Villanelle, Don’t Break My Heart

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A Review of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s KILLING EVEIt’s hard to put a finger on exactly what went right with Killing Eve, because it seems to be nearly everything. Whether it’s Jodie Comer’s scintillating breakout performance as the psychopathic Russian assassin Villanelle, or Sandra Oh as the socially awkward but sharp-as-a-tack MI-6 agent hunting her down, or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s phenomenal writing, somewhere therein lies the key to what could possibly be several Emmy nominations and many, many more seasons for BBC America’s new hit spy drama.

Killing Eve, which just wrapped its first season, was created by Waller-Bridge and based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings. The show follows Sandra Oh’s titular Eve Polastri on her mission to track down the elusive assassin-at-large known by the alias Villanelle. Over its eight-episode arc, Eve and Villanelle play an elaborate international game of cat-and-mouse, crisscrossing Europe and culminating in a surprising and wrought one-on-one encounter at the end of the series. As Waller-Bridge puts it, “Every moment in this show exists so that these two women can end up alone in a room together.”

What immediately sets this show apart from almost everything else in its genre is Killing Eve’s emotional resonance. The relationship between Villanelle and Eve defies everything that’s come before it because, unlike so many other spy thrillers out there, the action and the thrill aren’t the focal point of their story. Killing Eve is no James Bond movie—the story doesn’t feature flashy gadgets or nail-biting heists or epic battles fought in the shadows. There is no MacGuffin. It can’t be summarized as simply Eve’s mission to catch Villanelle. Instead, the show allows for Eve and Villanelle to develop a mutual admiration and obsession with one another that goes far beyond what is typical for the espionage thriller genre. They orbit one another like binary stars, and their shared story plays out in a rich and perfectly-paced ballet—a story propelled by intrigue, lust, fascination, and an inexplicable but very real connection between the two women.

The show has been lauded as a uniquely feminine take on the genre: the two main characters are both powerful and multidimensional women and there is a focus on emotion over action. Killing Eve has also been compared to BBC America’s other woman-led breakaway conspiracy drama, Orphan Black, which finished its final season last year. Both shows tell complicated female stories. Orphan Black, underneath all the sci-fi drama, is all about motherhood and sisterhood, the resilience of women being used and abused by a patriarchal system, and the importance of female bonds. Killing Eve is a show about female capability and how underestimating or undermining that female capability is both fallacious and dangerous.

What really makes the show what it is, though, are Oh’s and Comer’s respective performances—each actress an absolute powerhouse in her own right. Oh brings Eve to life with the most grounded, realistic performance I’ve seen in a very long time. She is a beautiful, layered woman—a bumbling personality and an absolutely brilliant mind paired with gorgeous hair and a collection of rumpled coats. She’s willing to sacrifice everything she has so she can catch this killer, although Eve herself can hardly tell whether she’s motivated by altruism, or vendetta, or animal attraction, or glory and one-upmanship. She’s goofy and sweet with her friends, her coworkers, and her husband, flustered in front of her mentor-slash-boss, and ruthless in her pursuit of Villanelle. Beneath her anxious surface is a gutsy, almost narcissistically confident core and a kinship with the assassin that she can neither explain nor justify, but is also unable to deny.

The other star of the show is, of course, Jodie Comer and her character Villanelle. I’ve never encountered a character quite like Villanelle: so utterly sociopathic in her nature and yet sympathetic. The closest I get is Sameen Shaw from Person of Interest or Bartine Curlish from Dirk Gently, but even Shaw was a morally-gray antihero at worst, and Bart’s murderous rampages were written off as “for the good of the universe,” neither of which can be said for Villanelle. Comer plays her almost like a Ted Bundy—charming at first glance (see: her girly dresses, her silly pranks, her desperation for “someone to watch movies with”), but ultimately still a serial killer. She is brilliant, manipulative, and without any conscience or morals. She is also funny and irreverent and it’s easy to find yourself rooting for her even as she commits horrifying atrocities. This character makes you want so badly to relate to her or put faith in her ultimate innocence, but she refuses to be a Nikita or a Beatrix Kiddo—killing for justice or for the greater good. Nor is she a Natasha Romanoff or a Helena Manning—forced by trauma or circumstance to become what she was

Phoebe Waller-Bridge began her writing career with comedy, penning and starring in the BBC comedies Crashing and Fleabag back in 2016. Her background in comedic writing shows in the witty, dark humor of Killing Eve. Some scenes are downright hilarious. Often horror and anxiety are diffused with a joke. It’s what makes her characters so deeply sympathetic and wonderful (yes, even Villanelle—especially Villanelle). That said, there’s never a moment where the show becomes a comedy instead of a thriller. Rather, the humor keeps it from getting so dark that it feels agonizing or hopeless.

Killing Eve speaks the cinematic language of the espionage thrillers that have come before—in color, in soundscape, in direction. It pays homage to pop culture spy icons (spycons?) like Bond or George Smiley but in a new and refreshing way. This show doesn’t so much subvert the common spy tropes as much as it makes delighted use of these conventions. The trick is that the show always places some twist on the classic, but the classic is always still identifiably present too, almost as if Waller-Bridge is saying I see your x, and I raise you y.

There’s so much more I wish I could say about this show (about the queer and racial representation, about the brilliant marketing behind its viewership, about when the show draws from Jennings’ work and when it chooses to diverge, about where I think it might go from here). Suffice to say, this show will give you a lot to think about—and a lot to talk about with the other people who have seen it. Killing Eve is a totally addictive masterpiece of a TV show and one that I’d recommend to almost anybody—even people who aren’t really thriller fans.

All episodes of Killing Eve are currently available on BBC America’s website (but only for the remainder of this weekend!), and will be coming exclusively to Hulu later this year.

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Allyson Larcom is a Boston-based writer who works as both an editorial assistant and a dog-whisperer. Find her on twitter @ogrewitch.

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