Read: ‘Killing Eve’ is a sign of TV to come
This approach also defined AMC’s early successes with original content. Before the network green-lit Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s series about advertising executives in 1960s New York had been passed on by HBO and Showtime. The same two networks, along with TNT and FX, had similarly passed on Vince Gilligan’s drug-trade drama Breaking Bad. Both series became critical hits and launched AMC as a major TV player. But they also set difficult standards for the network to meet with any subsequent shows. And they underscored an assumption that was taking root in prestige television at the time: that the only complex, antiheroic characters TV viewers would care about were men.
For years, whenever I thought about AMC, I immediately heard the growly basso profondo of a male announcer teasing series such as Hell on Wheels (a period drama about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad) or The Son (a Western starring Pierce Brosnan as the patriarch of a family of ranchers). In one of her earliest interviews after taking over at AMC, Barnett told Vulture that the network had done a really good job telling engaging stories about masculinity, but that it hadn’t given the same attention to shows centered on women.
Barnett sees expanding the confines of whose stories get told on TV as one of the fundamental tasks of her role. She thinks that AMC took a “good swing” with Dietland, Marti Noxon’s 2018 drama about female vigilantes and the tyranny of diet culture, which was canceled after one season. One of the things that’s become clear in prestige storytelling over the past three years, she said, “is that it doesn’t have to be all earnest and serious.” Shows such as Fleabag, Russian Doll, and Succession mine comedy as skillfully as they do tragedy. Barnett, McKinnon told me, is as fascinated with the big existential questions as anyone else. “But, in spite of all the evidence around us, she also has a kind of optimism too.” What she’s trying to do with the shows she shepherds, he thinks, “is put a drop of the good water in the universal pond.”
In 2019, talking about Killing Eve, Emerald Fennell—who assumed showrunner duties from Waller-Bridge for Season 2—explained a little of what made the series so unique. “I think as women, as actors, writers, directors, or producers, we’re used to being the cement, and men are the bricks,” she said at a panel for the show in Los Angeles. “So we fill in the cracks, we take up the space that we have, and try to make it work. But on this show, we’re the bricks.”
The concept of the cat-and-mouse hunt between spy and supervillain dates all the way back to the earliest days of moving pictures. Yet Killing Eve anchored the conceit to two female characters, and it felt revolutionary. Even the ages of the protagonists are unusual: Eve (played by Sandra Oh) is a woman in her 40s who’s led a mostly uneventful career doing a desk job for MI5 when she happens across Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a 20-something assassin wreaking havoc all over Europe with her playful, inventive kills. The two become bonded by a kind of mutual recognition—each sees in the other something that the rest of the world keeps missing.