Killing Eve: Is Villanelle really a psychopath?

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The BBC's Killing Eve was the must-watch TV success of 2018. As it returns for a brand new series this weekend, University of Wolverhampton psychology experts take a look at the compelling character of Villanelle. Is she really a psychopath….?

Dr Danny Hinton, Senior Lecturer & Deputy Course Director of Undergraduate Psychology Programmes, says:

"Though it’s not explicitly stated that Villanelle is a psychopath, she’s portrayed in a way that would be typical of how we understand the behaviour associated with psychopathy.  Though researchers have disagreed on the exact nature of what constitutes psychopathy, there are several behaviours that are considered typical of psychopaths. 

Firstly, psychopaths tend not to function emotionally in the same way as everyone else.  They tend to be fearless, not to experience stress, and have a lack of empathy for others.  This is very much in keeping with Villanelle’s character in the show.  She is a cold-blooded killer, but her personality goes further than this.  She rarely expresses any form of emotion, and seems to be entirely unaffected by things that the rest of us would find extremely stressful.  When she is incarcerated in a Russian prison – undoubtedly a very stressful environment – she takes it very much in her stride, and almost appears like she’s enjoying the experience.

Secondly, psychopaths tend not to be good at controlling their impulses, and will frequently do things because they feel good, regardless of the consequences.  This can often manifest as an increased likelihood of substance abuse, or promiscuous sexual behaviour.  Though Villanelle is not shown to indulge in the former, in the show she has a string of sexual encounters, all of which are rather shallow and unemotional.  This impulsivity is also expressed in other ways.  She frequently kills people other than the targets she’s been given, often for no reason other than perceived slights, to the exasperation of her handler, Konstantin.

While these traits are undoubtedly negative in many aspects of life in society, there is a case to be made that, in Villanelle’s case, they might be advantageous.  Being an assassin would be a very difficult job for most of us to do, but her lack of empathy and fearlessness allow her to get the job done without being psychologically affected in the same way that we would."

However, Dr Chelsea Slater, Lecturer in Psychology Course Leader for MSc Forensic and Investigative Psychology, says:

"There is an issue with classifying Villanelle as a psychopath, or clearly saying for certain that she is one, and that is because much of the research on psychopathy has focused on males.

One of the main measures of psychopathy is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which is a diagnostic tool used to rate a person’s psychopathic or antisocial tendencies. It was created based on male prison populations, and that is still the main group it is used on. There is some debate on if this scale can accurately classify females, or if potentially an adapted or a completely new scale is needed. So in consequence, whilst Villanelle’s behaviours are clearly antisocial and outside what most would classify as normal behaviours, it might not be enough to clinically classify her as a psychopath.

Villanelle is such a unique character because she is a female murderer. However, as there have traditionally been fewer female criminals, especially for murderers outside of family members and children, she is part of a group that we have a lot less research on, and our understanding of female murderers like her is severely lacking. "

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