TV: Killing Eve (Season 1)

One of the drawbacks of knowing a genre backwards and forwards is that you can develop blind spots, or worse, close your mind to new possibilities. For me, Killing Eve arrives as a case in point: I thought I knew exactly what I wanted from a spy show, but this one proved my horizons can still be expanded, ticking all the boxes but also introducing new elements I didn’t even know I wanted.

Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is a low-level desk officer for MI-5 in London. When she’s assigned to protect the lone surviving witness to an assassination, her path becomes fatefully entwined with the assassin herself: Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a psychopathic superspy who works for a mysterious international organization. As Eve’s world-spanning investigation progresses, it develops into an unhealthy obsession—and a dangerous one, especially once Villanelle becomes aware of Eve’s pursuit of her and develops a reciprocating obsession of her own.

Briskly paced and suspensefully executed, Killing Eve is first-rate spy fiction, in all the expected ways. It pits a quirky, bookish, ultra-competent hero (Eve) against a glamorous, violent, ultra-competent villain (Villanelle), a faceoff of spy-fi archetypes with Eve cut from the cloth of George Smiley and Villanelle in the Bondian vein. It’s got espiocrats engaging in shifty office politics, episodic missions, a small close-knit team of heroes diving deep into a difficult investigation, globe-trotting action and adventure, and the tried-and-true internal conflict of personal and professional needs vying for dominance in its protagonists’ lives. There’s an inscrutable mastermind (Fiona Shaw), a pompous, posturing British boss from hell (Darren Boyd), a socially awkward computer genius (Sean Delaney), and a hard-nosed, mysterious Russian control officer (Kim Bodnia). Lots of the classic elements, in other words, combined in a colorful, inventive way.

But the show goes on to throw in other unexpected ingredients, leading to a distinctive new flavor. In a genre often dominated by vague characters deployed largely in service to the plot, Killing Eve stands out for its clever, amusing, well delinated people. Oh is terrific as a quirky, slightly out-of-step office hero who commits to punching above her weight on a dangerous assignment. Comer, meanwhile, is dazzling in a breakout performance that uncomfortably mixes intense charisma with sociopathic darkness. The show could have stopped there and been ahead of the game, but the quality extends to every last corner of the roster: Shaw, Boyd, Bodnia, Delaney, Owen McDonell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, David Haig, and on and on. Killing Eve also has style to burn, rife with slick direction, startling shifts in tone, and skillfully deployed, unusual international music, all of which contributes to an utterly distinctive look and feel. There is nothing by-the-numbers about this show’s production values. Yes, the cat-and-mouse showdown between its main characters ultimately has contrived aspects, and the season ends with a somewhat disappointing sequel set-up. But overall this is a thrilling, unique new spy series that I really look forward to tracking.

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