At each other’s throats: Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve.
Like the audacious and seductive contract killer at its center, Killing Eve immediately grabs your attention and pulls out all the stops to make sure it doesn’t lose it. The new BBC America series serves up creatively executed murders, international globe-trotting, Mindhunter-size fonts that announce each new setting (my favorite: the cheeky all-caps declaration that we’re now in BLETCHAM, a tiny English village), a dry sense of humor that creeps in at surprising moments, and two multifaceted female protagonists whose tug-of-war gives the series its unerring sense of oomph.
Based on the Villanelle series of novellas by Luke Jennings, Killing Eve, debuting Sunday, is a cat-and-mouse spy story that, at first glance, looks like something we’ve seen before. But giving the feline/rodent roles to Sandra Oh, an MI5 officer finally getting to do some real detective work, and Jodie Comer (My Mad Fat Diary, The White Princess), a murderer who can smile winsomely right before she drives a hairpin dagger into a man’s throat, gives it a distinctively feminine pulse. The fact that Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge acts as an executive producer and writer of several episodes adds additional intelligence, dark wit, and idiosyncratic touches that raises the quality level even higher. This is delicious, instantly addictive television, so much so that BBC America has already renewed it for a second season even though it hasn’t even debuted yet. It’s immediately obvious why; Killing Eve has the potential to be BBC America’s new Orphan Black.
Determined to waste no time, the first episode — written by Waller-Bridge and directed by Harry Bradbeer, who also directed five of the six Fleabag episodes — opens by introducing us to Villanelle (Comer). When we meet her, she is sitting in an ice-cream parlor in Berlin — pardon me: BERLIN — enjoying some dessert while staring at a young girl who’s doing the same. She catches the child’s eye, smiles, and then exits the restaurant, flipping the entire dish of the girl’s frozen treat right into her lap as she walks out the door. Villanelle, whom we later learn is a cunning Russian assassin, hasn’t killed anyone yet. But the show has already told us that her lack of morality will be exercised playfully and with no limitations.
Cut from that moment to a close-up of Eve Polastri (Oh), sleeping and screaming in terror as if she is already having nightmares about Villanelle. Her husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), shakes her, petrified by her shrieks. Once awake, it’s clear that she’s not dreaming of murderesses at all, at least not yet. “I fell asleep on both my arms … I’m sorry, it was scary,” she calmly explains. Right away, we know that Eve is prone to panic and can instantly switch from that to a disconcerting sense of calm. A couple of scenes later, we also learn that, even though she’s working as an MI5 officer helping her boss, Bill (David Haig), she has a great criminologist’s instincts and a hunger to apply it more directly.
In a hastily called meeting led by Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), head of the spy agency’s Russia desk, Eve learns that a Russian politician known for his involvement in sex trafficking was assassinated in Vienna the night before, after his femoral artery was severed in public without anyone noticing. It’s unclear who the perpetrator was because security cameras didn’t capture the person’s image, but Eve has already reached her own conclusion. “It was probably a woman,” she blurts out. That comment marks the first step on a path that will eventually bring Eve and Villanelle to the same intersection.
Even though it’s easy to see the outline of the road ahead, there are more than enough swerves to keep this season unpredictable and full of suspense. It’s accurate to describe Killing Eve as plot-driven, but it’s equally correct to call it a character study of two women who are, in different contexts, bright, sneaky, and abnormally fascinated with the brutal chess work involved in getting away with homicide.
Back in a regular starring role on TV for the first time since she left Grey’s Anatomy, Oh slides effortlessly into the skin of Eve, who is by no means a carbon copy of Dr. Cristina Yang, but certainly shares some things in common with her. Eve is ambitious, obsessive, and wretched at maintaining a healthy personal life. She can’t hold her tongue, is disorganized at times, and has a brain that won’t shut off. The part demands an actor with a flair for sarcasm and the capacity to shift from aggressive to vulnerable and back again within a matter of seconds. Oh meets those demands and nearly always exceeds them.
Comer, less familiar to a wide audience than Oh, will likely become a bigger name thanks to her revelatory performance in this. Villanelle, who looks a bit like Ivanka Trump but with ten times more light (and, also, death) in her eyes, is charming, flirtatious, efficient, and also completely terrifying. She’s the kind of assassin who tells a victim beforehand: “I’m going to kill you nicely. But then I’m going to make a mess of your body afterward so it looks worse than it is. Just letting you know, okay?”
Comer can giggle like a young girl while making the coldest of threats, but she never seems cartoonish. As Russian pop-cultural killers go, she’s much more of a force to be reckoned with than Jennifer Lawrence was in Red Sparrow. ( I’m pretty sure that if Villanelle went to see Red Sparrow, she’d spend the entire experience cackling and smoking a cigar like Max Cady in Cape Fear.) In fact, she’s more formidable than most murderous men in film and TV. After five minutes with Hannibal Lecter, I’m pretty sure Villanelle would have had him tying on an apron and serving her fava beans with a nice Chianti.
Since we know that Villanelle is a perpetrator from the get-go, Killing Eve is less a whodunit and more a “Why is she doing this?” Eve’s mission is not just to catch Villanelle but to figure out who she’s working for and what their mission is, a process that involves unraveling a tremendous amount of interconnected strands. On a broader level, though, the series serves another mission: to take a genre usually steeped in the masculine and feminize it.
One of Villanelle’s signature moves is to share some of her own perfume, a scent that sometimes smells lovely and sometimes knocks a person out for good. (Best as I recall, no one ever tried that in any of the Bourne movies.) When she wants to taunt and terrorize Eve, Villanelle doesn’t do something gross, like sending a severed body part in the mail. She ships her a package filled with alluringly wrapped luxury clothing, each item in exactly Eve’s size.
The relationships between men and women in this show subvert familiar tropes, too. Instead of the wife being the meal-cooking homebody worried about her dangerous spy-husband’s safety, it’s Nico who frets about Eve while leaving leftover shepherd’s pie in the fridge. Both Eve and Villanelle have refreshingly complicated relationships with their male superiors as well, ones based on perceived mutual respect even though both women ignore orders and advice from them on a regular basis.
As audacious as Killing Eve is, its particular brand of feminism is never something that smacks the viewer over the head. The show barrels forward, presenting a world in which the most significant shots are called or fired by women, but it doesn’t make a big deal of it. That approach sends a low-key message, which is, Of course a great cat-and-mouse spy game can play out like this. Why the hell wouldn’t it?