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In a great TV show, there’s usually a moment early on when you realize what you’re watching is special. In Lost, it was the revelatory ending of the adventure drama’s fourth episode, “Walkabout.” In Breaking Bad, it was probably the infamous “plate scene” in the crime series’ third episode.
In the new BBC America spy drama Killing Eve, that moment also comes in its third episode, during a heart-stopping chase scene. Several TV critics have identified the scene—down to the same precise shot—as the one that confirmed what the first two-and-a-half episodes of the show hinted at: This is damn good television.
Killing Eve‘s premise is fairly straightforward: Sandra Oh (best known for her role in medical drama Grey’s Anatomy) plays a British counter-intelligence officer named Eve, who is tasked with tracking down an assassin, known only as “Villanelle” (Jodie Comer), who’s killing people across Europe at an alarming rate. As the two women become aware of each other, they find themselves utterly fascinated, even obsessed, as they engage in a global game of cat and mouse.
Villanelle is a psychopath. She readily admits it. She appears to kill without conscience, relishing in the challenge of taking victims in a more creative way each time. In the first few episodes, we don’t know anything about her background, or who’s commanding her (targets include an Italian mafia boss in Tuscany and an influential Russian politician). But we do know that she likes playing pranks on her handler, Konstantin, and dressing up in strange outfits.
Comer’s performance as Villanelle is one of the best on current TV. It’s a profoundly physical performance, built on subtle facial changes (her blank-expression-to-sinister-smile is a go-to move), eye movements, and posture. Both Comer and Villanelle can speak multiple languages and mimic accents flawlessly. She’s a total enigma and it’s dominates every frame she’s in.
And then there’s Eve, an overworked government worker suddenly thrust into the middle of an international crisis. Though not a killer herself, Eve, too, displays some sociopathic tendencies, especially as she becomes more and more enchanted by the mysterious Villanelle. As an actor, Oh does great, understated work here, making viewers believe that this jaded MI5 agent has darker secrets buried beneath her steely demeanor.
The fact that Killing Eve features two complex female characters in leading roles shouldn’t feel radical, but it unfortunately does, in an industry that too rarely gives women meaty parts. Created by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge and based on the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings, Killing Eve doesn’t much care for your industry norms, and the result is a gripping, funny, and genuinely thought-provoking psychological study of two human beings.
Further subverting TV conventions, it becomes increasingly clear that Eve’s and Villanelle’s infatuation with one another is, at least in part, sexual. When Eve describes Villanelle to a sketch artist, she goes into great detail about her face and body: “Her hair is dark blonde, maybe honey? It was tied back. She was slim, about 25? 26? She had very delicate features. Her eyes are sort of cat-like, wide, but alert. Her lips are full, she has a long neck, high cheekbones. Her skin is smooth and bright. She had a lost look in her eye that was both direct, and also chilling. She’s totally focused, yet almost entirely inaccessible.”
“Uh, so is that like a square face, or an oval face?” the artist replies, in what could easily be heard as a satire of how the television industry pigeonholes women into categories. Autostraddle, an online magazine for queer women, hailed Killing Eve as “your new queer obsession.”
Though few people watched the show’s premiere episode (less than half a million, per Nielsen), audiences are starting to catch on. According to BBC America, Killing Eve is the only ad-supported drama of the last decade to grow its reach consecutively over its first four episodes. The fifth episode airs on Sunday (May 6).