The cat-and-mouse murder mystery has given us some of the most memorable female TV detectives of recent years: Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson in The Fall, Elisabeth Moss’s Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake, Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley. The gender of each of these detectives was never incidental. As an independent, sexually liberated woman, Stella represents everything that the serial stranger she was chasing tried to extinguish in his female victims. Robin’s past as a teenage rape survivor gives her insights into her season-one case, the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old girl. And Catherine’s pursuit of her daughter’s rapist is complicated by the fact that the police officer is raising the child born of that crime. These intriguing variations speak to the capaciousness of the cat-and-mouse genre. It’s not only that details matter. The details can make a show matter.
The first hour of Killing Eve doesn’t quite make the case that it matters, but it’s off to a fun, creepy, and compelling start. Created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and already renewed for a second season, the BBC America series gives its female detective, MI5 agent Eve Polastri (played by a wonderfully loose Sandra Oh), a female antagonist. We first see Villanelle (a fiendish, against-type Jodie Comer) at a Viennese ice cream shop, smiling at a blonde moppet. The little girl starts smiling at a man behind the counter, and the edges of Villanelle’s lips harden, stiffening into a grimace. Villanelle stands up, leaves a tip, and, as she exits the shop, pushes the child’s ice cream into her dress. Her smile returns.
On the other side of the continent, a hung-over Eve is forced to leave her hunky husband in bed to attend an emergency Saturday morning meeting. We’ll get to the Very Important Murder, but first it must be noted that Eve reveals her greatness when she practically begs her friend/assistant Elena for the last two bites of the latter’s croissant. (Oh has sparkling chemistry with pretty much everyone she shares a scene with here, a gift aided by Waller-Bridge’s knack for warm, naturalistic dialogue.) Eve gets an early start on running for GOAT status when she shows up late for the meeting, sees an MI5 Boss Bitch she desperately wants to impress, crinkles a paper bag in an attempt to get at her breakfast anyway, and becomes the only person to have a single clue about the killer: It’s probably a woman. The murder victim was an Eastern European politician who moonlighted as a sex trafficker, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t have expected an attack from a female assassin. (I’m kinda glad he’s dead?) The mercenary left alive the politico’s Polish girlfriend, the sole witness to his fatal stabbing, so the agency needs to find her, stat.
Eve has it pretty good, but Villanelle has it made. She lives in a shabby-chic Paris apartment and goes shopping for groceries in iridescent trench coats and wide-leg striped pants. She’s basically an Anthropologie model come to life. Did I mention the first-class trip she takes to Tuscany? (She has to kill some old guy there, but whatever.) Please @ me if you know where I can get the teal, semi-sheer, bow-tied blouse that she pairs with denim short-shorts for her motorcycling-through-the-Italian-countryside lewk. Also, you know that women are behind this show because Eve wears flat boots and puts her hair up in a bun when it’s business time. She sneaks into an Italian manor, where her target is enjoying a backyard party, and puts on a traditional, lacy dress that manages to fit her perfectly. Using the target’s grandson as bait, she lures the old man into a bedroom (where he’s quickly disabused of the assumption that she’s his “present”) and stabs him in the eye with her hairpin, which also injects a poison into his skull — though not before she gets the name of the designer who made his amazing throw (this bitch). You don’t see the stab site, but the execution scene is pretty gruesome nonetheless, with the victim taking some time to die. You also get why Villanelle chose this line of work, even though it requires wearing (probably) sweat-soaked Kevlar bras whenever she leaves the house. She looks triumphant as she sees life fade from her victim’s eyes. Also: Anthropologie ain’t cheap!
Under far less flattering lighting than the Tuscan sun, Eve is informed by her boss, Bill, that CCTV captured the politico’s murder (contradicting what they’d been told earlier) and that the suspect is a man. Eve doesn’t believe it. She tracks down the dead guy’s girlfriend, Kasia, and asks her what she saw. The (older) official translator says that the hysterical (traumatized) woman is just speaking gibberish, but Eve figures out through her Polish husband and his … random teen buddy (?) that swimsuit-model Kasia was calling the assassin “flat-chested” in young-people slang, which proves Eve right about the mercenary’s gender. “Your killer was a small-breasted psycho,” her husband says. I call new band name.
Back at home, Eve asks her husband how he’d kill her, and he stammers that he doesn’t know. Eve is actually a little too cutesy about how she’d kill him — a complicated, multistep procedure that involves poison, a blender, and a restaurant toilet. Somehow, they don’t have sex immediately after this conversation. We’re supposed to think less of the hunky husband because he’s not turned on by O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It as foreplay. Eve is still supremely likable, but I don’t need her to be Murder-Roleplay Zooey Deschanel.
Actually getting some is Villanelle, who wakes up in her bed with a guy on one side and a girl on the other. (Mark me down as officially jealous of this bitch.) Her handler, Konstantin, tells her to get her ménage-à-trois-ing ass to London and knock off Kasia. Also, everyone’s talking about Villanelle’s fancy, slay-ready hairpin in Italy, so she’s gotta start toning down her murders and not make them so obvious. The next time we see her, Villanelle is in nursing scrubs in a hospital bathroom, giving Eve some friendly advice on how to wear her curly black mane. (The lack of sexy spy wigs on Villanelle is phenomenally refreshing.) By the time Eve makes it back to Kasia’s room, Villanelle has killed her target, a nurse, and two guards — though, thankfully, not the Polish teen that Eve had brought to the hospital to translate the illegal interview she’d planned to have with the doomed woman.
By this point, we more than get the show’s setup: Eve is the rogue cop who only follows her own rules. Villanelle is the vain, sociopathic killer — and a professional who seems to be more than a little annoyed that her superlative work isn’t being recognized as such. (She’s wrong: At least one MI6 higher-up is on to her — that’d be Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn Martens — and wants Eve’s help in getting her off the streets.) Killing Eve is about the law-woman and the hired gun’s forthcoming obsession with one another, but it’s also about how those archetypes are refracted through the feminine lens. Eve feels free to cry when she’s told that four people are dead because of her (although this doesn’t quite make sense, since Villanelle would have killed Kasia and whoever else was in her room no matter what Eve was up to). And Villanelle’s gender makes her an invisible threat. The board is set. The pieces feel different. I’m dying to know the next move.