Female relationships are often complicated labyrinths, heavy with double meanings, obsessive tendencies, platonic (though maybe not completely platonic) crushes and backstabbing that only the deeply lucky and skilled can successfully navigate throughout their lifetimes.
They also are, naturally, frequent fodder for storytelling. They’re modern enough to warrant an entire episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror and a song in the second-ever episode of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (Sample lyric: “I wanna lock you in a basement with soundproof walls and take over your identity.”) But they’re also so steeped in tradition. In her book Alice + Freda Forever historian Alexis Coe credits the expectedness of some of these qualities as the reason why a couple of 19th century Memphis school girls could carry on their Sapphic relationship unnoticed—until one of them, once scorned, murdered her ex in the middle of the street on a winter afternoon.
So it’s no wonder that so many have taken Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s new BBC America series, Killing Eve, as an allegory for this concept. The series, which is based on the characters in author Luke Jennings ‘ Villanelle novellas, stars Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh as the equal parts hunter and hunted in a dry-witted international caper. Comer’s exceptionally talented and creative hit woman enjoys her work almost as much as she does the wardrobe allowance it allows her to have; Oh is Eve Polastri, the MI5 desk jockey whom new boss Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) recognizes as being way too good at her job.
Neither woman wastes much time before researching what she can about the other, once the chase is on. Each has a growing obsession with—and respect for—the other’s work, and is curious enough to want to know more about her. And, as we’ll see in this Sunday’s episode, neither can resist the adrenaline rush that comes with the risk of potentially finding out that information. (Things only escalate from there—just wait until the fifth episode.)
Still, slow down. Don’t, advises Oh, immediately peg Killing Eve as a commentary on the social behaviors of first world women.
“I feel a little wary about putting it in terms of an obsessive female friendship,” tells Paste. “I feel like that terminology… I feel like we’re outside of that. While I understand a sisterhood toward that, I think our show is outside of it. And going beyond those familiar constraints around that type of—when you fall in love with a friend [and] you’re totally into each other.”
Was there discussion beyond that? “Only in getting smaller and smaller into the motivations and the intentions specifically to each character,” Oh says.
Rather, she suggests that we think of Eve a woman who’s “plateaued” in her career—as well as in her marriage to the most understanding husband ever, Owen McDonnell’s Niko. Oh offers a reminder that this is a common experience for everyone, even government spies, and that it often occurs at midlife, when we enter “a place where you can become a little too comfortable and you stop being so curious.”
“I love that in the very first episode, the most exciting thing going on in [Eve’s] life is that she fell asleep on her arm,” Oh says. “The initial thing is, you know the biggest amount of terror and excitement in her life is that she fell asleep on her arm. It’s a very telling place for a character.”
Oh is aware that she’s in a unique position to discuss the perception, and projection, of female friendships on television. She’s best known to TV audiences for her work on ABC’s seemingly amaranthine medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, receiving five Emmy nominations for playing the salty and determined Cristina Yang. Although Oh left the series in 2014, her character’s (much more healthy and stable) relationship with Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey is a beacon that still guides many women, fictitious or otherwise.
“They’re both determined characters,” Oh said of Cristina and Eve when the comparison was broached at the Killing Eve panel at the biannual Television Critics Association press tour, in January. “What I’m so interested [in] with Eve is her frazzledness, how she doesn’t have things under control, and that… she’s quite insecure, and how she has not found her voice, and that’s really what initially gravitated me towards this project.”
Oh tells Paste that she also didn’t sign onto Killing Eve to make some feminist statement that women can be villains, too. She says that’s really something for an observer to decide.
“It’s very tricky to set out to do something and you don’t know if it’s going to hit a cultural significance or if it’s going to hit a real shift in style,” she says. “For me, I’m just really concentrating on the character part of it. But with that, to be able to go into the psychology between the two women?... It’s a very elaborate chess game between these two women… I think it’s quite clear that they don’t know what they’re doing—either of them. They don’t really understand why they’re compelled toward one another.”
Killing Eve has already been renewed for a second season, a notice that almost reads like a spoiler alert given the title of the series. But, much like the subject matter, Oh suggests we may be reading too much into that. The key here is inflection.
“Based on the title [I thought], ‘Oh my God! I’m going to get killed,” she says of the moment she was first contacted about the project. “But, honestly, as the series went on and as my talks with Phoebe went on and all of us went deeper and deeper into the episodes, the term killing shifted its sense, meaning perspective. It’s not a verb. It’s an adjective. [It has gone] from someone who is going to kill Eve—Eve is going to be killed—to she is going to be the one doing the killing.”
It seems like this relationship is becoming more complicated than we thought.
Killing Eve airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on BBC America.