Based on Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle series, and adapted for the screen by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve plays as a comic and irreverent riposte to the way in which espionage dramas have evolved over the last decade. On the one hand, espionage drama have resurrected the Cold War as a lens for understanding the dispersed threat of terrorism in the present moment, resulting in films about the contemporary world that often feel as if they are taking place forty or fifty years ago. On the other hand, the espionage drama has tended to become a cipher for quality cinema, or serious cinema, itself, generating surfeits of pathos that quickly go beyond the particulars of any one story to instead form part of a broader elegy for the decline of cinema as a mechanism for mediating the contingencies of a dispersed and globalised world. Key to both of these espionage registers is an elegiac orientation towards the West’s decreased command over international politics, with screenwriters and directors tending to pick out those John Le Carre novels, such as A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl, that are the most ambivalent about the capacity of Europe and the United States to maintain control over global information flows, whether in the Cold War era or in our contemporary world.
By contrast, Killing Eve responds with a very kind of different espionage narrative, one more indebted to the Euroslick style of the early 90s, and the French “Cinema du Look” in particular, at least in terms of its poise and cool. At the heart of it is Oksana Astankova, also known as Villanelle, an assassin played by Jodie Comer, whose playful detachment from her job starts to crumble when she becomes obsessed with Eve Polastri, a MI5 officer played by Sandra Oh, who is assigned to track her down by Carolyn Martens, head of the Russian unit at MI6, played by Fiona Shaw. As the series crisscrosses between Villanelle’s assassinations, and Eve’s efforts to uncover her backstory and predict her next target, the two women start to develop a rapport, albeit in an awry, oblique and circuitous way that prevents Killing Eve taking either of the two narrative paths that might seem most likely here. On the one hand, Villanelle and Eve’s connection never quite settles or stabilises into a lesbian communion, just as their dancing around each other never quite settles or stabilizes into the spectacle of lesbian foreplay. On the other hand, Eve never quite redeems Villanelle, while Villanelle never quite confronts or processes the childhood trauma that has apparently led to such a unconventional professional and romantic life, just as Eve never quite reconciles with her husband Niko, played by Owen McDonnell, once Villanelle makes her presence felt to her.
Instead, the series is suspended in a homosocial zone in which heteronormativity becomes impossible once Eve and Villanelle meet each other, but their homosexuality is never directly articulated either, at least not in any sustained or definitive way. Instead, their shifting, circling, kinetic rapport feels like a line of flight from heterosexuality as a point of reference in any way – whether they are conforming to it or defining themselves against it – a situation that tends to open up queer spectra and lopsided family relationships across the entire series in turn. In one of the earlier episodes, for example, Frank Haleston, Eve’s supervisor at MI5, who is played by Darren Boyd, informs her matter-of-factly that he has been sleeping with men for years, and that anonymous gay sex has always been a part of his romances and marriages. Before this point, Boyd has seemed so vanilla that he almost functions as a stock character – married to a younger woman, picaresquely struggling to keep up with the demands of being an older father – and yet this revelation is delivered in a fairly matter-of-fact way, as the heterosexual normality that he might once have defined himself against vanishes as a point of reference at the moment at which he departs from it.
That picaresque attempt to envisage a world in which heterosexuality exists, but is not the norm, extends to the way in which families are construed throughout the series, as well as the series’ disinclination for the reproductive futurity – and the angst about reproductive futurity – that undercuts so much of the gravitas of the contemporary espionage film. In some ways, this angst is a recent addition, since many of Le Carre’s novels, in particular, were quite prescient that the nuclear family was both the ultimate target of espionage and the object that had to be protected above all costs by espionage, evoking a world in which espionage signalled the finitude of the nuclear family, and the limit of the sharp distinction between private and public life that it claimed to represent. Something of that spirit continues into Killing Eve, albeit in a more comic and picaresque register, as we’re presented with one family after another that doesn’t quite add up, but which ensures a profounder form of futurity for that very reason. In one of the most candid moments, Villanelle’s handler Konstantin, played by Kim Bodnia, confesses to her that he would choose her over his daughter in a hostage situation – a revelation so surprising, and yet so immediately normalised, that it ends up extricating both of them from a hostage situation engineered by Villanelle herself in a odder form than either of them could have envisaged.
Even more remarkable is the revelation, about two episodes from the end, that Eve’s assistant Kenny, played by Sean Delaney, is actually the daughter of Carolyn, her boss. For the first two thirds of the series, Eve works closely with these two characters, using Kenny’s expertise in the London headquarters and liaising with Carolyn more extensively when she is in the field. Nevertheless, there are many scenes in which all three characters are working on the same task at the same time, meaning that it should feel bizarre when it turns out that Eve has been working with a mother-and-son team, especially since they have been involved in some fairly dangerous situations. Somehow, however, it doesn’t feel weird, even when Eve and Kenny start to work behind Carolyn’s back, as the series somehow manages to stay true to the mother-son connection between Kenny and Carolyn while not using that relation as its driving affective focus either. Here, as in so many other moments in Killing Eve, the most privileged relationships engendered by the nuclear family, and by reproductive futurity, are simply left to exist amongst other relationships, rather than having to mediate those relationships as comprehensively as they typically do in other films or television series. And that makes Killing Eve drastically different from typical espionage dramas, where the capacity of the nuclear family to mediate global forces is what espionage has to monitor, manage and contain above all else, in order to prevent political catastrophe.
In other words, Killing Eve is an espionage drama in which the nuclear family, and reproductive futurity, are only capable of undermediating or overmediating the broader political landscape. In fact, this is also the case in most recent espionage dramas, whose protagonists are typically framed as wary of relationships, and relationships are typically framed as either too remote from or too implicated in the events taking place in the “political” part of the narrative. Yet where espionage dramas tend to play this for pathos, Killing Eve plays it for picaresque abandon, revelling in the way in which Eve and Villanelle’s relationship oscillates between precisely this sense of detachment and complicity, while also presenting that oscillation as the relationship, and the only kind of relationship that can give some insight into the broader political and economic factors shaping both of their lives. From the opening scene in which Villanelle smiles at a child before knocking ice cream into her face, to the closing episode where she recruits a girl to play her daughter as part of a pickpocket scam, the two women move rapidly from one tableau of nuclear normalcy to the next, but for the sake of eluding them all, and the world order that they typically symbolize in espionage dramas of this kind, thereby evoking a different, more disorienting and dangerous world, and one that is now utterly resistant to espionage as we once knew it.