The Front

With “Killing Eve,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge Smashes Every Rule of the Spy Series

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We meet Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the aptly named villain of Killing Eve, in a charming Vienna café in which Wes Anderson would feel right at home. A radiant, glamorous young woman with high cheekbones, long, flowing hair, and giant hazel eyes, Villanelle spoons ice cream into her mouth while staring at a little girl who does the same. She shoots the girl a serene smile, then checks her watch, rubbing out a tiny red spot on the glass of the watch face. Finally, she stands up, gathers her things, and on her way out the door casually tips the half-eaten dish of ice cream onto the girl’s lap.

This is the sinister-sweet opening of Killing Eve, which premieres Sunday on BBC America and has already been renewed for a second season — an auspicious start to a terrifically surprising series. Adapted from Luke Jennings’s novels by British playwright and TV creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve is confounding in the best way, full of the rarest kinds of jolting twists and creative choices — ones that challenge viewers’ assumptions about how a twisty spy thriller is supposed to unfold.

Killing Eve might sound at first like the usual cat and mouse thriller: It centers on Villanelle, a deranged assassin — Russian, of course — working on behalf of a shadowy organization, and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the half-British, American-raised MI5 officer who must track her from London to Paris to Moscow. But don’t expect the leaden pace and sodden tone of other pan-European spy dramas, like 2016’s The Last Panthers or, in its late seasons, Homeland. Instead, Killing Eve zips through its eight episodes like a bullet train, set against a bright, poppy soundtrack and a color palette to match.

Such material too often gets the dark and broody anti-hero treatment. But Waller-Bridge — who created and starred in one of 2016’s best new shows, Fleabag — injects Killing Eve with a healthy dose of humor, and populates the show with singular characters who don’t easily fit into stock roles. The result is a spy thriller with the rhythms of a Shonda Rhimes joint; Fleabag tells a more personal and naturalistic story, about a London woman staving off self-destruction in the wake of her best friend’s death, but with Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge joins the ranks of Armando Iannucci and Simon Pegg — whip-smart writers carrying on the British tradition of mixing blunt violence with wry humor.

At every turn, Waller-Bridge, the series’ lead writer, skirts cliché and confounds expectations. After a string of gruesome murders, Eve seems to intuit what no one else does — that the same person is behind them all, and that person is likely a woman — and so she’s plucked from her paper-pushing job by the head of MI6’s Russia desk, Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), who shares Eve’s hunch. When Carolyn brings her back to a secret office and reveals a pin-studded conspiracy corkboard, Eve remarks, “It’s like I’ve walked into the inside of my brain.”

The investigator with little experience but a lot of instinct is a well-worn type, but the fantastic Oh breathes life into what could be a two-dimensional figure. Eve is smart, but she’s also human, and a little bumbling. She stumbles over her words, and when she shows up late to a meeting — one half of her collar tucked indiscriminately under the neckline of her sweater — she tries unsuccessfully to muffle the noise of the paper bag containing her breakfast. The look on Oh’s face when her supervisor notices anyway is a testament to the actor’s inherent sense of humor, and her ability to ground Eve’s extraordinary circumstances in an emotional reality. As her work plunges her into a sordid world of criminal conspiracy that so enthralled her from afar, Eve must confront the fact that her success puts her in ever more danger — and that she’s in too deep to want to stop.

Villanelle, too, is not your average psycho-killer. On the BBC drama Doctor Foster, Jodie Comer played a young woman having an affair with a much older, married man, and later, on the BBC’s Thirteen, she played a 26-year-old woman rescued from a cellar where she’d been imprisoned for thirteen years. Comer was excellent on both, but on Killing Eve, given room to stretch, she delivers a strikingly convincing performance as a reckless crackpot who’s also a talented killer, and who quickly becomes obsessed with the woman who’s hunting her down. Villanelle dresses like a millennial armed with daddy’s black card; she favors the finer things. When her boss warns her not to go after her next target without his say-so, she pouts, “But this one has asthma. You know I like the breathy ones.”

As on The Americans, the killing on Killing Eve is brutal without being gratuitous; the violence isn’t constant, but it is torturous to watch. Still — and this is not a knock on The Americans, which is a very different show — it’s a pleasure to see a dramatic series that has a freaking sense of humor. Waller-Bridge gives the writers ample license to pepper even the most serious conversations with jokes. Describing the victim of a horrific murder, Carolyn sternly tells her team he was spotted coming out of “an exceptionally good, by the way, sushi restaurant.” When the death is described in detail, Eve can’t stop herself from letting out a “Cool.” A man begging Villanelle for his life offers, “I have a lot of money,” but Villanelle counters that she does, too. “I have children,” he pleads. “I don’t want your children,” she replies.

Killing Eve’s technique is well-thought-through and executed, with daring choices made at each step that accumulate into what feels like the work of a singular vision rather than the product of made-by-committee TV. I particularly dug the super-fast cuts from one scene into the next that function as punch lines, somewhat like those in Lady Bird, of all things. But Killing Eve ultimately turns on the outstanding performances of its two leads. Eve and Villanelle are both such strong characters, and yet it’s almost as if they come from two different shows — one stylized, heightened, and coldly violent, the other drolly down-to-earth, like a goofy workplace comedy. And yet the clash between the two styles — like the clash between these two women, whose obsession with each other carries more than a whiff of sexual tension — is electric.

Killing Eve premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on BBC America.

 

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