The Best Actress on TV Is Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh

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Vulture’s fifth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in three major categories: Actor, Actress, and Show. Eligible contenders had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and series that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have premiered before June 29, 2018.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve is such a brazenly entertaining series that you don’t immediately realize how groundbreaking it is. Sandra Oh, this year’s winner of the Vulture TV Award for Best Actress, anchors and exemplifies its pioneering qualities in ways that are both obvious and subtle. It’s a tour de force performance, yet so self-effacing and invisible in its effects that you come away thinking that you’ve seen a crackling yarn with compelling characters rather than a cultural landmark. This is a magic trick of a high order.

First, of course, there’s the fact that Killing Eve is built around two women, an immediately distinguishing difference in a genre, the cat-and-mouse thriller, where both the main investigator and the main baddie tend to be men. Every once in a while you encounter a story where one party, typically the investigator, is a woman (think of Silence of the Lambs and its big-screen sequel, Hannibal), but even there, the villain is so charismatic that he tends to overwhelm the heroine. In Killing Eve, the dance between the MI5 paper-pusher Eve Polastri (Oh) and the vicious assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), birth name Oksana Astankova, is more equal. Even when Villanelle clearly has the upper hand, Eve’s steeliness and impeccable bullshit detector prevent her from coming across as a total victim. You believe that Eve is a match for Villanelle even before things start to heat up; it’s just a matter of how and when Eve’s many strengths will become visible. It takes tremendous nerve for an actress to show us that steeliness right off the bat, especially when it’s wrapped inside an outward personality that initially reads as that of a comedic supporting character — the kind that the great Thelma Ritter used to play in the ’40s and ’50s, and that only Frances McDormand is routinely allowed to play today.

Second, the Ottawa-born Oh is of Korean heritage, a fact that’s refreshingly incidental to this part. This is revolutionary in its own way quiet way — Oh told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung that she was so used to being offered supporting parts that when she first got the pilot script for this British series, she couldn’t figure out which role Bridge wanted her to play — but since, like the woman versus woman story line, that’s a function of writing and casting rather than acting, I mention it here only because it’s one more detail that certifies the specialness of the project. Like Eve’s American accent, it’s a detail that says “fish out of water,” but because it’s not central to the story, it makes Killing Eve feel as if it’s been warped in from some future date where colorblind casting is expected. Oh’s quiet assurance in the role ensures that this kind of casting will be more common as television moves forward.

Third — and it’s here that Oh’s presence and skill come into play — Killing Eve is a rare cat-and-mouse thriller that’s almost equally comedic and dramatic. As in Waller-Bridge’s self-written star vehicle Fleabag, the story juxtaposes cringe comedy, wiseass humor, goofy slapstick, and subtle wordplay against expected thriller setpieces, such as the heroine watching the baddie kill a colleague right in front of her in public, and a scene where the main antagonists share a tense meal and interrogate each other. The sitcom-psychodrama juggling act in Fleabag was impressive enough, but it’s more unique and demanding here, and more challenging for the cast, because the comedy and thriller elements are pushed to such wild extremes. There is no precedent for any of this, yet Oh behaves as if it’s an established genre that can be easily mastered. She anchors the story and enacts more character growth than anyone else, which makes her the poster child for the audacious genre fusion that Waller-Bridge does so well.

It’s hard to imagine Will Graham, the FBI profiler at the center of two films and a TV series based on Thomas Harris’s novels, fending off Hannibal Lecter with a toilet brush, because the storytellers would worry (rightly) that such a move would make Graham look like a fool, and expose the story’s essential ludicrousness in way that permanently shattered the spell. Yet that exact thing and many others like it happen throughout season one of Killing Eve, and Oh somehow manages to fuse the silliness to the seriousness with an alchemist’s wizardry. For instance, look at her expression when Eve points the toilet brush at Villanelle like a fencer unsheathing her rapier.

Photo: BBC America

She simultaneously acknowledges the ridiculousness of the moment and signals that we’re about to witness another, much more serious kind of duel; it’s foreshadowing a later scene where Villanelle pins Eve to the wall of Eve’s kitchen while pushing the pointy tip of a real knife against her breastbone, but not in a way that kills the surprise. Little gestures like that fortify the project’s aesthetic integrity, like mortar connecting bricks. Without Oh’s performance, the house collapses. She makes Eve make sense. She makes Killing Eve make sense. And she makes Villanelle — a wraithlike adversary, brilliantly imagined by Comer — feel both more real-world plausible and more of an incarnation of Eve’s sublimated aggression and assertiveness, as if Villanelle is the devil ejected from Eve’s psyche so that she can remain a placid desk jockey who doesn’t make waves.

The Case for Sandra Oh

1. Introducing Eve (Episode 1, “Nice Face”)

This is Eve’s introduction. If you’d never seen an ad, trailer, or poster for the series, you might not assume from this scene that Eve is the heroine. Investigators, detectives, patrol officers, and other law-enforcement heroes tend to wake up hungover, then kick a one-night stand out of bed before putting spoiled milk in their coffee and spitting it into the sink — unless, that is, they’re canoodling with their significant other in ways that establish how stable and “normal” they are, compared to the bad guys. This is the kind of introduction that another series would give to a second banana, and probably only if it were a comedy.

Oh rolls with it and has a ball. When Killing Eve introduces Eve facedown in bed, cable clichés might lead us to think that her screams are the ecstatic result of self-pleasure, then we adjust and assume she’s having a nightmare. Turns out she just fell asleep on her arms. Her stunned expression as she rolls over and informs her husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), is not just our first glimpse of the heroine’s face, it’s a classic expression of comic helplessness as well as adoration for her husband, who’s about to watch his wife embark on an amazing odyssey of self-discovery as well as jeopardy.

The subsequent scene reclaims Eve’s dignity, but only a little: She walks and talks through corridors en route to a meeting that has already started. Here, too, there’s little to indicate that Eve has enough gravity to anchor a series about an MI5 officer trying to capture a killer, and Oh doesn’t do or say anything that might contradict that assumption. There’s charm aplenty, but zero fuss — that classic Thelma Ritter quality I mentioned earlier. You’d have no indication that Eve is about to go full Will Graham, and the way Oh helps preserve that revelation (always serving the scene and the moment, not some hypothetical image of what a “star performance” should do) is a big part of the reason why this series is so continually pleasurable, even when it’s grim.

This introduction does three important things, all of which wouldn’t register as strongly without Oh playing this role. First, it shows what a generous character Eve is, and what a generous actress Oh is: In two consecutive scenes, she lets the other characters come on just as strong, maybe stronger, than she does. Second, it establishes the comic elements of both the character and the series: Eve is Clarice Starling or Sherlock Holmes, but she’s also Lucy Ricardo or Selina Meyer, and we accept that such wildly divergent tendencies could coexist in a single woman and a single story. Third, it sets up assumptions that will be undermined. We aren’t taking Eve entirely seriously yet, just as television rarely takes women as seriously as it takes men in these kinds of shows. When Killing Eve eventually pulls the rug out from under an audience that thinks it knows what it’s getting, it’s Oh’s hands that are gripping the edges.

2. The Funeral (Episode 4, “Sorry Baby”)

Watch Oh’s face, in particular her eyes and mouth, as Eve silently reacts to seeing her stumblebum superior officer, Frank Haleton (Darren Boyd), speak at a funeral for her late colleague Bill Pargrave (David Haig). First, let’s appreciate the expression as a transitional device that bridges the gap between episodes, easing us out of horror and into a numbed yet simmering fury for justice. It’s the perfect, haunting opposite to the last expression we saw on Eve’s face: her scream of horror on the dance floor where Bill was stabbed to death by Villanelle.

Eve barely speaks in this funeral scene, but as she watches and listens, then finally breaks and gets up to storm out, we can sense the rage shocking her out of numbness and compelling her to act — not just in this particular moment, but throughout the rest of the season. It’s direct, forceful acting with no adjectives as indicators. We might as well be watching a thermometer heat up, the mercury rising until the glass breaks. Eve’s closing line to Elena (“I want to kill her … with my bare hands”) is electrifying because it’s more a promise than a threat. And look at how Oh’s timing contributes to its power: She places a key pause between “her” and “with,” and when she turns her head to address Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Elena, she takes her sweet time because, even though outrage animates Eve’s words and gestures, this moment is ultimately not about herself. It’s about her dead friend.

3. The Dinner (Episode 5, “I Have a Thing About Bathrooms”)

This is a tour de force sequence, beginning with the aforementioned toilet brush scene prior to this clip, and continuing with Eve heating up leftovers for Villanelle. Who has the upper hand here? It would seem to be Villanelle, from the way Eve’s hands tremble as she palms and hides a knife, and the no-big-deal way that Villanelle reveals that she’s onto her. But then comes that moment when Eve says, “Why are you here.” No verbal question mark — Oh’s reading of the line is flat as a kitchen countertop. Even when Eve is soaking wet and being held prisoner in her own home, this woman is on the job. She is working. And she’s not to be trifled with.

Then she does it again, right after Villanelle’s smart-alecky chitchat, this time with just a hint of a question mark: “Why are you in my house?” Go back and watch Oh’s face in between those two lines: Eve is sizing up her adversary and realizing that she’s only formidable because she can kill. The architecture of the scene positions Villanelle as a homicidal woman-child, not fully formed emotionally, or perhaps regressed as a result of the trauma she’s suffered. Oh’s face is not unlike the face of a mother realizing that her teenage daughter is only intimidating because she’s skilled at pushing mom’s buttons.

And Eve speaks to Villanelle as a mother would speak to a child — manipulating her right back. Sure enough, this leads to Villanelle breaking down in tears (“I need someone to help me … I don’t want to do this anymore … I know I’m not normal … I don’t feel things…”). Oh cries a single tear, and we think Eve is moved by what she just heard. But then she says, “Bullshit.” Two words, almost, with an infinitesimal pause between them: “Bull/shit.” Then she does it again, with a more pronounced separation. “Bull. Shit.” Villanelle laughs, caught in the act. “God,” Eve says. “You’re an asshole.” Then she adds a bit of information that Villanelle didn’t know she knew: her real name, Oksana.

From that point on, Eve is either controlling the scene or standing toe-to-toe with a woman who could kill her in a heartbeat. When Villanelle finally pins Eve to the wall and pushes the knife against her skin, it’s terrifying, but it’s also a victory for Eve, because she overcomes her fear, looks Villanelle right in the face, and says, “I am gonna find the thing you love, and I am gonna kill it.” Again: a promise, not a threat. And Oh doesn’t ham it up. Everything that happens to Eve is happening organically — not purposefully, but with unarticulated intent. Eve meant to do everything she did in this scene, even if she was acting on the spur of the moment. It’s here that Oh makes us realize that Eve is not just good, but great at what she does.

Villanelle warns Eve that it hurts more if she pushes the knife in slowly. But that’s what Eve’s been doing to Villanelle throughout this scene, with documents, questions, expressions of contempt (“Bull. Shit.”), and that pitiless stare. Villanelle assumes she’s the cat in this cat-and-mouse story, but she’s flattering herself. By the time we get to the very end of the season, this scene — and Oh’s performance in it — resonates like a prophecy that we failed to recognize as such.

The Other Contenders

This has been an extraordinary year for lead female performances, in comedy and drama. Alison Brie’s hilarious and psychologically plausible work in GLOW answered the question of what would happen if Cheers’ Diane Chambers became a wrestler. Justina Machado’s star turn in the revamped One Day at a Time brought a different kind of single mom to the screen, culturally specific and struggling with trauma from military experience as well as a recent divorce. Regina King’s performance in Seven Seconds, as the mother of a teenage victim of negligent homicide by police, was one of the most profound and wrenching things she’s ever done, a remarkable statement considering the range she’s demonstrated in previous roles. Rachel Bloom and Gina Rodriguez, on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin respectively, are out there week after week giving big, bright, colorful performances that are still rooted in the plausible details of speech and gesture, which is nearly as difficult a balancing act as what Oh pulls off in Killing Eve. Keri Russell gave a career-capping performance as Elizabeth Jennings, the Soviet spy and suburban mom in FX’s The Americans, which just signed off with one of the best series finales in memory, but these awards are meant to focus on continuing shows, which rules her out too.

In the end, the Frankenstein crazy-quilt nature of Oh’s performance in Killing Eve is what puts her over the top as the best actress on television. Eve is an unprecedented character who has to land just right, otherwise the whole, risky enterprise implodes in a morass of cutesy self-regard and unearned grandiosity, like one of those insufferable mid-’90s crime films where the filmmakers thought that mixing cool pop songs, shocking violence, and hyperverbal characters constituted a statement. There’s infinitely more substance to Killing Eve than that — just look at everything the show does with the image of the femme fatale, and the way it both contrasts and compares Villanelle and Eve’s experiences as single professional women who don’t have kids. (Villanelle’s introduction, intentionally spilling ice cream on an adorable but cloying girl’s dress, sums it up).

There are so many ways in which Killing Eve could’ve gone wrong that it’s hard to list them all; one false move from the star and it’s curtains for the show and everyone on it. There are no false moves. Oh’s entire career has been leading to this. The role of Eve asks her to blend the star charisma she exhibited on Grey’s Anatomy and the daffy sex appeal that she brought to a supporting role in Sideways (stealing scenes from Thomas Haden Church, which is about as easy as stealing gold from Fort Knox). Oh is not just up to the challenge, she piles on details until they become emblematic of the series as well as the character. This is the performance of the year so far, in any medium. For all the reasons mentioned in this piece, and for many more reasons we won’t even discover until we watch the whole thing a few more times, this is quietly revolutionary acting on a quietly revolutionary series. There’s before Killing Eve, and there’s after. Phoebe Waller-Bridge made that happen, and Sandra Oh made it real.

The Best Actress on TV Is Sandra Oh