It’s a spy thriller that moves with the languidness of an indie comedy, a tight procedural that allows for vast gulfs of idiosyncrasy, a stylish story of obsession and psychopathy that’s disarmingly warm and lived-in. It’s a TV show that undermines every rule of TV, Prestige/Peak or otherwise – sauntering when we expect it to gallop and snickering when we expect it to posture. It’s pulpy genre fiction based on the “Villanelle” series of novellas by Luke Jennings, though its creator is best known for a cracked character-study sitcom about thirtysomething downward spirals and its star is famous for her work on a long-running network medical drama. It’s currently a little more than halfway through its freshman season, and yet BBC America has already renewed it for a second season. If you’ve been tuning in Killing Eve, you’ve probably already become addicted. And if you’re just finding out about it now, congratulations: You’ve just met your new favorite binge-watch.
The work of British actor/writer/showrunner Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Killing Eve stars Grey’s Anatomy O.G. Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri, a bright, disillusioned MI5 security operative in London whose job involves less intrigue and more paper-pushing. Enter Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a manic pixie dream assassin who’s as charming as she is psychopathic and happens to be cutting a bloody swath across Europe. The two find themselves embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse that’s part Spy vs. Spy, part quasi-erotic obsession. Any subtextual examination of the ways that women are toxically – and in some cases, lethally – underestimated by the men around them is, of course, not the least bit coincidental.
Considering that Waller-Bridge’s background is in theater and comedy (Fleabag began life as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe), penning a gritty espionage thriller seems like an odd career jump. But it’s exactly the comedian’s knack for writing irreverent, character-driven farce that gives Killing Eve its particular umami. And then there’s Oh, best known for her 10-season turn as genius heart surgeon/extra-salty best friend Cristina Yang on Shonda Rhimes’ ABC medical drama. She’s a compulsively watchable actor – expressive and complex, blending wry wit and deep pathos – and fans have been waiting for Oh to sink her teeth into a part this juicy ever since she departed Grey’s in 2014.
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In Eve, she may have found the role of her career. The intelligence-agency grunt even shares some DNA with Dr. Yang: Both characters are brilliant yet awkward, eminently capable but also a few steps removed from their fellow humans. Oh plays the MI5 operative a person cursed with zero poker-face game, a hilarious liability for a spy. But what she lacks in guile she makes up for in determination, to the consternation of her fellow agents. (“Don’t be a dick, Eve!” her coworker shouts, in regards to one of her poorer life choices.) The woman is a highly capable hot mess, the kind of unlikely hero who’s always just on the edge of moral ruination.
Equally as magnetic is Comer as Eve’s nemesis/co-protagonist, Villanelle. Though she’s a staple on British TV (Doctor Foster, The White Princess and My Mad Fat Diary), the 25-year-old actor is a relative newcomer to U.S. screens. It’s a tricky part to pull off; think of how easy it is to play a psychopathic killer as little more than a cipher, and how many performers have relied on that trope. But Comer’s Villanelle is a chillingly relatable monster, with an allure that’s one part Tatiana Maslany’s Helena in fellow BBC America series Orphan Black, part Jean Seberg in Breathless.
Villanelle takes as much fulsome pleasure in a murder well-performed as she does in eating a good meal or picking out a perfect outfit. In one memorable scene, Villanelle leisurely asks her latest target who designed his silk bedspread right before stabbing him through the eyeball. By the end of the episode, she’s bought one for her own apartment.
Together, Oh and Comer share a crackling chemistry, one that situates them in a gray realm between bitter enemies and would-be lovers. A twisted dinner scene between Eve and Villanelle in the show’s fifth episode, where the two size each other up as they warily share reheated leftovers in the former’s kitchen, is almost painful to watch – a homicidal cringe-comedy seduction. It embodies everything Killing Eve does best all at once: dry wit, razor-wire tension, sex appeal and the looming threat of violence, all centered on a half-eaten shepherd’s pie in a Tupperware container.
It’s weird details like that pie, writ large by the story’s attention to them, that gives Killing Eve its unique texture. Waller-Bridge understands that for us to be invested in what happens to these characters, we need to see their quirks, not just the peril they’re put in. And that extends beyond the two main charcters to most everyone in the show, whether it’s MI5 boss Carolyn’s (Fiona Shaw) muttered aside about a rat drinking from a soda can or Eve’s work BFF Bill (David Haig) recalling his polyamorous youth over unpacked suitcases.
There are all the trappings you’d expect from a thriller: globetrotting locale changes announced by stylish chyrons, rollicking chase scenes, backroom meetings around computer banks, chair-twirling character introductions. But what’s ultimately at the heart of Killing Eve‘s subversiveness is that it’s a feminine take on a traditionally masculine genre. Where even the best spy thrillers tend to elevate plot, action and a slick, focused sort of machismo (we’re looking at you, Mr. Bond and Mr. Bourne), Waller-Bridge’s series is more interested in giving space to character beats and the weird chaos that can leak into the best-laid plans. You get the grisly murders, the epic faceoffs, the shaky car chases, but not without some odd detours along the way. Killing Eve isn’t afraid to be expansive and strange, but more importantly, it’s not afraid to be as generous and odd, messy and unbeautiful, as real life is. It’s the sexually charged female-buddy-comedy espionage nailbiter you never you needed so badly.