Killing Eve, the new ‘crime drama’ of BBC America, is this spring/early summer surprise hit. The show follows Eve Polastri (played by Sandra Oh), a security services operative, in her quest to catch a world class assassin known under the name of Villanelle (played by Judie Comer). Their paths end up crossing, and they become obsessed with each other for good and bad reasons. Or in the case of Eve, even more obsessed than she was when Villanelle was just a concept. That’s a very light synopsis, but that’s more or less what you need to know in term of story before getting into Killing Eve.
As you can see, Killing Eve is more of a spy story than a crime drama. Does the show deserve its popularity? Yes it does. Not only because the entire cast is really good, especially Oh and Comer (one of the few unmistakably good things from The White Princess). It’s fun, honest, entertaining, but most importantly it treats its two main characters right. I mean right according to the theme of the show, which is obsession. So, Killing Eve might not treat its two main characters ‘morally’ right, but it treats them appropriately.
And this is really satisfying to watch.
If you are coming to Killing Eve for Villanelle being an awful human being while wearing incredible clothes and being generally hilarious in her awfulness, or you are watching for Eve being a big stubborn mess, then the show is for you. However if you are watching Killing Eve for its spy and political intrigue, you might want to pass.
This is my main complaint about Killing Eve. Villanelle is an assassin working for a powerful ‘criminal organization’ that doesn’t seem to be a mafia. Apparently it is closer to a shadow organization like Spectre in James Bound. What does this organization want? Mystery. Why are they targeting a wide range of different powerful people? Your guess is as good as mine. Where are they getting their seemingly unending influence and money? Not a clue. Who are they? Well, we are given their name but that’s about it.
The first season of Killing Eve doesn’t answer any question about the why of Villanelle’s actions. We are as in the know by episode 8 as we were in episode 1. The only thing we actually learned are about Villanelle herself. Her personal motivation, her desires, how she gained some of her abilities, how she has been recruited… So yes that’s a bit thin for a spy show. Season 2 might develop that, but it is a bit frustrating.
But in a way, I feel that this makes more sense than it appears at first sight. I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many characters constantly remind Eve that Villanelle is not the focus, that the organization is, and that Eve ends up ignoring it. Killing Eve is a show about Eve, the focus of the show is what Eve wants it to be. In my view the spy/intrigue is a pretext for developing the theme of the series through the characters.
What makes Killing Eve genuinely enjoyable is its ambiance. The show takes place in our world, and its actually looks like it’s our world. Yes despite being incredibly stylized Killing Eve is… well for lack of better word, realistic. People have un-classy hobbies. Secondary characters have lives with ups and down. Homes looks like places where people actually live. Sometimes hotel are nice, sometimes they are average, sometimes they are shitty. Characters looks like real people. It’s life and it looks like it even if Villanelle goes around the world murdering people wearing deadly clothes and using fancy weapons (or the opposite, it’s not always clear).
Thanks to this very realistic setting, the dark humor of the show always works. Everyone has their little snarky remark to add at a given moment, but even then, every character is different in their snark. Killing Eve is a really funny show and it is mainly thanks to its tone. Also because Villanelle is hilarious. And everyone ends up developing a very bad case of, “oh my god this is horrible I might as well develop a terrible coping mechanism that makes me turn serious situations into self-depreciating jokes.”
A great example of the show’s tone occurs in a scene where Villanelle just reached her target and he is begging for his life (here the character will be designated by V for victim for anti-spoilery reasons).
V: Please. We can make a deal. I have a lot of money.
Villanelle: So do I.
V: I have children.
Villanelle: I don’t want your children.
V: No… I have children… to take care of.
Villanelle: Oh! (laugh) This will give them something to bond over.
However the humor of the show never transforms it into a comedy. Killing Eve is a drama. If the death caused by Villanelle might have comedic dimensions, they are more hilariously horrible than anything else. The realism of the setting means than outside of Villanelle’s murder spree, death has meaning, weight, and consequences. I am still sad about the death in episode three, although Oh acted her grief brilliantly. (Seriously Oh is incredible in Killing Eve.)
But still, let’s us move to the main course here.
Oh boy I have been spoiled by Killing Eve’s theme. No really. I could not have ask for a theme that fits my tastes better. You see Killing Eve is about obsession and what it can drive you to. And how does it do that? By focusing on the reciprocal sexual/romantic/admiration obsession between an hero and a villain. Eve is obsessed by the idea of Villanelle as this badass lady assassin that only she has managed to track. Villanelle is love-struck by Eve the first time she sees her.
As any good romantic relationship between a hero and a villain, it actually gives us a glimpse of how this relationship might lead to a better outcome for both our characters. It’s less obvious for Eve, but her quest for Villanelle makes her more focused, more ready to stand her ground, etc. For Villanelle, we see a potential way for her out of the professional murder business. We see a more human side who feels and cares. Whereas with her Parisian boyfriend, she is cold and uncaring.
Of course, the show gives you a glimpse of all of that then viciously rips it out of your hand. And I am not complaining. After all, obsession is not a positive thing. Villanelle starts getting sloppy at her jobs, which lands her in considerable trouble (and somehow leads her to make even more morally wrong decisions). Eve puts her personal life, her friends’ lives, and more simply her own physical life in danger to catch Villanelle. Villanelle, not the organization behind her. Just Villanelle the executant.
And even as much as I want to see our main characters interact (in a romantic way if possible, please) I must confess that what Eve’s husband says to her has more than a ring of truth. She is destroying herself. People she loves die because of her. She actively destroys her marriage. The list goes on.
Eve is as much an actor in the killing of Eve than Villanelle is.
And that’s great, because this is a case of a show knowing its theme and how to treat it.
I won’t say more about Killing Eve because more will land us in spoiler territory. I can only advise you to watch Killing Eve. It’s a good show, driven by its theme and characters, yet it doesn’t forget to be cleverly written and entertaining. The cast is good, diverse, and interesting. The female characters are allowed to be different and engaging without being punished for being a woman the ‘wrong way’. It’s funny but thrilling at the same time.
This is a bit of an anomaly on TV I believe. But it’s a good anomaly to see.
All images courtesy of BBC America.