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Interview with Psychiatry Consultant on BBC’s ‘Killing Eve’

Dr Mark Freestone from Queen Mary University of London was the Psychiatry Consultant for the hit BBC show Killing Eve. In this interview, Dr Freestone talks about how he helped shape the character of Villanelle, the psychopathic assassin and also the antagonist of Luke Jennings’ original novellas.

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Credit: BBC
Credit: BBC

Killing Eve won critical acclaim when it aired on BBC Three earlier this autumn and is centred on a cat and mouse chase between an MI5 agent and an assassin.

Dr Freestone, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Psychiatry and Director of Postgraduate Programmes for Queen Mary’s Wolfson Institute, said one of the challenges he faced as Psychiatry Consultant on the programme was being caught between wanting to shape and encourage the writers’ most exciting ideas but also sticking to the brief of being an expert.

Reflecting reality

“Of course television requires some suspension of belief,” he said, “but it’s most impactful when you see characters that might have an echo of peoples’ real experiences of a narcissist or a psychopath to them.

“So it’s ok for Villanelle to appear oddly naïve and emotionally confused, as she does in the show’s opening scene, but not for her to suddenly start reflecting on her situation and develop doubts or reservations about her treatment of other people.

“That is just not something a psychopath would plausibly do and their neuropsychological traits effectively prevent it, so the idea of a ‘psychopath with a heart of gold’ would just be nonsense.”

Dr Freestone’s work is shaped by previous roles he has held working in two of Britain’s three high-secure hospitals and a maximum security prison. He said: “Having worked in prisons and secure hospitals for over 10 years, I have a pretty deep well of disturbing, instructive or darkly comedic anecdotes about working in forensics to tell, echoes of some of which made it into the production.”

The character of Villanelle is described as a psychopath. Generally there are a checklist of traits that a psychologist or psychiatrist will apply against a criminal to reach a judgement about whether they would meet enough criteria to be a ‘clinical psychopath’.

What makes a psychopath?

Dr Freestone argues that there is an energetic debate in forensic psychology about how far a true psychopath should have what are called the ‘secondary’ more behavioural traits, such as juvenile delinquency, committing a range of crimes or promiscuous sexual behaviour.

He said: “This is why it’s plausible that Villanelle is so chameleonic: that she can come across as a nurse, Italian socialite or charming Home Counties girl when she needs to, in service of a particular end.

“Underneath that, however, is someone who is unaffected by gruesomely killing a room full of people so she can fund her lavish lifestyle. Or just because she enjoys it. Underlying all this is someone whose reality is quite fundamentally different to yours or mine.”

Dr Freestone relished the challenge of writing a genuinely psychopathic character, with all the difficulties that posed. He said: “If you’ve watched the season all the way through to the end and think you understand the nature of the dynamic between Eve and Villanelle completely, then you are a better psychologist than me.”

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