Has any actress this side of American Horror Story reveled so completely in fabulous absurdity as Jodie Comer does in Killing Eve? As the globe-trotting assassin Villanelle, Comer, a longtime minor player in British TV, broke out in the BBC America cultural phenom, in part by getting us to laugh at her character’s hilarious viciousness. In her very first scene, Villanelle smiles at a little girl at a café, only to vigorously toss the child’s ice cream in her lap on her way out the door. She follows up that violent prank with prankish violence: stabbing a target in the eye with a fancy hairpin, cutting off another victim’s penis after the kill to make the murder look worse than it was, and—my favorite—launching a head of cabbage at an opponent’s breasts during a Russian prison fight. Such scenes underscore what a near-impossible role Villanelle is, how crucial her brazen flair is to the series’ unique feminist camp, and most all, how immensely overdue Comer is for greater recognition.
Killing Eve revived co-star Sandra Oh’s prospects as a leading actress by reminding fans and the industry of her cult-icon status (undoubtedly bolstered by her decade on Grey’s Anatomy as Cristina Yang, the character series creator Shonda Rhimes says she most identified with). Oh spoke openly and movingly on the Killing Eve press tour about her struggles as a woman of color in Hollywood, then made history with her Emmy nomination (as the first actress of Asian descent to nab a leading nomination in a dramatic series) and her second Golden Globe win (as the first actress of Asian descent to win multiple Globes). Her reemergence was one of the bona fide feel-good Hollywood stories of 2018—but it also perhaps cast a too-long shadow over her just-as-deserving co-star, who has yet to attract any notice from America’s major awards organizations.
As the titular character in Killing Eve, Oh plays a frumpy everydork who might be a distant cousin of Melissa McCarthy’s protagonist in Spy—a bored, chronically overlooked woman tired of not living up to her potential. If Eve is our frayed tether to reality, Villanelle embodies the entitled, otherworldly glamour of both being in her line of work and taking pride in it. One of the wellsprings of Eve’s inappropriate but obvious admiration for her target is Villanelle’s self-regard, professional and otherwise. When the hired gun sits in front of the mirror in the pilot, she can’t help uttering, “Wow. Beautiful,” at her reflection. Comer makes such florid narcissism wildly funny, her performance best representing the show’s mischievous hamminess. The breeziness she brings to Villanelle’s sociopathy is as essential to the show’s impish charm as Eve being the kind of slob to loudly munch on a croissant at a work meeting in front of her professional heroine. If Killing Eve allows Oh to humanize the trope of the no-nonsense female detective, it gives Comer the opportunity to remake the wisecracking black hat into a wrongdoer meaner and pettier than we think female villains should be, especially when it comes to the welfare of children.
Comer certainly has the showier role of the twosome. In addition to providing the bulk of the show’s humor, she has to be physically believable as an unstoppable killing machine, look amazing in an array of clothes (both glamorous and not), speak in a variety of languages (French, Italian) and accents (British, Russian), simultaneously embody frothiness and menace, seduce everyone in sight, play the vixen and the prey as part of Villanelle’s repertoire, and retain a sense of mystery and vulnerability while the writers flesh out a nothingburger of a backstory. It feels like a preposterously unachievable juggling act, but here’s Comer pulling it off with brio, becoming that most unexpected of figures: someone we laugh with, but who remains unknowable.
Comer’s eyes flicker with a lifetime of emotions when Villanelle watches her victims die, her fascination and bemusement always giving way to a chronic disappointment that there isn’t anything more she can glean from her morbid voyeurism. And perhaps even more than in her sticky-sweet pas de deux with Oh, there’s something sorrowful yet hopeful about her unpredictable tangoes with Kim Bodnia, who plays her original handler, Konstantin. Villanelle can’t decide whether she wants to be teacher’s pet or class clown, and as a result, their scenes brim with tension between a one-sided performative flirtiness and imminent betrayal. Comer’s lakelike eyes reveal Villanelle’s desperate desire for true connection, even if she might not be capable of it. Even more poignant are the moments when they freeze into an empty blackness, deciding once again that connection will have to wait.
But what lingers most about Comer’s performance is her ability to give layers to Villanelle’s petulance. Her grins betray pride in her work and in her own fiendishness, blending her callous coltishness with a midcareer self-assurance. Comer somehow makes her character’s refusal to think about the ramifications of her actions compelling, the blanks in her thought process as willful as the hard-won erasure of her humble origins. Villanelle has convinced herself that she’s remade herself anew, but Comer shows us through minute shifts in expression the gaps where a real identity would shine through, even as Villanelle spackles over those spots with attitude and pink tulle. In a performance built on defiant outlandishness, Comer anchors us with Villanelle’s high regard for, and strenuous denial of, herself. Those large eyes assess everything but their own hollowness.