From the opening moments of Killing Eve, when we watched beautiful, stylish and mysterious assassin Villanelle knock an adorable little girl’s ice cream sundae all over her for no good reason, we could tell we were in for a wickedly funny take on the basic spy thriller. If the dark humor wasn’t enough, the intense focus on the psyches of two very different women certainly upped the ante by adding a worthy twist to a fairly well-trod bit of genre ground.
Jamie Comer is great fun as the sexy, playful and reckless assassin, and she gives you more than a handful of reasons to root for her downfall, but she’s got an opposite number in this story who tends to muddy the thematic waters a little. Sandra Oh stars as the titular Eve, a desk-bound agent with the beating heart of a field agent and an encyclopedic knowledge of Villanelle’s work. That obsession propels her from desk to the blood-drenched center of the story as she confronts the reality of her conspiracy theories and the befuddlement of the people around her, who either underestimate her or dismiss her. Looking at the surfaces, you wouldn’t think these women had much in common, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote and performed the brilliant, hilarious, and tremendously unsettling Fleabag last year, has applied her considerable skills at plumbing the depths to both of these women, dredging up the parts of them the viewer may not have wanted to consider.
Both women have dark impulses (one more clearly than the other – for now), and both of them seem bored and frustrated, especially by the men in their lives. In Eve’s first scene with her husband (and her first scene, period) she screams in pain over and over again to his extreme consternation, only to reveal that she merely fell asleep on her arms. In Villanelle’s first scene with her handler, she stages a scenario to convince him that she’s killed herself. You sense in both women a need to push buttons or play out their frustrations in ways that seem like teasing, but have a tinge of anger, if not hatred to them. “I’m so bored I’ll play dead/play-act pain in order to upset the most important person in my life.”
With Villanelle, it’s perfectly easy to see the darkness of her character. If the profession didn’t make it clear or the rather eyeroll-worthy pun of her name wasn’t enough to drive the point home, the intensely cruel, brutal and dismissive way she killed that Italian politician, leaving his grandson to find the results of her work, left no doubts where she sits on the darkness/light continuum.
But Eve Polastri is a woman perfectly suited for the kind of character work at which Phoebe Waller-Bridge excels. She lightly peppered the first episode with just enough glimpses inside Eve’s mind as to make her far more intriguing than her outwardly likeable, occasionally hilarious personality reveals. When Eve’s husband jokingly asks her if he should be jealous of the attention she’s paying to a teenager, she rather gleefully suggests that he should never stop being jealous of her. When asked about her marriage, she can’t even get the words “He’s nice” out of her mouth without revealing how little that means to her. When her husband (again, jokingly but kind of not really) asks how she’d kill him, she instantly responds with a well-planned but brutally nauseating method that she has obviously spent some time considering. She takes a knife to herself and draws blood after exclaiming “Cool!” at hearing the method of Villanelle’s latest hit (slicing a man’s femoral artery without him knowing it for a full minute). She collects information on killings with the obsession of a good agent but also of someone who seems to be something of a fan of murder. And she can be fairly reckless with other people when she’s caught up in her conspiracy theories. It was only mentioned in passing that the teenage Polish translator she brought to the hospital was picked up by his parents, who thought he was at a bridge game. We found ourselves dying to see that confrontation. Instead, we got a confrontation with her asshole blowhard of a boss, who promptly fired her. This is a clever bit of misdirection, because we think he’s the jerk here and that she’s wrongfully been blamed for the massacre that happened, but the truly wrong and monstrous part of her actions (dragging a teenager unwittingly into a murder investigation she’s not even supposed to be waging) never even gets discussed. This is not a mistake, we think.
The show, for now, is taking an extremely light approach to Eve’s darkness, pun unintended. No one is mouth agape at her antics, openly pointing them out to her or to us. In the way of these things, it seems the people around Eve haven’t yet noticed that she’s a woman slowly being swallowed by darkness. And we don’t think the subtlety of this notion or the hidden depths of the character could be so obliquely portrayed without an extremely skilled actress playing her. Sandra Oh doesn’t always get enough credit for the precision of her acting. She’s got a Streepian quality to her work; like she put the time in on building her and now she’s fully inhabiting this woman; living her down to her fingertips. She plays Eve as somewhat likeably relatable and slightly goofy, but there’s a hardness at her core. And right now, the only person who seems to see it is the mysterious agent Carolyn Martens, played with icy perfection by Fiona Shaw.
It’s a great setup for that ol’ standby, the Cat-and-Mouse game. What makes it so intriguing for us – aside from how much fun it is to watch Comer and Oh bring Waller-Bridge’s words to life – is the clear implication not only that these two women are more alike than we know (which is, to be fair, something of a cliche), but that each of them may wind up drawing something opposite out of the other one. Eve is clearly primed to be seduced by Villanelle’s darkness, but it’ll be interesting to see how this bored and reckless assassin will respond to Eve’s obsession with her.
And if we haven’t made it clear yet, this first episode was tremendously fun to watch; possibly our favorite inaugural episode of any series in the last few years. Looking forward to seeing where this one takes us.