The BBC’s Killing Eve is the latest creation of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star and creator of Fleabag. Waller-Bridge crafted an extremely raunchy, funny series that also managed to be an intimate character study of a damaged woman. It was a breath of fresh air amid a TV landscape saturated with men behaving badly.
Now she’s taken her ingenious mind and crafted one of the best cat-and-mouse games I’ve seen in years. Eve dreams of being a spy, but she’s a security officer at MI5 who’s confined to a desk. Meanwhile, an assassin by the name of Villanelle is racking up bodies in Europe and Eve’s superiors are convinced the culprit is a man, though Eve is convinced she is not. She breaks the rules to prove she’s right and what ensues is a twisty spy drama akin to a Bond film—back when they had a sense of humor—that actually plumbs the depths of its female protagonists.
Sandra Oh is Eve and she’s delivering one of the best performances of her career. You’ve seen her blend comedy and drama in Grey’s Anatomy and Sideways. But in this, she feels like a character you’ve never seen before. We’ve all experienced the bumbling-desk-person-falls-into-spy-work comedy, like with Melissa McCarthy in Spy, but Oh is far from inept at her job. She’s skilled yet not impossibly so, and it’s her male superiors who underestimate her gifts. Her drive toward becoming a spy then is natural and makes sense in the world of the show, which also analyzes her marriage and presents the image of a capable Asian woman leading the charge against a mysterious organization.
Not that Villanelle is a bumbler either. She’s a very skilled assassin and it takes real prowess for Eve to hunt her down. Jodie Comer plays one of the spy genre’s most fascinating killers. She is at once bored with the mundane aspects of living a normal life, she’s an adrenaline junkie who loves creating dramatic situations even when she shouldn’t, and she becomes obsessed with the spy hunting her. Villanelle is an exciting rendition of a villain to match an equally exciting protagonist.
Waller-Bridge’s foray into the spy genre is unexpected but it shows that she is adept at hopping from genre to genre. From Fleabag to starring in Solo: A Star Wars Story to her TV debut in Crashing, she has done it all with aplomb. It shouldn’t be surprising: Waller-Bridge has depicted varying shades of womanhood and there is a large audience of women who enjoy spy dramas but rarely see themselves represented as the heroes of these stories. It’s no shock then that Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve is dominated by strong women.
The spy genre usually oozes with machismo and sexuality, though audiences have always been seduced by female characters who exude the skills of James Bond and add depth to the genre. Men and their unlimited sex drives are often centered in these stories, which have scarcely paid attention to women and the real-life developments unique to many of their lives.
It’s why a series like Alias was so revolutionary. The New York Times noted it was one of the first series to embrace motherhood in the spy genre: “Sydney becomes perhaps television's most formidable pregnant character to date: a cunning CIA operative who is likely to slip in and out of Pyongyang between obstetrician appointments; the only agent in her unit whose bulletproof vest requires an expandable waistline; and a marvel of endurance who will add childbirth to a résumé of trials that include being tortured and buried alive. It may not amount to an Ellen or a Murphy Brown moment, but it’s one that says a great deal about what is now permissible on television and during pregnancy.” How could women, for many of whom motherhood is a fact of life, have ever been fully represented in this genre without a recognition of their bodies as more than mere sexual objects? Waller-Bridge builds on that and keeps her heroines messy in the vein of Fleabag to infuse a potential cliche with a verve and pathos you never expected.
Waller-Bridge manages to complicate the female spy genre with two highly competent women attempting to take each other down. Killing Eve is unlike any other spy drama you’ve seen and that’s why it’s so excellent. It does away with the conventions of the genre and makes you believe it was designed for women all along. It’s a quiet revolution.