Villanelle, The Joker and the Banality of Evil
“You know you shouldn’t call someone a sociopath — it makes them upset.” — Villanelle
So says Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in a particularly tense dinner scene with Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) in the 5th episode of Killing Eve. Villanelle, a dangerous, unquestionably psychotic world-class assassin, has engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with her would-be hunter Eve. She has tracked her into her London home and asks to have dinner with her. Over a microwaved Shepherd’s Pie, Villanelle tries to understand Eve and flatter her. However Eve, as obsessive as she is, tries to understand her — how did she become a psychopath? What trauma led her down this road? Perhaps she’s not as evil as she seems. But every time the subject is broached, Villanelle always deviates.
You could say that Villanelle is hiding her truth and that she’s, as a result, not as evil as she seems. Yet there is the possibility that there is no hidden truth. The only hidden truth is the only one we choose not to see: that Villanelle is a remorseless killer who often takes frightening joy in her murders. In an era where everyone is given a tragic backstory (eloquently satirized in Brooklyn 9–9), Killing Eve refuses to obfuscate the banality of her evil in order to make her more “human”, less threatening.
The banality of evil is something so unremarkable that it’s paradoxically extraordinary. It’s the normalization of killing, yet also the source of genuine joy for psychopaths. It’s the bread and butter of their lives — they can’t imagine life without it. Killing is as much of a source of euphoria as it is a convenient tool. It enables a ruthlessness that chips away at “human” constraints to create something so horrifyingly efficient that it can become self-sufficient.
But the banality of evil doesn’t just refer to the singular, and often personal, act of psychopathy — though all of the above descriptions perfectly describe The Joker and Villanelle. It’s about everything around it with the most central element being its relation to empathy, sympathy and our concepts of it. The ways we justify horrors and how we face them.
Returning to the lack of “tragic” backstory, why is this such a big deal? After all, the critical conventions of discussing film, TV, novels, art., etc. are often about establishing that people are morally complex. While that does hold truth, it has in an oddly paradoxical way become a safe haven. One where people can find comfort in the “empathetic” complexity of these characters and understand — “Maybe I’d make this choice myself”. Often it leads to discussions of “Oh in this circumstance I might do something bad like this person”, which is often the result of exploitative Jason Statham thrillers about having to kill people or be killed (the most boring iteration of modern storytelling).
But it also points out to an often sexist element of film and television, one that substitutes vapidly graphic trauma for emotional & thematic depth (ex. Red Sparrow; the rape/revenge genre basically). Something that, even with the right authorial intent, feels exploitative. Consider also how many stories have a male protagonist trying to avenge their dead families and/or spouses (ex. Braveheart; Gladiator; Christopher Nolan films). It’s what makes any slight subversion of that situation (i.e. John Wick & his adorable beagle) all the more refreshing.
In The Dark Knight, The Joker makes a frightening mockery of this concept as evidenced by the frightening backstories he gives to his victims about his scars. It’s not as much a deliberate exercise in earning empathy as it is launching a multi-front attack of terror, one that combines sensory & emotional violence (also forgotten is how The Joker is referred to as a terrorist in the film). Every time someone in this film makes an earnest attempt to understand The Joker, they come up short — finding answers that do not assuage their fears. If anything, they exacerbate them. In Michael Caine’s famous monologue, he states, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It’s an honestly terrifying moment that forces its characters to contend with absolute evil — something that’s so ruthless that it often feels more akin to a force of nature than a man or woman of flesh and blood. This is able to happen because we not only never get a backstory that could’ve painted him as a victim but the story comments off a desire that feels more entitled than earned.
People are more terrified of absolute evil than they’re willing to admit. Absolute evil, more often than not, exists as a rhetorical concept than a tangible threat. If anything, they’re more at comfort of recognizing morally grey people, most akin to themselves. The reason they’re terrified of absolute evil is because it highlights, with an unforgiving clarity, the cruelty of their own actions. It brings out the simplicity of it. That’s what The Joker and Villanelle, who are such clear personifications of evil, are able to accomplish.
We argue for morally grey characters since it forces us less often to confront ourselves — to confront our own sins since we can use it as a subtle, but often vapid frame of reference. It may not manifest with a backstory as ridiculous as a Jason Statham movie, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less pathetic. Think about how many times Walter White justifies drug dealing and murder (several hundred people die in this series alone) because he “did it for the family” — a point so absurd that in their last scene of Breaking Bad, Skyler literally says “If I hear you say…one more time…that you did it for the family”. It’s what makes Walter’s admission “I did it for me” so uniquely profound.
This is expressed in several key scenes in The Dark Knight, particularly with the corrupt cops — one of whom claims that the gangsters got to her with her mother’s medical bills. It ultimately manifests in Harvey Dent who could have been a cold ruthless vigilante before the film has him kidnap Jim Gordon’s family and prepare to kill them in cold blood. We know the world has wronged him (we can set it in his scars) yet we also clearly know that he’s crossed the line and nothing about his tragic backstory can justify the fact that he’s literally about to murder a young kid.
The most potent example of this in Killing Eve is Eve’s boss Frank Haleton —a “sad sack” that claims to only be a rat because he wants to have enough to support his kids (send them to a great boarding school apparently) and have a decent lifestyle. He talks about his wife’s death and his insecurity as a father before blaming the government’s lack of social safety nets which prompts Eve to shut him up. Eve knows that he knows that he fucked up. He’s forced to face the consequences of his actions — several people are dead, including one of his colleagues (he even spoke at said colleague’s funeral), because of him. His backstory doesn’t exonerate him — if anything, his evocation of an exploitative backstory — one that crudely uses his own kids, his dead wife, his colleagues and the nation itself — condemns him more viciously.
Yet this situation could not exist where the person who instigates such actions weren’t so blatantly evil. Villanelle and The Joker are terrifying because they posit characters into choices that are morally wrong. That may be The Joker’s intention more so than Villanelle, but its an inevitable tool that enables them to manipulate emotionally vulnerable people per their whims.
It becomes all the more twisted, and remarkable, in Killing Eve where Villanelle seems to be in constant emotional evolution. She is aroused by Eve and even as she successfully deploys the tactics that have benefited her so much as an assassin to emotionally manipulate her, she makes herself more vulnerable. It’s a welcome character development that eschews vapid plots of redemption to show the natural progression of someone who is unarguably evil, genuinely curious and hilariously arrogant. This development (SPOILER) in the Season finale metastasizes itself with the two laying in bed and, some time after Villanelle abandoning her gun, Eve sneakily shanks her and almost kills her. Eve learned her tactics and used it against her in a profound upset.
It’s what makes Killing Eve, among other elements,the first piece of media since The Dark Knight to not just truly reckon with the banality of evil, but all of the elements that naturally emerge. It highlights not just how irrefutable said evil is but considers the way we all orbit around it, always in awe of what it can do for us and being arrogant enough to think we can control it and/or cheat around it. Sometimes people prove they can control it (as does Eve). Sometimes people cheat it and get away. But that doesn’t mean they’ll always be the case. It is a mirror — it doesn’t just show us who we are, but what is behind us, and if we look closely what is ahead.
“You see I’m not a monster — I’m just ahead of the curve.” — The Joker