SPOILER ALERT: this article contains plot references to episodes from both series one and two.
Killing Eve, the much-praised BBC America thriller, is remarkable for the way in which it uproots and challenges many of the male-centric conventions of the spy thriller genre. And though watching the show might make you hungry with the sheer amount of food and eating on screen, what might be less obvious, is that these food choices are political.
Particularly noteworthy at a time in which veganism is growing and where we are constantly being reminded that our carnivorous tendencies are killing the planet, is the prevalence of meat in the show.
In the first season, it’s “sausages galore” – with series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge admitting to “some kind of subliminal sausaging going on”. The pervasiveness of the sausage is difficult to ignore with IndieWire’s Hanh Nguyen pointing out that, in half of the eight episodes in season one, “ground meat in casings” crop up at some point or another.
In episode four, for instance, one of the show’s protagonists – MI5 operative Eve Polastri – rendezvouses with MI6’s head of Russia desk, Carolyn Martens, in a butcher’s shop. As Eve enters, the camera pans in on the gaudy model sheep out the front of the shop to find Carolyn inspecting the sausages. Carolyn directs Eve to “take a minute” and “look at the sausages”, to which Eve replies “Okay. So … Wow, that’s a lot of sausages” as the camera gazes at the two women through the glass of the meat counter while nestled among sausages.
In episode five, after Eve’s nemesis-cum-object of obsession, Villanelle, dismembers one of her victims, MI5 boss Frank Haleton, the camera pans to frying sausages which the assassin is preparing in her apartment. The phallic symbolism of the meat product is only enhanced by the butchering nature of the kill. As Eve declares: “She chopped his knob off.” Villanelle poignantly labels Frank “squealer” which, as well as being slang for an informer, also might be an allusion to George Orwell’s manipulative pig minister of propaganda in the novel Animal Farm. Frank is meat for Villanelle in more ways than one.
As critic Priscilla Frank pointed out in Huffington Post, Villanelle objectifies her kill by dressing the dead body provocatively in a cocktail dress and laying him out on the bed of the (not so) safe house in which he is staying. Frank notes that Killing Eve subverts trends in pop culture where “body counts tend to skew female” and one of the few guises in which females are over-represented are as corpses. While Villanelle has victims of both sexes, typically it is the man who is butchered.
On the slab
Though the “sausage gags” – which were, apparently, “a Phoebe thing” – dry up in the second season of Killing Eve (where Emerald Fennell has taken over as head writer from Waller-Bridge), meat continues to play a prominent role. In the first episode of the second season, Eve feels a little queasy when confronted by a body in the morgue. After being offered water or whisky, Eve plumps for a burger: “That’s the formaldehyde. The smell of the bodies makes you crave meat.”
The next shot sees Eve and Carolyn finishing off their fast food meal in front of the body on the slab. And when Eve asks Carolyn how she always looks so good on so little sleep, Carolyn admits to using a moisturiser made of “pig’s placenta” that “smells like arse”.
However, the climax of the meat theme occurs in episode four. Villanelle, in her attempt to win back Eve’s attention, finds inspiration for her next “exciting” assassination in Jan de Baen’s painting, The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers at The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Johan de Wit, Grand Pensionary of the Dutch Republic, along with his brother, were allegedly killed and eaten by an angry mob. Connoisseur as she is, the work of art makes Villanelle think of bacon. Fittingly disguised in a cartoon fluffy pig head and pink Bavarian-style dress, Villanelle leads her victim with a penchant for animal fetish, into a window brothel in Amsterdam’s red light district. Here she proceeds, in a very public performance – with his wife watching from the street – to string him up upside down like a pig on a butchers hook and slit his torso with a knife. Carolyn later describes the scene as: “A bit of a butcher shop, apparently.”
Getting the chop
In placing a woman at the top of the food chain, as the butcherer and consumer of her kill, Killing Eve is subversive. Historically, meat eating has been associated with power and masculinity. As Nick Fiddes asserted in his cultural history of meat: “Meat has long stood for man’s proverbial ‘muscle’ over the natural world.”
Meat is, according to Carol J. Adams, author of the feminist vegan bible The Sexual Politics of Meat, “a symbol of male dominance” with the act of butchering being the “quintessential enabling act for meat eating”. Enjoying meat has been naturalised in western culture as an essentially masculine desire, and as The Sexual Politics of Meat would have it, this impulse simultaneously animalises and objectifies women, and feminises the meat product.
In the world of Killing Eve, being the apex predator is not only a matter of overturning traditional patriarchal structures of power, it is a matter of life or death.