CMNS 236 Understanding More Television: Lessons from Killing Eve

Carlo Javier, Rose-coloured boy // Illustration by Daniel Pauhl

Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding model is probably the most respectful of people among all communication theories and it’s entirely because of its thesis. Hall posits that the audience of any television show plays an active role in the cultivation of culture, seeing as the onus is placed squarely on the shoulders of the audience member in regards to the interpretation of the message that is being communicated. He argues that we – the viewers – are responsible for deducing our own respective takes on a particular piece of content and the decisions we make are influenced by the pre-existing social contexts that we carry. 

Hall’s model is my favourite from the many communication theories I studied during my years in academia. It makes me feel valued. Like my self-determined ideas and opinions have some semblance of merit. 

It’s also the very reason that’s made it incredibly difficult for me to write about Killing Eve – arguably my favourite television show from 2018’s myriad of offerings. (With deep condolences to Barry, The Good Place, Sharp Objects and Daredevil. Also, Game of Thrones was on hiatus.) 

I’ve struggled with writing about Killing Eve because doing so meant delving into the show’s unabashed feminism and I just never felt qualified enough to speak on the topic. It also felt uncomfortable to be taking up space in an already limited platform, especially as a straight cisgender male. 

But I had to write about Killing Eve. It was just that damn good! And of course, I had to pay my respects to the G.O.A.T. Sandra Oh, and the mega-talented Jodie Comer. 

On the surface, Killing Eve is a show about two spies: desk-bound MI5 (later MI6) agent Eve Polastri (Oh) and Villanelle (Comer), the villainous yet unsettlingly endearing assassin that Eve has been assigned to track down. It fits the structure of your typical cat and mouse spy subgenre, except for one crucial detail that single-handedly subverts every preconceived stereotype that I might have already had about the spy genre – the two spies at odds are women and not only that, they’re madly obsessed with each other. 

This diversion from the usual, ruggedly handsome spy in the vein of a James Bond or a Jason Bourne is precisely how Killing Eve is able to operate on multiple levels. Yes, it’s high-quality television, but it’s also almost like a sociopolitical lesson plan of sorts. One that educates the masses and more importantly, the decision-makers behind content creation. Stories like these deserve the spotlight, too. 

It’s a show that features an Asian woman lead, in the role of a spy, but Eve doesn’t come with the overdone, oversexualized femme fatale characteristics that we’ve seen time and again (especially from female Asian characters). In fact, Eve’s Asian identity never once plays into the narrative of the story. Eve is bubbly and determined, and though she sometimes seems like it, she is by no means superhuman. She works eight-plus hours and struggles to find a healthy work-life balance like the rest of us. She talks shit with her colleagues behind their boss’ back and she sometimes gets tired of the mundane repetition of a packed lunch. She breaks down, and comes back, and repeats. She’s human after all, and the way Oh made Eve so eerily real and relatable might’ve been the biggest acting achievement of the past year.  

The same type of humanness is evident with Villanelle. (Other than the fact that she is a stone-cold killer with psychopathic tendencies.) She lives the life that many young people would kill for. She’s a sucker for French high fashion, lives in an apartment that seems to have the perfect balance of rustic and minimalist that has become so trendy with anyone who can afford it, and she’s funny as hell. She’s almost never serious and all she really wants to do is to keep doing her job – that’s the type of stuff I can relate to! 

My favourite moment from Killing Eve happens towards the final stretch of its exhilarating first season when Eve’s husband Niko (Owen McDonnell) finally explodes after episodes of obvious frustration with Eve’s busy schedule and dangerous job. It’s a fascinating eradication of an overdone subplot where the wife is left worrying day and night as the husband gets enveloped by a demanding job. In Killing Eve, it’s the wife who’s working day in and day out, and it’s the husband who’s left at home worrying. The boiling point and eventual erosion of Eve’s marriage climaxes in an exchange that’s nothing short of resonating. 

Eve: “Shout at me, come on.” 

Niko: “To make you feel better?” 

Eve: “No to make YOU feel better.” 

Stuart Hall places tremendous value in our backgrounds, experiences and respective biases as factors to how we interpret the message of a television show. I guess the question now is, what if we learn from television too, and the lessons end up either reshaping or reinforcing our existing biases? After Killing Eve, I just hope the producers and decision-makers behind the screen can learn a thing or two, as well.  

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