Television

Killing Eve Makes Murder Dangerously Fun

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC America series tracks the hunt for a gleeful contract killer, but underestimate her, and it, at your peril.

Jodie Comer holds a knife to Sandra Oh’s chest in a still from Killing Eve.
Jodie Comer as Villanelle and Sandra Oh as Eve in Killing Eve.
BBC America

Over the weekend, I binge-watched Killing Eve, BBC America’s new series about an MI5 desk agent hunting a psychopathic contract killer. It was fun. Should it have been? Murder shows, a vast genre that includes series featuring hit men, serial killers, and weekly homicides, can be split into two general camps: the downers and the uppers. The downers are the sort of sober, dark, heavy dramas that, when they work, gut you (the first season of Broadchurch), and when they don’t, are pompous exercises in faux profundity, titillating and lecturing simultaneously (don’t make me list them). The uppers are, by design, more watchable. Think of series that make murder an afterthought, either by glossing over the murder part (lots of network procedurals) or fixating on a killer’s cool competence. These series are ethically tricky. Should murder be easy to watch? Killing Eve is a funny, witty, bright show about a hilarious, soulless maniac who waxes people to pop music. It feels like an upper, but somehow, it didn’t trigger my conscience. How did it do it? Watching, I wanted to crack open its chest and find out.

Sandra Oh stars as Eve Polastri, a bored spy-agency bureaucrat who spends her free time investigating female contract killers. (A brief exchange establishes that Eve was born in the U.K. but raised in Connecticut, allowing her to hold a British government job without Oh having to put on an accent.) When she’s called into a high-level meeting about a recent hit, she’s not trying to solve the crime, just trying to eat a croissant without too much rustling. But after hearing the details of the case, she speculates that the killer must have been a woman—no one else could have gotten so close to the guarded victim without being treated as a threat.

Eve is right, of course. Villanelle (Jodie Comer), as she’s called, is a high-flying murderer, a beautiful young woman with fancy clothes, a Parisian apartment, and lots of disposable income who jaunts around Europe for a job she adores—brutally murdering people. She’s not one of those killers who feigns morality by only offing bad guys. She doesn’t care. She’s a full-on psychopath, exceptionally gifted, completely soulless, and odd-duck hilarious.

After a number of deft, grisly plot turns, Eve is tasked with investigating Villanelle, figuring out who she is and who she works for. Almost as soon as Eve gets this dream job, Villanelle learns that Eve is investigating her. She becomes fascinated with Eve in turn, and the pair engage in a cat-and-mouse game where both play the cat and the mouse, as Eve circles Villanelle and the conspiracy in which she is a player. (I haven’t seen the series finale, but I was getting impossibly complicated Orphan Black–style plot vibes from the shenanigans in the later episodes: Safe money is on being into it for characters and the performances, not the payoff.)

As you may have noticed, both leads are women, an unexpected setup for a murder show. Eve, an overly invested crime solver, has some memorable forbearers, namely Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) and The Fall’s Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), although she’s much more down to earth and approachable than either. But contract killers, as Eve observes, are almost always men, and this is true on TV too. Just by being a woman, Villanelle is a strange and new character. It’s a little too pat to argue that Killing Eve is exceptionally good simply because having women in the lead roles freshens up the genre’s conventions—but I think that’s part of it.

Killing Eve was written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of Amazon’s emotional comedy Fleabag, and her biting, idiosyncratic humor translates extremely well to matters of premeditated homicide. Fleabag was about a woman—played by Waller-Bridge—destructively grieving her best friend’s death. That show was extremely astute about the way that beauty, youth, sex, humor, and femininity can blind people to the reality of a woman’s full, screwed-up personality—including, most especially, the woman herself. Waller-Bridge was incisive about the ways that a measure of self-awareness, even self-hatred, can in fact be a shield for delusion. You tell yourself only so much truth, even about the bad stuff.

Villanelle tells the truth more than most, but the trick of the show is that no one quite believes her, including the audience. The show is like an optical illusion, where you can’t stop seeing what isn’t there, the very fact of Villanelle’s girlishness and the show’s general high energy distorting the perspective, keeping you looking for an emotional payoff that doesn’t exist. Comer, a Brit doing all sorts of accents, is flat-out incredible. She sounds like she’s Fleabag’s deeply deranged relative: rude, funny, awful, naughty. She’s twisted and conscienceless, but she is also irrepressible. She’s a proper psychopath; a little bloodshed isn’t gonna get her down! As written and performed, Villanelle is unsinkable, undeniable, drawing people in, even when they should be running away.

Killing Eve is a story about the literal dangers of underestimating women: of not seeing the woman who can kill you, underestimating the woman who can stop her. But it’s not a simple empowerment tale. The disfigured, beating heart of Killing Eve is the way that Villanelle’s gender and manner, her very femininity, keep our acculturated brains from being appropriately terrified of her. Villanelle is a beautiful woman, and her beauty has its advantages: Her marks are almost universally unsuspicious of her. But Villanelle is no honey pot. She doesn’t kill her marks by seducing them; she slashes, stabs, poisons, shoots. She weaponizes her femininity not through sex but through stereotype. She relies on people reading her, incorrectly, as a harmless woman. There’s an amazing, terrifying sequence in the third episode, where a man searching for Villanelle fearlessly tracks her down in a thumping nightclub. He spots her across the room, and she looks at him and lets loose a bloodcurdling smile, laughing at his misjudgment. He’s the prey, not her, but he’s wandered into her lair, blind to the danger because he thought he was tracking some girl.

Villanelle occasionally has sex with men, but she’s romantically interested in women, and she becomes captivated by Eve. She buys her fancy clothes, she tries to have dinner with her, she murders her acquaintances. Eve is Villanelle’s type—it’s the hair—but perhaps it’s also a certain shared brusqueness, the way that Eve can’t flirt or sweet talk anyone she’s not actually interested in, even if it would be useful. Eve doesn’t have to contend with overt sexism on the job, but men are threatened by her matter-of-factness, her authority, in ways they could plausibly deny. She can’t behave “like a woman,” she can only behave like herself, a woman—and this, if nothing else, she shares with Villanelle.

The reason Killing Eve manages to be fun, without being too ethically squicky, is because it knows what Villanelle is, and it knows how much we don’t want this to be so. The series is never anything but totally honest about how bloodthirsty she is. There are numerous scenes where Villanelle summarily murders someone she only just seemed to be connecting to, and it’s nothing to her, or it’s comedy. There are also sorts of moments where she appears to have feelings, but—spoiler—they are never real. That doesn’t stop the people around her from thinking and hoping otherwise, almost always to their great danger. Killing Eve is an escapist show, but it demands you take your brain with you. Otherwise, you’ll keep getting smacked in the face with your own idiotic assumptions about what a pretty little girl can do.