The Psychiatrist Who Worked On 'Killing Eve' With Phoebe Waller-Bridge Explained How They Wrote Villanelle
Killing Eve has officially returned to the UK, friends, which makes now an excellent time to dive deep into the show's creation. While a character as compelling as Jodie Comer's Villanelle obviously didn't spring into being after a 30-minute brainstorm, you might not know that a psychiatrist worked on Killing Eve with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in order to accurately portray the contract killer's psychopathy. Dr. Mark Freestone, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, spoke to the Radio Times about developing Villanelle, her relationship with Sandra Oh's Eve Polastri, and why viewers are quite so drawn to a serial killer.
First things first: as Freestone himself pointed out on Twitter, he didn't create Villanelle. "That was a group of people — mainly women — with far more vision and application than me," he wrote. What he did do was lend his psychiatric experience to Waller-Bridge's writing in the first series, in order to create an "authentic" presentation of psychopathy.
Freestone started with Luke Jennings' source novel, Codename Villanelle, and tested Jennings' depiction of Villanelle against real life diagnostic tools including the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. "She scored 32, which is incredibly high for a woman," Freestone told the magazine.
Indeed, the psychological profile developed for Villanelle was inspired by male psychopaths. "Lots of literature on female psychopaths presented them more as a manipulative cat’s paw-like figure that sees them manipulate dumb men to do their dirty work, or the typical femme fatale," Freestone said. "I have to say it’s just a little bit clichéd. At the time we thought wouldn’t it be cooler if she was just a really bad f***ing psychopath? Like a male psychopath? That tickled me and I thought that was a better way, giving that loose branding to the character."
"The whole original idea of psychopathy is in this mask of sanity," he explained. "This mask that comes down which is not the true person, but allows Villanelle to interact with other people. This seething aggression and unfiltered desire underneath this paper mask. You take it away, and what comes out? The murderous rage, the manipulation, the sadism."
Murderous rage, manipulation, sadism — why, then, are characters in the show and viewers alike so drawn to Villanelle? "Villanelle is not just a dead-eyed killer," Freestone said. "She’s got the gift of the gab. What makes Villanelle charming? It’s partly because she’s not in the business of killing off good people — they tend to be bad people or good people who inadvertently head into the crosshairs."
"For Villanelle to be sympathetic and charming, there has to be some driving force that is something we can relate to, and it’s about striking that delicate balance," he added. "We can’t give her something cuddly, because that’s not how psychopaths work, but I think her struggles and her desires are interesting and can make her appear sympathetic."
"The biggest challenge was to make her appear authentic and consistently exhibit her characteristics as a psychopath, but not sadistic to the point where it would alienate people."
Villanelle's backstory also enables her to appear sympathetic — and informs her relationship with Eve, too. "We started to think about Villanelle’s complex relationship with her father and the absence of any mother figure," Freestone said. "Villanelle is searching for some kind of attachment figure, but she’s not quite sure what a mother figure looks like. So we wondered what that would look like for a psychopath and went from there."
Though Villanelle and Eve's relationship remains ambiguous, to Freestone, there's no romance between the two. "A psychopath is 'what can I take from you?' And that means you become simply an instrument rather than a person in your own right, and that is quite disturbing," he said.
"So a psychopath’s understanding of love — it’s a finely-tuned jealousy. In Villanelle’s case it’s a little unclear what she desires. Is it mothering, or another kind of intimacy?"
Villanelle's malign influence begins to show in Eve, Freestone said. "As Eve gets closer to Villanelle, she starts to exhibit some of the traits that Villanelle has," he told the Radio Times. "We see more manipulation, more lying, more aggression on Eve’s part and she recognises this within herself. She’s just a bored civil servant at the beginning and it’s through this relationship with Villanelle that she gets in touch with something far more primal."
And that's not a good thing, as season two is set to demonstrate. "With Eve and Villanelle’s dynamic, they both have to find out what they’re seeking from each other pretty quickly," Freestone said. “And if they don’t resolve that, it’s going to be horrendously destructive."
"What series two is going to bring is this dynamic of trying to test out other areas of their relationship to see where it takes them," he said. Am I terrified or deliriously excited to get into season two? I think it's probably both.