Before the conclusion of Killing Eve’s killer first season, the killer in question finds herself in a pickle. Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the wunderkind assassin of Luke Jennings’ novels, and in turn Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s demented, blackly comic thriller, has gotten herself locked up in a Russian prison to snuff out a potential snitch (and former lover), but before she can escape, she must spend a night in “solitary confinement” with a near-catatonic inmate named Inga. (“My understanding of solitary confinement is that it is solitary,” Villanelle quips to a guard as she enters the cell.) It’s here that Comer whirs into action: Hulllooo, Ingahhh, she says, twisting the line into the willful child’s grudging greeting. Sticking her hands in her pockets, she surveys the situation; she paces to and fro, whines that “it’s not even worth trying,” then suddenly smirks—she has an idea. She leans over Inga, bringing her face this close to her cellmate’s, and sniffs, with perfect, Russian-accented petulance, “You smell of cabbage.”
Comer has the round, watery eyes and button nose of a cartoon candy-striper, or teacher’s pet: Were Killing Eve not crammed full of Villanelle’s rococo murders (using poison-tipped hairpins, toxic perfumes, prison shivs), you’d scarcely be surprised if she tried to sell you cookies. This, of course, is much of the fun, and Waller-Bridge signals her interest in the juxtaposition from the start of the pilot. The series begins in a Vienna ice cream shop, as Villanelle stares down a small child—and then, imitating the shop clerk, forces a smile. Her one moment of genuine glee comes as she departs, and knocks the girl’s ice cream into her lap. In Comer’s hands, Villanelle is the maestra of childish chaos, of puckish tricks, cunning pranks, peals of mischievous laughter. “If you can’t play alone, you’ll have to play with your little brothers and sisters,” her handler and father figure, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), clucks near midseason, during a pastel-palette Parisian “birthday party” to which she goes in costume as him: She might be Jo March, or Scout Finch, if Laurie and Dill had called them “small-breasted psychos.”
This playfulness—Waller-Bridge’s straight-up refusal to succumb to the dread seriousness of the “prestige” drama—is Killing Eve’s first hook: Alongside Sandra Oh’s exquisite deadpan, as Villanelle’s pursuer/prey, Eve Polastri, Comer’s elastic expression becomes the active ingredient in a cat-and-mouse Abbott and Costello routine so entertaining that the series’ questionable plotting begins to seem a moot point. But it’s also, I see now, central to Killing Eve’s thematic substructure, which, as Oh herself suggested to Paste, turns not on the mechanics of female friendship, but on the roles women are expected, or allowed, to fill: “Eve’s dissatisfaction,” as The Ringer’s Alison Herman writes, “feels connected to the same self-destructive urge that led Fleabag’s antiheroine to blow up her life… [S]he wants something more, whether or not that something is manifestly immoral and possibly going to kill her.” To press Herman’s argument further, Killing Eve isn’t about friendship, exactly; nor is it quite about obsession (though Eve and Villanelle become obsessed with each other), or kinship (though the series is run through with familial connections both fictive and real), or even sex (though there is something seductively illicit about the main characters’ mutual fascination). It is, fundamentally, about Villanelle, or at least Eve’s impression of her: She is the enfant terrible, the spendthrift, the rule-breaker, that practical Eve could never, would never, be. Until she is.
In this sense, though the series’ title departs from the Villanelle novels, and Oh anchors the high drama in the heretofore mundane life of a likably unpolished everywoman, it’s Comer’s (show-stopping, star-making, Emmy-worthy) performance that propels both characters forward: Without Comer to lean so convincingly into the assassin’s puerile excesses, Eve’s attraction to Villanelle—to Villanelle’s lack of responsibilities, her freedom to fool around, to fuck shit up—might read as merely professional, or primarily sexual, when it’s far more compelling that it’s neither, or both. Because Comer, following her character’s example, looks like she’s having a ball: In the first episode alone she gets to pat her face white with talcum powder, lounge around the house with a bottle of vodka, play dead for Konstantin, eat farm-fresh bruschetta on a Tuscan lane, hide herself in a suitcase, commit murder, and return home with an expensive Italian silk. Who wouldn’t be envious? In the exaggerated, slyly funny universe of Killing Eve, Villanelle has it all.
Unlike Oh and the terrific Fiona Shaw, as Eve’s dry—practically Saharan—MI6 supervisor, Carolyn, Comer manages this without much recourse to clever one-liners: There’s something of the silent film star, the vaudevillian, in her irrepressible mugging, around which the series’ most arresting aesthetic choices are constructed. During Villanelle’s psychological assessment in the second episode, for instance—in which she sports a frilly pink frock, as if playing “pretty princess”—the camera toggles between tight close-ups of her pulling faces and wide-angle shots of her lost in the dress, the couch, a restless little girl. Whether fiddling with Konstantin’s glove box or muttering “Oh, dear!” as she slaps a prison guard across the face, the entire thrust of the performance is to render merely “naughty” what is in fact terrifying in the extreme—which is, as it happens, Eve’s excuse, too. As her marriage unravels and two colleagues are killed, Eve waves off her husband’s concerns as those of a stick-in-the-mud much as Villanelle does Konstantin’s when he suggests that she’s become unstable. “It’s good to have someone worried about you, huh?” he asks, though Killing Eve, unlike Konstantin, never assumes the answer’s affirmative.
It’s the allure, and the alarm, of true independence that Killing Eve so cunningly conjures—thanks, most of all, to Comer’s incandescent presence, at once enticing and unsettling, charming and chilling. An assassin is, in the end, the ultimate free agent, and despite Konstantin’s hovering, Villanelle is the series’ loneliest character; Eve, though drawn to the excitements of her quarry’s existence, is constantly snapping back to her life because she has people—husband, friends, coworkers—to be responsible for. In fact, Villanelle’s combination of the irritable and the immature, the luxe and the louche, reminds me most of the anecdote attributed to supermodel Kate Moss: “My mum used to say to me, ‘You can’t have fun all the time,’ and I used to say ‘Why not? Why the fuck can’t I have fun all the time?’” Eve’s chasing Villanelle, of whom she professes to be “a fan,” in hopes of absorbing this logic—the logic of the spoiled child, the selfish adult, the impractical, irresponsible, irrepressible woman—or at least learning to cultivate it, and so, I suspect, are we. Why the fuck can’t we have fun all the time? It might be impossible in real life, Killing Eve suggests, but it’s not when you’re watching TV.
The Season One finale of Killing Eve airs Sunday, May 27 at 8 p.m.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.