In episode 6 of Killing Eve’s fourth (and final) season, Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Eve (Sandra Oh) reunite, briefly, after the former is released from prison. Upset that Eve turned her in, Villanelle asks why she did it. “I thought locking you away might be good for me,” Eve replies. In true slow-burn fashion, we don’t really get an answer, even when Villanelle prompts, “Was it?”
And that encapsulates a lot of what didn’t work in this final season of the once-thrilling Killing Eve. There wasn’t a lot left to say, which led to scenes and conversations that felt repetitive. Would-be juicy character moments just kind of cut off before the interesting bits, because the now-thin (and more straightforward revenge) plot had to be stretched across eight episodes.
Honestly, I probably should’ve locked this show away at the end of season three. It definitely would’ve been good for me. But I didn’t. Instead I watched all of season four — finale included — and I’m now lamenting how I spent my time. But at least I can spare you the watch; here’s what went wrong in that final episode of Killing Eve — spoilers ahead.
What Is the “Bury Your Gays” Trope?
Stylish and over-the-top, Killing Eve was never going to have a grounded or simple send-off. After all, this is the show that gave us Villanelle stuffing herself into a suitcase; kills that involved paprika and chalk dust and clown costumes; and the first season’s many perfect moments — be it the infamous kitchen scene, where Eve is held at knifepoint by her gift-giving stalker, or the finale, in which Eve stabs Villanelle — in bed.
BBC America described the show’s final outing as “a messy, nuanced and totally glorious series finale.” And it’s certainly one of those adjectives. As a fan, I wish that weren’t the case. As a writer, I feared I’d be penning one of two things: an article tied to the “queerbaiting” discourse, or another revolving around the “bury your gays” trope. For this sapphic show, it’s the latter.
If you’ve never heard of the “bury your gays” trope, or the larger conversation surrounding the queer representation that it reflects, let me fill you in. The “bury your gays” trope — also known as “dead lesbian syndrome” because of the sheer number of queer women it effects — has roots in end-of-the-19th-century and 20th-century fiction. In pulp novels, for example, same-gender couples often faced the same fate: (at least) one of them would die. Sometimes, the other would “realize” they weren’t “actually” queer and return to a hetero-presenting relationship.
Decades ago, this trope allowed writers to publish works about queer characters without “endorsing” their identities. Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt — which you might know under its 2015 film adaptation title, Carol — is cited as one of the first mainstream sapphic novels to have a “happy” ending. Even so, that happy ending isn’t driving-off-into-the-sunset happy; the couple, Therese and Carol, share a knowing look.
And, don’t get me wrong, I love that look — but I want creators to imagine what happens after a confession of love or a first kiss. Instead, queer characters are quickly killed off, or shows are cancelled shortly after the “will they, won’t they” resolves. (One great exception to this is Alena Smith’s Dickinson, but I digress.)
When it comes to film and television, this trope persists. Much of it can be traced back to the Hays Code, which restricted what could be shown in Hollywood films created between 1934 and 1968. Among other things, the Hays Code stated that so-called “perverse” subjects, such as queerness, couldn’t be depicted on screen.
As we’ve mentioned before, this led to queer coding, wherein a character’s queerness is subtextual, allowing them to fly under the censorship radar. But film and TV are visual languages that build on themselves — queer coding hasn’t gone away. Employed by queer folks, it can be a safe way for queer characters to exist on screen for those of us who know (and need) to look for them. But, in the wrong hands, queer-coded characters — like many of Disney’s villains — can reinforce harmful stereotypes, especially if those kinds of characters are the only ones you can see yourself in.
From Buffy to The 100, Queer Women Often Meet Tragic Ends on TV
Looking at more contemporary works on screen, Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave many of us ‘80s and ‘90s kids one of TV’s first canonical sapphic couples in Willow and Tara, played by Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson, respectively. But Buffy is also a sort of modern-day originator of the “queer woman killed by a stray bullet” part of this larger “bury your gays” media trope.
After some time on the outs, Willow and Tara get back together. But the happiness is incredibly brief. While standing in Willow’s second-floor bedroom, Tara is hit by a stray bullet meant for someone else, and dies in Willow’s arms. Much like Killing Eve, Buffy has garnered a lot of praise from viewers for giving us on-screen queer representation. And, much like Buffy, Killing Eve managed to fumble all that goodwill with the show’s finale.
What’s extra frustrating? Even if the showrunner and writers missed out on the Buffy discourse, folks involved in entertainment and storytelling really have no excuse in the wake of the watershed moment that was The 100 killing off Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Without getting too deep into the particulars of The 100, our main character, Clarke (Eliza Taylor), had an enemies-to-friends romance with Lexa — after the two finally hooked up, they leave Lexa’s bedroom. Lexa, a commander who won her position through combat, is then, pretty much out of nowhere, hit by a bullet, and dies in Clarke’s arms.
The similarities to Tara’s death are striking, even though the creator claimed he had no idea about the harmful trope. Now, years later, Villanelle’s death replicates so much of this tired trope. That’s not to say queer characters on TV can never die, but the “bury your gays” trope is all about timing. In all of these cases, a fleeting moment of queer happiness — finally, the characters are together, or back together — is immediately followed by death. In this sense, Villanelle’s death reads as material did during the era of the Hays Code: the death is a punishment for queer joy.
In Killing Eve, “Bury Your Gays” Strikes Again — Much Like a Stray Bullet
Killing Eve ends with Villanelle and Eve on something of a road trip. They need to team up, one last time, to crash a meeting of The Twelve. Are you excited to learn more about who The Twelve are — finally — before this revenge unfolds? Well, don’t be.
Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) — whose interesting backstory and present arc would have coalesced satisfyingly had Eve not ruined the moment — warns Eve that The Twelve is much like a hydra — unkillable in that it’s ever-regenerating. Even Kim Bodnia’s Konstantin — who, by the way, meets one of the least satisfying ends in recent memory — warns against trying anything. But Villanelle and Eve are stubborn.
The road trip itself feels like something that would’ve been fun seasons ago. Now, it feels like going through the motions. Our protagonists end up a tad stranded, and some hikers offer them a place to stay for the night. While there, Villanelle and Eve have their tarot cards read — Villanelle’s future is tied to life, while Eve draws Death. And, to top it off, the hikers only have a single sleeping bag on offer, so long as Villanelle and Eve don’t mind sharing it. They don’t mind, as any good fanfiction writer will tell you.
Although my “bury your gays”-version of Spidey senses were tingling, I must admit that Oh and Comer’s chemistry is still wonderful in some of these more intimate scenes. I just wish we’d gotten there sooner. There’s a moment where Villanelle traces her fingers along Eve’s back — they aren’t looking at each other, maybe still nervous — but the tenderness and the pull between them is there. Later, when they kiss on the roadside like giddy teens, that same energy spills out of the actors.
It’s strange. I’m not sure I really wanted these two to live their best cottagecore lives together, but I did want to see them happy together. I’m sure folks will bring up the fact that a happy ending for an assassin and her pursuer is improbable. First, the source material would like a word. And, second, we’re just so starved for quality representation that this over-the-top cat-and-mouse show seemed, perhaps improbably, like one of our best bets for seeing nuanced queer characters live beyond the final credits. Yes, the bar is incredibly low.
Speaking of bars, in her last scene with Eve at the MI6 pub, Carolyn says she’ll finally step aside. So, with Carolyn’s “blessing”, Eve and Villanelle find The Twelve’s real meeting place — a boat, which is also hosting a wedding above deck. One of the grooms mistakes Eve for the officiant, so, while Eve plays her part, Villanelle hunts down the meeting room.
After four seasons of build-up, did you want Eve to confront The Twelve, too? You’re out of luck. After Villanelle says, “Hello, losers” to what could be an empty room, anticlimactic chaos ensues. The next sequence intercuts scenes of Eve dancing with the wedding party with quick shots of Villanelle murdering the top members of The Twelve. But it’s deeply unsatisfying. All this build up, all these stylized kills to Villanelle’s name, and most of the action is off-camera. Sure, The Twelve can be a faceless, ever-regenerating menace, but this just didn’t feel like the way to do it well.
Anyway, the couple reunite on the ship’s deck. “I did it, Eve,” Villanelle says, which is a great clarification because those faceless men could’ve been anyone. “Don’t you mean, we did it?” Eve says, laughing. Behind them, one of London’s iconic bridges glows. Much like the third season’s finale, they’re on the water again, but this time they’re facing each other — embracing, even — instead of trying to walk away. And then Villanelle is struck by a bullet… a hit ordered by Carolyn? Who cares at this point.
As more bullets fly, the couple jumps into the Thames. In my review of season four’s first six episodes, I’d noted the recurring water imagery — and that Romeo + Juliet (1996) parallel. But I really didn’t want Killing Eve to end tragically. Yes, we were all waiting for the couple to dive in, metaphorically and maybe literally, but not so that Villanelle could get shot up by some unseen enemy and sink to the bottom of a river, joining Tara and Lexa and countless other beloved queer TV characters.
And to have Villanelle, the master of inventive deaths, die in such a bland, tired way is somehow even more insulting. Even though Killing Eve had a different showrunner each season, the series was very clearly courting a queer audience. Sure, maybe the show didn’t initially aim to reach this passionate queer fanbase, but it did. And that’s what makes the one-two punch of queer joy followed by death sting that much more. (Not to mention, the showrunner called the ending a “rebirth” for Eve, which is… a real choice.)
When Eve resurfaces from the water, she lets out a throat-splitting yell. Honestly? Same. Maybe later I’ll think of Killing Eve as a pretty stellar three-season show. For now, I feel like the show tricked me into smiling — and then knocked over my ice cream on the way out.
All of Season 4 of Killing Eve is now streaming on AMC+.