last updated: 8 November 2018 (approximate reading time: 7 minutes; 1346 words)
Villanelle is good at her job and she takes pride in her work. She has been trained to perform the tasks that are required of her and she keeps herself physically fit to do perform at her best. She is paid well and likes spending the money she has earned. She lives in the city she wants to live in, Paris, where she has a cool apartment and ready access to many boutiques selling the designer clothes she loves.
Villanelle is an assassin.
First, watch the trailer and then I’ll talk about the show:
You can find Killing Eve on iPlayer in the UK or BBC America.
What’s the Story?
The central thread of Killing Eve is fairly straightforward.
Villanelle is an international assassin. Eve is a member of British intelligence who is trying to identify and track down this killer.
Villanelle—while continuing to perform the tasks that are required of her as an assassin—becomes aware of, and increasingly obsessed with, the woman who is chasing her.
In essence, it’s a game of cat-and-mouse—the only question is: who is the cat and who is the mouse?
Killing as Art
So there’s a game of cat-and-mouse, but Villanelle first comes to Eve’s attention because of the killing. And this is where things get interesting… This is where we get to the character of Villanelle who is played by Jodie Comer.
Villanelle is a killer with no sense of guilt, indeed, she takes pride in a her work and she enjoys watching people die. She likes the theater and the drama of killing.
Each killing is different. Sometimes she uses physical violence (stabbing, shooting, or running over with a vehicle), and at other times she is more subtle, for instance, by using a poisoned scent. However, for almost every killing Villanelle is close to the victim and is often still talking with them as they die.
To call Villanelle an assassin is true, but it implies a narrowness to her character in terms of the story. She is a chameleon-like character, able to change and fit into any situation such that she can reach her target without arousing any suspicion. But the character is incredibly complex—she is subtle and humorous while still being deadly and yet shows a child-like naivety that somehow still works when she adopts a level of high sophistication. Written like that, it seems a mess, but on the screen it works.
Sympathy for the Monster
Villanelle is, of course, a monster. A literal cold-blooded killer. But as the viewer, we warm to her.
In part, we feel sympathy because we see her as a child (although she is an adult). It’s also hard not to warm to someone who undertakes their job and lives their life with such relish and humor. But there is also an extents to which there is disconnection between her and her tasks—she is simply carrying out orders (for pay) having been, effectively, forced into the role of an assassin. Without pushing it too far, to an extent, Villanelle is a victim, and so it is harder to totally damn her—as a viewer, we’re always hoping for the redemption.
We also feel sympathy because she is so alone. Given her profession, relationships are difficult and she has no family. The closest to a father-figure is her handler, Konstantin Vasiliev (played by Kim Bodnia who played Martin Rohde in the Bridge).
As with every child, Villanelle seeks her father figure’s approval but she also pushes against the rules he sets for her.
The counterpoint to Villanelle is Eve (the Eve in the title) who is played by Sandra Oh.
Eve is everything that Villanelle is not. She is an adult who behaves as an adult should and takes responsibility. She has a stable home life with a loving husband. Her home is small and poky—not the airy Parisienne apartment of Villanelle, and she takes no significant interest in her appearance.
Eve works for a government department that has noticed a pattern of suspicious killings and is working to identify and then track down the killer.
Beyond Eve, there is also the counterpoint to our normal expectations as a viewer. The threat isn’t some dark sinister man wearing black. The threat—the very real possibility of death for Eve, for those around Eve, and for Villanelle’s assigned victims—comes from a child-like adult who often wears pink and goofs about.
Both of the two lead characters are interested in the other. When I say interested, in many ways we’re talking about something that comes closer to obsession.
Eve’s interest in Villanelle is the easier emotion to understand. She has a professional interest—she wants to stop the killing and she believes that she is the only person who can stop her.
Eve digs and follows leads. Her approach is both to follow leads and to try to understand Villanelle’s background in order to understand why she is making the choices she is making.
When the stakes are so high—people are dying—it’s easy to understand Eve’s obsession.
I find Villanelle’s interest in Eve harder to believe. I also find it less compelling dramatically. The genesis of the idea is understandable—Villanelle wants to know more about the person that is a threat to her—and I understand how this drives the story, but in practice, I’m not convinced by her actions.
I think I’m less convinced, in part, because this obsession is less interesting. Villanelle is compelling when she is being strong and funny, not when she is vulnerable (actually vulnerable, rather than playing at vulnerable).
Killing Eve is based on Codename Villanelle, a collection of novellas by Luke Jennings. I’ll come clean… I haven’t read the books.
The source material was adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, best known as the writer/performer of Fleabag which was a very different kind of show.
Waller-Bridge brings a sharp, witty, fast-paced, and sparkling script. In the blackness, there is much humor, and there is a strong thread of silliness—much coming from Villanelle’s child-like behavior. There’s also a strong self-awareness to the writing.
I think this element of silliness and self-awareness is something of a litmus test. If these turn you off, you’ll hate the show, but otherwise you’ll love it. This silliness and self-awareness is apparent from the first scene, so you don’t have to watch much to decide whether this is for you.
And you do need to be ready to suspend some disbelief. I’ve already mentioned the silliness, but there’s another hurdle.
The story, as with many stories, is in essence a chain of situations where each situation/plot point is amusing or engaging. The central thread, however, sometimes gets lost where some of the situations become implausible. It all seems good as it goes along, but when you pause and ponder, some of the story starts to unravel. But as long as you can focus on the fast moving action, you’ll be fine and this shouldn’t be too much of a distraction.
The writing is good, but it is Comer and Oh who make this work—all of the actors are pitch perfect, but these two take the show to a different level. I wonder whether the show would be anywhere near as good without these two.
Of the two, Comer is the far more engaging as Villanelle, but then Villanelle is the far more enjoyable character. While Villanelle is more engaging—and Comer seems to have great fun with the part—Oh has to work much harder to counter the fundamental imbalance between the two characters.
The denouement felt—to me—very much like an open loop for series two. The denouement was plausible, but I felt it was somewhat unsatisfying as a conclusion to the story.
The denouement is swift and if it leads to a second series, I won’t complain too much.
If you haven’t seen Killing Eve, then I recommend you check it out without delay. Watch it for the supreme acting and watch it for the great script. But most of all, watch it because it’s a fun watch.