Sandra Oh makes a triumphant return with spy thriller ‘Killing Eve’

Sunday, April 15, 2018 - 4:40pm

Sandra Oh in "Killing Eve"

Sandra Oh in "Killing Eve" Buy this photo
BBC America

When we first meet Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh, “Grey’s Anatomy”), the protagonist of BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” she’s screaming very loudly in her sleep. Anyone familiar with the crime drama genre will know what this means. Most likely, Eve is broken — perhaps an alcoholic — haunted by the ghosts of her traumatic past, carrying around some horrid little secret. But then, she’s shaken awake by her husband Niko (Owen McDonnell, “Single-Handed”), and we learn what prompted the screaming: “I fell asleep on both my arms.”

“Killing Eve,” a new eight-episode drama from the enormously talented creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) might just be the most exciting show of the year. It’s something of a strange frontier for Waller-Bridge, who has, until now, mainly dealt in caustic dark comedies. But prestige crime television, which seems to grow more violent, dreary and miserable with each passing year, has been in desperate need of her wit and imagination. “Killing Eve” blends the sensibility of British drama with the mordant humor of British comedy, and the result is simply spectacular.

Eve is an MI5 agent in a bit of a rut. She’s stuck in an unfulfilling diplomatic security job where she’s bossed around and dismissed by the humorless Frank (Darren Boyd, “Fortitude”). To pass the time, she takes up an unsanctioned side project tracking a mysterious assassin. The assassin in question is the quirky, beautiful Villanelle (Jodie Comer, “Thirteen”), who lives in an impeccably decorated Parisian apartment and kills not just with abandon, but with sheer glee.

When the two meet in the first episode, it’s not, as we might expect, in a Luke-meets-Vader-style epic showdown. Instead, it’s a quiet moment crackling with tension in a women’s bathroom — that odd cultural space where fleeting connections are made, where gossip is exchanged, compliments are doled out and tiny affirmations are scrawled on the walls. A flustered Eve stands in front of the bathroom mirror, fussing with her hair. Villanelle emerges from a stall and before slipping out, advises Eve to wear it down.

With “Fleabag,” Waller-Bridge liked to poke fun at the absurdities of womanhood, the competitiveness and the exhaustion of it all. “Killing Eve” has a sort of obvious feminism to it: two dangerous women in stylish coats capering across Europe? Rah-rah! But what’s far more interesting is the way it begins to interrogate and complicate our understanding of the female psyche.

For Eve, being a woman means being underestimated. Her insights are dismissed at work; she’s clearly brilliant, but relegated to a tedious desk job. And for Villanelle, that’s partially true — she is routinely underestimated. But that makes her even better at her job. She can get close to targets undetected, her future victims allow themselves to be vulnerable around her. It’s a fascinating study in weaponized femininity, and Comer does it wonderfully. She’s loads of fun to watch, equal parts terrifying and delicate, all with a hint of playfulness.

The bad news? It’ll be difficult for Emmy voters to choose between Oh and Comer — that “Sophie’s choice” will inevitably need to be made. But what wonderful news for us! “Killing Eve” will be a joy to watch unfold, and (more good news!) the network has already renewed it for a second season. BBC America, go ahead, give it a third — this one’s a keeper.