Today I want to talk about a thrilling, dynamic piece of media—a gripping cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger tale of espionage centred around the relationship between a notorious villain and the agent intent on hunting them down, two characters who get irreversibly tangled in one another’s lives until the edges between fascination, rivalry, and romantic tension become increasingly blurred.
I am, obviously, referring to the music video to Miiike Snow’s ‘Genghis Khan’.
The video clip came out in January 2016, and quickly became the talk of the internet town. The song itself is fun enough, a catchy little bop about the conundrum of feeling possessive over someone you’re only in a casual relationship with. But what elevated ‘Genghis Khan’ and caused it to make such a splash was its music video, which told a complicated but ultimately adorable love story between a supervillain and a spy. The whole thing is clearly a nod to—and an affectionate parody of—the world of James Bond, from the appearance of the spy himself, to the campy retro aesthetic, to the supervillain’s golden nose, to the cartoonish-ness of his lair (complete with Big Red Buttons, crotch-destroying laser beams, and henchmen who dutifully clock out at 5PM). However, while the whole thing was obviously making fun of this whole super-spy genre, the fact that the spy and the supervillain fell in love was not part of the joke.
There’s a sincerity to the clip that is, I reckon, what resonated with so many people. Look at that emotional conflict, realising that they can never truly ‘beat’ the other at their game because they’ve come to like each other too much! Look at them dancing together at the end, perfectly in sync having finally admitted that they’re the most important person in each other’s lives! Look at them living in domestic bliss!
The standalone pop music video garnered its own fandom, for a time—there was adorable fanart, there were gif-sets, there was a general sense of delight with this piece of media. It’s not hard to see why it took off: its whole premise is “hey fan people, you know all that romantic/sexual tension you can feel in these hero/villain dynamics? What if we made that subtext text, and in a genuinely unabashed, unembarrassed way?”
Hero-villain ships aren’t always my cup of tea, necessarily, but you’d have to be blind not to notice their popularity (the sheer amount of Tumblr posts about the inherent eroticism of a duellist tipping their opponent’s chin up with the point of their sword is incredible). Fan works have long held a fascination with the “what if?” of twisty-turny, complex, villainous rivalries containing under- (or over-) tones of attraction, and, in many cases, evolving from rivalries into relationships… be they as wholesome as the spy and villain from the music video, or an exploration of something more messy and intriguingly toxic. Enemies to Lovers (or perhaps Enemies who are also Lovers) is the pop cultural itch that ‘Genghis Khan’ is scratching, and scratching it particularly effectively given that this often manifests with slash pairings.
The queer fascination with Enemies to Lovers runs deep. The super-spy love story in ‘Genghis Khan’ was a source of delightful, musical validation for a lot of people, since it took an idea that is mostly found in fandom and applied to an original (if obviously transformative and riffing off older stuff) work. And applied without a sense of irony, too—it would be easy enough to poke fun at this idea of the hero and villain whose cat-and-mouse obsession turns to true love, and poke fun at the people who like that idea, but it was instead addressed with sincerity (thankfully not all content creators are Steve Moffat) and with the sincere acknowledgement that this kind of relationship is interesting and is worth exploring deep into its tangled romantic potential.
While they may be a little tonally different (though that playful vein remains), I propose that Killing Eve is appealing to this same pop cultural questions—with spectacular and intriguing results.
Killing Eve is… well, it might be a bit rash to call it a love story, but it’s definitely, at its heart, the story of the tangled, complex, near-deadly, sexual-and-romantic-tension-filled relationship between MI6 officer Eve Polastri and assassin Villanelle. Villanelle’s attraction to Eve is immediately apparent and explicit, and, while Eve’s draw to her favourite assassin is a little more complicated, her relationship to Villanelle is woven through with sensuality that become increasingly less subtle as the series goes along.
Their interactions have escalated from Eve breathlessly trying on the dress and perfume Villanelle sent her, to a long-distance knife-play that leaves the two of them tenderly stroking the wounds they left each other, to the two of them abstractly having sex (involving a spy-tech earpiece, Villanelle’s sultry voice, and a clueless third participant). There’s no writing this off as “up for interpretation” or “reading too much into things”. This is a sexually-charged relationship between two women, no bones about it. This is an in-text sexy rivalry.
The dynamic between them shifts with time to bring that “nemesis” concept front and centre, too: Eve gradually becomes more ruthless and more confident, and Villanelle more vulnerable and more tangled up in her own flaws and humanity. The two of them end up, in an odd way, as equals, glaring at each other across an even playing field with gazes full of fascination, loathing, and the deep suggestion of something more. This evenness is important to Killing Eve’s success as a sapphic enemies-as-lovers story. It’s worth mentioning that attraction between villains and heroes has been a thing we’ve seen in text before, across fiction, but it was more traditionally a one-sided affair which mostly involved the queer-coded villain creeping on the wholesome hetero hero. Villanelle’s destructive crush on Eve runs the risk of falling into this, but the narrative’s constant reminder that the feeling is mutual prevents it from veering towards this nasty trope.
It’s also clear that both characters are extremely morally grey, and as Eve slips into more and more of her monstrous tendencies as time goes by, this becomes more complicated than simply a fight between The Good Spy and The Supervillain. This is a tale of two tangled-up nemeses each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and ability to be ruthless, and the series knows this, acknowledges this, and places it right at the heart of the narrative without embarrassment. The spy shenanigans are woven into—and in some cases feel downright secondary to—this game of “will they or won’t they?” between the two lady leads.
According to Wikipedia, “The first season had unbroken weekly ratings growth among young adults especially, which no other television show had accomplished in more than a decade”. That’s the Enemies to Lovers crowd, baby. They heard the call and they came running in. Though it’s going about it in a very different way, Killing Eve is scratching the same pop cultural itch as ‘Genghis Khan’—it says “yes, we see the appeal of this idea of nemeses with underlying sexual tension. We see it, we get it, and we’re going to make a work that takes what has been fan-adored subtext for so long and bring it to the surface, without laughing about it or making it seem gross or weird. We see you, fans hungry for disastrous, complex queer content, and we’re here to feed you rather than mock you.”
At time of writing, it’s exceptionally rare to see a) a complex, messy, morally bankrupt relationship dynamic between two female leads, and rarer still to b) have that relationship be explored explicitly, canonically, as a queer one. While it remains to be seen how Killing Eve and its central dance-of-death relationship will develop (season three is just around the corner!), I think it will hold its place as an important, transgressive series. The tone of the show is often playful, in a darkly comedic way, but it always feels as though it treats its characters and their dynamics with the weight they’re due, and there’s nothing parodic about Eve and Villanelle’s flirtatious rivalry. Maybe they’ll become supervillains together and dance away into the sunset. Maybe it will all end in tears. It’s hard to say, since we haven’t really had a show like this before—it’s playing with tropes and ideas we know well, but the way it’s playing with them is in many ways breaking new ground.
In the meantime, I’m shocked that I can’t find a music video of Killing Eve clips edited to ‘Genghis Khan’. If someone makes one, please let me know.