More often than not, the role of a villain in the espionage genre, who is as witty as they are terrifying, has been reserved for men. To find a spy thriller that includes not only a female hero but also a female villain that our protagonist must face off against is incredibly rare. It is typical for such features to centre around one man hunting down another – engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse until one finally surrenders to the other. It’s there in Skyfall, in which the plot revolves around James Bond pursuing the fascinating Raoul Silva, who repeatedly leaves the former looking like a fool, and it is present in almost every entry in the Mission Impossible and the Bourne franchises. We think nothing of two men working tirelessly to track the other down in such films, yet we constantly struggle to cast more than one woman in similar features. While there has indeed been a steady rise in the number of fictional female spies, from Lorraine Broughton in the recent, massively stylistic Atomic Blonde, to Dominika Egorova of Red Sparrow, there is still a significant lack of compelling female villains for such characters to stand off against. Granted, in Red Sparrow this is arguably because the film wants to tackle the issue of men in power and the way in which women are so often abused and tossed aside in the male pursuit of dominance within espionage; however, in Atomic Blonde, we easily could have had a female antagonist to serve as Broughton’s foil. Perhaps it is exactly this – the need for a captivating, villainous woman in stories of intelligence webs and assassinations – that has made BBC America’s Killing Eve such a runaway success.
It has been a little over three months since the premiere of Killing Eve and, since then, it has garnered international acclaim, a huge online fanbase, and even secured itself a second season. It has been extremely difficult to escape news of the show unless, of course, you have not logged into Twitter for the past three months, and, personally, I am not planning on complaining about that any time soon. Killing Eve is one of the few television programmes that I have found myself completely unable to tear myself away from in recent months, and is one that has barely left my mind since I began watching it just a few weeks ago. The reason as to why Killing Eve is so immensely popular is, undoubtedly, due to the enthralling characterisations of and chemistry between the show’s two leads: Sandra Oh’s titular Eve Polastri, an MI5 worker whose assignments often find her firmly tied to her desk, and Jodie Comer’s Villanelle, an intelligent, elusive assassin who takes great pleasure and pride in her rather unconventional work.
The ever-changing relationship between Eve and Villanelle is unlike any that we have seen between two women in espionage before. The two are embroiled in a mutual obsession with one another, which is often as rooted in sexual desire as it is in intellectual intrigue. It is , simply put, fascinating to watch. The way in which Eve’s initial fixation with the motivations behind Villanelle’s actions gradually morphs into a fixation with Villanelle herself and with everything she does, from the clothes she wears to the foods she eats. It’s impossible not to be completely drawn into. What could have been a fun, by-the-numbers piece on spies is made into something that we have never seen before – as these two formidable women elevate Killing Eve to a unique study of psychopathy and obsession that offers no easy answers. Each time we think we know where the show is going, Villanelle either shocks us once again with her unpredictability or Eve, usually the more rational of the two, makes a decision that suggests she is becoming more and more like her murderous counterpart as time goes by.
Much of what makes Killing Eve so gripping is down to the performances given by Oh and Comer – in two seemingly opposing roles as the MI5 agent and her target – Eve and Villanelle find themselves in one another, and it’s Comer and Oh that make their compelling, if twisted, kinship so believable. In Villanelle, Comer has crafted one of the most memorable, and most surprisingly likable antagonists in modern television; a witty, enigmatic character who can leave us laughing at her childlike enthusiasm for ‘adventure’ and trembling in fear at her capacity for cruelty in equal measure. Even as she commits yet another calculating act, she somehow still manages to charm us with her penchant for ridiculous costumes and one-liners. Not one person I have spoken to that has watched Killing Eve has left the show without forming a soft spot for Villanelle and this is a credit to Comer’s performance. It’s not often that so many fall so deeply in love with such a destructive ‘villain’ such as she.
As Eve, Oh may not have been given the same sort of outlandish characterisation as Comer’s Villanelle, but she is no less fantastic than her foil. Over eight episodes, Eve’s emotions veer from having an impersonal, if intense, fascination with women that kill, to being thrown headfirst into an all-consuming obsession with Villanelle; one which threatens to destroy not only herself, but everything around her. By the finale, Eve is almost as manic and unpredictable as Villanelle and her behaviour is a far cry from that of the bored, pen-pushing agent that we met at the beginning of the show. Oh is simply excellent at capturing the every thought and feeling of a woman consumed by an obsession that masquerades as a hunt for justice. Oh shines as Eve hurtles along in an “attempt” to prevent an assassin from leaving devastation in her wake, which truly just serves as a way for her to explore her growing desire for chaos. The further Eve follows Villanelle down the rabbit hole, the clearer Oh’s skills as a versatile actress become, as she undergoes transformations that not even she, as Eve, can make sense of. Together, Comer and Oh share some of the most electrifying chemistry in recent television history and the two deserve all of the acclaim that has been lavished upon them for their deeply different, yet sometimes eerily similar, performances.
Killing Eve is not only one of the most wildly unpredictable shows around right now, it’s also a much-needed dive into the stories of women in espionage. It’s a dark, comedic, and downright addictive subversion of the traditional spy study that removes the archetypal, hypermasculine characters of Bond’s ilk and leaves us in awe of two of the most fascinating women in television today. Bold, fresh, and endlessly entertaining, this is the reinvigoration of a tired genre at its finest.