“Her hair is dark blonde, maybe honey? It was tied back. She was slim, about 25, 26. She had very delicate features … her eyes are sort of cat-like. Wide, but alert. Her lips are full, she has a long neck, high cheekbones. Her skin is smooth and bright … she had a lost look in her eye, that was both direct and also chilling. She’s totally focused, yet almost entirely inaccessible.”
That would be the glamours, mysterious, and completely unhinged international assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), being described by desk-bound MI5 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), who has become obsessed with her. Villanelle is obsessed with Eve, too, and their cat-and-mouse game is really more like two cats circling each other on the European stage. BBC America’s new series, Killing Eve, comes from Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and is based loosely on Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novels. It refreshingly puts women in positions usually reserved for men, or at least, where one man would normally be involved. In many ways it’s like a gender-swapped version of the Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham dynamic from Hannibal, where obsession, sexual desire, and death all swirl together into one deliciously complicated mess.
There is nothing messy about Killing Eve, though, which is a gloriously fun series that delights in romping across the world (as giant title cards announce: Paris! Berlin! Bletcham!) chronicling bloody murders in Villanelle’s gleeful wake. Jodie Comer is stunning, seductive, and unpredictable as the assassin with a strong penchant for both humor and the dramatic. Villanelle is exceptionally good at her job, as she takes on new assignments from her father-figure handler Konstantin (Kim Bosnia), but what makes her so fascinating to watch is that she’s never robotic. She’s a psychopath, sure, but she’s also strange, playful, and astonishingly sincere.
While Villanelle gets beautiful clothes and exotic locations to frolic in, Eve is mostly stuck behind a desk in London — at least to start. But Eve is also exceptionally good at her job, fiercely intelligent, and also has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. Like any good detective-hunts-killer relationship, Eve and Villanelle mirror each other’s best and worst traits. Here, they’re both focused, charming, and selfish, with a flair for the creative and an appreciation for one another’s talents. Like Comer, Oh makes Eve an easy object of obsession.
There’s also something important to note about Villanelle’s kills which are mostly, though not exclusively, of powerful men. Though women are often the victims in crime dramas, here the tables are again turned. Villanelle is not choosing her targets, but she does delight in killing them in creative ways — often by means of castration or similar acts. It’s an important thread that glides through the plot without ever needing to call attention to itself. Gender is important here, as is sex. Yet while Villanelle and the series are both very seductive, they are rarely overt. Villanelle uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants (or to try), knowing it’s an easy currency to barter, even though she never (or very rarely) has the intention of follow-through. The real thrills come instead as Eve and Villanelle sniff each other’s clothes and fantasize about the other and become increasingly embroiled. As Eve’s sweet husband aptly admonishes her late in the season when he’s finally tired of being scared for her, “You’re not saving the world honey bunch, you get off on sniffing out a psycho!” There’s a sexual tension that is both acknowledged and swept away in a number of different ways among various characters, and it gives the series an unexpectedly potent drive.
Where Killing Eve really succeeds, though, is in making the story bigger than Eve and Villanelle. If it was just about these two brilliant women hunting each other, there would likely be a clear ending and nowhere to go beyond that. But crucially, as Eve and Villanelle continue to encounter one another, they become part of a much larger conspiracy that suggests they may not actually be on opposing sides. The shadowy organizations they ultimately work for might be more closely connected than expected, and it’s something both women begin to uncover in their own way as the season continues.
BBC America made 7 out of the eventual 8 episodes available to critics, along with a preview of the finale. Nothing feels like it’s going to be neatly wrapped up, though, and that’s a good thing. The time we spend with Villanelle and Eve goes by far too quickly, and the show’s exceptional cast (including Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Fiona Shaw, David Haig, and Owen McDonnell) all add wonderful layers to the story that give Villanelle’s killing sprees real stakes, especially as Eve gets closer to discovering who she is. Killing Eve is a spy story, a murder mystery, a spellbinding character drama, and a gloriously wicked comedy. It all comes together to make one of the year’s most delightful and captivating series that will hopefully play on for many seasons to come (Serendipitously, the series was renewed for Season 2 just before this review published).
Killing Eve premieres Sunday, April 8th on BBC America.