ABOUT OUR GUEST
Sarah Kay (she/her/hers) is a New Yorker. a poetry writer and reader. an educator. the founder and co-director of Project VOICE. a witty banter enthusiast. a postcard lover. a foodie. a playwright. a singer. a songwriter. a photographer. a best-selling author of four books of poetry including B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder. a celebrated performer in over 25 countries. an editor for Write Bloody Publishing. a Gemini. a mediocre driver at best. a musical theater geek. a smoothie expert. the daughter of a Taoist mother and a Brooklynese father. a hapa. less cool than her little brother. an alum of the United Nations International School and a graduate of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. an alum of Brown University. an alum of Brown University Graduate School’s Masters Program in the Art of Teaching Secondary English. a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Grinnell College. on twitter here. on facebook here.
SOME SUGGESTED RESOURCES FROM SANDY
If you haven’t already, read/listen to Sarah Kay’s poetry — her books All Our Wild Wonder, The Type, No Matter the Wreckage, and B (which was a TED talk). We discussed her new TED podcast, Sincerely X.
We mention neurodiversity very briefly and I also frequently recommend Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes.
As ever, if you want to hear more from me “about schizophrenia”: read AKOMP.
SARAH KAY: The reason why Killing Eve is so refreshing is because the character at the center — or the characters at the center of it — are women. And, historically speaking, all of the TV shows that I have devoured focus on, you know, somewhat sociopathic, genius, misanthropic men. Sherlock —
[CLIP FROM BBC’S SHERLOCK]
SHERLOCK HOLMES: It’s obvious, isn’t it?
JOHN WATSON: It’s not obvious to me.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: Dear God. What is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring.
SARAH: Dexter —
[CLIP FROM DEXTER]
DEXTER MORGAN: I don’t know what made me the way I am, but whatever it was left a hollow place inside. People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I’ve faked them all.
SARAH: House —
[CLIP FROM HOUSE]
JODI MATTHEWS: You’re not a very nice doctor, are you?
DR. GREGORY HOUSE: And you are very bad at whatever it is you do.
JODI MATTHEWS: You don’t even know me!
DR. GREGORY HOUSE: I know you’re gonna get fired. That’s why you got the new glasses, that’s why your teeth are sparkly white. You’re getting the most of your health insurance while you still can.
SANDY ALLEN: What is it about these shows, do you think, for you?
SARAH: (laughs) You know, something that I learned from talking to an empathy expert is that one of the kind of very common misconceptions that people hold is — myself included — is that emotion and rationality are kind of, like, opposite ends of a seesaw, and if you’re sitting heavy on one, then you don’t have enough of the other. And so there’s this misunderstanding that, like, people who can’t access their emotions, who are — or who have a harder time accessing their emotions, who are more sociopathic, who, you know, can’t relate to people in the way that, you know, kind of quote unquote neurotypical people do, that they are perhaps more able to be reasonable and logic-based and make better decisions, and in a way that the people who are kind of bogged down with emotions and guilt and empathy can’t. And I have learned that that’s — that’s not the case. But I do think that I am someone who sits very heavy in the world of emotions and feels empathy very deeply constantly, and so I do have a fascination for, you know, what it means to be a human who is not. And — and, you know, watching someone — even a fictional character, who theoretically can live this very different way — is something that I — I think has drawn me to it over and over again.
[MAD CHAT THEME MUSIC]
SANDY: This is Mad Chat, a podcast where we unpack what our pop culture is telling us about madness and mental health. I’m your host Sandy Allen. This week, I’m very excited to be discussing the hottest show about murder I’ve ever seen: Killing Eve.
[“SIGH” BY UNLOVED PLAYS]
SANDY: Killing Eve has aired two seasons — or series, if you are British — on BBC America, I think AMC in the States. And it’s created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also makes and stars in Fleabag and was just nominated for 800,000 Emmy’s. And Killing Eve, if you’ve not seen it, is sort of a classic cops and robbers show, where there’s a big twist which is: it’s women! And you’ve got an MI6 agent named Eve Polastri, who’s played by Sandra Oh —
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
CAROLYN MARTENS: You seem to know a lot about female assassins.
EVE POLASTRI: Yeah, well I — I used to study criminal psychology, and I was just interested in what makes a p — I mean, a woman able to — it’s not a — I’m, you know, I’m just — I’m — I’m just a fan.
SANDY: And you’ve got the female assassin she’s trying to capture, named Villanelle, who’s played by Jodie Comer.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
MAN: (Sobbing) Who are you?
VILLANELLE: Huge question.
MAN: Why are you doing this to me?
VILLANELLE: I absolutely no idea. (single gunshot)
SANDY: It was adapted from a series of novels by a writer named Luke Jennings, and it’s got great “will they, won’t they” energy, and lots of spectacularly over-the-top murders, and lots of over-the-top looks, and it’s also, I think, a meditation — the whole show is a meditation — on the nature of evil and goodness and madness and sanity and psychopathy [5:00] and empathy. And before we go any further, consider this your official spoiler alert. We will be talking about the plot of Killing Eve during this conversation, so if you are interested in not having the plot of Killing Eve spoiled for you, consider this a great place to pause and you can go watch the series — it’s streaming on Hulu, it’s available for purchase elsewhere — and then you can come back to this episode later. So here with me to chat about Killing Eve is renowned poet and now podcast host Sarah Kay. Sarah, welcome to Mad Chat!
SANDY: I am so happy to have you with us here today.
SARAH: I’m so happy to be here. I’m so happy to be chatting with you about this show.
SANDY: Yeah. You were the one who suggested that we talk about Killing Eve, which I was thrilled about, ‘cause I already loved it. And I think it’s kind of problematic, you know, in a mental health lens, so I think that’s very, like, Mad Chat wheelhouse. And so I wanted to start by asking a question that you’ve actually asked me a few times in the lead-up to this conversation, and I think fairly, which is, like, why you? (SARAH laughs) You wrote in an email — you were like, I’m not a quote ‘expert’ on mental health. You were, you know — you are a poet. You’ve got a very particular, like, career and life. And so I thought maybe where we should start is you can tell folks a little bit about yourself and the work you do, I think specifically as it pertains to empathy.
SARAH: Yeah. So I am a poet. I also am an educator. I am the co-director of an organization that’s called Project VOICE, which is specifically interested in how poetry can be used in education spaces. And so what that means on a practical level is that I spend most of my time traveling from school to school to school doing performances and then teaching poetry workshops, and also doing professional development with educators about how they can use poetry in their classrooms. So I am a traveling poet-educator is what I am. And the reason that empathy is a big part of my life is because poetry, when it is in a performance space, which is the space that I handle it the most, relies very heavily on empathy and has a lot to do in, like, the trade of empathy. And a big part of my life is focused on how do I teach people how to write in a manner that allows them to be vulnerable and trust that an audience of people is going to show empathy to them? How do I teach people how to be in an audience and be listeners to a foreign narrative, learn how to hold empathy for someone’s experience that is not their own? So I think about empathy a lot. I — I try to model it frequently. I sit with people in vulnerable places and access empathy quickly and also try to get them to access it, as well. And I think because of that I have this preconceived bias, maybe, that empathy is good, that, like, empathy is always important, that it’s just a — a objectively good thing that we should always be aspiring to. And in the recent past I’ve not necessarily had that challenged, but I think my understanding of empathy has been broadened because I’ve — yeah.
SANDY: So let’s — yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about —
SARAH: About why? (laughs)
SANDY: So tell us, like, yeah, what’s been going on, and what have you been learning?
SARAH: So I had the opportunity to host this podcast for TED which is called Sincerely, X, and the premise of the podcast is that people have incredible ideas and some of them are not able to share that idea unless they’re able to stay anonymous. And so each episode of the podcast I have a conversation with someone who is anonymous, and then I also have a second conversation with somebody who is, like, an expert in a field that is relevant to the conversation I’m having. And it was a ten-episode podcast, and my first, you know, dipping of a toe into the podcast pool. It was really exciting, I got to have a lot of —
SANDY: Welcome to the pool.
SARAH: (laughs) Yes. Thank you.
SANDY: There’s a lot of us in this pool.
SARAH: (laughs) It’s very crowded.
SANDY: It’s really gross (laughs).
SARAH: (laughing) Yeah. Not everyone has showered, incidentally, before they got in here.
SANDY: Marc Maron’s been in here for years (BOTH laugh), talking about his cat’s urinary tract infection. Anyway, so you — you dipped your toe into the podcast pool. I’m sorry, I got too into that image (BOTH laugh). [10:00]
SARAH: No listen, I love a good extended metaphor, as you can imagine. So I — for this podcast, I got to have conversations with lots of different people that I would never have otherwise been able to speak with. And one of the episodes I had a conversation with a woman who has a sociopath diagnosis.
[DIGITAL START-UP SOUND]
SANDY: Hey, let me save you a Google. Sociopathy, psychopathy: these are two constructs that Sarah and I are going to mention a lot during this episode. I thought it was worth saying that in both cases, sociopath and psychopath are not even terms that are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM — the so-called Bible of psychiatry. So these are especially contentious categories, and of course the DSM itself is also very contentious. Often in popular culture and popular press, sociopath and psychopath are treated like equivalents; sometimes psychopath is ascribed to have more violence. But the DSM diagnosis that’s roughly equivalent is antisocial personality disorder, which is actually what Sarah’s guest was diagnosed with. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by such things as failure to conform to social norms, deceitfulness, impulsivity, irritability, and so on. And in Sarah’s guest’s case, she chooses to identify as a sociopath, which I think highlights the fact that this is really complicated stuff, whether folks choose to take up psychiatric language or not. And in general, I always want to point out that does it mean there’s a lot of science that undergirds what supposedly makes this category of humans different from some norm? No.
[DIGITAL SHUTTING DOWN SOUND]
SARAH: I had a long conversation with her about sociopathy, and kind of society at large’s misconceptions about sociopathy, and how those stigmas are getting in the way of progress for everyone, for — for society at large, and obviously for people who have sociopathy, as well. And then I also got to have a conversation with a man named Jamil Zaki who’s a empathy expert. And so I got to learn about empathy from a more scientific standpoint. And also he perhaps is the one who expanded, for me, the idea that, like, empathy is neither good nor bad. It is something that can be measured, it is something that can be — or loosely measured, approximated. It is something that can be studied. It is something that can be looked at. It is a quality in the way that a lot of other things are qualities. It can also be thought of as a skill. And it can be both helpful and detrimental, depending on where it’s being used.
SANDY: Context, yeah.
SARAH: Yeah, context is everything. And he challenged me, and my guest on that episode challenged me to think, you know, if someone cannot feel empathy, that does not mean that they are less of a person. It means that they have a different way of thinking, and it means that perhaps it is worth considering what the world looks like to them, and what they need, and how they can, you know, participate in a society that is largely not built for them.
SANDY: So this has, like, challenged, you know, you in terms of that bias that you mentioned. Like, feeling kind of implicitly, like, oh, well to really feel connected to others, that’s clearly better than to not feel that.
SARAH: Yeah. I guess I just — right. I — I had to broaden my understanding of empathy to be more nuanced, which I guess I’m always trying to be more nuanced in — in everything.
SANDY: May we all —
SARAH: May we all — (laughs)
SANDY: — aspire toward greater nuance. That’s really one of the big takeaways. I wondered — I think that it probably makes sense for us to start by talking about Villanelle.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
EVE POLASTRI: I know you are exceptionally bright. Determined. Hardworking.
VILLANELLE: What else?
EVE POLASTRI: I know you’re a psychopath.
VILLANELLE: You should never tell a psychopath they’re a psychopath. It upsets them.
SANDY: She’s not quite the protagonist of the show, she’s the antagonist of the show. She’s still featured a lot in — in the actual, like — there’s a lot of scenes of just her, and we can kind of talk about, you know, whether or not she’s actually kind of centered in — in the narrative. But she is the psychopath, quote unquote, at the center of the show. She is the person who, again and again, right from the beginning — you know, I think it’s the first line, like:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
NIKO POLASTRI: Your killer was a small-breasted psycho, apparently.
SANDY: That really is kind of one of the — it seems to be the focal point of the show is examining whether or not this person is some other category that kind of makes her inherently evil or murderous or without remorse. You know, she’s an assassin [15:00] for her job. So I wondered if — if you could talk a little bit about Villanelle and, you know, now that you’ve sort of steeped yourself a little bit more in thinking about topics like empathy and — and, you know, a category like sociopath or psychopath, like, what do we make of Villanelle?
SARAH: Yeah. You know, Villanelle is — is — (sighs) well, a riveting character, for starts. Like, my goodness, what a — what a — what a, just, eye candy and ear candy, you know? And I think that’s —
SANDY: Yeah. Have you heard her real accent, by the way?
JODIE COMER: I didn’t kind of take any influence from any other fictional assassins, because I just felt like she was so — so different.
SANDY: Yeah, riveting is a great word.
SARAH: Yeah. So she’s — she’s so compelling, both the actress in the part and then the character. I think the — the — the question that I have in every show I ever watch, or even really any piece of media that I consume, is like, who am I being asked to empathize with. Like, who is the audience being asked to empathize with? And something that I find fascinating in this show around Villanelle is trying to figure out whether the creators want us to gawk at Villanelle or want us to empathize with Villanelle. Or, in moments where Eve appears to start to empathize with Villanelle, whether we’re supposed to see that as foolish or whether we’re supposed to get on board.
SANDY: Yeah, or is it like a play, you know? Because I think there’s this other layer of, like, is everything Eve is doing just part of, like, a grand act to try to entrap the assassin that she’s after, as well? You know, like we — and with Villanelle, we don’t have a sense of her — whether anything we’re seeing from her is authentic or not, right? Like, there’s a great sense that, like, her — her kind of presentation of self is an artifice, right? Like, that seems to come up again and again with her. She’s, you know, kind of like — it seems like they’re definitely trying to sketch her as some sort of other. I guess I’m wondering how does that — how did the particular qualities that they’ve given her sort of align with any reality, you know? Like is there actually some category of human here that Villanelle is exemplifying? Or is this, like, merely fiction?
SARAH: Yeah. The hardest time that I had with the show, kind of across the board, is that I — I felt (chuckles softly) — I didn’t necessarily trust the show’s writers or creators that they had a cohesive vision. Like I — I started out trusting them, and then as season 1 kind of got into its final episodes, I was like, wait a second, you’re just pulling out of a grab bag. Like you’re — it felt to me like, they were like, “And then it would be fun if this happened, and then it might be fun if this happened,” and like, there’s very little closure, even across both seasons. So this is just on, like, a plotline level, right, purely in my, like, writer brain. But it really felt like they, you know, started out episode one and then just each week showed up and was like, “What are we gonna do next week?”, instead of trusting —
SANDY: “What would look cool?”
SARAH: Right, exactly. “What outfits can she wear when she murders someone in a massage parlor?” Or whatever.
SANDY: Which, like, fair. Great question. Answer: pig mask and, like, you know, sexy — I mean, like, what?
SARAH: Right. Totally. But I think because — because of that — because of those signs that it didn’t feel like they had, like, carefully mapped out this, like, very precise, clever, tightly-wound narrative that was all gonna — that’s all gonna get resolved, which obviously it — it doesn’t, I similarly have (sighs) feelings around the character of Villanelle, which is, like, in some ways I don’t trust that this character is someone that they have a cohesive vision for, or — or maybe I should say, like, cohesive research for. Like I — I would love to know, like, what would happen — I mean this is a larger — a larger conversation — but, like, if they had someone in the writers room who had sociopathy or, you know, had experience with sociopathy, to be able to say, like, “Ok, someone who has this condition or has, you know, symptoms of a condition like this, like, there are certain things that they would do and there are certain things they would not do,” and, like, this is a consistency of character, even in — in, you know, theoretically, like, the quote unquote psychopath character inconsistency, [20:00] theoretically, is, like, part of that character. But even so, there’s like, you know, emotional reactivity as, like, a quality, right? And so, you know, whether someone has high emotional reactivity or low emotional reactivity, and how someone deals with various situations — it just didn’t seem to me like Villanelle as a character was written particularly based in reality, and instead based on, like, kind of an age-old — a lot of age-old myths and tales about what we like in a scary psychopath, quote unquote.
SANDY: This is fascinating, right? Like, this idea of if we had a pop culture where when we were talking about stuff like this, folks who represent that point of view were in that room, like, this art would have to change. I think we all kind of know that in our bones, right?
SARAH: Yeah. It’s tough ‘cause it’s like, you know, sociopathy and psychopathy show up in different ways. Like, there’s no kind of blanket this is what a sociopath, this is what a psychopath is. Obviously it’s, like, very fraught. It has more to do with consistency of character. It’s sort of feeling much like how I feel about the rest of the show, which is, like, kind of a grab bag for, like, what’s the spiciest in this moment, which I think, unfortunately, just sort of feeds into the misconception across the board which is, like, all psychopaths are all of these things and totally unpredictable and — there’s a monologue in the second season where — I think his name’s Martin, right? The like —
SANDY: Yeah, the psychiatrist.
SARAH: The psychiatrist, like, has this monologue, which is, like —
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
MARTIN: When you think of a psychopath, you tend to think of a regular person, then you add certain negative traits like your violence, your narcissism, your sadism. That’s a mistake. Don’t add. Take away. Everything that makes us human, just take it all away.
SARAH: And I was like, yikes, like, that is a bold — a bold — and then, like, maybe maybe maybe maybe the writers did want that for Villanelle, right? Like, maybe this specific character they were like, you know what, this — this one, it is true that you strip away all these things and — and she’s this total evil.
SANDY: And yet it’s not true.
SARAH: Right. Totally. That’s not what they show us, and also it is like a bold monologue to throw that in there.
SANDY: Yeah. So yeah, it’s a psychiatrist who works with MI6 named Martin who comes over from Broadmoor, which is a psych hospital that we actually see the interior of once. But, like, Martin is giving this kind of intentionally bad presentation on psychopaths to the MI6 agents, including Eve, because they’re kind of, I think, sussing out whether Eve is, you know, herself a psychopath, or something of that nature. We’ll get to that. But, you know, Martin says that line about, like, yeah, what makes us human, take it all away. And it’s, like, that kind of sentiment is so strong and so damaging, and as you’re saying, like, if there isn’t an actual, like, cohesive point that the writers of the show are intending to make about psychopathy, well, you’ve sure made one, you know what I mean? Like, does it matter if you intend to be weighing in on actual mental health, actual people’s lives? No. You know, if you’re taking up this stuff and you’re making a story out of it that, as you say, is leaning on this murderous psychopath trope, like, very much, you know. And so given that we, in general, have just such an over-emphasis in our pop culture of, like, murder, violence created by people with severe mental illness diagnoses, and then if you think specifically around terms like psycho or sociopath, you know, how culturally loaded those are with stuff like violence, you know? And as you in your — and the guest on your podcast discussed, you know, at length, like, that stigma, that gets in the way of someone’s daily life, you know? That’s a — that’s a real damaging old myth that a lot of us just still kind of absorb and hand around and repeat.
SARAH: You know what we were talking about at the beginning, my — my confronting of my own, you know, just inherently aligning empathy with goodness, and needing to expand that and understand that, like, empathy can also be used incorrectly or — or to — to — for extremism and, you know, etcetera, etcetera — it — it allowed me to go like, oh, no, actually someone — someone can be a person who has a hard time experiencing empathy and still be a human, and still be someone who is — someone who is — who is worthy of empathy themselves, right? And — and so to have that monologue to me is truly the opposite of that. That monologue is, like, if you — if you are this, then you are [25:00] inhuman. Which, again, it would be one thing if we are meant to think that about this one, you know, character that they want us to understand is irredeemable, but I don’t even really think they think that.
SANDY: Yeah. It’s — it’s tricky, right? Like, it — it’s unclear. I think that’s perhaps what we’re circling around, right? Like, it’s unclear what exactly is intended to be said by the show about these topics that it’s sort of taking up. I mean I was thinking about, you know, the leaning on that sort of stereotype of, like, madness and violence, even in that brief scene in Broadmoor when Eve has gone to visit Martin there. And she sits in the hall for a moment, and this guy sits down next to her and starts to engage with her, and then he’s like, led off, you know, by, you know, by some, you know, people who work at the hospital. And there’s a moment where Martin turns to her and says:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
MARTIN: He’s killed three women.
SANDY: And she says:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
EVE: He could kill the shit out of me.
SANDY: You know it’s — it’s like a moment, like that’s a great Eve line, but it’s also, like, wow, okay, so you took us to a psych hospital, you introduced us to a patient for one second, and then literally you have a doctor who’s telling a, you know, just a person stuff about a patient, which is, like, I don’t know about the UK, but super verboten over here. Really, like, again, all you’re doing is just emphasizing, like, oh, if you’re like locked up in a psych hospital, like, you’re gonna be a murderer. Like it seemed like such a — such a quick little thing.
SARAH: And a punch line.
SANDY: Yeah! Yeah, and how it’s like, oh, they didn’t think about maybe the, like, ramifications of leaning on a stereotype like that. But it’s like an ignorant bias, you know, is perhaps how I would — would describe it. Like, I doubt the folks in this writing room sat around going, oh, I hope we irritate real-life psychopaths, you know?
SARAH: I think because I had this conversation with someone who has a sociopathy diagnosis, a big part of our conversation was her saying that, like, sociopaths are not on the outskirts of society. Like, you know them. They live among you. They have jobs. Like, they are in your family.
SANDY: Well I was thinking of that when you said it’s like an opportunity for you to talk with someone who you might not talk with otherwise, I was like, well with a sociopath case that you know of, you know? Like, I think this is such a great example of a category that is so socially stigmatized that people are absolutely less likely to disclose publicly about, you know, what diagnosis they’ve specifically received because perhaps that diagnosis has been painted by pop culture as being equal to evil. Like, unrepentant evil. So I guess I’m curious for us to — to transition into talking to — about Eve and Eve’s, you know, sometime madness.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
KONSTANTIN VASILIEV: How are you doing?
EVE POLASTRI: Honestly, it feels like I’m — I’m losing my mind a little bit.
SANDY: Because as you’ve pointed out, this series does a really great job of, like, sitting two characters sort of side by side and kind of almost seeming to ask the viewer, like, what’s the difference, you know? Like, so in the case of Villanelle it’s this person who we watch, you know, commit these sometimes very, like, theatrical murders, and, like, apparently without feeling any great remorse over it. And then in the case of Eve, we have something else. Like, what’s — what’s going on with Eve?
Sarah: Yeah, you know, I — I think actually, like, the most we can guess at how the show wants us to feel about characters is based on what they show us when they put two characters in contrast, right? Like, that’s — that’s the game that I play in my head all the time with this show, which is like, right, like, if you put Eve next to Villanelle and say, like, what is — what is the same and what is different, perhaps that tells us a little bit about, you know, what the — the creators of the show want us to walk away with. And it’s — it’s interesting because in some ways, like, Eve is bored in the same way that Villanelle is bored, and they want us to, like, sit with, like, boredom and, like, what boredom means for people who are brilliant.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
EVE POLASTRI: You know those things you said in the meeting?
VILLANELLE: Which parts?
EVE POLASTRI: You said you don’t want anything, you don’t like anything, that you’re bored. Do you mean it?
VILLANELLE: I don’t know.
EVE POLASTRI: You don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not?
VILLANELLE: Not really.
EVE POLASTRI: You don’t feel anything?
VILLANELLE: I feel things when I’m with you.
SARAH: And then, like, what is the difference between obsession and desire and, you know, who — what does it mean when you’re tethered to society versus when you are not tethered to society?
SANDY: Right. Yeah.
SARAH: And I think, like, those were the things that we’re — we’re playing with when it comes to, like, Eve juxtaposed with [30:00] Villanelle, right? Like, Villanelle is not playing by anybody’s rules, and Eve is — is, sort of (laughs) — or is pulling —
SANDY: She’s trying to. Yeah.
SARAH: She’s pulling at the seams of the rules, but she’s still — she’s still, you know, tethered for — for most of this — the series.
SANDY: Which is so interesting to sort of, like, reposition it thinking about, yeah, how much does this person feel that they need to behave as if complying with social norms versus — you know, ‘cause that’s part of it, too. Like, Villanelle lives this very extravagant existence where she’s kind of, like, forced to be an assassin who’s, like, paid. And we know that she had, like, a younger life where she had an affair with a teacher who was an adult when she was a minor, and then after that went haywire, she murdered her former lover’s husband and wound up in Russian prison for a while. So we know she’s had this, like, really brutal backstory.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
ANNA: History of violence. Antisocial behavior. Her mother was dead. Her father was a drunk.
SANDY: But we don’t, like, live that with her. We’re not, like, writing the narrative of, like, Villanelle’s trauma, right? But with Eve, we are with her in a time when she is experiencing, like, a series of really cataclysmic events in her own life — namely, Villanelle murders her partner Bill pretty early on in the series, basically in front of her. And then we kind of watch Eve, it seems like, descend into a sort of, like, madness for a while in the wake of that death. There’s — I’m thinking of the scene when — when she’s — when you’re saying she’s sort of tethered to society, I was picturing the scene where she’s come home and she’s, like, chopping carrots for dinner, and Niko, her husband, kind of comes in, and it’s like:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
NIKO POLASTRI: Well you certainly seem completely normal. What are you cooking?
EVE POLASTRI: Nigella’s roast chicken with lemon and rosemary stuffing. The wine is in the fridge and the chicken is almost done.
NIKO POLASTRI: Eve?
EVE POLASTRI: Yeah?
NIKO POLASTRI: You mean this chicken? (sound of knife chopping that had been going throughout the scene suddenly comes to a halt)
SANDY: You know, it’s definitely — I think the show is — is — is asking us to wonder, like, well, you know, is Eve — is the supposed, like, cop in this cop and robber scenario actually so sane or stable? Was — was — was that what you were thinking about as you were — as you were watching this character, as well?
SARAH: I was thinking about, like, what happens when women behave how women are asked to behave versus how — when — what happens when women break every rule society has given them? And that, in some ways, is, you know, what’s exciting to watch in Eve is she is bound by rules that Villanelle is not, and also, I think, bound by empathy that Villanelle is not.
SANDY: Mmm. Like, yeah, you — you had written, when were emailing about the show, you’d said, like, the show flirts with the idea that Villanelle and Eve are the same, but ultimately it doesn’t actually seem to be pressing that case. Like, it seems to be emphasizing Villanelle’s otherness, right?
SARAH: Yeah. Yeah, and I think, like, in some ways — right, in some ways it wants you to be, like, “Oh, I see, like, actually they’re the same!” Like, “Actually we’re all capable of murder!” You know? Like, but — but I actually think it lands on not that. And the other thing is, that you pointed out, which is interesting, is like, we see what environmental causes affect Eve’s changing. And when we meet Villanelle, Villanelle is Villanelle already. And we are — we are led to believe that Villanelle, perhaps, has always been, you know, maybe not as Villanelle as she is, but that, like, it is more — it is more in her DNA than perhaps it is for Eve. And —
SANDY: Right. And — and perhaps that’s why when we have Eve sort of starting to call her Oksana, right, it’s like Eve is trying to kind of, like, peel off that Villanelle, like, kind of layer, and, like, get into whoever this Oksana person was who existed before there was, like, the — the — the coldhearted killer that she is today, you know? And it also seems like that starts to come up as Eve is genuinely — or perhaps not genuinely — falling in love with Oksana/Villanelle.
[“I CAN’T HELP MYSELF” BY PHIL KIERAN] [35:00]
SARAH: The other thing that I love, too, is like, the like — are they the same, are they different, how are they the same, how are they different question — is with the Carolyn character.
SARAH: The thing about Carolyn I find so fascinating is that there are many things that Carolyn and Villanelle somewhat have in common that is framed so differently by the show for those two characters, right? So like they both have, like, all of these past lovers, and are, like, sort of blasé about it, you know? The biggest one, really, is, like, they kind of both show not only a lack of expected empathy but, like, almost glee in the absence of it, right? So like, it takes us a very long time to figure out that Kenny is Carolyn’s son. And when it’s revealed (laughs), I think as a viewer you’re like, wait, what? How? No — that’s impossible. Like —
SANDY: And that’s how Eve feels, too. Like you’re — yeah.
SARAH: Right! Exactly. And — and it’s because Carolyn has shown him absolutely no affection, and there are, you know, there’s even moments, I think, where she’s — there’s some moment where like —
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
KONSTANTIN VASILIEV: What would you do if you could never see Kenny again?
SARAH: — you know, whatever, and she’s like:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
CAROLYN MARTENS: I’d be fine, because I’ve always been careful.
KONSTANTIN VASILIEV: How about loving your kid?
CAROLYN MARTENS: Hmm, yes.
SARAH: That would be fine. (SANDY laughs) Like, it’s completely un — she doesn’t — she doesn’t hold a lot of the expected emotions that we, societally, would, like, prescribe to women, I think. And —
SANDY: Right. And yet, who’s pathologiz— whose lack of empathy is pathologized?
SARAH: Exactly. And whose is, like —
SANDY: And whose lack of empathy is —
SARAH: Is a — is a symptom of being a badass. (BOTH laugh)
SANDY: I know. She’s got, like, great face cream. She’s got, like, great, like, her — her tailoring. Like, she’s, you know — there’s stuff about Carolyn that’s, like, deeply admirable. Like, yeah, her, like, cast of lovers, her, like, house. She’s always, like, having, like, a beautiful dinner party, as well. Like, it’s — there’s definitely something quite alluring about this character. And I mean, honestly, same about Villanelle, right? Like, when Eve finally gets into Villanelle’s apartment, you know, as she later says to Carolyn, “It was chic as shit,” you know? Like, there’s that — there’s that sense that — that Villanelle lives well. She’s got great fashion. She eats, you know, the fuck out of whatever she’s eating. It’s, you know — she’s just, like — it seems like, if anything, she’s a very, like — a very alive person, in some sense, you know, with her senses or what have you. But yeah, it’s like the — the parallels between these two characters are so striking, and yet it doesn’t really — like, until we were preparing to do this show, I hadn’t thought that much about it.
SARAH: Right. Because the show does not put those two characters next to each other in the way that they do put Eve and Villanelle next to each other very purposefully, I think.
SANDY: So what about the Ghost. What do you — what, like, how do you fit the Ghost into all this?
SARAH: Uch, the Ghost. The Ghost —
SANDY: We should say who the Ghost is.
SARAH: Yeah (BOTH laugh). Let’s just keep saying “the Ghost” in progressively spookier voices. In season two, Eve figures out that some of the murders that they’re tracking have not been done by Villanelle. And there is in fact a new assassin responsible for a lot of these murders. And the style —
SANDY: A second woman is committing murders (laughs).
SARAH: Yes. And the style —
SANDY: Which, I don’t know, I just, like, I crack up about it. I’m like, oh boy, wait ‘til they look into man murder, like — (BOTH laugh)
SARAH: Yeah, and it’s in — in the style — so they name her the Ghost because her style of murder is, in some ways, the opposite of Villanelle. Villanelle is very showy. She’s very flashy. She, like, picks very, very dramatic ways of murdering people — like a hairpin through the eye and, like, (SANDY laughs) asphyxiation by perfume, and, like, you’re being gutted in a — in a window sho — anyway. So Villanelle’s style is very flamboyant in a lot of ways, and then this new assassin is the opposite, everything about the way that these people are killed is made out to seem either accidental or just not a murder. And so they name — they nickname her “the Ghost.” And they — Eve is — they kind of put together that, like, in order for someone to be able to have the access to do these murders, and be able to make it seem as accidental as all of these murders seem, she must be someone [40:00] who can largely be invisible to everybody else. So she — she is not calling attention to herself and is able to, you know, kind of be in plain sight without being seen. And so they — they figure out, oh, she must be a woman of, like, a certain age, she must be, you know, someone of a — a certain class. She is this woman who, when we first meet her, she’s like dropping her kid off at — at school, and Eve approaches her like she’s another mom, and then they kind of close in and — and grab her. And the show doesn’t spend a ton of time on the Ghost, which I think is a missed opportunity because, you know, just — just in the way that, like, we learn so much about everybody when you put Eve and Villanelle next to each other, I also think that there’s a lot to be gained by putting the Ghost next to Villanelle or putting the Ghost next to Eve.
SANDY: Yeah. What happens in your mind as you start to kind of, like, do that side by side comparison?
SARAH: Yeah. I mean they don’t — they don’t get into it fully, but like, you know, Villanelle is a beautiful white woman, and the way that she walks through the world and the — the — the way that people constantly give her the benefit of the doubt is wrapped up in how she looks. And you have this other assassin whose kind of, like, defining characteristic is that people don’t see her, and she’s an — I mean she’s not old, she’s like barely, you know, I think in her maybe 40s, at most — but she’s, like, older than Villanelle, we are made to believe.
SANDY: Presuming, I guess.
SARAH: Yeah, presuming.
SANDY: I mean it’s like, maybe —
SARAH: Maybe. Right, but —
SANDY: But she’s, like, not like a 60-year-old woman who they find.
SARAH: But she’s — she’s an Asian woman who people around her believe to be either a maid or a janitor or a, kind of, you know, working class person. And, you know, the — the show is not poking hard at it, but it is — it is, to me, interesting to see, like, oh, like, even in the world of lady assassins (laughs), like, what you can and can’t do, and who you are still affects the way in which you are able to move through the world.
SANDY: Yeah, and there is that moment where they literally put the two of them in a box.
SANDY: Like, you know what I mean? Like, they — where, like — it’s — the plot here is really wild, but, like, so Eve decides, like, rather than just capturing the assassin she’s been after, she’s like, oh, well I’m gonna hire her now. And then she’s — she’s got Villanelle off in the woods, and then Villanelle somehow is gonna get, like, the info out of the Ghost about who she’s working for. And it’s a fascinating and I think really kind of, like, annoying scene, because she brings Villanelle there, we have, you know, the Ghost, quote unquote, who’s a person, you know, who, like, we — we— we really don’t get to know at all, like, she’s not characterized whatsoever. And she’s just, like, tied up in a literal shipping container, you know, and — and then they, like, let Villanelle in there, and then Villanelle’s in there for a bit, and then, like, you know, exits with the info. And we as the viewer, I think, are like, I don’t know, we’re just being asked to imagine that Villanelle does something that releases this info, you know, from the Ghost, after she’s, like, withheld it during, like, presumably, like, eons of hours of — of — of interrogation from MI6. I thought it was a —
SARAH: But we’re definitely —
SARAH: — we’re definitely supposed to understand the power dynamic, right?
SARAH: Like, we’re definitely supposed to understand that, like, Villanelle is the psychopath supreme —
SANDY: (laughs) Yeah!
SARAH: — and that the Ghost must bow to her power. It’s also when Eve goes back into the — the — the shipping container, the — the Ghost looks up and is like — has been traumatized, and says — says “monster,” right?
SARAH: So the idea — the idea is that, like, this woman who has been murdering people (SANDY laughs) is — is still more tethered to humanity than Villanelle the monster. And we’re not allowed to see what it is that makes Villanelle the monster in that moment, but, like, certainly the show wants us to understand that, like, even this woman knows that that woman [45:00] is beyond.
SANDY: Yes. And I think it’s so telling, right, that they can’t actually show us whatever she does. Because they don’t know what she does! I mean, I think — I feel that so strongly, right? They don’t actually have some sense of what makes this person extra extra monster compared to other persons. Like they’re — especially if you’re comparing her to other assassins for hire. I mean, because that’s part of all of this, right, is this is Villanelle’s job, this is the Ghost’s job, this is, like, Konstantin and Raymond’s job is, you know, whatever this sort of, like, crime outfit is that they’re a part of, or, like, Carolyn and — and — and Eve, this, you know, is their job. And like that — that all of the things that these folks are doing is, like, less about, like — I mean with a show like Dexter, right, like you’re watching someone who’s, like, oh, his thing is he likes to murder people (SARAH laughs), and you’re kind of, like, well, that’s what he’s into, and you’re kind of, like, watching that. But like, that’s not Villanelle’s thing. Villanelle, like, I think likes to get paid, she likes to — it seems like she likes to work, it seems like she likes to do her job well. But it’s fascinating, right, that it’s kind of divorced from actually, like, a sort of — a sense that this is how they would be motivated to act if they had some other circumstance, you know? I wanted us to shift toward the last sort of literal side by side that we get with Villanelle and the way that the show sometimes literally set characters side by side and it seems like it’s asking us, like, what’s the difference? And so we get one of those toward the end of season two with Aaron Peel —
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
AARON PEEL: Sounds like you’ve got competition, Eve. They’re both cold-blooded psychopaths. The perfect match.
SANDY: — who is the — the guy who’s hired the Ghost. And he’s, like, a super rich Mark Zuckerberg-type. And he’s — it seems like what we’re trying, you know — what we’re — what’s being revealed to the viewer is that he has been murdering people and filming it as his house, and he’s sort of taken Villanelle to his — or his place in Rome, he’s sort of taken her there and, like, she’s gonna be part of one of these murders or something. Or maybe he wants her to see the footage of the murders he’s done. And then they kind of sit side by side and have a little conversation about how they relate to other people, and it almost seems like what the show wants us to be feeling in that moment is, like, oh, these are — these are the same. Did you get that sense, as well, that we were being asked to sort of view Villanelle and Aaron Peel as sort of, like, interpretations on a theme?
SARAH: Yeah it’s interesting because, again, it’s, like, the — the show pokes, but it doesn’t lean, (laughs) you know? Like it pokes at something a little bit, enough for you to go like, “Oh?”, but then it won’t lean all the way in, I find. So, like, that’s how I felt about — about, you know, the — the Ghost character. And I think with Aaron Peel, similarly, that scene is, like, a little bit of poking at gender, a little bit of poking at, like, oh, girl psychopath and boy psychopath, and, like, what is the difference? But — but it doesn’t give us enough to, like, really walk away with understanding, you know, like, whether there’s a conclusion on that. But I do think — I do think that we are — you know, the big difference in that scene is — is he likes to watch, and she likes to get her hands dirty, right? Like, she — she says:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
VILLANELLE: You don’t want to talk to them? Touch them? Sleep with them?
AARON PEEL: God no. Do you?
VILLANELLE: Yeah! I do. All the time.
SARAH: And it’s interesting because for most of the show, I think, we are led to believe that much of Villanelle’s character comes from her ability to separate out of the fray, right? That like, she’s not tethered, she’s not in the muck of emotions, she is not bothered by the murdering, she is not bothered by even the murdering of the people that are the closest to her. She is — the — incredibly untethered, right?. And so to have her reveal that, like, actually she wants to be part of it —
SANDY: Yeah. It — it seems to be pushing back at something, right? Or at least it seems to be trying to complicate the sense that this is a — a wholly one-dimensional or, like, simply monstrous person. I mean something, too, like, you’re talking about gender, and, like, I — I — it does seem to me, like, part of a consistent thing in the show, and I mentioned Raymond, who’s, like, her, like, handler, you know, and then she’s got another previous handler named Konstantin, who’s also a sometime lover of Carolyn. A figure like Raymond, or a figure like Aaron Peel, like, the male murdery guy in the show — he’s just, like, fundamentally less interesting to the series itself. Like, these characters [50:00] are second-tier. Like, they are not as fascinating or riveting, as you said, as Villanelle, hands down period. Like, there’s definitely just an extent to which the female violence on this show is what’s interesting to the show, I mean, it is what’s interesting to Eve, as well, like it seems to be part of, like, what she does at the beginning of the series is sort of, like, leap into the ranks of MI6 by kind of, like, sorting out on her own that these murders must have been committed by a woman. But it does seem like there is a — a sense that the — the violence that is committed by women is, in the world of a show like this, inherently more — like, more — more sexy, more exciting, more tantalizing. Do you — do you — do you know what I mean with this?
SARAH: Yeah, I also think, though, that, like, there’s something about, like, the — the male characters you described there, like Aaron and Raymond, right, like, their motivations are motivations we are already familiar with, right? It’s like power, right? Like power and money and, like, boring, you know, in some ways. And one of the things that makes Villanelle more fascinating is that, like you said, she’s not killing ‘cause she wants to kill, she’s not killing because she’s — wants power. She’s killing ‘cause it’s her job. And that — that distance from it, that, like, unemotional relationship to what she’s doing is a huge part of her character, it’s a huge part of what makes us gawk at it because we are used to murder being connected to power, we are used to murder being connected to money, we are not used to murder being incredibly — almost like a secondary and unimportant in the way that it is dealt with by Villanelle. And that, I think, is part of our fascination, is that we’re just not used to it being framed that way. And when it — when it is put in contrast with these — the men characters of — of Aaron Peel and Raymond, for example, those — those are just so much more familiar and thus so much more boring.
SANDY: Yeah. And I mean, I’m — but it’s interesting, right, like, that — that sense that a woman murdering just ‘cause it’s her work is more exceptional, right? That like a man, well of course he can go to war and just do murder and, like, kind of put his feelings aside, blah blah blah. Like I was thinking, for example, about a show like Barry, which I don’t know if you’ve seen Barry, but it’s, like, about, you know, a — a — an assassin for hire, basically, and — and yet it’s, at its core, it’s got Bill Hader playing a really, like, a complicated character whose humanity we’re sort of desperately trying to stay in touch with. And yet, in the case of somebody like Villanelle, it seems like it’s very important to the sort of, like, architecture of this series that Villanelle remain something of a monster. Like, that — and — and in fact, as we’re sort of, like, going through here, her monstrosity seems to be every other kind of, like, possible monster who she gets sort of paired up alongside. Just like kind of in the dynamics of the show, and then it all comes to a head by the end of season two, and she’s standing across from Eve at this, like, I don’t know, ruin that’s just available in Rome, and shoots her. We’re not surprised by that point that Villanelle has no empathy for — for, you know, apparently shooting the — the — the woman we kind of suspect she loves. It just seems like it’s so vital to this kind of show that Villanelle remain almost non-human, you know? Even as she’s portrayed by a literal actress and all this.
SARAH: You know, I love — I love — I hadn’t thought about what you just said, and I love that so much, about the, like — the — you know, there are shows about men whose job is to murder, and it is mundane to them, and — or, you know, war, or whatever, that like it is — it is not a personal or necessarily, like, personal power grab or money grab, etcetera. And yet for us to — for us to buy into that being possible for a woman character, she has to have been made into a monster.
SANDY: I wondered if we could talk a little bit about queerness and how it’s figured by this show, because it — it definitely is another kind of, like, current running through this whole thing is that Eve’s attraction to Oksana/Villanelle — it seems to be her first queer attraction, like, there’s a little bit of preface when Bill is still alive, she’s in a hotel room with him and he’s kind of talking about, oh, when he used to live in Berlin and all the, like, gay affairs he had —
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
EVE POLASTRI: Tell me what happened in Charlottenberg.
BILL PARGRAVE: Everything happened. [55:00]
EVE POLASTRI: Wait...men?
BILL PARGRAVE: Yes.
EVE POLASTRI: Were you gay?!
BILL PARGRAVE: Ahh, I just fall in love with whoever I fall in love with.
SANDY: Eve’s a little bit, like, titilized by that. You know it’s like, “Ohhh,” you know, “Bill!” And then, you know, we have a sort of explicit moment when she’s kind of finally, you know, what we think she’s about to have an intimate moment with Villanelle:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
EVE POLASTRI: I’ve never done anything like this before.
VILLANELLE: It’s okay. I know what I’m doing.
SANDY: And then instead she — she stabs her. But what did you make of how this show treats queerness or, you know, same-sex attraction specifically
SARAH: Much in the way that Eve seems to be battling with herself in the way that she, like, wants to push against the rules of her marriage, of society, of her job, all these things. And the way that she perceives Villanelle as having none of those boundaries and limitations and — and tethering. I also think, you know, Eve very much struggles with that desire, right? Like, the — there’s moments where she — where we see her get, like, aroused by Villanelle, but her way to deal with that arousal is to, like, reach for the nearest man.
SANDY: Yeah. Yeah. Like her husband, but then later, like, her colleague.
SANDY: While they’re on a work trip.
SARAH: Yeah, and that one’s fascinating because we’re kind of led to believe that, like, maybe Villanelle is literally whispering in her ear while it’s happening.
SANDY: Yeah. Yeah, she’s wearing an earpiece, and Villanelle is, like, out in the field with Aaron Peel, and so there’s this implication that — not like — like, Eve does not obtain her partner’s consent, you know. There is this extent to which she, like, is having sex with this guy, she is listening to Villanelle, meanwhile, and it’s pretty, like — it’s dodgy.
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
VILLANELLE: You should let yourself go once in a while. (heavy breathing) I can help you.
SARAH: And I — and I do think — I do think because of that, unfortunately, like, the show a little bit, like, pushes queerness into, like — ties it to the muddling of a lot of other things, right? That, like, queerness gets pushed into the same category of, like, all of the other stuff that Eve is wrestling with, and that’s, like, you know, her moving towards violence, and her lessening of being tethered to society, and — but like, the direction she’s moving is also, perhaps, towards her queerness, and — and — and the direction that that is, we are led to believe, is a bad one, right? So like we are associating that with — with itself. Which is not to say that, like, the show is homophobic, but I — I do think that there — I do think the show is certainly not out here, like, giving us a joyful gay love story (SANDY laughs), which I guess is fair. Like, they did not promise that, you know what I mean? They were not, like, come to us for your happy — (laughs)
SANDY: No, it’s really not. And it’s, like, that, as you say, it’s like these two — these two movements seem to be just parallel, right? This movement toward Villanelle is a queer — it is the sort of queer desire, it’s also, like, Villanelle is a villain, there, you know — and so — yeah. But it’s like, it’s worth mentioning, right, that there is a level of fucked-upedness there, right? Like, it is — it is, I think, perhaps — I would like a world in which, honestly, Eve could just divorce Niko and, like, be queer. I — I like, you know, (SARAH laughs) watched the series, like, feeling that pretty strongly, whether or not she, like, actually, like, runs away to Alaska or whatever with Villanelle and they have just, like, a — a life, which, I mean, it seems like there’s a moment when that’s even offered up by the — by the show as a possibility, which is pretty wild. I would watch that series. I would watch the series that’s just Villanelle and Eve have fled and they’re just in Alaska, like, being lesbians and in a cabin. Like, I would love to watch that show so much.
SARAH: But I wonder also, like, [1:00:00] do you think — do you think we’re led to believe that, you know, Eve is truly falling in love with Villanelle, or that Villanelle represents symbolically to her a freedom and a sexiness and a, you know, version of herself that she cannot ever be or get to, you know, like —
SARAH: And it’s not one or the other, I guess. But I — I think —
SANDY: Right, it’s like all.
SARAH: Yeah. Yeah. I do think that there’s like, again, the — the kind of how are they the same and how are they different question. Like, she is wrestling with that, right? Like, she is also asking herself, like, how come she gets to be this way? How come she gets this flat? How come she gets these clothes? How come she gets this freedom? How come she gets to, like, break away from society and do whatever she wants, and I am stuck in the world and life that I am stuck in? And I — I do think that, like, part of that desire is — is — is connected to — to that, which doesn’t, you know, erase sexual desire, but is also, like, very, very present.
SANDY: Right. It’s like, it is there. It’s all in this complicated braid. It’s — but it kind of reminds me of if you have a sentence, like, oh, a psychopath is remove everything that’s human, or if you have a plotline that’s like, her descent into queerness, it’s like, you’ve added that, you know? You’ve added that sort of toxic note to your — to your TV show. And it’s like, it’s going to have an effect. I do think it does — this is, in a sense, a show about sort of, like, tempting a boundary, tempting all kinds of boundaries. And I mean, like, it’s not to say that it’s, like, it shouldn’t have been written, or it’s bad that it’s written the way that it is, but it’s like, it can still just have these effects ever so slight, perhaps, upon, you know, viewers and — and how we take this all in.
SARAH: I was thinking so much about boredom and how, like, women’s boredom is not explored a lot, and — and how — how much of the show — I wonder how — how many people who experience boredom — and not just women, obviously, people of all genders — experiencing boredom in their lives, like, seeing — I guess it’s — I guess the reason I attached it to women was, like, boredom coupled with a sense that, like, what is allowed to you has already been defined, right?
SANDY: Right. It’s limited.
SARAH: It’s limited, right? So it’s like, boredom and not a lot of hope for something different than the boredom. And how many people feel that in their lives or have felt that in their lives, and how much of that is, like, our fascination with this show to, like, get to see both, like, the — the one person who’s escaping it and also the — the punishment that is laid upon the other person who tries.
SANDY: Yeah, or who’s tempted — even just tempted.
SARAH: Or even just tempted.
SANDY: But yeah, trying to escape, you know, society’s norms to such a degree, absolutely.
SARAH: Truly had not thought about it until you mentioned the, like, you know, how common it is for us to see stories about men who kind of kill without the emotional attachment, that, you know — and — and yet this — this one is such a rare thing to see a woman killing as her job. The — the thing that I was thinking about is just that in contrast to, in general, when we see a woman murderer, that woman murderer is, like, very passionate about the murder, right? Like even if it is — even if it is poison and they’re not, you know, physically present for the death, they’re still — we are often — we — there’s like a deep connection between the woman and the person she is murdering because, in general, we expect that, like, surely a woman would not murder someone unless she had this, like, very intense need to.
SANDY: Right. Right.
SARAH: And in various shows we, you know, either do or don’t empathize with the woman murdering because we — we are, like, yes that man deserved to die, or like, yes, get your freedom, or — you know, whatever. There are women murderers who we have seen before and who perhaps we have even rooted for before, like, that in and of itself is not necessarily novel, but what I think is tremendously novel and a big part of our fascination with Villanelle is she has no need to do any of these murders, she has no personal or emotional attachment to them, [1:05:00] it is unbelievably banal, it is incredibly disconnected, and she is able to be so uninvested in human lives in a way that we are not familiar with in other characters.
SANDY: And, well, it seems like — and part of what the show is about is wondering if someone’s like that, if a woman is like that, does that mean she has a disease? Does that mean she has a disorder? Does that mean she’s abnormal? Does that mean that she’s irredeemable? You know, like, you were initially even in talking about, like, the work that you do — I mean I was thinking about part of what you’re doing in your — in your poetry, in your teaching, is you are giving people tools to expand an empathic capacity, right? Like, that’s part of the magic of what you do is you’re — maybe in some cases helping people feel who maybe haven’t felt, you know, the exact sorts of stuff that you’re opening up for them. And you’re — and you’re demonstrating that, like, you’re giving that gift and such. And it seems like it really matters, I think, whether we have appraised someone as being capable of ever growing connection with others, you know? Like, and I’m thinking even more broadly, not just around sociopathy, psychopathy, and empathy, but even, you know, the sort of, like, adjacent, very stigmatized category that I’ve spent a lot of time studying and thinking about, which is schizophrenia. And it’s — and, you know, it’s similarly marked by, oh, well this is a category that we put people in which is very stigmatized and it has something to do with how they can’t connect with others, and sort of, like, thinking about the function of that wall, you know? Thinking about the function of having drawn a big distinction between, well here’s us normals, and then here’s this other. And, like, you know, as you were saying, who does that serve? Who — who — who does it benefit to have — to have drawn up a hierarchy of, like, well here’s good, here’s worse.
SARAH: And also, like, in the process of doing that, who else is watching, and what are they learning about themselves and how the world sees them, and what is possible for them and what is not possible for them? Which is not to say that, like, if you’re, like, a murderous villain out there watching this show that I, like, am worried about you, but rather that, like, if you’re a person who has a hard time connecting with others, who has sociopathy, who has, you know, anything that you sense people drawing walls up around you, it is hard to over and over again see, you know, shows in which what is communicated is that the things that you have a hard time with or the things that you can’t access make you a monster.
SANDY: Yeah. Yeah. Make you — make you unlike the rest of us, and you don’t know what it is to blah blah blah. And I think it actually also does the reverse, which is it tells, you know, those — the quote sane, whoever that is, it tells the sane: Hey, you know, you’re fine. You’re not, like — you don’t have this same level of, like, monstrosity waiting in you. Or at least, I mean, I think it — it wants to sort of imply that, right? Like, there’s a false safety that’s implied by really trying to strongly correlate violence with a particular kind of madness, whatever madness we’ve decided to assign the violence, too. But, you know, it does seem like part of the goal of that stereotype is to imply that those of us who have never received a diagnosis like sociopath or psychopath or schizophrenic — that those of us who haven’t gotten a diagnosis like that are somehow fine. You know, like, we’re not — we’re not evil ‘cause those folks are evil, you know? And it’s like, it’s — it’s such a lazy, privileged way of appraising the situation, which in reality I think is a lot more complicated, and the — as you’re alluding, in reality, like, people who receive a diagnosis like that are people, are living lives, and they’re living despite the additional baggage that it seems like our culture and pop culture specifically is — is just doling out kind of all the time.
SARAH: And then there are people with, like, a lot of empathy who do terrible things (laughs).
SANDY: Yes, yes, absolutely. Yeah.
SARAH: Who, like, use — who use that as a weapon. Who, like, you know, mobilize against others. Who, like, you know, there’s — there’s a version of empathy that eventually leans into extremism, when you only feel empathy for the people who look like you and pray to the same god you do, right? So it’s — it’s not that, like, people who are more empathic are, like, automatically better people. It means that they have access to things in an easier way. They have access to their empathy in a way that other people perhaps do not, and that can be wielded in a way that lends itself towards including more — more people of — of, you know, [1:10:00] broader and broader range, or it can — it can be used to be exclusionary. So it’s just, as always, more nuanced (BOTH laugh).
SANDY: Sarah, I hope you only ever use your broad empathic powers for good.
Okay, Sarah, I’m gonna do a rapid fire. Favorite Villanelle look
SARAH: Oh gah, okay. When — when she confronts Niko at — Niko’s on a school trip, maybe to Oxford, and she, like, emerges from the shadows wearing this, like, sweater around her shoulders, but the sweater’s sleeves are sewn together, so it’s truly not a sweater, it has just been made specifically to sit on her shoulders. I am obsessed with that look.
SANDY: I love the one where she — early on they take her to a psychiatrist, which is a very different, just, talk about class differences, like, socioeconomically very different style of, you know, shrink’s office than Broadmoor, where Martin works, but it’s like a very, like, posh home. And she wears for her, like, you know — you know, Konstantin, her handler, is like, we’re gonna go get you checked out, and she puts on this, like — this — I’m sure if you’re a fashion person you’re gonna be upset about my description of this, but this, like, very pink dress that’s, like, very fluffy (laughs). There’s probably a better way to describe it. But it’s, like, so eye-catching. It’s like iconic. It’s like a red carpet look, you know? And she goes — that’s what she wears to go to the — to the psychiatrist’s office, who then, incidentally, pronounces, like:
[CLIP FROM KILLING EVE]
PSYCHIATRIST: She’s fine.
VILLANELLE: Thank you.
SANDY: Which I found to be marvelous. Like, she’s suitable for murder seemed to be, like, the — the pronouncement that was made about her. Like, literally Konstantin sits in the appointment with her. Anyway, sorry this was a rapid fire. Favorite murder — I know that’s sort of grotesque, but do you have a favorite Villanelle murder?
SARAH: Oh man. The episode where she kills the Italian man with the hairpin. The — the murder itself is, like, truly gruesome and absolutely not my favorite. But the moment — the moment where she’s, like, in the room and she’s — she, like, runs her hands through his wife’s clothes, and then someone is coming up the stairs and we see him come into the room and he, like, looks around, and she’s not there, and he leaves. And then the suitcase falls on its side and she unzips it from the inside and crawls out (SANDY laughs). It like, was so creepy and badass and terrifying and that scene will — I will never be able to, like, leave my luggage in my living room.
SANDY: Yeah, that’s my favorite of her murders, too. Just, the hairpin, you know, it’s — it’s — it’s, like, unforgettable, you know? And — and the audacity that she has to, like, put on his wife’s dress and then, like, walk through the party first, which, it’s just —
SARAH: And then — and then the, like, the final petty, like — she asks him about the sheets on the bed (SANDY laughs) —
SANDY: And buys them!
SARAH: — and then she goes and buys the sheets and puts them on her bed. And unlike —
SANDY: She’s like, before I murder you, what brand is this? Favorite song in the show.
SARAH: Song? Oh, I mean —
SANDY: There’s a lot of good music.
SARAH: I mean…
SARAH and SANDY: (singing a hammy rendition of “Sigh” by Unloved between bursts of laughter) There’s something about the way you are
SARAH: I mean it’s so — oh, it’s so creepy and great.
SANDY: Yeah, yeah. So good.
SARAH: Come on. Unbeatable.
[“SIGH” BY UNLOVED]
SANDY: So our last segment on Mad Chat is called What’s Helping Today, and it’s where my guest and I share just somethin’ — somethin’ that’s helping you get through today, or something that’s helped you recently. What’s helping you today, Sarah?
SARAH: (sighs) What is helping me today? You know, I saw Lizzo’s Tiny Desk concert —
SANDY: Oh! (laughs)
SARAH: — and it brought me a lot of joy. And —
SANDY: Lizzo is a gift on this earth.
SARAH: And I’ve had — yeah — and I’ve had “Truth Hurts” stuck in my head (laughs) all day, which is a great thing to, like, sing to yourself on the subway.
[“TRUTH HURTS” BY LIZZO PLAYS] [1:15:00]
SANDY: Praise to Lizzo. What’s helping today? I — I’ve been meaning to say this on the show because it’s kind of one of those things that, like, every day this helps, and — and it’s not drinking alcohol. (SARAH laughs) I — I have not been, for the last two plus years, I haven’t had alcohol, and it’s been a — a very positive upgrade, you know, for — for me to figure out how to, like, redo life without alcohol, and figure out how to — how to be a person, and how to socialize, and all that. So yeah, I think it — it, like, doesn’t come up often, but it’s — it’s always true that I’m kind of, like, wahoo, here I am on — on that — that future island that I thought I could never be on where I’m no longer, you know, kind of, like, in this battle with this substance in the same way. So yeah. Shout-out to, just personally for me, not drinking alcohol.
SARAH: That’s rad.
SANDY: That’s definitely helping today. Thank you. Yeah. All right —
SARAH: You know what else — you know what else helps me?
SARAH: Seeing your bread photos.
SANDY: Oh, wow. My bread — yeah. My bread helps —
SARAH: I don’t know, is your Instagram public? Do you have a public Instagram?
SANDY: Yeah! Yeah, I do.
SARAH: Oh, amazing. Okay, so if you’re not — if you’re not following Sandy, you should follow them, because their, like, photos of bread are so lovely.
SANDY: You know what’s better than my photos of bread, Sarah, is my bread. So come over and we can — we can have breb sometime. Sarah, thank you so much for being my guest on Mad Chat today.
SARAH: Thank you!
[MAD CHAT CREDITS MUSIC]
SANDY: Mad Chat is produced by Lee Mengistu. Theme music by Lee Mengistu and Ruthie Williams. Social media and website managed by Alex Cornacchia, who also does our show transcripts; find those transcripts at madchatshow.com. @madchatshow on Twitter and Instagram, and we’re Mad Chat Show on Facebook. Design and illustration by Chris Ritter. Thanks today to Argot Studios. I am Sandy Allen, author of A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise; more about me and my work at hellosandyallen.com. This is Mad Chat. Thanks for listening. Chat with you again in three weeks.
[MAD CHAT CREDITS MUSIC]
SANDY: Next time on Mad Chat, I’m chatting about the TV sitcom that somehow has won more Emmy’s than all other series other than SNL and Game of Thrones. You guessed it: Frasier.
[FRASIER THEME MUSIC]
SANDY: What? Yeah, Frasier, remember, is about a psychiatrist. I’m so excited to get into Frasier, to toss these salads and scramble these eggs, with the only Frasier fan I know, poet and podcast host Nichole Perkins. Do not miss this conversation.
[FRASIER THEME MUSIC]