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.
Waller-Bridge (who wrote the exciting, at times operatic, season finale) also found two perfect actors to channel her obsessive, emotionally-opposite leads. There’s often a frazzled quality to the roles Sandra Oh plays, but that nature is particularly suited to her playing this walking mess of a woman, who pushes the Villanelle investigation much farther than anyone wants her to, both because she knows she can catch her and because she has become utterly fascinated by her. (In last week’s episode, Eve’s duplicitous boss Carolyn, played with great dry humor by Fiona Shaw, complains that she’s not interested in how Villanelle became a killer — to which Eve loudly responds, “Well, I am!”) Comer’s more of an unknown quality around here, which is to the benefit of a character who’s such a mysterious chameleon, but her performance and the scripts essentially turn Villanelle into an overgrown child — a well-coiffed, sexually aggressive child, to be sure, but someone who ultimately relates to the world emotionally the way a little girl would. She’s often happiest playing dress-up (a poofy pink gown, or a fake beard to copycat her handler Konstantin), and she spends much of the finale in the company of the tween girl she’s kidnapped, which is the first time she’s been around someone at her maturity level. (In time, the girl proves to be more mature than Villanelle, and suffers more as a result.)
That childlike quality is a big part of how the magic trick works. Again, Villanelle is a monster who does terrible things both to those who deserve it (a mob boss she’s hired to kill) and those who don’t (Bill, or the husband of a woman with whom Villanelle had fallen in love). And where Hannibal had a style that was so outre that its world felt more like a fantasy realm than Westeros does, allowing the crimes of both protagonists to be more easily forgiven due to their abundant charisma, Killing Eve is trying to take place in something resembling the real world. So this should all feel like self-indulgent Awesome Serial Killers Are Awesome nonsense. But Villanelle’s innocent demeanor, despite the many crimes of which she’s guilty, heightens the show’s reality juuuuust enough to let the viewer become as much of a Villanelle fan as Eve is (and vice versa).
It also helps that the dialogue by Waller-Bridge and others is so sharp and caustic. In the finale, Villanelle’s juvenile companion asks her if it’s hard to be bad. “Not if you practice,” the assassin replies. Later, Eve runs down a list of all the people and things she’s lost as the result of her obsession with this woman and this case. “Yeah, but you got some really nice clothes out of it, so…” shrugs the ever fashion-conscious Villanelle.
Yet when the show needs an emotional moment to crash down on one of the characters and/or us, it always lands with force. The penultimate episode has Konstantin (Kim Bodnia) coming home to find Villanelle waiting for him, and his strangled gasp speaks volumes about how much danger he instantly recognizes that both he and his loved ones are in. And the finale’s big confrontation between the two leads is as twisted and sad and, yes, funny, as the audience had hoped for.
There may come a point where this particular trick stops working, however Waller-Bridge and company have managed to pull it off across these eight episodes. But this season was so surprising, so entertaining, and so full of life that I don’t want to worry about the how or when at the moment. I just want to give the magician a long and loud round of applause.