All eight episodes of spy thriller Killing Eve are now available to stream on TVNZ on Demand. Sam Brooks looks back at the series.
After watching just the first episode of Killing Eve, I was all in. A new Phoebe Waller-Bridge show? Check! A new Sandra Oh performance to obsess over? Check it twice, then a third time for a good measure. A spy thriller? I am now drowning in checks, bury me in a box full of check marks. The fact that it was actually good – great, even – seemed to be beside the point.
But now eight spine-cracking episodes down, I’m willing to call Killing Eve not just the best show of the year so far, but the most fascinating and necessary one. No other show this year has managed to stay as true to its genre – the established jump-scares, kinked grapevine twists and ‘who are you working for?’ interrogations that every thriller needs to have – while using that same genre to comment on gender and society, and how the two intersect.
Because while Killing Eve is an effective spy thriller (think LeCarre, if Le Carre had a sense of humour that matched his generally bleak assessment of the human race) it’s an even better love story. Not a love story in the traditional sense – this is no Mr. and Mrs. Smith – but in a more primal sense. It’s about two women who deeply desire each other, and each other’s place in the world, in ways they don’t understand.
On one end, we’ve got Eve (Sandra Oh). When we meet her, she’s a fairly unexceptional MI5 security officer but all that changes when the perfume-ad gorgeous assassin Villanelle comes into her life. Eve turns into the spy that she always could have been; her keen perception become the key to her success, her dark humour the duct tape that keeps her psyche together. Eve’s relationship with her husband starts to falter, and in one explosive scene, the entire premise of the show seems to shift. For the first time, we see Eve as capable not only of violence but also the same unpredictability that makes Villanelle, her target – and, possibly, her real soulmate – so effective at her job.
And she is terrifyingly effective at her job. While Oh is the core and the hook of Killing Eve, Jodie Comer’s performance as the unexpectedly joyful hitwoman is what keeps you guessing. The one misstep the season makes, and then smartly recovers from, is giving Villanelle an unnecessary backstory – Comer’s wide-eyed glee is all we need to keep us invested in the character. It would’ve been easy for Waller-Bridge to turn Villanelle into a classic sexpot assassin (see: Red Sparrow) but the character is more complex than that. Whenever Villanelle turns to her femininity to gain an edge on an opponent, it’s never through her sexuality; it’s through cunning, emotional manipulation or using her target’s assumptions against them – to deadly effect.
It’s a twisted courtship. Eve’s priority isn’t stopping Villanelle’s seemingly unrelated chain of murders; she wants to find out what drives her, to learn about what makes her tick. As the series goes on, Eve’s pursuit of Villanelle seems less like a professional obligation and more an expression of twisted romantic jealousy. After all, what is love if not trying to find someone to fill the gaps in our own life?
When Villanelle sends her a dress, Eve puts it on and watches herself in the mirror. She comes closer to Villanelle not just by wearing her gift, but by becoming a little bit more like her. In fact, the most explosive and shocking moment of the whole season is Eve lashing out at her milquetoast husband when he derides her job. Eve has been caustic and dismissive to her husband before, but this time she lashes out violently, and Oh plays Eve’s adrenaline-soaked shock for all its worth.
Eve has a lot of almost-misses with Villanelle, who toys with Eve consistently: she steals her luggage, sends her fancy perfume and dresses, and even gets into her house with ease. Whenever Eve catches up to Villanelle, the latter has the opportunity to kill her, and she just… doesn’t. While Eve is obsessed with chasing Villanelle, Villanelle seems fascinated and curious about Eve; she has the upper hand from the word go, but it seems like her Achilles heel is Eve. If she got rid of Eve, a lot of her problems would be solved. But she doesn’t. She needs to keep Eve alive, because Eve is the one person who keeps her guessing.
It’s harder to see how Villanelle moves closer to Eve, and it doesn’t happen right up until the final episode of the season, which sets up a Gloria-esque buddy comedy for half an hour. Then we see the deadpan wit that has been Eve’s territory come up in Villanelle, and even see momentary flashes of compassion in the previously almost inhumanely invincible assassin. Their love story is less a physical one, more two people coming closer together in a philosophical and emotional sense – and how dangerous and exciting that is for them both.
The show expertly builds up the world around the pair – theatre legend Fiona Shaw as Eve’s gin-dry boss Carolyn is a particular highlight, and surely ripe for more screentime in season two – but it wisely strips that world away for the last scene of the season. I can’t think of another show that has been brave enough to hold off on its best scene until the last episode of a season, let alone its very last scene, and I can’t think of one that has planted enough seeds and laid enough traps for it to be a worthwhile payoff. But Killing Eve manages to do it.
It’s a scene that pays off the show’s investment in these characters and the inner lives of two women who are constantly pitted against a world that places limitations on them, their ability and their ambitions. There’s no manipulation. There’s no threat of death. There are just two women who have stepped over literal dead bodies to arrive at this moment.
For all the bad things they’ve done – Villanelle has murdered a few people, and Eve’s blunders have lead to some of those very same deaths – there’s a clear respect they have for each other, a respect that nobody else in the world has given them. Both Oh and Comer play the scene with the tentativeness of two friends who have accidentally slept together and now have to navigate the morning after. Vilanelle even says it straight up, “You like me too much.” It’s a doomed love, a doomed obsession, but for the moment we’re seeing them at their most pure and honest.
And then, at the very last moment, everything changes.
If Killing Eve ended at that eighth episode, we would’ve been privy to one of the best one-season wonders TV has given us in years. One season of seeing these two intricately drawn and articulately written women move closer together – falling in love with each other, their place in society and their lives – would’ve been enough. But, thankfully, the show was renewed for a second season before this one even started, and the last episode doesn’t so much wipe the board clean as it throws the pieces up in the air, ready to start a new, more complex game.
Season one of Killing Eve was chess. God knows what game season two will be, but I’m more than ready for it.
You can watch Killing Eve on TVNZ on Demand right here.
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