BBC America’s new drama Killing Eve, which debuted on Sunday night, is already one of the most critically acclaimed new shows of the year, alongside HBO’s Barry and Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World. And, like both those shows, it’s tricky to categorize. Killing Eve at its core is a cat-and-mouse spy story between an MI6 investigator named Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and a glamorous assassin known as Villanelle (Jodie Comer). But it’s also variously a dark psychological drama about sociopathy, a feminist procedural, and a British workplace comedy that traffics in colloquialisms like dickswab, monkeydick, and heroin Polish. Villanelle as a character would fit seamlessly into a forward-thinking espionage thriller; Eve often comes across like a variation of Melissa McCarthy’s character in the Paul Feig comedy Spy.
Killing Eve’s sense of humor comes straight from its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose 2016 BBC/Amazon comedy Fleabag is inarguably one of the best new series of the decade. Adapted from Waller-Bridge’s one-woman stage show, Fleabag is equal parts comedy and tragedy—an uproarious, filthy satire about a young British woman’s chaotic existence and sexual misadventures that gradually lets her violent self-loathing peek through. It’s hysterical, until it’s not. Killing Eve, which like Fleabag is mostly set in London, has the same irreverent sense of humor and the same intense exploration of the psychology of its lead characters. Here, those qualities don’t always come together with the conventions of the spy story in perfect harmony. But they do make something new, gratifying, and—in its finest moments—thrilling.
Killing Eve also points to where television is heading, thanks to the influence of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu. Concepts that might once have been impossible sells to networks or premium cable have proven their potential on other platforms, making outlandish, outré, and oddball pitches more appealing. And with Netflix’s overwhelming influx of content flooding the marketplace, quirkier stories stand out. The best-reviewed shows of 2018 so far on the website Metacritic include FX’s surreal Atlanta and its trippy Legion, HBO’s violent but tenderhearted Barry, Killing Eve, and the teenage romance-slash-psychopath comedy The End of the F***ing World. None of these shows fits neatly into a genre or an awards category. But they all take creative risks that pay off.
Killing Eve is subversive at its most basic level, taking the classic good-guy-chases-villain template and placing two women in the primary roles. Oh’s Eve is an American working in British intelligence who pieces together that a string of seemingly random murders might have been committed by the same person—and instinct tells her it’s a woman. After Eve’s personal research goes too far, she’s fired, alongside her boss, Bill (David Haig). But an official at MI6 (Fiona Shaw) who’s intrigued by Eve’s research tasks her with running a new investigation into the killer. Meanwhile, Villanelle becomes aware of the woman tracking her down, and starts hunting her right back.
In Villanelle, Comer gets the more obviously intriguing character, and the British actress is exceptional in the role. Villanelle is brilliant, fearless, funny, and indubitably a psychopath—after she carries out her hits, she pauses long enough to watch the light dim in her victims’ eyes. She’s also alarmingly charismatic, and prone to pulling surreal, elaborate stunts, like dressing up in a pink princess dress when she’s forced to attend a check-in with her handlers. In Killing Eve’s press materials, Waller-Bridge describes the show as “a meditation on murder, on loneliness and the potential for a world without conscience,” and Villanelle is the embodiment of that hypothesis. She’s entrancing and terrifying all at once.
She’s matched by Oh’s Eve in competence, if not self-assurance. Waller-Bridge consistently makes Eve the punchline as a mid-level civil servant suddenly thrust into active duty—she wears a windbreaker over a glamorous new dress to dinner with a source, and during one terrifying chase scene is physically unable to open a gate. But she’s enormously intuitive, and able to piece together information in a way no one else can. Waller-Bridge flips the tropes of the spy novel by giving Eve a supportive husband (Owen McDonnell) and a male boss who becomes her subordinate when she recruits him onto her team, and who struggles with the new power dynamic. Villanelle also has a male handler (Kim Bodnia) whom she consistently tries to outsmart, using her femininity and her youth as tools.
There are times when Killing Eve’s tonal pendulum swings can be jarring. Without spoiling too much, the fourth episode veers from sharp tragedy to surreal visual comedy to a wackadoo mission in a tiny English village that’s more Little Britain than Homeland. But Oh anchors the show as Eve, portraying a woman who’s invigorated by her new job and aware of its stakes. She’s such a natural fit in the role that it’s easy to forget how unusual it is to build a new drama around a 46-year-old lead actress, let alone a 46-year-old lead actress of color. The recent Netflix series Collateral made the creative decision to ignore its female detective’s personal life entirely, which ended up making her feel two-dimensional. Killing Eve strikes a better balance by acknowledging Eve’s life outside of work without distracting her from her job (ahem, Homeland).
Killing Eve’s critical reception implies that more shows like it are bound to follow—series that straddle genres and use existing categories and tropes as stylistic and tonal inspiration rather than models to closely follow. And, hopefully, series that see the potential in casting for skill rather than type, and portray “complexity” in female characters as more than just alcoholism and sporadic rudeness. Waller-Bridge, who’s only 32, has already proven herself as one of the most interesting creative forces to watch today, alongside other actor-writer hybrids including Atlanta’s Donald Glover, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, and Barry’s Bill Hader. Enabled by a wealth of new platforms requiring content, they’re redefining what hit television looks and feels like.
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