BBC TV review: Killing Eve (spoiler-free)
James R | On 15, Sep 2018
“You’re brilliant. Just don’t tell them everything, or you’ll sound like a nutter.” That’s the advice given to Eve (Sandra Oh) early on in Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s twistedly brilliant and brilliantly twisted new series. Part serial killer thriller and part buddy comedy, it’s one of the best shows of the year.
Based on the ebooks and later novella by British author Luke Jennnings, the series introduces us to Villanelle (Jodie Comer), an assassin with a penchant for disguise, silk drapes and watching the last vestiges of life seep from her victims’ eyes. As her body count begins to rise around the world, though, it catches the eye of Eve, an MI5 operative with a penchant for serial killers. When her theory about Villanelle begins to border on the fanatic, and the interviewing of a possible witness goes awry, she’s fired from her job – but fortunately, an off-the-books branch of the secret service is keen to make use of her particular taste in homicides.
And so the stage is set for two unstoppable, opposing forces to cross paths. A serial killer and an obsessive cop chasing them? It sounds right out of the TV and film rulebook, but Killing Eve’s exciting edge comes from precisely how it ignores the rulebook altogether. It’s baked right into the show’s DNA by the way it places two women at its centre, a welcome change to a genre that has long been dominated by men and male preoccupations. Where they would normally hang their dour shoulders in their brooding study of dead (often female) victims, Killing Eve’s leading stars race through their collision course; this is Ocean’s Eight meets Hannibal, a Hitchcockian thriller that’s literally about people underestimating women. Even after others have come to realise that Eve’s belief that their suspect could be female is correct, Eve doesn’t spot Villanelle at first – an electrifying encounter that plays out all the more suspensefully in its uneventful mundanity. Eve, though, is also overlooked, proving herself resilient and smart enough to be Villanelle’s match.
The film is fuelled by the fiercely good performances at its core. Sandra Oh, whose talent needs no introduction to fans of Grey’s Anatomy, is simply wonderful in her complexity. She’s intelligent, but awkward with it, the kind of person who can spot a pattern but stumble over social niceties – a jumble of tics that makes her something of an outsider, in a way that’s echoed by her position as an American in London. She’s in a humdrum marriage to Niko (Owen McDonnell), but in a way that doesn’t dominate her identity or her storyline; he’s just there in the background, seeming to accept that she’s doing something she wants to do and is good at. Where some might play the role of gawky genius with a prickly seriousness, Oh refreshingly plays her entirely open with a compellingly expressive face.
She’s the perfect opposite to Villanelle, who is calm and composed to a fault. But Jodie Comer injects her femme fatale with so many more layers than that; her uncanny ability to mimic emotions (an early scene with a child and some ice cream is a laugh-out-loud treat) means she can switch between funny and scary in the same scene, while never being less than magnetic. She’s cold, but not in a way that lacks warmth – the fun lies in trying to work out which slivers of warmth are real, particularly when she interacts with her handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia). After her role as kidnapped Ivy Moxam in BBC Three’s Thirteen, and as a frustrated daughter in Doctor Foster, this star-making performance is a 180-degree revelation, a tour de force that’s precise down to the smallest physical minutiae – Villanelle never walks through a room; she floats or stalks. Then she admires someone’s interior decor before stabbing them to death.
These two rounded protagonists are playfully brought to the screen by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose fantastic Fleabag managed the similar feat of juggling seemingly disparate tones seamlessly. Here, her inspired move is penning a plot that’s driven by the characters, and because they don’t behave as conventions dictate (they’re too real for that), the whole thing is constantly surprising. This is an action-packed, shocking series where people are more likely to have dinner together than a shootout – reheated Shepherd’s Pie has never been so exciting – and where the emotional side of obsession isn’t ignored, whether it takes the form of sexually charged fatal attraction or sisterly fashion tips. Even the stereotypical present sent to the dedicated detective through the post – usually some kind of severed limb – is an actual gift. One stand-out sequence sees Villanelle walking across a field (“BLETCHAM” the titles proclaim in large letters, as if it’s Vienna or Berlin), gun in hand, and you genuinely have no idea who she’s about to shoot, when she’ll shoot them or why.
Waller-Bridge’s dark humour is injected everywhere, but never at the expense of character, and that extends to the supporting ensemble too. David Haig is marvellous as Eve’s colleague, Bill, who grows to respect her as his eventual boss, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste brings comic relief as assistant Elena. Part of Killing Eve’s charm is the way it finds time to explore the nuances of workplace dynamics; Eve has to balance her dream job with the pressure of managing a team, the always-excellent Darren Boyd balances pathos and a love of brown sauce as Frank, the middle-management employee everyone hates, while Fiona Shaw steals scenes as chief agent Carolyn, an imperious figure who can see (and nurture) Eve’s talents through that bumbling facade – and occasionally drops in an anecdote about an oversized rat with a drinks can for good measure.
Slickly directed by Harry Bradbeer and Jon East (and edited with a gleefully abrupt attitude), the result is a combination of relentlessly paced laughs and thrills that will keep you hooked with each bold cliffhanger. Part Thelma and Louise and part Michael Mann’s Heat, it’s a cat and mouse caper with the slapstick ingenuity of Tom & Jerry and pin-sharp dialogue. (“That one had asthma,” complains Villanelle of one victim. “You know I don’t like the breathy ones.”) It’s dark, violent, and endlessly witty – an addictively unpredictable television that’s an absolute blast to binge. The BBC clearly knows it: while it airs weekly on BBC One, Killing Eve will be released all-at-once by BBC Three through BBC iPlayer, where it will swiftly become your new favourite box set. Be warned: Once you start watching, your weekend will disappear before you even notice. But don’t worry: You’ll be talking about it with your friends for months.
Killing Eve is available on BBC iPlayer until 31st August 2022.