Spy dramas, especially ones that thrive on cold-blooded murder, usually make you howl with terror rather than laughter - but when the show in question has Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame) as the Executive Producer dark humour comes as part of its DNA.
Which is why Killing Eve - which returns for a second series on 4 March - is both a taut cat-and-mouse chase between psychopath Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and intelligence officer Eve (Sandra Oh), and a dark comedy featuring the kind of throwaway one-liners you might expect from a sitcom.
Whether it's fact or fiction, we're all strangely fascinated by female assassins: from the female ninjas who sometimes slept with their enemies, to female secret service operatives, for some they have a dark allure. Possibly because they’re less common, are less expected to kill in cold blood, but also because they play against the 'nurturing woman' trope (see: Uma Thurman in Kill Bill and Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde).
Villanelle embodies this: she’s highly sexual, highly intelligent, stone-cold – and has a backstory that doesn’t excuse her work, but perhaps partly explains it.
As for real life? Here are the tragic and shocking stories behind the most lethal women killers in history:
1. The Dancing 'Double Agent': Mata Hari (1876-1917)
Born in Holland, Margaretha endured an abusive marriage to an army captain and the death of her infant son before reinventing herself in 1905. As ‘Mata Hari’, an exotic dancer at La Scala in Milan and the Opera in Paris, she managed to dodge decency laws by presenting her performances as ‘sacred dances’ from the Indies. A series of liaisons with rich men compounded her ‘maneater’ reputation (at the time, mistresses were seen as a hot accessory for wealthy men *sigh*) and her easy travel connections led the Germans to offer her money to feed back information about the Allies. Then she was reportedly asked to spy for the Allied forces in World War One.
While she didn’t actually assassinate anyone herself, there was a rumour that her espionage caused the death of up to 50,000 soldiers. The French started to suspect her duplicity and she was arrested in Paris in February 1917, before being executed by firing squad that October. Since her death, over a hundred years ago, debate has raged over her guilt and she has been touted as an icon of feminine seduction and political betrayal.
2. The Bathtub Insurgent: Charlotte Corday (1768-1793)
Zut alors! With the full name Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday it comes as no surprise that Mademoiselle Corday was an aristocrat. What’s more surprising is that when she became embroiled in the French Revolution, she was essentially on the same side as the man she decided to murder.
She was a Girondin – a moderate branch of the revolutionaries, who were in favour of disbanding the monarchy but against the violent direction the revolution was starting to go in. Her victim, Jean-Paul Marat, was a senior figure in the Jacobin group that she opposed; these were more extreme revolutionaries who later brought about the bloody period known as the Reign of Terror during which over 16,500 people were executed.
In July 1793, she wangled an audience with Marat by claiming to have the names of some traitors, and in an assassination worthy of an Alfred Hitchcock film, she stabbed him while he was in the bath. How did she get in? Apparently, he suffered from a skin condition so it wasn’t unusual for Marat to receive visitors during a wash.
Arrested there and then, at her trial she said she ‘killed one man to save a hundred thousand’, but was executed for the crime four days later, at the age of 24, by guillotine.
3. The Killer Confessor: Shi Jianqiao (1906-1979)
As we know, assassins love a codename. Born Shi Gulan, the characters of her adopted alias, Shi Jianqiao, mean ‘sword’ and ‘to raise’, and foreshadow her vow to avenge the death of her father, who was beheaded by the warlord Sun Chuanfang in 1925.
Ten years later, when Sun Chuanfang had retired (and converted to Buddhism), Shi Jianqiao tracked him down and shot him in the head as he prayed in a Buddhist temple. But instead of fleeing the scene, she stayed and confessed her actions to passers-by (complete with leaflets), which was part of her greater plan to attract media attention and public sympathy to her cause.
After a high-profile court case, she was pardoned in 1936, with her case deemed ethically justified because it was an act of filial piety (respect for one’s parents). She died in 1979.
4. The Bouquet Slayer: Brigitte Mohnhaupt (born 1949)
Once described as the most evil and dangerous woman in Germany, a prominent member of the Red Army Faction (also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang), Brigitte Mohnhaupt was involved in the wave of terror in 1977 dubbed ‘German Autumn’.
The radical leftist militant group terrorised West Germany with a series of hijackings, assassinations and bombings in the Seventies. Together, they were responsible for over 30 killings as well as the hijacking of a plane, all in the name of resisting the West German capitalist establishment. Arrested in 1982, Mohnhaupt was sentenced to five life sentences, plus 15 years for her involvement in nine of the killings, including one where she handed flowers to a banker before shooting him at close range, and an assassination attempt on an American commander and his wife using a rocket launcher.
In 2007, despite never expressing remorse for her crimes or cooperating with authorities, Mohnhaupt was given parole, a decision that sparked controversy and widespread debate across Germany. She is still alive.
5. The Hitwoman Next Door: Agent Penelope (age unknown)
Female agents, traditionally, have managed to operate under the radar. Mossad agent ‘Penelope’ (also known by the assumed name Erika Chambers) was behind the killing of Ali Hassan Salameh, the leader of the Palestinian group Black September who took 11 Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics before killing them.
In response to the Munich killings, Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, authorised ‘Operation Wrath of God’ in which the Mossad agents hunted down the Black September members accountable. After surviving five assassination attempts, Salameh was eventually killed, along with four bodyguards and two bystanders, when a car bomb was detonated outside his Beirut apartment in 1979.
The twist? Agent Penelope/the woman thought to have detonated the device lived an unassuming life close to Salameh’s apartment, and was even thought to have befriended him when she joined the same swimming pool.
After the explosion, Agent Penelope vanished, leaving behind her belongings, which included a British passport bearing the name Erika Chambers.
While most of these cold-blood killers' murderous instincts led them to a life behind bars, will the same fate befall Killing Eve assassin Villanelle?
Killing Eve is now available as a box set on BBC Three iPlayer.
This article was originally published on 14 September 2018.