Jodie Comer (pictured) and Sandra Oh challenge the way femininity is depicted on screen in 'Killing Eve'BBC America

A detective series with a female protagonist. Two female protagonists even. It’s what we’ve been clamouring for, filling a space in a world which so often fails to express female experience. But there is so much more to ‘Killing Eve’ than just ticking boxes and satisfying quotas. The BBC’s newest drama does something really special. From the first episode I was captivated; I felt as if this was this what I had been waiting to watch for so long.

...their moments of professional seriousness are interspersed with discussions about shades of lipstick, sleeping with men, or the style of their coats

Bafta-winning writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge allows her women to be women. Even while Oxana (Jodie Comer) is a ruthless assassin and Eve (Sandra Oh) is part of a secret investigation, their moments of professional seriousness are interspersed with discussions about shades of lipstick, sleeping with men, or the style of their coats. These conversations don’t demean or reduce the characters, nor do they undermine the work they are doing or the strength of their position; they rather respond to a reality of self which is full of paradox and pleasure, and which cannot be destroyed by stereotyped roles.

Let’s start with the character of the villanelle. Her identity is no secret; there are as many scenes of her life as there are of Eve’s. Waller-Bridge has created in her villanelle an incredible paradox. Oxana (Jodie Comer) is terrifying in her ruthlessness, chilling as she smiles over her victims’ blood-soaked, mutilated bodies which, unafraid to stare into a man’s eyes and shoot him in the head: but she is also, terrifyingly, charming. 

Sandra Oh (right) made history as the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for the lead actress EmmyBBC America

Oxana doesn’t seem to feel things, but there is also something decidedly endearing about her which draws in the audience and makes us powerless to stop watching. We don’t necessarily want her to be free, even, when she is in prison; we don’t believe she is innocent – how can we? We just want her life to continue to be visible to us. As she sits in a pink tutu in the middle of the grey of Europe in winter, eating a sandwich as she unpacks Eve’s stolen luggage, we cannot help but be charmed by her.

"We cannot cast this woman aside as a villain nor take her crimes completely seriously because even at the darkest moments, we cannot suppress a snigger."

The relationship between Oxana and Eve, if it can be called a relationship, is dominated by these ‘feminine’ images: Oxana sends Eve clothes and perfume, and during the confrontation, scene Eve is dressed in a tightly-fitting black and white dress, as if she has dressed up especially for this moment. That Eve’s marriage begins to break down as she comes closer and closer to finding Oxana is no coincidence. The villanelle replaces the husband. When the two women face each other in the forest, the music evokes the sense of a love scene, and the close-up shots create a certain sensuality which runs through the scene. In one of the show’s final scenes, the two lie side by side on a bed, juxtaposed but also in a wonderful kind of harmony.

It is important that each of these moments is inevitably and suddenly punctured by violence: in the forest, the villanelle draws a gun to break the intensity of eye contact; Eve stabs Oxana as they lie side by side on the bed. Violence and blood drench this series, but it is a violence aestheticized, romanticised, executed with skill and a certain beauty which both horrifies and captivates the audience. We want to dismiss it as completely barbaric and murderous and contemptible, but we are unsettled because we cannot. We are drawn to it and to the people – to the woman – who creates it.


READ MORE

Mountain View

I watch, therefore I am: the rise of philosophical TV

What I have skirted around so far, and what any review of ‘Killing Eve’ would be incomplete without, is its humour. The humour in this show arises also from its absurdity – from the complete ridiculousness of the villanelle sniffing her sandwich as she rifles through Eve’s stolen suitcase, or nodding her head contemplatively when Nadiya asks if she is going to kill her. We laugh, but we are also deeply disturbed. We cannot cast this woman aside as a villain nor take her crimes completely seriously because even at the darkest moments, we cannot suppress a snigger.

What Waller-Bridge has created is something entirely new, only partly serious, brimming with female strength but also female vulnerability. There is a naturalism to her scenes which express a detail which makes it almost impossible for us, the audience, to decide who we want to survive: Eve or Oxana. And it becomes clear that neither of these women can decide either, as each negotiates a professional pursuit which brings them together and develops into a kind of obsession, an erotic fantasy. The final note is one of violence. Violence streams through this show, yet, despite its set-up as a detective drama, the laws of a depraved murderer and moralising detective are upended, and it is never obvious who should be held responsible. What are we left with, then, is the story of two women just trying to live their lives.

Sponsored links