Killing Eve is deceitful. The lauded BBC America drama would desperately love viewers to see the show as a humble spy thriller and nothing more. A pulpy Sunday evening adventure to quickly chew through and forget. Or, if they simply must, to think of it as a comment on gender and power – classic fodder for a stylish, critically lauded series.
The show, which was created by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge and stars Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, does contain all those elements, of course. It is essentially a spy thriller, one with an immense amount to say about gender and power. But it is also unconcerned with anything so common or rote as spy thrillers or identity markers or the use and corruption of power. In an age of “peak TV” that is increasingly morally black-and-white – see: Black Mirror’s shallow anti-tech screeds or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s tiresome anti-political correctness leanings – Killing Eve revels in the grey areas of violence, ethics, sex and the malleability of moral codes.
It’s an absolute blast.
An adaptation of the e-book series Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, Killing Eve follows Eve Polastri, played by Oh, a bored but skilled MI5 agent who finds escape from her mundane desk job and increasingly boring marriage by obsessing over gruesome killings –
a neat nod to the huge popularity of true crime podcasts such as My Favorite Murder and The Teacher’s Pet.
When she catches the eye of a high-ranking MI6 agent, Fiona Shaw’s quirky-but-calculating Carolyn Martens, through her astute analysis of a female assassin, Eve is promoted to head an off-the-books operation, tasked with capturing the glamorous, incredibly dangerous hitwoman Villanelle, played by Comer. The high-concept premise makes the show easy to digest, which in turn is what allows Waller-Bridge, season two head writer Emerald Fennell and their cast to so effectively communicate increasingly complex – and unpalatable – ideas.
Killing Eve could easily rest on the praise some might be inclined to give it simply for existing – its leads are two women, one a woman of colour, who openly lust for each other. And while it’s true that television needs more shows starring women and featuring complex and strange queer female characters, Killing Eve, if anything, feels like the natural endpoint of calls for more representative TV. It’s a series about two deeply compromised and complex women who are cognisant of gender, race and sexuality without those factors defining their plotlines. In other words, amid all the murder, spy tech and million-dollar gowns, they feel like real humans.
Killing Eve’s first season was a wonderful scene-setter for the eventual headspin of narrative and emotional chaos of season two. Viewers were initially given dense layers of political intrigue and enthralling, toxic sexual tension between Oh’s and Comer’s characters. Every time the two met, and Villanelle escaped Eve’s clutches, the stakes increased exponentially. By the time Eve finally showed up at Villanelle’s glamorous Paris apartment – and trashed the joint no less, destroying the assassin’s champagne fridge and her $4000 Molly Goddard dresses – it felt as though the show was about to collapse under the weight of its central tension.
That was until we finally got a payoff, of sorts, in the episode’s final minutes, when Eve stabbed Villanelle, a moment of sexually charged adrenaline and fear. Of everything that Killing Eve’s season one finale could have delivered – sex, a fight, an enactment of the show’s title – Eve’s wild act of violence felt the most unlikely.
All of which brings us to season two, a set of eight episodes that reverberates with the impact of that single act of uncontrolled violence.
Eve’s stabbing of Villanelle provides the blueprint for season two. Episode after episode, viewers are presented with cascading violent acts and are forced to reckon with them. Early on, the high-fashion-obsessed Villanelle seeks treatment in a Paris hospital for her stab wound, though refuses to don hospital attire even in her mortally wounded state. Once admitted, she undertakes what she sees as a mercy killing. The act is shown as an abhorrent one. In the next episode, she kills someone in what is portrayed as a necessary act of self-defence. Later in the series, she murders another person whom she was told explicitly not to kill – an act she clearly believes to be justice. It feels simultaneously heroic and untenable.
Why, the show asks, is one murder more acceptable than another? Why should Villanelle be allowed to murder in self-defence? And if she’s killing a “bad” person, why should it matter whether she was asked to or not? These acts of violence from Villanelle are coloured, of course, by a series of increasingly violent turns by Eve; as Villanelle’s moral compass is strengthened, Eve’s weakens. The goal is not to humanise any particular character but to display how slippery concepts such as innocence and guilt really are.
This decision by Waller-Bridge, to present all characters as amoral, is Killing Eve’s most caustic and daring turn. These characters are amoral not in the depraved, outlandish way that they are in, say, the shock comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but in a kind of uneasy, everyday way. Characters initially drawn as good and bad in Killing Eve season one are now presented as equally good or bad as each other. Villanelle is a murderer, without a doubt. But is that really worse, Killing Eve asks, than Eve, who more often than not finds herself making unsavoury or unethical deals in order to further her cases? Is it worse than Shaw’s Carolyn, who, it seems, will willingly manipulate her staff to any degree to get exactly what she wants?
One of the sublime perversions of Killing Eve’s second season is the fact that, by the end, we’re most ably in touch with the psychotic Villanelle – the only character who really has strict ethics, in that everything she does is entirely self-serving. It’s not a particularly strong moral code but at least she stands by it, which is more than can be said of her foils at MI6. When a minor twist snags Eve’s operation in the season two finale, viewers will hear something Villanelle once told Eve ringing in their ears: “I think, if you went high enough, you’d probably find we work for the same people.”
This season, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s involvement in Killing Eve was pared back, because of commitments to her other critically lauded series, Fleabag. But her presence is still felt here – perhaps most in the pitch-black humour, the indelible mark she leaves on both shows. In the same way that Fleabag often couches tragedy or emotional nuance in jokes about bumfucking, Killing Eve uses its James Bond-lite tropes to soften the blow of its nihilistic outlook. But Killing Eve doesn’t rely on flashy devices, such as Fleabag’s recurrent breaking of the fourth wall, to articulate its truths. In fact, if you didn’t already know, it would be hard to pick Waller-Bridge as the connection between these shows – one using outsized violence to speak to its audience; the other, bawdy humour.
But Waller-Bridge clearly understands that in order to convey real truth to your audience, you sometimes have to go to the fringes, where outlandish profanity can ease viewers into something nuanced and powerful. Were Killing Eve free from its glamour, humour and sexual tension, it would probably be an absolute bore. Much in the same way Fleabag’s exploration of grief, trauma and sexuality would seem excessively heavy if not for its guffaw-inducing humour.
I’m sure that many will turn their noses up at Killing Eve – because of its pulpiness, its refusal to lean towards the pure darkness of other modern spy shows. Those who don’t will be rewarded with a twisted delight.
VISUAL ART Dedicated to the Dedicated: Whitlam, the Arts and Democracy
Margaret Whitlam Galleries at the Female Orphan School, Western Sydney University, until July 26
MULTIMEDIA Julie Gough: Tense Past
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until November 3
VISUAL ART Margaret Olley: A Generous Life
GOMA, Brisbane, until October 13
THEATRE The Torrents
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, until June 30
MULTIMEDIA Contemporary Worlds: Indonesia
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, June 21—October 27
CULTURE Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Marks
Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until October 6
DANCE Bangarra: 30 Years of Sixty Five Thousand
Sydney Opera House, until July 13
MULTIMEDIA Body as an Archive: Tracking the Transgender Experience in Tasmania
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until June 29
INSTALLATION This is Not My World
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, until July 6
Jam Factory, Adelaide, until June 16
CIRCUS À Ố Làng Phố
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney, until June 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Moral hygiene". Subscribe here.