Killing Eve has swept like a tornado across the television landscape on both sides of the Atlantic in recent weeks. Having seen the sensation caused by this show I decided to give it a whirl myself.
First, a little background to the show. Killing Eve is a British drama based on the novella series by Luke Jennings called Codename Villanelle. It was brought to TV by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the genius mind behind Fleabag. That show’s dark and idiosyncratic humour has been weaved throughout the narrative tapestry of this new show too. Waller-Bridge has managed to bring us another series that is both comedic and tragic, oddball and frightening. I think this unique tone is perfectly surmised in the villainous Villanelle, a woman who is cruel yet off-kilter and who keeps her bullets in a drawer with her tampons. Our antagonist, Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is an allusive and psychopathic assassin being tracked down by erudite yet desk-bound MI5 agent Eve Polastri, played by Sandra Oh. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that spans continents as the two women become more and more obsessed with stopping each other and more obsessed with each other full-stop.
To find out why the show has been received with such rapturous praise we need look no further than its establishing shots. The script is laden with comic moments and also tragedy. Yet it also knows when to hold back and avoid flamboyance. The best shows can do a lot with a little. I remember the first time become aware of this in Breaking Bad. If you have seen Breaking Bad I’m sure this scene is ingrained on your brain too. After a life changing injury Hank feels emasculated. In a lift, on the way to a meeting, he breaks down in front of his wife. When the lift opens again they are both standing stoic and ready to face the world. No words are uttered but the scene says so much. It speaks to the relationship between husband and wife, Hank’s emotional distress about his accident, and the façade of masculinity that Hank must maintain as he appears emotionless to anyone but his wife. Killing Eve is the first time I’ve had such a strong reaction to a singular scene since. The opening of episode one sees a woman sat in a café she smiles at a young girl eating ice cream at the next table. The girl remains stony faced but returns a grin when the barista smiles at her. Seeing this the woman imitates the barista’s beam and the girl respond in suit. Then the woman gets up, pays, and whilst leaving casually tips the ice cream into the girl’s lap. It is a masterfully choreographed scene. Wordlessly the ruthless and witty tone of the show has been established. We know this woman, who turns out to be our Villanelle, both lacks empathy and can perfect imitating it. On a micro-scale we also get to see the sinister relish with which our antagonist will commit her crimes. The following episodes live up to this artistry which results in a lithe script, a show that assumes its audience’s intelligence and that has fun whilst doing it.
As well as just being impeccably well-made I think the key to Killing Eve’s success is that it fills a space in the television library that has not been filled yet. It is surprising. This is perhaps the hardest thing a TV show can be given the sheer and continuous volume of programming available to us. The spy-thriller is a very well-trod genre. Ingrained into the cultural psyche, we know what we are looking out for. Instead of being aloof, the glamour and danger of spy films have become as comfortable and innocuous. Killing Eve deploys these conventions. We have the intertitles flashing up to tell us which one of the numerous European cities we are in. We have the glamourous clothes. We have the theatrical violence. Yet it also subverts these tropes. It plays them with a knowing nod. A large part of this comes from the reverting of gender roles. In a typically male genre we see two female leads and their dynamic is what makes the show so captivating. Killing Eve works with femininity with a light hand and wry eye and this exploration makes for fascinating viewing. I particularly enjoyed this in the portrayal of Eve. We first see her screaming in her sleep, her husband desperately trying to wake her. We assume something terrible is happening but in fact it is just that she has cramp in her arms. This tonal tension keeps us on edge as a viewer; it surprises us. Eve is successful and her husband is a good man. The humour in her workplace is also entertaining, if slightly strange to see in an MI5 office. Yet this is exactly the point. In combining these domestic dullities with the larger spy plot we are disarmed and left more open to all the emotions that Waller-Bridge wants us to feel. Eve is a normal person, she is happy and successful but slightly bored and this investigation is allowing her to work her brain at a new level. She would not be out of place in any other Waller-Bridge piece and possesses the complexities, likeability and psychological realism that this brings. In later episodes, some of the plot surrounding the chase becomes a little baggy but the strength of the characters more than makes up for this.
Killing Eve is a gem and has definitely earned the buzz it has received. You would be foolish to miss out on this one.