Spoilers below for the final series of Killing Eve and James Bond.
Hello. Hi. Hey. Once again, a screen project has fundamentally failed to understand the nature of a tragedy. How many times can this happen in one year? Your guess is as good as mine.
As you might be aware, Killing Eve ended this week, and they killed Villanelle in the exact same meaningless way as Bond. Assassins: impossible to write into retirement, apparently?!
I discussed this in my ‘Let’s Fix James Bond’ post:
His death is not a tragedy, it is an inescapable torment. The director said, “I think the important thing was that we all try to create a situation of tragedy. The idea that there’s an insurmountable problem, there’s a greater force at play, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
That is not the definition of a tragedy! That’s just a depressing, grim, dark finale. A ‘tragedy’ means there is a way out, but due to the characters’ personalities, they can’t let themselves take it. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, the teenagers could easily have left Verona and lived happily. But by nature of their melodramatic personalities, they killed themselves instead. So it is a tragic ending, not an inescapable one.
Different characters would have made different choices; they drive the plot and have agency in what takes place. Their deaths were not prophesised because the universe is a cruel place, but created by their own doing. In James’ universe, fate is cruel. But all the jigsaw pieces are in place that could allow him to cause his own downfall, we just need to assemble them. By all means, kill James Bond. But for gods sake, do it with some meaning.
Well, all of that applies to Villanelle too. So today I’m going to fix Killing Eve. Spoilers for all of the new series.
Problem 1: Protagonist’s desires
We never know what Eve is thinking. This is a major issue for a protagonist – she acts in ways we can’t decipher, because we have no idea whether her behaviour matches her secret desires or is an act of self sabotage. Specifically in regards to how she feels about Villanelle, but also about her morality and goals for her nebulous spy career in general.
Problem 2: Villanelle’s Agency
Villanelle never wavers in her one desire (to be with Eve). She has no purpose except to wait for Eve to make up her mind about whether to date her. Literally, this whole series had no character development because she was basically just hanging out, unwilling to move on, while Eve struggled to understand the interiors of her own consciousness. As you might imagine, none of this makes for captivating television.
Problem 3: Meaningless death
Villanelle’s death had no connection to the journey she’s gone on over the last 4 series. I knew she would die, but I thought it would at least have some plot relevance.
If I were writing Killing Eve, I’m going to be honest: I would scrap most of this series and start again, with Villanelle and Eve going on the run as rogue assassins together, leaving Carolyn and Konstantin with the task of tracking them down as they rekindle their old love. But assuming we don’t want to create any of that delicious drama, let’s pull what’s on the screen into a somewhat better shape. I can improve it with three changes, I think.
Scene 1 – Helene’s death
This point in episode 7 has to act as a hinge for the series. Until this moment we have no idea how Eve feels – whether she is working for the good side or the bad side; whether she likes or hates Villanelle; whether she’s genuinely interested in Helene or is going along with a seduction as a ploy. I actually quite like this, because I don’t think Eve knows her own feelings either.
But where it falls flat is that Eve never finds the answer, and Helene’s death gives us nothing, narratively or emotionally. Eve’s fascination with Helene has to be a mirror for her own examination of her desires: does she want to become a powerful, evil leader like Helene? Or not?
This is the question Eve has been asking herself since Series 1. Incredibly, the show ends before she finds an answer! Instead, this moment in episode 7 where Helene dies has to be when Eve realises who she is. From this moment forward, Eve’s actions have to be decisive and clear and focused, to make up for her lack in goals up until now.
Firstly, we need Villanelle to find out that Eve is interested in Helene a lot earlier on, for maximum jealous suitor comedy. Ideally, in the scene where Eve tends to Villanelle’s stab wound.
Then in the scene where Helene dies, I would make the following changes. Villanelle still sneaks into Helene’s hotel room to kill her. But Helene discovers her hiding under the bed and tries to seduce her, in moments which mirror the Helene/Eve intimacy. Obviously, this works on Villanelle (Helene is exactly her type: an older brunette!).
They kiss, and then Eve enters. Until this moment, Eve doesn’t know what or who she wants. But she’s overcome with a furious jealousy. She kills Helene. She wants Villanelle. Villanelle is shocked – she thought Eve liked Helene. Eve explains that she never wanted Helene – she wanted to be Helene.
Villanelle accuses her of being jealous – of wanting Villanelle back. She likes her. But Eve lies, and says she killed Helene for plot reasons. Not only that, but Eve has killed Konstantin – Villanelle’s father figure. This is an act she cannot forgive. Heartbroken, Villanelle leaves.
We see Eve standing over Konstantin’s body. She calls the Twelve, and says she’s ready. She’s done what it takes to join the group. She wasn’t conflicted because she didn’t want to lose her morality: she didn’t want Villanelle because she’s moved beyond her, and found something better.
Change 2: The Island
A heartbroken Villanelle retreats to Gunn’s island. There, she seems to have met her perfect match. But in the current episode, she decides to leave! For no real reason! This was nonsensical to me. Instead, I would change this so a heartbroken Villanelle commits to a life with Gunn. Eve has given her a final answer: she doesn’t want her. Gunn is a good alternative.
But Eve interrupts their new harmony by coming to the island: she tells them she knows how to take down the Twelve, and wants Villanelle to help her. A jealous Gunn tries to kill Eve, and Villanelle has to make a real, conscious decision about what to do: let herself have an actual possible future with Gunn, or save Eve’s life, even when Eve has killed Konstantin and explicitly doesn’t want to be with her.
She chooses Eve, obviously. For the whole show, Villanelle has only valued one thing about her own wants and desires: Eve. This is the ultimate proof of that.
Gunn dies. But Villanelle still can’t forgive Eve for killing Konstantin. Even when Eve admits she wants to be with her, Villanelle rejects her. Her loyalty to her father is too strong.
Villanelle discovered how to love over the course of the series, through Eve and Konstantin. This is her redeeming feature, but also her new weakness. Ultimately, her conflict has to come from being forced to choose between those two most important people in her life.
Change 3 – the death.
The final episode is full of romantic tension, as Villanelle refuses Eve’s advances in a fun role reversal. Eve and Villanelle take down the Twelve on a boat. Villanelle goes in disguise as Gunn, who has a similar build and obviously worked for the Twelve.
Until the last moment, we don’t know if Eve works for the Twelve or the good guys: she keeps slipping away to make phone calls, and behaves suspiciously. They enter the meeting room and the Twelve greets “Gunn” – and then congratulates Eve on taking down Konstantin at last.
Villanelle is horrified by the betrayal – she killed him to join the Twelve?! Eve pulls out her gun and points it at Villanelle. Is she going to shoot? But Eve shoots out the lock on the door behind her – and Konstantin comes charging in. He’s alive!!!
Together, the three of them kill the Twelve in a perfectly synchronised attack. Eve reveals to Villanelle that she was lying about killing Konstantin – he had to pretend to be dead so they could get the information they needed to get to the Twelve.
Eve said that she had killed him to stop Villanelle from kissing her in Helene’s hotel room. Eve was moments away from agreeing to run away with her and she was scared. But she’s sick of her own indecisiveness: she’s choosing a life with Villanelle. Everything bores her now. They should be together.
As they go to leave the boat, Carolyn is about to order the sniper to take Villanelle out, but she pauses and remembers Konstantin, the love of her life, kissing her in the same pose as Eve and Villanelle are kissing. She calls off the sniper and goes to him.
Villanelle and Eve sleep together, and that night Eve has a nightmare. She struggles in her sleep, and Villanelle tries to soothe her. Eve pulls out a knife and stabs her, still half asleep. She’s horrified when she wakes and realises what she’s done, but it’s too late. Villanelle is dying.
Eve apologise, but Villanelle shakes her head: this was her fault. However perfect they were for each other, they could never have overcome their history to make it work. Villanelle hurt Eve too much. The trauma she inflicted on Eve killed her in the end. Villanelle has done everything she can to keep Eve safe. The only threat left to take out is herself. She dies.
A year later, a devastated, widowed Eve is approached by Carolyn, who has taken over running the Twelve. She and Konstantin are going into retirement together, and want Eve to be the new handler/Konstantin, training the assassins. They introduce her to “Villanelle”. Pam has taken over the infamous name, and needs a handler. Eve takes the job.
- Lean into the high emotions of your romance pairing’s melodrama. They can’t trust each other! They betray each other all the time! They’re wildly jealous of anyone else getting close to them! They have a huge amount of interpersonal trauma! If you don’t use any of that in their ending, then what is the point?
- Let your characters learn and change! Eve has to choose between good and boring versus fun and evil. We need to see her wrestle with that.
- give us some plot twists! all of the spy drama is paper-thin anyway – why not manipulate it a bit for maximum soap opera twisty betrayals? that’s literally what we’re all here for.
- if you’re not willing to tell the audience what your main character is thinking, use that as a plot device by have her lie about her plans.
- don’t erase your past storytelling. let the consequences of the poor decisions the characters made come back to haunt them. holding someone hostage repeatedly has an effect on their subconscious reaction to your presence, however much they might want to forgive you. if your storytelling resets itself each episode, and no actions have ramifications, it’s effectively a kid’s cartoon, not an adult drama. that’s why this series fell so flat.
So! That’s how I’d fix Killing Eve. There’s loads of other ways to do it, obviously. But I wanted to demonstrate how much of the existing scenes can remain in place, and a stronger story can be built around those building blocks.
If you’re editing a novel/script, that’s what you want to aim to do – find the weaknesses and fix them in a time-saving way that preserves the darlings you’ve already got in place. Usually it’s just a matter of connecting with your characters’ motivations for acting they way you want them to act. People are complicated creatures, and the more nuanced and unpredictably they behave, the more real they feel. Which is great, if your plot needs them to be erratic! You can use that to your advantage! Just make sure you follow through on the promises you set up.
Anyway. I will be back in three more months to edit another assassin drama into coherency. I guess this is a thing I do now. BBC studios: please, please let me do this for you before these shows are filmed. It is so easy to make good storytelling out of these scenes! Just think about what you’re doing!!