Shows and movies about assassins are a dime a dozen, and you’d think most of the great stories to be wrangled out of this concept have more than been told by now, but this year two new shows managed to spin gold out of some very old straw. The first was HBO’s Barry, and the second is BBC America’s Killing Eve, an absolutely delightful cat and mouse game that relishes not necessarily the chase but the characters and the flat out wackiness, giving us yet another story about an assassin, but one that we miraculously have not seen before.
There’s a little bit of La Femme Nikita in here, as a deadly Russian hit woman is tracked all over the globe by an intrepid female government agent, but as always, the devil is in the details, and the details involved in this one savor of wicked deliciousness. Sandra Oh stars as Agent Eve Polastri, raised in America but living in London and working for MI:5, who becomes obsessed with tracking down a killer who’s getting arrogant and lavishly leaving traces of her work behind at murder scenes. Oh is terrific, her usual frazzled self, but smart and funny and effortlessly good at her job (at first), making quick work of discovering a conspiracy and tracking down the identity of the mysterious “Villanelle,” (the killer’s codename). The show feels at home with itself instantly, combining a thrilling mix of comedy and violence, veering back and forth between Eve’s work and her quippy asides to friends and coworkers, never once straining for effect, as creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedic background is fully on display even in the guise of a thriller.
The series alternates between Eve’s pursuit and Villanelle’s havoc wreaking chaos kills, and as solid and capable as Oh is in carrying the show, it would in no way be as enticing and fun and scary and addictive as it is without the stellar performance of Jodie Comer as the killer. She creates an unforgettable character in Villanelle, the sociopathic villainess who loves being bad, loves her job, and loves toying with and reveling in her power. Comer is captivating in this role, somehow turning a crazy, brutal murderer into a partially lovable anti-heroine as you find yourself rooting for her in some kind of twisted way, maybe so you can continue to watch her tear up the screen as the most entertaining TV villain in years. There's something empowering about watching these two women circle each other, finding their way into and out of each other’s lives in the least expected moments, the absurdist tone lending every episode a rather unpredictable feel, especially as the action ramps up towards the finale.
An excellent supporting cast rounds out the ensemble (especially an ebullient Fiona Shaw as Eve’s boss), but the show belongs to Eve and Villanelle, as you won’t be able to quite see what’s coming next, even if you think you can. Every familiar trope plays out with some kind of twist, and Comer’s performance lends a mesmerizing tension and heightened suspense to her every scene. You feel she’s just as likely to kiss you as kill you and you have no clue what could set her off in which direction. The constant balance of action, comedy, violence and cliffhanging chase scenes makes one wonder how this kind of thing can sustain itself for too long (I wouldn’t think a show like this could go more than few seasons max), but I’m going to enjoy the ride while it lasts.