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One of the many grand achievements of the thrillingly addictive new BBC America series Killing Eve is that once it fails to be a revolution of the form (and yes, it’s hard not to have expectations for it to be so), it still manages to become quite the prize: a spy vs. assassin battle in which both players are women (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer); both are badass in their own ways, but neither is robotically flawless; both are funny in the midst of violence; and both are emotionally nuanced — which is not a surprise since the show was written by another supremely talented woman, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
While both the big and small screens have had female assassins (and you can see strains of Atomic Blonde and La Femme Nikita without squinting) and female spies/agents, there were probably higher expectations about what Waller-Bridge, best known for the brilliant dark comedy Fleabag on Amazon, could do with the material (based on the books by Luke Jennings) — especially with Oh, who gets to be part fish-out-of-water American in London (her character was born there and has returned from her time in the States to a boring MI5 job).
Air date: Apr 08, 2018
The answer is — a lot.
Killing Eve is a smartly textured role for Oh. And the biggest surprise is probably Comer as the Russian-originated assassin now using Paris as her home base. Comer was last seen as the shell-shocked kidnap victim in the BBC miniseries Thirteen, but turns 180 degrees here as the young assassin Villanelle.
Waller-Bridge takes these two talented actresses and doesn’t just drop them into roles traditionally (and tiredly) given to men, but shapes the characters to be a whole lot more than a mere gender flip for the genre.
Villanelle might be the most coquettish sociopath in some time, if not ever, and Comer manages to be magnetic, weirdly funny and extremely dangerous in the same breath. The actress plays well against Oh’s initially bumbling, midlevel M15 agent, Eve Polastri, who is bored with her job and marriage, and dreams of being somewhere up the spy chain, before almost accidentally finding herself there.
Disregarded, mostly, at MI5, Eve has taken to studying female killers and floats her theories to the decidedly no-nonsense head of the Russian Desk at MI6, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), that a recent political assassination is the work of a woman. Before Eve can make a case for that, she’s browbeaten by her male boss for sticking her nose in a case she’s not an expert in. Eve then looks to have mucked up her actual job, and loses it. Normally that would play out as taking a toll on Eve’s mild-mannered husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), but the slight and welcome shift here is that he understands — and furthermore, it’s not like Eve is all that concerned about it because she’s been taking him for granted and their marriage is convincingly mundane without having to be shattered to create drama. In this instance, Waller-Bridge is not wasting time with Eve worrying about what her husband is going to think about a) her messing up her day job or b) her getting an exciting side gig that will eat into their time together.
Shaw, such a fine actress, re-imagines cool here by not playing it as icy; she just doesn’t have a lot of time for Eve’s stuttering explanations of things. She sees Eve’s talent and wants Eve to see it as well, pulling her into an off-the-books investigation into the yet-unknown Villanelle and a long-running and seemingly unconnected string of killings.
Waller-Bridge manages to give Oh’s character competence while also firmly making it clear that Villanelle is a far superior threat, but the imbalance is what drives a lot of the tension in the early episodes (there are eight total and BBC America has already renewed the series for a second season before this one has even begun).
As to that notion that something revolutionary might come from Waller-Bridge’s exploration of a well-worn genre, it’s not like she failed or even came up short. Killing Eve does have some trouble balancing tone, which is understandable given that Villanelle is both extremely violent and extremely flippant (and funny) about all that death, while Eve has to juggle getting this dream opportunity with accepting her known shortcomings and the fact that she’s never been a boss before (she hires two associates from MI5: the veteran agent Bill and the young assistant Elena, played by David Haig and Kirby Howell-Baptiste, respectively).
The strength of Killing Eve is that Comer’s Villanelle is as important as Oh’s Eve, though for American audiences unfamiliar with Comer, it might seem that this is a transatlantic star gig for Oh. In fact, Comer gets enormous credit for corralling a role that could easily get away from an actress — the combination of violence and humor (or at least sociopathic flippancy) is extremely difficult to pull off and only FX’s Fargo has truly mastered it. (That said, add Killing Eve and HBO’s recent Barry to the list of series that struggle with tone and yet manage somehow to be thrilling and fresh.)
The shortcomings beyond tone are frustratingly more simple — a couple of big twists are telegraphed well in advance, mostly by bad decisions the characters otherwise probably wouldn’t make; there’s too much convenience in parts, etc. But once you get into the rhythm of Killing Eve, it’s got Waller-Bridge’s signature raw snark, some goofiness tucked into the mayhem and, just when that seems a tenuous thing to pull off, two excellent performances from Oh and Comer to make it work. There’s also some fine acting in many of the supporting roles, particularly Kim Bodnia as Villanelle’s handler, Konstantin, a role that could have been enveloped by countless clichés and instead emerges as one of the most surprisingly layered in the season.
Credit BBC America with realizing that Killing Eve, with its adrenaline pacing, adroit direction (as Villanelle globe-trots around offing people) and an addictively moody soundtrack, would pair well with the main character gender flips to create something entertaining, and doubling down for a second season in advance.
It might not be reinventing the wheel, but Killing Eve is relentlessly engaging and surprising where it’s least expected, making for the next must-see show of 2018.
Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, David Haig, Owen McDonnell, Kim Bodnia, Sean Delaney, Darren Boyd
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Directed by Harry Bradbeer, Jon East, Damon Thomas
Premieres on Sunday, 8 p.m., BBC America
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