempathetic killer: “I think about you, too. I mean, I masturbate about you a lot.”
It’s the sort of highly charged dialogue that might ordinarily lead to a sex scene — especially if the people involved were heterosexual. And for a moment, it seems like it is heading there. They lie on the bed facing one another, seeming like they’re about to kiss. Eve says, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” But before Villanelle can respond, Eve rams a knife into her stomach.
“I really liked you!” Villanelle says accusingly, as blood pools at her waist. Eve is instantly apologetic. The stabbing is vicious, and her previous fantasies about female contract killers — including a detailed plan she shares with her husband for how she’d hypothetically kill him — are suddenly made too real. She staggers to her feet and tries to get something to staunch Villanelle’s wound.
On another show, this sudden (and particularly violent) reversal before physical intimacy could be read as queerbaiting, a term defined by GLAAD’s director of entertainment research and analysis Megan Townsend as “a show ... leading fans to believe a character might be queer to bring in new audiences, without ever making that character or relationship canon or explicit on screen, or the project having any intention to ever move beyond subtle hints.” The final scene is shot ambiguously to lull the viewers into the same false sense of calm and anticipation as Villanelle’s. The knife is hidden, and both of the actresses’ expressions are so innocent you can almost believe they’re about to forgive each other and enjoy a nice, sexy break from a season of violence and pursuit. The scene is framed to bait and switch, and it uses queer tension between two women to accomplish it. So why were so many people — including, and perhaps especially, its LGBTQ fans — still delighted by it?
Getting queer relationships on-screen, let alone getting them right, has been a huge challenge over the years, largely because it was once illegal to represent them on TV, and thus they could originally only exist as subtext. Today, that tradition of subtext has evolved into a more overtly strategic tactic: queerbaiting. In a world where online fandoms — many of which are often fueled by queer fans — are invaluable, television writers and showrunners for male ensemble shows like House, Merlin, and Sherlock have run afoul of fans by suggesting their characters’ queerness without ever actually making them overtly gay — and by shutting fans down when they look for acknowledgment.
The definition of queerbaiting in itself has been debated among LGBTQ people. Some say that demanding physical expressions of sexuality or other concrete confirmations of queer relationships from creators creates a higher bar for queer romance than straight romance and can erase subtler, more complex relationships. Townsend makes a distinction between character development and queerbaiting, explaining, “If a character is truly exploring their identity, there should be movement in the story versus sly insinuations and an eventual direction on how the character will move forward.”
While some Killing Eve fans have questioned the potential queerbaiting — we haven’t seen Eve and Villanelle hook up, and Eve has not confirmed her sexual identity — the relationship between the two has been riveting nonetheless. This definitive queer bent, coupled with Eve and Villanelle’s confessions of lust and infatuation in that final scene, feel real, even if they don’t manifest as physical sexuality.
It’s easy to understand fans’ embracing Killing Eve through the lens of one of the show’s queer predecessors: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a show about the ambivalent and charged relationship between the eponymous serial killer cannibal and Will Graham, an FBI profiler who hunts him. In 2014, Fuller said in an interview that the characters’ relationship would never be physically consummated: “It is not sexual, but it’s beyond sexual. It is pure intimacy in a non-physical way.” (Likewise, Waller-Bridge has called the relationship between Villanelle and Eve “espionage love.”) But rather than be angry at this ultimatum for Hannibal and Will’s relationship, many fans responded by insisting that Hannibal and Will were still in a romantic relationship, without sex, and that therefore, Hannibal doesn’t qualify as a queerbaiting show.
Like Hannibal, Killing Eve’s final scene is filled with both explicit queer tension and betrayal. In so many ways, Killing Eve is already a queer show, so it follows that it would benefit from having that queerness affirmed through a consummated relationship. But both characters admit that they like each other, and it’s clear that Eve does genuinely lust after Villanelle. (That’s the character development Townsend describes.) And while they don’t actually kiss, admitting their feelings is a concrete first step. The show makes queerness even more explicit than Hannibal did: Villanelle, is openly bisexual.
Another potential landmine for Killing Eve is the way it has paired murder and homosexuality on-screen, an age-old, often problematic theme evoked in movies like Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley (both adapted from Patricia Highsmith novels), and the 1980 Al Pacino film Cruising. Killing Eve could do more to expand its views on queerness by growing beyond queer serial killer tropes. (Also race: Eve is Asian, which is never discussed.) But as it is, Killing Eve is one of the only shows pushing the envelope in the espionage genre on race, gender, and sexuality. And it’s perhaps paving the way for other stories after it, with some fans declaring it “our best queer content.”
There’s a strong argument for why it’s important that a show like Killing Eve, which has already made a lot of headway on these issues, should more explicitly invest in queerness by allowing Eve to clarify her feelings, and figure out what she really wants from Villanelle after pursuing her for a whole season. Killing Eve has already been renewed for a second season, which will provide a wealth of opportunities for her to do precisely that and to cement the show as truly revolutionary television.