Though it’s only April, 2018 has already been a good year for people who love spy dramas. Between the final season of The Americans and the premiere of the excellent sci-fi espionage series Counterpart, those who get a kick out of clandestine storytelling have plenty to keep them entertained. BBC America is ready to get in on the action with the assassination thriller Killing Eve, starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, as a bored MI5 security agent and an international hitwoman, who enter into a rousing game of cat and mouse after the latter gets a little too cocky with showing off her particular set of skills.
The series is a smart return to genre television for BBC America, which has primarily been known as a way for North Americans to get their Doctor Who fix. However, the network made a splash in 2013 with the sci-fi sisterhood drama Orphan Black. The critically acclaimed series earned its star Tatiana Maslany an Emmy for her work and put BBC America on the map as a destination for original TV programming that put a much-needed emphasis on women in genre storytelling. While Killing Eve eschews the H.G. Wells-like science-fiction of Orphan Black for something more akin to Robert Ludlum meets John le Carré, the shift in genre is refreshing and already feels like the next big thing to come from the network.
If you weren’t already planning to check the new series out this on April 8, here’s why you should be amending your plans.
Killing Eve Delivers A Great Twist On The Usual Spy Formula
Killing Eve is a spy drama through and through, bringing in plenty of familiar tropes of the genre, like hopping from one international locale to another. But while it aims to have fun moving from London to Berlin to Paris to Italy and even Bulgaria in its first few episodes, the series isn’t really interested in replaying the greatest hits of popular films, books, or television series. Instead, it’s as much about the bureaucratic drudgery of governmental office work and the marginalized voices of women in a typically male-dominated workplace, as it is about traipsing all over Europe in search of a psychopathic killer with excellent taste in hairpins.
In that regard, Killing Eve has more in common with Zero Dark Thirty than it does The Bourne Identity or James Bond. Like Jessica Chastain’s Maya, Oh’s Eve is constantly fighting to be heard and for her ideas to not be brushed aside by men unwilling to look past their own prejudices and admit she’s probably on to something. Both women fill roles traditionally given to men, an element that goes beyond Eve and Villanelle’s respective professions and creeps into their personal lives as well. Eve is happy in her marriage but nevertheless unfulfilled. Stability creates discontent. She craves adventure and excitement and is willing to lie to her husband when an opportunity to have what she desires practically falls in her lap.
The series plays with that idea in interesting ways, all while delivering a dual narrative that’s also centered on Comer’s Villanelle, a highly trained assassin and, by all accounts, psychopath who takes great pleasure in her profession. Not only does Villanelle flip the script on the typical international assassin, but she does so by becoming a dangerously alluring and entertaining character who is not only engaging to watch, but threatens to earn the audience’s support by virtue of her irrepressible enthusiasm and Comer’s captivating performance.
Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer Make the Series Work
Killing Eve owes a great deal to both Oh and Comer’s ability to command the screen and hold the audience’s attention while their respective characters are flying solo, teasing out the inevitable cat-and-mouse game that will drive the series and the characters’ mutual desires.
In some respects, Oh has the more difficult job as Eve Polastri, an undervalued MI5 security operative who lives an otherwise comfortably suburban and relatively unremarkable life. Oh is tasked with conveying Eve’s boredom, frustration, and eagerness — sometimes in the same scene — and how those emotions sometimes translate into Eve willfully putting herself and others in harm’s way. It’s a fascinatingly complex performance that sees her move with seemingly reckless abandon one moment and surprise (often at her own actions) the next in a way that is both funny and vexing.
The more prosaic aspects of Eve’s daily life are in stark contrast to Villanelle, a character who is at times so outlandish she may as well be in another show. But the dichotomy between the ordinary and the unusual is part of what makes Killing Eve so much fun to watch. There’s a sense of relatable drudgery in Eve’s desire to escape her workaday life, and that is balanced out by the exaggerated elements brought to life by a psychotic killer for hire and her misbegotten adventures.
For her part, Comer (The White Princess) seems poised to be the series’ breakout star. The show has a charming supporting cast that includes Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Barry), and David Haig (Penny Dreadful), but at the end of the day it’s really about Oh and Comer. The differences in their performances and what each actor has to carry in terms of setting up and moving the plot forward is drastic at times, and Comer comes to the role with a certain effervescence that belies the fact her character (gleefully) kills people for a living.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Writing Is Funny and Thrilling
Adapted from the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, Killing Eve is mostly written and executive produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who, in addition to acting in films like Albert Nobbs, The Iron Lady, Goodbye Christopher Robin, and the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, has also created, written, and starred in her own television series Crashing and the acclaimed Fleabag on Amazon.
Oddly, it’s the latter that Killing Eve most resembles, as it blends dark comedy with sometimes darker drama and still comes away with something that’s astonishingly fast-paced and fun to watch. Disenchanted office workers turned spies and international assassins with a penchant for theatricality usually wouldn’t aim to be humorous unless the idea was to poke fun at the genre. But Waller-Bridge has crafted a series that is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also a top-notch espionage thriller with real stakes for its characters. The result is a series that avoids the ponderousness of similarly themed shows and delivers a genuinely exciting series.
All of that translates into one of the best new shows on TV in 2018; one overseen by an extraordinarily talented writer, and a pair of phenomenal lead roles.
Killing Eve premieres Sunday, April 8 @8pm on BBC America.