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Two of the best series of 2018 so far are both about assassins. And yet, both quirky, tonally undefinable series are extremely thoughtful in how they portray that world. In HBO’s Barry, Bill Hader plays a hitman who aspires to something more. He finds his soul, and yet, can’t yet break out of the game. In BBC America’s Killing Eve, Sandra Oh’s intelligence officer becomes intertwined with the creative assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer), but the show challenges us (alongside Eve) to confront our own tendency to become obsessed with her.
What’s clear in both series is that the work that Barry and Villanelle do in contract killing is not glamorous. Barry treats it like a job, one he thinks that he initially can separate himself from. He has a talent, and he’s getting paid to use it, but other than that he doesn’t think it defines who he is. As the series has entered its final episodes, though, the job is overlapping more and more with his new-found personal life. It’s accidental, in some ways, but when Barry has to make a terrible choice to kill someone close to him, he’s not able to block it out like he used to. Hader has played Barry with a charming awkwardness, but what’s even more effective are the fantasies that Barry has about leading a normal life — grocery shopping, grilling, dating someone — and how that’s juxtaposed with the life he actually leads (lonely and full of death). It makes us feel compassion for a person who does truly horrible things. Dammit we like Barry.
Villanelle is a little different. She’s exceptionally theatrical and drapes herself in the luxuries that her high-paying job affords. Her early kills tended to be men, and she enacted them with such flourish that there was an art to it. That’s what catches Eve’s eye to begin with, as well as ours. But when Villanelle lures and kills a beloved character in a brutal way, it snaps everything back into focus both for viewers and for Eve. What are we thinking?
And yet, thanks to Comer’s mesmerizingly weird (and wonderful) performance, Villanelle draws our interest beyond what she does. We’re interested in who she is. When she steals Eve’s suitcase and replaces all of her clothes with perfectly tailored high-end merchandise, Eve can’t help but try some of it on and look at herself in a different way. She tries on the La Villanelle perfume and breaths it in deeply. She’s hesitantly enamored with it and with the way she feels in these clothes that were given … why? In some kind of weird kinship? (Villanelle had written on the card inside “Sorry baby” — a reference to a particular killing). But later, Villanelle takes that dress and puts it on another victim who was close to Eve, and it’s a reminder that “playing” with Villanelle always has a cost. It’s not a fun, sexy game — Eve is engaging with a woman who loves watching the life drain from her victim’s eyes, and has no remorse for her actions. And yet there is something there, in Villanelle’s own obsession with Eve, that makes her human. It’s something we’re desperate to cling to, to justify our interest in her in the same way Eve does.
Over the course of Barry’s first season, we see our de facto hero having to come to terms with what he’s doing, and the implications of his work. The same is true for Eve and the cost of her hunt for Villanelle, as well as in the way it challenges viewers to consider our own potential fetishization of Villanelle’s lifestyle. Barry just wants to get out of the game (and we want him to succeed), while Eve was desperate to get into it (which is also perfectly understandable). Those journeys are in may ways parallel from a viewer perspective — both series make it easy for us to love its killers, and then relish in reminding us how horrible what they do really is. It’s an intensely interesting experience.
Both Barry and Killing Eve make us fascinated by, and even feel compassion for, contract killers in a way that is often more heartbreaking than titillating (this will become increasingly true for Killing Eve as the season continues to progress). Both series completely subvert our expectations about who these characters are and what they ultimately want. They’re fascinating not because they are killers, but because of who they are outside of that, which is purposefully well-defined. We’re meant to get drawn in, shocked, and then drawn in again in increasingly emotional ways. When Barry and Villanelle’s individual personalities start bleeding over into what should be dead-eyed work, the complications are exceptionally compelling. That’s the peculiar alchemy that both series have stumbled onto, via vastly different paths, that makes them — and their strangely likable but never absolved killers — so wonderful.
HBO’s Barry and BBC America’s Killing Eve both air on Sunday nights.