‘Killing Eve’ totally slays spy game cliches

  • TV
  • Friday, 30 Aug 2019

‘Eve, Eve, I hate to see you go, but ... the title IS Killing Eve after all.’ Photos: Handout

You've probably heard this, but please don’t stop me: Shadowy organisation recruits beautiful woman, trains her as an assassin, and sets her loose on unfortunate targets around the world.

From Black Widow and Red Sparrow to La Femme Nikita and Anna, the theme (as popular entertainment) has been done to death and surely, could do with some time on the shelf.

No chance of that, after British author Luke Jennings unleashed his anti-heroine Villanelle on the world – first as a series of e-novellas from 2014 to 2016, compiled into a 2018 novel with a sequel published this year.

The Villanelle books – starring a vicious individual distilled from the formula described above – are the basis for Killing Eve, which is anything but formulaic.

Two seasons in, and I have to admit that this BBC America show made me gasp, laugh out loud and recoil at numerous points during my catch-up marathon for this review.

It is, at its core, a complex and quite tangled story about the relationship that develops between Villanelle (a mesmerising Jodie Comer) and Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the MI5 agent (subsequently drafted into MI6) who is tracking her.

No easy feat, because Villanelle has been trained to slip in and out of murder scenes like a ghost.

Still, she has some “tells” that the sharp analyst Eve picks up on and obsessively pieces together the identity of this phantom.

Just as Eve becomes totally absorbed in the search for Villanelle, the killer also becomes fascinated by this determined hunter – and not just because of “her amazing hair”.

Their mutual obsession draws in Villanelle’s handler Constantin (Kim Bodnia) and MI6 Russia section boss Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), and also becomes hazardous to the people around Eve: Her MI5 pal Bill Pargrave (David Haig) and her teacher husband Niko (Owen McDonnell), to name just two.

Killing Eve
‘I suppose this would be a bad time to mention that one of my favourite films is Miller’s Crossing.’ Photos: Handout

It does not take too long for Eve and Villanelle to appear on each other’s radar, and the roles of cat and mouse change hands between them more than once (sometimes it’s cat and cat, and even mouse and mouse, in as charming a way as a series about a homicidal nutjob can muster).

Oddly enough, the one relationship I kept being reminded of – especially during the second season – was that of Batman and the Joker.

Not that Eve is anything like the Dark Knight; rather, because of the way their antagonistic relationship brings out the ways in which they resemble and also complement one another.

And, though the killings take on a bit of a jokey air (none more so than an uncomfortable hack job one in the Season Two finale), it does not make them any less shocking.

Comer’s adeptness at switching modes from beatific to psychotic (and all stops in between) frequently keeps us off-balance and horrified.

Anytime she’s in a scene with another character, you’ll be mentally taking odds on that unfortunate soul’s projected lifespan.

We are shown early on that Villanelle is volatile and lethally unpredictable, with a penchant for spectacle and showboating.

The latter two may be the traits that set Eve on her trail, but Oh’s measured peeling away of her character’s initial veneer reveals a darker aspect to the agent as well.

In counterpoint to Comer’s flamboyance, Oh keeps a tight rein on her character at first – Eve is smart but feels trapped in a humdrum job and dictated to by a petty bureaucrat.

But she allows Eve’s leash to slip a little each time, making their interactions increasingly fascinating and also a bit frightening.

Killing Eve
How can you tell the kid on the left isn’t one of Eve’s targets? Well for one thing, he’s still alive.

Killing Eve certainly has a lot going for it in addition to the two dynamic leads: Among them, beautiful international locations and convincingly lived-in supporting characters you come to genuinely worry about (and get all heartbroken when some of them snuff it).

Yet it also seems curiously laid back when it comes to revealing anything about the sinister group at the heart of all this globe-spanning murder.

Both this group and MI6 also tend to be quite sloppy when it comes to protecting their assets, to be honest.

All too often, Carolyn and Constantin need to show up after some snafu or another to explain the realities of life to Eve and Villanelle like vexed school principals.

Shaw and Bodnia are always welcome but after some time, their characters start to resemble overused devices for exposition (unless there is a more sinister aspect to them, to be revealed in the already-announced Season Three).

The pacing is a little curious as well, with the focus drifting off at critical points in the seasons (for example, Villanelle’s little detours that kill the momentum of the main plot in the second half of Season Two).

Still, it’s easy to put up with all that.

After all, it’s not often you find a series that so cleverly juggles and up-ends the conventions of the spy game genre.

Or one that makes us look forward to getting repeatedly slapped in the face with a cold fish. Cold, gutted and with its insides all hanging out.

Killing Eve Seasons One and Two are available on BBC Player.

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