Around episode one of Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s latest TV offering and runaway BBC success …
Nico Polastri jokingly asks his MI5 agent wife how she would kill him if she could. It’s a playful question; a marital attempt to engage with his partner’s work. Sandra Oh’s ‘Eve‘ reclines on her desk chair and looks him dead in the eye in response. ‘I would paralyze you with saxitoxin and suffocate you in your sleep,’ she begins, unmoved by Nico’s near choke at the immediacy of her answer. ‘Chop you into the smallest bits I could manage, boil you down, put you in a blender, then take you to work in a flask and flush you down a restaurant toilet…smart, huh?’ She beams, before throwing a quick ‘love you’ over shoulder as Nico goes to finish making dinner. Somewhere in that exchange is the key to the overwhelming praise Killing Eve has gathered.
In the run-up to this review I spent several days re-watching the eight episodes that season one has to offer. I was trying to figure out what makes it good. More than that, I was trying to figure out why it has enjoyed the success it has; the kind of success which garners not only Emmy nominations and critical acclaim, but which also turns the show into a cultural phenomenon in its own right.
Type ‘Killing Eve‘ into Google and you’ll get everything: Twitter-based LGBTQ fan-bases rife with Sandra Oh react gifs; fashion breakdowns in Vogue; long-form essays on psychopathy and investigative procedure. Compulsive binge-watching is nothing noteworthy anymore, but the satisfaction that recurs in reactions to Killing Eve almost suggests that we’ve been chasing one show to the next in pursuit of some kind of ultimate brilliance, and finally, we’ve found it.
For those uninitiated, Waller-Bridge’s show revolves around subverting a set up familiar to fans of ‘Luther‘ or ‘The Fall‘, whereby the cat-and-mouse relationship between investigator and criminal is used as a site to explore conventional social morals. Eve Polastri is a bored American MI5 worker, assigned to track Villanelle, a Russian assassin who scores high on the psychopathy scale and is played with unflinching commitment by Jodie Comer. Intense though it is, more than anything, Killing Eve is funny— and often in a way that acts as a reflection on the viewer’s own attitudes towards what have become some of the internet’s greatest talking points: #MeToo, the social responsibility of the individual, and LGBTQIA dynamics.
The show’s high points often occur where the social consciousness that is now a part of most of our lives intersects with both womens’ bad behaviour, and aids it rather than preventing it. At one point Villanelle, masquerading as a hotel waitress, follows her mark down into the bathroom in order to kill her. She is stopped by the head waiter, who barks at her as staff for using guest toilets. In response, Villanelle pulls a tampon out of her pocket and watches his tirade whittle down into a stutter. ‘Madame asked me to bring her a tampon,’ she says, smiling. ‘I never go anywhere without one.’
‘Of course, very good,’ he falters, and unwittingly flees, leaving Comer’s assassin to carry out her job.
More explicit is the confrontation between Eve and Nico in episode 6, in which Nico points out the destructive impact Eve’s investigation is having on the people around her, and the risk it poses to her life. ‘I don’t want to be the boring-dick-husband-type; I don’t want to stand between you and what you want to do with your life,’ he tells her. It’s an admirable, ‘woke male feminist’ stance, but one that only encourages Eve’s actions. ‘I think you should shout at me,’ she yells back, and her ensuing speech isn’t dissimilar in feeling to the Twitter threads put out by social justice warriors, whose belief in the responsibility towards perfect morality in the individual is often, for better or worse, blind to the messy nuance of everyday life.
When Eve shouts, ‘she will keep hurting people until I catch her, okay?’, she does so in full knowledge that she is risking her husband and co-workers’ lives in her pursuit— but she emphasises the ‘I’ in that sentence nevertheless, chasing a kind of integrity she fails to live up to in personal life.
Earlier this week, The New York Times released a think-piece from African-American journalist Wesley Morris titled, ‘The Morality Wars’. In it, Morris considers whether art should sacrifice the qualities which make a work creatively good for ones which make it morally so. ‘The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture,’ he writes. ‘We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.’ The rave reviews Killing Eve has gotten tend to emphasise it as a reflection of progressive TV.
In a #MeToo era, it is unabashedly a show for and about women, and easily watchable by anyone in that sense. But to me, it’s something more. It’s gloriously produced, riotously funny entertainment, and an extreme way of revealing the irony in our present reality few of us are willing to admit: for all our efforts to be good, and occasionally even because of them, sometimes we are just…bad.
Review by Jo Hamya
Director(s): Jon East, Damon Thomas, Harry Bradbeer
Writer(s): Pheobe Waller-Bridge, Luke Jennings, Vicky Jones
Cast: Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, David Haig
Air date: Season one now available on BBC iPlayer