There’s no doubt that, for a subset of TV fans, “Killing Eve” is going to be one of their favorite shows of the year. Even with its wobbles and bumps, there’s one crucial element keeping it aloft: “Killing Eve” is attempting something rare, wild and risky. It may not always hit its chosen targets, but it’s usually entertaining to watch it try.
“Killing Eve” joins “Barry” and “Patriot” in the small but thriving subgenre of TV shows that mix espionage, assassin games and deadpan humor. Sandra Oh, tucking into the lead role as if it’s a gourmet meal, plays Eve Polastri, an American expat who works in a boring administrative job at the British spy agency MI-5.
It’s safe to say that “Killing Eve” wouldn’t work nearly as well without Oh’s ability to convey her character’s grounded morality and repressed frustration, as well as her subversive streak and her itchy desire for a more exciting and dangerous life. It’s a complicated role that also requires precise comic timing, and Oh nails every aspect of it. She brings a great deal of energy and skill to the role of a stifled, overlooked woman who finally gets her chance to take on meaningful work.
Eve, who has a nice but bland life with her kind husband, becomes convinced that a string of murders that her bosses think are unrelated are actually the work of a skilled assassin who gets creative with her assignments (no two jobs look alike). Very early on, the viewer learns that Eve is right, because the eight-episode drama’s other main storyline follows Villanelle (Jodie Comer), an experienced killer for hire who lives in Paris but travels all over Europe to carry out hits.
“Killing Eve,” in many ways, is about women who are bored and trying to spice up their lives a little — or a lot. Villanelle is, objectively speaking, a horrible person: She tries to make sure she has time to observe her victims’ deaths, because she likes to watch the light go out of their eyes. She does so with the detached curiosity of a true sociopath, which is one of the things that sets “Killing Eve” apart: Its female protagonists are not judged for their likes, dislikes, ambitions or ability to compartmentalize.
Comer somehow pulls off the neat trick of depicting a cold, relentless killer but making her highly watchable. Her deeds are not glorified, but Villanelle has a frisky, weird joie de vivre that’s hard to resist, and soon enough, her penchant for diversions from the routine elements of her job leads her to Eve, whom she becomes fascinated by. Eve, too, develops a one-track mind when it comes to her quarry.
That all sounds quite grandiose; luckily, the show is anything but. One of the most entertaining aspects of “Killing Eve” is how it continually brings Eve back down to earth in believable, mundane ways (there’s a goofy, suspenseful sequence in a twee English village, and one key clue revolves around Polish slang for breast size). Eve has no special training as a spy or as an intelligence analyst, and she makes a lot of mistakes as she tries to figure out who Villanelle will target next. She also becomes increasingly concerned with how to protect her husband and colleagues (Eve trying to pull off an exfiltration with a wonky GPS is a sight to behold).
In many ways, “Killing Eve” is a wry office comedy, and Eve’s relationships with her bosses are one of the main draws. In Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), she finds a mentor willing to indulge her instincts about the assassin. Shaw is one of those fantastically talented character actors, so common in U.K. productions, who make mixing comedy and drama look easy, and David Haig, a hangdog boss who becomes the beating heart of the show, is another delightful standout.
Sometimes this hybrid’s tonal shifts are jarring, not always in intentional ways, and occasionally there’s a try-hard quality to the attempts at low-key levity, despite the skills of the cast. Now and then, the quirkiness factor is cranked up to a level that’s a bit distracting and contrived. And “Killing Eve’s” dry, acerbic wit won’t work for everyone, but those who love that kind of thing probably won’t be able to get enough of Eve’s increasingly dark adventures.
Oddly enough, it’s easy to find commonalities between “Killing Eve” and “Fleabag,” writer/executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s previous project. They’re both about women who are messy, flawed, and yet still fascinating, in part due to their driven and unapologetic natures. It’s still rare to find a TV show with one woman like that, but “Killing Eve” showcases two.
Eve and Villanelle are very different from each other, but similarly obsessive in their own ways. Villanelle also has a complicated relationship with her boss, Konstantin, a handler skillfully underplayed by Kim Bodnia. Villanelle’s meetings with management often involve knives and guns, and she sometimes hurts bystanders in her attempts to pursue her obsessions. Villanelle may be good at her job, but like Eve, she’s a little bit lost when it comes how to live life as a functioning grown-up.
The show gets its distinct, spiky blend of humor and danger right more of the time as the season progresses, and those who fall for it will be happy to know that a second season has already been commissioned. Eve is a heroine for our modern age: She’s not exactly sure what she wants, but watching her try to figure it out as the stakes get higher and higher is a rewarding ride.
For more on “Killing Eve,” see this story by Variety’s Stewart Clarke.