There’s a sequence at the end of the third episode of BBC America’s Killing Eve where Bill (David Haig), the friend and mentor of Sandra Oh’s intelligence analyst title character, has followed the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) into a Berlin nightclub. We know, from years spent watching and/or reading tales of spies, assassins, and the like, that the odds of Bill coming out of that club alive are not very good, so it shouldn’t be particularly shocking when Villanelle turns the tables on him and shifts from prey to hunter. Yet somehow, the nightclub scene (directed by Jon East from a script by Vicky Jones) is as surprising, and chilling, as anything that’s been on TV this year:
Credit some of the scene’s power to top-notch execution on a production level, like the way the scene slows down when the spotlight falls on Villanelle, so we become trapped in the moment when Bill realizes he’s about to die. But that scene, like so much of this year’s most delightful TV surprise (which just concluded its eight-episode first season), practically defies analysis. Again and again, Killing Eve does things I’ve seen a million times before, in ways I’ve never seen those things done. I come out of each episode feeling like a veteran magician who watches a young upstart perform a routine packed with old tricks, only to respond to each one by asking, “How did she do that?”
And then, more often than not, I shake my head and realize that I don’t want to know. I just want to marvel at the trick.
Name a trope, and Killing Eve‘s got it. Glamorous serial killer whom the show protects on some level because they’re fun to watch? Check. Dogged investigator who has to learn to think like this killer in order to catch them? Check. Murder victims staged in elaborate and/or disgusting fashion? Check. But put the right spin on this material, and it can seem like something new. A few years back, Hannibal, for instance, reinvented many of the same ideas by bending them into a baroque, frequently surreal, always tragic love story.
Killing Eve is also a twisted love story, in a way — at minimum, there’s abundant sexual tension between the ostensibly straight Eve and the sexually fluid Villanelle — but its most startling quality is its sheer playfulness. People are killed, careers are ended, marriages ruined, and the series doesn’t flinch in the slightest from the consequences of all of that, but it simultaneously manages to feel light and breezy, in the same way that Villanelle responds to the carnage she unleashes with a kind of immature joy. A few episodes back, she left a male victim in a pretty dress and castrated him post-mortem, and it came across as… fun? Such a thing shouldn’t seem fun in the slightest. Yet it was, as is so much of the story.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge created the show (based on the series of novels by Luke Jennings), and you would not instantly look at her previous TV work — the terrific, but decidedly small and intimate dramedy Fleabag — as that of someone ideally-suited for a violent, globe-trotting spy thriller. But there’s a clear voice, as well as a mastery of multiple tones at once, that Fleabag very much has in common with Killing Eve. Laughter comes up in the darkest of situations, the most ridiculous moment can somehow seem tragic, and both Eve and Villanelle know themselves and each other so well that the rest of the world can at times cease to matter to them, even as bodies are dropping all around them.