May 18, 2024


The true crime genre may have captivated us all with grisly podcasts and shocking documentaries, but the depiction of domestic violence in fictional dramas is equally as fascinating, influential, and important. Particularly when it comes to the portrayal of violence against women

Adapted from the bestselling novel by Jane Casey, Paramount+ series The Killing Kind explores the nuances and complexities of coercive control and how it can pervade relationships, even after being made a criminal offence in England and Wales in 2015.

What is The Killing Kind about?

A man stands next to a barrister during his trial.

Credit: Paramount+

The series follows the story of Ingrid (played by The Witcher and Everything I Know About Love star Emma Appleton), a barrister who defends a man named John (played by Northern Irish actor Colin Morgan) accused of coercive control by his girlfriend. Ingrid then goes on to have an affair with him. A year after their relationship ends, John suddenly reappears in her life the day her mentor is killed in a suspicious car accident.

What follows is a rollercoaster of red herrings, twists, and turns as to who is endangering Ingrid and her colleagues: is it John, or a different, even more powerful and violent enemy?

John plays a complicated role in the story, as he claims to be in love with Ingrid and looking out for her safety, repeatedly taking the opportunity to declare himself her apparent “saviour”. But whatever his larger character arc (we won’t give too much away) John certainly implements coercive control, stalking, and manipulating Ingrid at various points of the series. 

Ingrid doesn’t report John for stalking or other behaviours. There are numerous stages where the dynamic between them is uncomfortable to watch. In a flashback, we see John insert himself into Ingrid’s marriage. He frequently follows her and attempts to isolate her from her job and friends, presenting himself as “the only person who can help” her.

The Killing Kind portrays coercive control and domestic abuse

A woman sits on a couch in front of a patterned wallpaper.

Credit: Paramount+

These types of abuse are all too common in society – recorded coercive control offences in England and Wales increased by 22.5 percent between 2021 and 2022. So it is even more crucial that these crimes are represented in the media we consume.

“TV and film have an important role to play in increasing understanding and raising awareness of domestic abuse,” Tracy Blackwell, director of strategic insights and partnerships at domestic abuse charity Refuge, explains. “We’ve seen big conversations open up when storylines about domestic abuse have been portrayed on screen, which are vital in the campaign to end domestic abuse and violence against women and girls.”  

“We also know how powerful it can be for survivors of abuse to see realistic portrayals of domestic abuse in the media, it may enable them to speak up about their own experience, reach out to a friend or seek support,” she adds.

“Sensitivity and accuracy are crucial in on screen portrayals of domestic abuse because they can raise awareness.”

– Tracy Blackwell, Refuge

The issue, Blackwell says, occurs when cases of coercive control, gaslighting, and other violence against women are “sensationalised” or “overly dramatic”, as this can “trivialise the issue, making it seem less serious or real”.

“Sensitivity and accuracy are crucial in on screen portrayals of domestic abuse because they can raise awareness, empower survivors to speak out and get support, promote policy change, and challenge harmful stereotypes.”

We’re kept guessing as to what John’s ultimate end goal is throughout the series, in spite of his problematic behaviour. Above all, there are moments that feel uncomfortable due to a “hero arc” of sorts, as he repeatedly appears to save Ingrid from an unknown foe. 

The problem with romanticising problematic characters

A couple is about to kiss standing beside London's River Thames.

Credit: Paramount+

Is that helpful to portray? Romanticising a problematic character – there are also numerous flashback sex scenes between Ingrid and John – is a tough pill to swallow at times. Sure, we should portray the complexities of such relationship dynamics, but it feels at times like the abusive character is being pushed as a potential “good guy really” to advance the plot. 

This doesn’t, however, advance a healthy attitude towards coercive, abusive behaviour and how subtle it can be — worse, romanticising a coercive, abusive character on screen runs the risk of normalising the crime, according to Blackwell. “This may make it harder for survivors to recognise their experience as abuse and seek support and even encourage abusive behaviour,” she explains.

Seeing these narratives play out on screen can begin to undo the work being done to fight against this kind of abuse and reach the victims that need support the most.

To conflate passion and romance with elements of coercive control and abuse, as well as insinuate that the abuse might be reactive or revenge-motivated can “exacerbate victim blaming narratives”, Blackwell adds. “Domestic abuse is regularly seen as a ‘crime of passion’ or a momentary loss of control. In actuality it is often premeditated, systematic and a conscious choice a perpetrator makes to abuse their partner.” 

Seeing these narratives play out on screen can begin to undo the work being done to fight against this kind of abuse and reach the victims that need support the most. 

The Killing Kind also doesn’t shy away from women’s feelings of complicity in the patriarchy and elements of the legal system that can potentially uphold structures of domestic and coercive abuse. In a chilling flashback, we see Ingrid cross-examine the woman who accused John Spencer of coercive control. “I was under his spell, he messed with my head,” the victim sobs in a court scene. We’re shown in sharp relief both the impact of this kind of abuse, and the complexities of characters like Ingrid in maintaining dynamics that can allow these crimes to happen. After all, the justice system operates under the assumption that a lawyer (male or female) may know that their client is guilty of these kinds of crimes, but defends them anyway. 

The phrase “under his spell” is also interesting – it draws on fantasy-driven language, hitting home that we at times lack the language and vocabulary to describe the specifics and nuances of coercive control in a real-life setting.

The series highlights the complexities of domestic violence and its pervasive dynamics in a patriarchal society, as well as the difficulty of calling out and combating violence against women. But some elements of The Killing Kind‘s storylines and characters also remind us that subtle romanticisation and sensationalisation of these crimes can still happen on screen, and it’s worth acknowledging the dangers of this and the work that can be done to bring more authenticity and balance to such important storylines. 

Portraying the complexities of domestic violence on screen

A woman looks terrified siting on her couch.

Refuge recently worked with Saffron Hocking, star of Netflix hit show “Top Boy.”
Credit: Chris Harris/Netflix

Over the last few years, we’ve seen other TV shows explore the impact of elements of domestic abuse, like gaslighting and coercive control. Last year, Apple TV’s Bad Sisters told the story of Grace and her experience of long-term emotional abuse by her husband, and the ways in which her sisters try to enact revenge against him. Things get complicated, though, when it’s made clear how “trapped” Grace is by years of gaslighting.

Bad Sisters quickly became the most popular show on the streaming service, proving the appetite for these stories, and for voices from abused communities to be heard. But it also rings home the importance of these stories being told responsibly as they reach wider audiences. 

One huge way that this can be done is for screenwriters, producers, and actors to work with experts and specialist organisations to ensure that domestic violence storylines are handled authentically and responsibly. Doing so ensures that the media we consume doesn’t blame victims or romanticise these crimes. Refuge recently worked with Saffron Hocking, star of Netflix hit show Top Boy, to ensure an accurate portrayal of her character Lauryn’s experience of coercive control – and that survivors who watched felt heard and represented.

Popular culture, as women’s safety campaigner Jamie Klingler points out, has a huge impact on how we live and see the world — after all, the term gaslighting was derived from a play, Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, which was later adapted into a film. Unfortunately, she says, its depictions of violence against women can contribute towards normalising rape culture – so the responsibility of ensuring stories are told responsibly are paramount. She refers to Penn Badgley’s role in Netflix TV show You as an example of the focus applied on the “sexy dark stranger rather than the actual damage stalking does”.

“We are so desensitised to portrayals of rape, coercive control and sexual violence [on screen] that unless they are particularly deviant we barely register the crimes,” she says, highlighting the importance of the subtle details of domestic violence being handled sensitively.

The storylines explored in The Killing Kind are important ones, bringing to the screen the complexities and subtleties of coercive control and other areas of domestic violence. But the story is also a reminder of the dangers of romanticising or heroising an abuser, however subtly. It’s also a reminder to keep talking about this kind of abuse, and how it is portrayed on screen.

We shouldn’t forget how much power and influence TV shows like these can have – they must help to pave the way forward, ensuring that no story is encouraging harmful behaviour and stereotypes.

How to watch: The Killing Kind is now streaming on Paramount+ in the UK and Ireland — if you’re in the U.S. you might need a VPN to watch before it rolls out globally.


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