Culture

Film & Television

The beguiling ‘Killing Eve’

By Craig Mathieson
Phoebe Waller-Bridge short-circuits the espionage thriller

For impact, scripted television often turns to the unsettling, giving us cold-hearted antiheroes or monstrous antagonists whose actions render them not only scary, but also distant and unknowable. In Killing Eve, the new British drama streaming on ABC iview, the opposite is true. Throughout this jangled, beguiling series about an intelligence analyst tracking a rogue assassin, the unsettling moments have a shocking intimacy. Dying breaths are studied with professorial curiosity, cruel necessities are embraced with childish insouciance, and impossible desires burn with genuine yearning. Here, the inexplicable is always personal.

The crucial creative voice belongs to the English writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge. In her breakthrough series, 2016’s Fleabag, which she created and starred in, the then 30-year-old turned the observational comedy inside out with the title character, a Londoner in emotional freefall, whose neuroses and selfishness seep into the very storytelling. While she’s not among the cast of Killing Eve, in adapting Luke Jennings’ Villanelle spy novels, Waller-Bridge has now turned her attentions to short-circuiting a different and unlikely genre: the espionage thriller.

The narrative of Killing Eve sweeps from one end of Europe to another, staffed by multiple nations’ security services and their foes, but the focus is two women. The mysterious Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a prolific young contract killer who goes unobserved by her targets until it is too late. Her work is distinctive, bloodily creative to the point of irreverence and conducted at close range. It’s what puts her on the radar of Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh), a deskbound MI5 officer who organises security details. “I’m just a fan,” Eve admits to Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), the head of MI6’s Russian desk, when Villanelle is escalated from theory to target.

Eve’s admiration for Villanelle is the first sign that their connection is more than merely professional, and throughout Killing Eve the familiar contours of the spook tale – the all-knowing computer networks, the anodyne safe houses, and the coolly evaluative spymasters – are undercut by everyday realities. “Lunch swap” suggests Eve’s superior and friend, Bill Pargrave (David Haig), so they trade containers of leftovers as they debate Villanelle. In Waller-Bridge’s worldview, minor daily chores and social quirks are as important as professional expertise, so that each character is established as a readily recognisable individual, whatever their role.

The show doesn’t mock the genre, it personalises it. The first time an undercover Villanelle inadvertently encounters Eve in a hospital bathroom, she impetuously offers hairdo advice: “Wear it down.” In a traditionally male environment, the duo are drawn to each other. Villanelle sleeps with both men and women, but only falls in love with the latter. She flirts with Eve in her own excessive way, using Eve’s name while on a job in Berlin and then stealing her suitcase when Eve arrives to investigate. Villanelle eventually returns the case, having restocked it with expensive brands.

Villanelle’s desire for Eve, who is married to maths teacher Niko (Owen McDonnell), is typical of the way Killing Eve circumvents expectations. Instead of two steely professional women proving themselves, for both Eve and Villanelle, work often intrudes on emotional matters, and vice versa. Encounters between the pair happen in the privacy of their residences, with Villanelle at one point going from home invader to self-invited dinner guest; to reassure the terrified Eve she lets her hold onto a kitchen knife. Their interaction ratchets up the show’s central query, which is not if will Eve find Villanelle, but what she will do when she does.

The extent to which Villanelle represents freedom or risk to Eve is exacerbated by the fact that she is a psychopath. She looks at the world as a playground, and has a terrifying relationship with her Russian handler, Konstantin Vasiliev (Kim Bodnia), that is a mix of familial affection and barbed threats – even the crime syndicate that directs Villanelle worries about her stability, sending her for a psychological assessment. When she dispatches a victim, the camera always stays with her, as she studies the dying person like a scientist with a promising new slide.

The violence has a gruesomeness that often results in black humour. Villanelle does unbelievable things, but Waller-Bridge’s writing both adds to her legend and illuminates her. “Do you like music?” a hopeful boyfriend asks Villanelle. “I like national anthems,” she zestfully declares, and within the context of her unpredictability that actually makes perfect sense. Comer is remarkably good at betraying when Villanelle is performing the role she thinks is expected of her in any given situation, while never obscuring the trauma that has got her to this point. In Waller-Bridge’s world your best and your worst aren’t at opposite ends of a moral spectrum, they’re intertwined.

The direction is visually unobtrusive, but it captures crucial shifts in tone. The series can playfully pivot from workplace comedy to bloody thriller, or covert procedural to domestic melodrama, and whatever turn it takes it remains connected to the back and forth between the characters. Whatever you think the genre is, the storytelling approaches it from an unexpected but clarifying perspective. Terrific moments abound: when a pivotal professional situation reaches breaking point, the character involved snaps “Could you just not give me a hard time? Just for a minute?” The moment is absolutely recognisable and ordinary. Then they have to explain why they betrayed their country.

The demand for a second season, which has already been commissioned, means that this first batch of eight episodes can’t definitively conclude, but they stay true to the peculiar dynamic – inspirational, sexual, and possessive – between Villanelle and Eve. Killing Eve so thoroughly subverts the espionage genre that it deserves a category of its very own. It’s daring, compelling, and above all original. There hasn’t been a better new show this year.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

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