Phoebe Waller-Bridge knows how to write rascals. The women in her shows trespass, bound around indecorous and vulgar, and steal things (priceless objects, boyfriends) simply for the thrill of it. In her much-lauded Amazon series Fleabag, which debuted in 2016 (a second season is currently in the works), the now 32-year-old Waller-Bridge wrote and starred in every episode as a willful, petulant Londoner called Fleabag, who is dead-set on napalming her own life after the suicide of her best friend and business partner, Boo. Fleabag doesn’t initially present as a person who lopes around with a guilty conscience; she stares directly into the camera and makes jokes about masturbation and flatulence with a curled lip. And yet, there is a lot more going on. Fleabag has lured her audience into a false confidence; we feel sorry for her suffering, but it turns out that she may have been the lead architect of her own unhappiness.
Fleabag was a self-contained story about one woman’s emotional waterloo and her need to confront her failings, but in many ways, it was a showcase for exactly what Waller-Bridge could do with a bigger paintbox. Fleabag was a dubious narrator, a fabulist with delusions of grandeur and a smart-ass retort for everyone. She was not to be trusted, least of all with her own story. The ending of Fleabag turned us all into detectives; once I learned that the character was not prone to truth-telling, I went back and started the series all over again. That show, as specific as it was, was an ideal proof-of-concept for Waller-Bridge’s next project. It demonstrated that she could write women whose motives were slippery, who were experts at evasion. If she could write so convincingly about a woman hiding from adulthood, she could certainly write about secret agents.
Killing Eve, a new eight-episode spy thriller that begins airing on BBC America on Sunday night, tells the story of two women who chase each other across Europe, one a stealth assassin, and the other an MI5 agent who tracks her scent around the globe. Waller-Bridge does not act in the show but oversees it; she adapted the pilot from the “Villanelle” novels by Luke Jennings (a series of mysteries that first became popular as self-published e-books), and her voice is apparent from the very beginning of the pilot.
The first scene takes place in a Viennese cafe, as we see our killer, a doe-eyed brunette (in a wig) whose code name is Villanelle (Jodie Comer), blithely spooning ice cream out of a silver dish. She flashes a toothy smile across the restaurant at a little girl, who is also digging into her sorbet. At first, we think that Villanelle might be harmless, just a stylish woman who enjoys a solo dessert and a warm exchange with a child. And then, as she struts out of the cafe, Villanelle smacks the girl’s ice cream dish off the table. She smirks, pleased with the chaos she has caused. We know right away that she is a sociopath; that she revels in mayhem. Quickly, we learn that she is a psychopath, too. The reason she was in Vienna was to slice a Russian politician’s femoral artery, right in front of his girlfriend. It is safe to assume that she grinned after this act, too; bloody murder, toppled ice cream, for her it’s all the same old mischief.
Back in London, as agents at MI5 are looking into the assassination, we meet Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), an American woman who works in a deskbound role at the bureau but has the bloodhound instincts of a field agent. The moment she hears about Villanelle’s hit, she sniffs out the fact that the killer must be a woman; she notes that the politician who was killed was “a misogynist and a sex trafficker, he may not have considered a passing woman a threat; she must have been able to get close.” Right away, one senses that Eve and Villanelle are linked; not because the are both soulless (that distinction belongs to the killer alone) but because they are both bored.
We learn that Villanelle—real name Oksana—is a Russian assassin who lives in a chic Parisian flat when she isn’t stabbing people in the jugular and who takes her marching orders from a paternal man with a white beard who indulges her childlike fantasies. She seems to have never moved past a certain emotional age; she often bounces around her apartment with helium balloons, surprises her handler with a giant baroque birthday cake, or wears a hot pink tulle dress with an empire waist on the streets of Paris like a deranged Eloise. She is sexual—in the pilot, she wakes up in bed with two strangers and later seduces her downstairs neighbor—but also wilfully immature. She sticks her tongue out at strangers, blows raspberries at her boss. She’s a well-oiled killing machine but has begun to act out for attention, purposefully leaving traces of herself behind so that someone equally smart might come looking for her. She is a cat in search of a mouse, a girl in a very sadistic sandbox looking for a playmate.
Enter Eve, played with taut, droll skepticism by Oh, who is equally adrift in her work. She is married to a kind man who wears nice sweaters and coaches bridge (yes, the card game) but she is deadened by administrative work. She craves the high-stakes intrigue of the chase, and seems almost envious of the freedom that Villanelle’s line of work grants her (Her first response when she learns that the killer cut open a man’s vein without anyone noticing? “Cool!”). Her interjection that the assassin must be a woman threatens her male boss (who, as we soon learn, isn’t who he says he is) and he sends her to babysit the girlfriend of the murdered politician at a hospital when she would really like to be hot on the trail. In the hospital bathroom, she meets a nurse who tells her to wear her hair down; there is a subtle, crackling energy between them, suddenly Eve goes from sleepy to alert. By the time she returns to the room where her witness is lying, however, everyone, including the guards, has been murdered. The nurse was Villanelle, in London to tie up loose ends. Eve realizes only later that she has met her match, but it is too late; Villanelle is already on her way to another job, and the hunt continues.
What makes Killing Eve so compelling is the same thing that makes it an unmistakable Phoebe Waller-Bridge production; both women are deviant, brilliant troublemakers, both women are terribly uninterested in pedestrian life. Eve doesn’t kill, but she is endlessly fascinated by those who do. Talking to her mentor (the great Fiona Shaw), Eve tells her that Villanelle “doesn’t have a signature, but she certainly has style.” She approaches her work from the perspective of a fangirl. “She is outsmarting the smartest of us,” Eve says. “And for that she deserves to do or kill whoever the hell she wants.”
There is an erotic tension between the two women; if their feelings are not exactly sexual, they are mutually obsessed. They are both women who have been overlooked by, abused by, underestimated by and undermined by men. They are the two smartest people in their fields, communicating wordlessly in a global, violent game of cat and mouse. One of them happens to be borderline psychotic and morally malignant, but then, if Villanelle wasn’t good at her job, Eve would have no chance to excel at hers. Killing Eve is classic Waller-Bridge in that it is paced like a comedy but conceals a darker, gooey center: This is a show about women who are fed up. One turns to shanking people, the other implodes her career and her marriage. Both are circling destruction.
At one point in the series, Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase and re-packs it with designer clothes and a bottle of high-end perfume bearing her codename. When the suitcase appears again on Eve’s doorstep, she is at first terrified—an assassin knows where she lives—and then deeply curious. She slips into the slinky cocktail dress and anoints herself with the fragrance, for a moment trying on the costume of an International Woman of Mystery. She covets what Villanelle has, if not who she is. More than anything, this is a show that understands female jealousy and all its dark corners. Just as Fleabag could stare into the camera and never quite tell us the truth, the two protagonists of Killing Eve are lying to themselves. They claim to despise each other, but really they are magnetized.