Madness From Nowhere: ‘Killing Eve’
Autumn is a viewing-and-reading time for many people connected with media and the arts. October has ‘Super Thursday’, the day when over 500 books are published, more than on any other day of the year. The London Film Festival is on, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts is running all of its Oscar-contenders. Theatre puts away its musicals (some of them really deserve to be buried, along with ‘The Mousetrap’) and playwrights get serious with great new drama. Football’s back, TV’s better – much better since Netflix and Sky Atlantis – and…wait, hold that sentence.
My God, we may have to include the BBC; they’re chasing the Netflix effect. Could it be that it will set aside its Poldarks, Dickenses and Downtons long enough to produce something from the 21st century? First we had ‘Bodyguard’, silly but pretty to look at, and now something surprisingly left-field, ‘Killing Eve’.
On the surface it’s a zeitgeist box-ticker. Female leads, weak men in the background, diversity foregrounded, sexy locations all present, all part of the cycle and I’m all for it. But it’s not grim and gritty. The dialogue is frequently non-naturalistic, there’s a lot of humour and the premise is utterly preposterous; a beautiful hit-woman is wiping out targets with a variety of nicely silly methods – poisoned perfume in Paris, testicle tongs in Berlin (yes, you read that right).
Balancing her is hangdog low-level security gal Sandra Oh, whose look can swing from gorgeous to bulld0g-licking-piss-off-a-nettle. When her instinctive curiosity gets her upgraded to spy status by boss Fiona Shaw, she finds herself out of her depth in Moscow and Paris. This is not the spy-jinks of John Le Carré – it’s closer to Diana Rigg’s ‘The Avengers’ than anything else as the two women face off in a series of skirmishes that sees them get really up-close and personal.
Writers often enjoy works that remind them of their own stuff, and for me ‘Killing Eve’ shares elements with the Bryant & May books, although of course it’s sexier. It’s set in a rogue unit populated by misfits, threatened with closure, facing outlandish situations, the team defies the odds to close the case. But whereas Bryant & May will never be filmed, ‘Killing Eve’ has everything a producer wants his audience to see; mayhem, action, great costumes and sexy women with guns. It’s filled with delightful non-sequiturs and game-changing twists.
It also annoyed and puzzled me in equal measure. What started as a bonkers assassin chase with a dazzlingly mad villainess (the amazing Jodie Comer) turned into a less interesting spy-swap and finally emerged as an obsessive lesbian drama via an oddly out-of-character speech that has set everyone arguing. It makes you wonder; did the show have any idea of what it wanted to be?
The mystery deepens; where did the series come from? It was commissioned in 2016 and is based on ‘the Villanelle’ novels’ (no, me neither) by Luke Jennings, who is, of all things, the dance critic for the Observer. I looked up the novels; there are only two and one’s only just out. And they’re not novels, they’re novella-length. So the TV side seems to be running the show rather than the books. What’s more, the second season was commissioned before the first one aired.
Presumably it’s the idea that caught producers’ imagination back in 2016 rather than the writing (the books could have been packaged as 1970s pulp paperbacks). I’ve absolutely no complaints with that because it has an idea – what an idea, and what great TV it makes. The gangbusters early episodes tone down to more prosaic telly drama from the midpoint, but even so…
I still have a feeling that nobody – including the original author – has the faintest idea what to do next. Which is exciting and puzzling – rather like the early days of television. Perhaps I’m wrong. Check it out and see what you think.