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Killing Eve’s Villanelle Has Millennial Burnout

Scarlett Harris
Photo credit: Laura Radford/BBCAmerica/Sid Gentle

From Harper's BAZAAR

Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Killing Eve Season 3.

Villanelle is exhausted. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” Jodie Comer’s Russian assassin repeats throughout the third season of Killing Eve, which finaled on BBC America last night.

The past three episodes featured an identity-crisis triptych for the beloved killer, who’s hit a new low point of fatigue. First, she botched her initial kill under her new boss, Hélène (Camille Cottin); it was a job that should have been a cinch, but she ended up injuring herself in the process. While treating her wound, Villanelle lamented to her handler, Dasha, that she wants out.

Last week, Villanelle shed a tear again as she tried and failed to explain to Hélène why she flubbed the job after hundreds or thousands of successful assassinations. And last night, Villanelle approached Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), the head of MI6’s Russian desk who frequently squashes her attempts to kill the titular Eve (Sandra Oh), for what amounted to an informal job interview and possible career change.

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says again, eyes watering. This is the most we’ve ever seen the usually unflappable hit woman cry over the course of Killing Eve’s 24 episodes, including one in which she annihilated her own family. She’s bursting at the seams and at the point of giving up.

It’s plain to see: Villanelle has millennial burnout.

The term millennial burnout is believed to have been popularized by BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen in early 2019. Petersen wrote that amid job insecurity, a shrinking middle class, and economic downturn (and this was before COVID-19 plunged millennials into the second financial crisis of our short working lives), millennials make “dumb, illogical decisions” as a symptom of burnout. “We engage in self-destructive behaviors or take refuge in avoidance as a way to get off the treadmill of our to-do list.” For Villanelle, those behaviors include lashing out at those closest to her, taking drugs last season, and tanking her aforementioned performance review.

At first glance, Villanelle is a stereotypical millennial. She’s a flighty, fluffy freelancer in an alternative industry with a personality that is not only psychopathic but also at odds with what it means to be an adult. She spends her days shopping and taking up residence in glamorous bachelorette pads across Europe, all bankrolled by The Twelve, the assassin organization she is contracted to. Her storyline this season consists of her striving to “climb the corporate ladder,” or in her case, rise to the rank of Keeper in a physically demanding industry that sees her as nothing more than a cog in a machine. No wonder she’s burned out.

Whereas most of us have Baby Boomer parents, Villanelle has Boomer handlers, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia) and Dasha (Harriet Walter), who was introduced this season. They have already managed to ascend up The Twelve. Dasha looks at Villanelle with disdain, chiding her for flinching on a kill as a Boomer mother might admonish her millennial child for quitting yet another dead-end, entry-level job in the pursuit of happiness. Konstantin, on the other hand, serves as the flip side of the Boomer parenting coin, cajoling Villanelle by telling her she’s special, giving in to her every want and desire. Neither understands how “many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which [life has] become hard for [them],” per Petersen.

We’re not only the first generation to be worse off than our parents, but a study recently released by The Washington Post states that millennials have experienced slower economic growth than any other generation in history.

Some of our parents told us that we deserved to be anything we wanted to be, but they—and the shambolic society they hath wrought—didn’t give us the tools to do so. Or, more to the point, the tools that worked for them to achieve marriage, mortgage, kids, and a career for life weren’t applicable to the landscape many of us were thrust into after graduation. One could even argue that the dwindling job market is a contributing factor to Villanelle’s unconventional career path.

We know from the origin-story episode this season that Villanelle’s parents didn’t equip her with these tools. In fact, she had even less support than real-life millennials, having spent much of her childhood in an orphanage from where she was plucked to be an unfeeling killing machine. She doesn’t have the same support system as many of us who have been able to stay at—or return—home, as we take longer to achieve the career- and family-based milestones of generations prior.

Further, women, regardless of which generation they belong to, experience burnout at a disproportionate rate to men, according to a 2018 study by Montreal University, and literally any woman in your personal and professional circles. In Killing Eve, the men die out rather than burn out, as male characters Kenny (Sean Delaney) and Eve’s beloved boss, Bill (David Haig), in Season 1, would attest to—if they could.

Petersen writes of the “performance” of self as a product through which to sell and promote ourselves, and how it becomes even harder to turn that off and just be yourself off the clock. Though Villanelle notably eschewed social media in a scene from Season 2 in which she admonishes an influencer for trying to take a photo of her outfit, her brand, which Petersen uses as an umbrella term for this performance, is undeniably that of a prototypical female assassin, and all the fun—fashion, alternate identities, traveling the world—that brings with it. And as an assassin, many of her assignments involve this performance of other jobs in fields such as beauty, sex work, and children’s entertainment, so-called “low-skilled” and precarious positions that are primed for millennials.

Villanelle has spent her entire adult life charading as different characters and chasing an ever-elusive dream that she’s lost herself. So this season wasn’t just about her professional ascent; it was preoccupied with whittling away at who the real Villanelle—nay, Oksana—is underneath all the primping and killer outfits (pun intended). If she gives up her murderous ways, as she seemingly wants to, what does she have left?

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