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‘Killing Eve’ Review: Sandra Oh Slays in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killer Cat-and-Mouse Thriller

The "Fleabag" creator pens a clever reversal of the male-dominated cops and killers genre, with women starring — and flourishing — as the hunters and the hunted.

Killing Eve Season 1 Sandra Oh

Nick Briggs

You’ve seen a hundred shows like “Killing Eve,” and yet you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Using the same structure, same character types, and same motivational twists as the male-centric thrillers dominating spy stories for decades, the new BBC America series can, at times, feel overly familiar. When Sandra Oh’s MI5 agent swears personal vengeance against a mysterious assassin known as Villanelle (Jodie Comer), it’s a bit on the nose. We’ve heard too many men say her line — “I want to kill her with my bare hands” — for it to shake us… and yet, Oh does just that. It’s her conviction, enthusiasm, and all-around excitement over being there, in that moment, that elevates the scene beyond a platitude.

Any marked familiarities aren’t part of the problem, theyre part of the point. “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge wholeheartedly embraces the clichés of her chosen genre in order to call attention to the fact women rarely get to play both roles in the cat-and-mouse game, and in doing so, she celebrates the opportunity she has (and every other woman in the production) to do just that. Women star in “Killing Eve,” women wrote it (though it’s based on novellas by Luke Jennings), and women produced it. (They did not direct it, however, which seems like an odd oversight given how female-focused the project is overall.) It’s not just using feminism as a talking point; it’s ingrained in the narrative’s DNA.

Meet Villanelle Assassin — she is not given a last name, and thus she has been assigned one that fits her personality. Introduced by mocking a small child before tipping ice cream onto the little girl’s lap, Villanelle is an expert killer who’s so good at her job she’s getting bored. And people are starting to notice. It’s not so much that the quality of her work is slipping, but that the flourishes she adds for her own amusement have some worried about her mental health — and what she might do next.

Killing Eve Season 1 Jodie Comer

Trying to prevent whatever that may be is Eve Polastri (Oh), a desk-bound MI5 officer who’s also a bit bored. Or she could just be infatuated with a theory she has about a case she’s only connected to by her boss’ boss, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Eve is happily married and working a solid job for national security. When we first meet her, she’s recovering from a night on the town with her coworkers that left a bit of a hangover for her and a bit more of one for her department head, Bill (David Haig).

But when a Russian politician gets assassinated, Eve is responsible for securing bodyguard duty, and the wheels in her long-dormant investigative mind start turning. Before long, she’s got her own task force charged with catching Villanelle (even though they don’t know her name or anything real about her), and the chase is on.

“Killing Eve” is very much an “our turn” kind of tale, but that’s not the only reason it works. Waller-Bridge subverts expectations with her personal style as well as her empowering statement. There’s a hard cut in the first five minutes of the pilot that should have fans rolling on the floor laughing, and it sets a precedent for what’s to come: wit and speed in charming combinations.

Killing Eve Season 1 Sandra Oh Bill Pargrave

Oh takes especially well to the writer’s methodology. She’s always been a convincing physical performer, imbuing her characters with a casual quality that bonafide movie stars have to deliver, but then adding poise and clarity to scenes that require absolute stillness. She elevates the details of the script through detailed character work of her own. One episode incorporates a “Face/Off”-esque wraparound pan that circles Oh’s face as she describes Villanelle. It’s a slow build to a punchline that doubles as a hint to how well Eve knows her prey, and it’s all captured in a tight close-up that doesn’t allow any room for movement. Yet Oh builds and builds to that ending with her expressive eyes and informed elocution. She draws you into Eve, making her feel real in order to raise the stakes of the human drama.

Comer’s Villanelle is a little less accessible. She’s quickly established as dangerous and the performance itself is technically impressive. (She gets the details right, too.) But there’s a distance to this psychopath that isn’t resolved through six episodes. She only feels authentic as a threat to Eve, not as a standalone person unto herself.  Other than boredom, it’s unclear what makes this killer keep going.

That being said, the preservation of Villanelle’s mystery may be essential to “Killing Eve’s” future. As an ongoing series, it’s unclear how long the chase can sustain itself until the title’s promise is fulfilled, one way or another. Perhaps Villanelle will outlast Eve — or simply move on to someone else’s story in future seasons — and that’s why the audience is made to wait longer to feel connected. Villanelle may even be a commentary unto herself: Rarely do we question why men are paid to kill (or get bored with it), so why are we reliant on an emotional reading of this female assassin?

That could be a stretch, but the point is simply that Waller-Bridge’s series is so precise, it’s hard to doubt her calculated character building isn’t leading somewhere even more significant. “Killing Eve” is a helluva good time, it’s already more interesting than many of its genre peers, and the first season illustrates a self-awareness essential for its survival. The show may follow a formula, but there’s nothing routine about it.

Grade: B+

“Killing Eve” Season 1 premieres Sunday, April 8 at 8 p.m. ET. The first episode is streaming for free right now.

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