In the final 10 minutes of Killing Eve’s first season, we witness the consummation — for now — of an impractical relationship. Throughout Season 1, Eve (Sandra Oh) has transformed from a paper-pushing MI5 functionary to a thriving international spy, determinedly pursuing Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a prolific assassin. In the season finale, Eve finally has the chance to catch Villanelle in her Paris apartment, which is spare in furniture but overflowing with perfumes, couture clothes, weaponry, and bottles of champagne — all symbolic of Villanelle, who is pure id.
And in this moment, Eve, who’s wielding a gun (one of Villanelle’s), chooses to confess her obsession.
Eve goes into typically meticulous detail. “I think about you all the time,” she says, sitting on Villanelle’s bed and looking into her eyes. “I think about what you’re wearing, and what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with. I think about what friends you have. I think about what you eat before you work. What shampoo you use. What happened in your family. I think about your eyes and your mouth and what you feel when you kill someone. I think about what you had for breakfast. I just want to know everything.”
Villanelle — whose usually radiant, poreless face is bruised and scraped, having recently escaped several life-threatening situations in her despised homeland of Russia — receives Eve’s admission with her signature animalistic bluntness. “I think about you too,” she says. After a long pause, she adds, “I mean, I masturbate about you a lot.”
By the end of the scene, just at the moment when the audience probably thought — and Villanelle certainly thought — that the two characters were about to have sex, Eve does something else: As they lie face to face on the bed and Villanelle leans in to kiss her, Eve stabs her in the gut. (“I really liked you!” Villanelle yells, after the knife goes in.)
Eve immediately panics, regrets what she’s done, and tries to save Villanelle by getting something to stop the bleeding. Villanelle, after half-heartedly trying to shoot Eve, disappears, setting up their cat-and-mouse game to resume in Season 2 — which begins airing on BBC America on Sunday, April 7, and picks up 30 seconds after Villanelle’s escape from Eve.
“The voice, the explosion, the rage, the catharsis. We were aligned — and our show was aligned — with the stars.”
During an interview together in February, Oh and Comer discussed the implications of that scene. “What happens is a thunderbolt,” Oh said. “A volcano explodes! You know what I mean? (Italics are added to illustrate Oh’s wonderfully emphatic manner of speaking.)
“You can speak of it as stabbing, but I love working in the metaphor: having the violence or the penetration was fascinating to me,” she said. “They get into each other’s orbit, and there’s this kind of what am I doing here? This pull between them that they have not figured out.”
“I loved all the kind of magic or mystery, and the ambiguity of what’s going on — because I don’t feel like Eve knows what’s going on,” Oh said.
Eve Polastri’s transformation — awakened by Villanelle — is the central subject of Killing Eve, which is based on novellas by Luke Jennings, and was developed for television by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The series is simultaneously a propulsive spy thriller and a laugh-out-loud comedy, which serves both WTF twists and unexpectedly realistic human interactions.
There were nearly 500 scripted series on television last year, but after its first season on BBC America, Killing Eve was on more critics’ best-of-the-year lists than any other show. Sandra Oh and Phoebe Waller-Bridge were both nominated for Emmys (for Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding Writing in a Drama, respectively); Oh won a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award; and Killing Eve has received 14 nominations — more than any other show — for the upcoming BAFTA TV awards. Its ratings grew every week for BBC America, drawing 1.2 million viewers in Nielsen’s Live+3 ratings for the finale.
There’s a lot to love about Killing Eve, including its stylish aesthetics, Villanelle’s killer costumes and a cinematic score by David Holmes. But there’s no question that the heart of Killing Eve‘s appeal is its fascinating character study of two very different women: one a happy-go-lucky assassin, the other a married bureaucrat who detonates her life when she’s given her dangerous dream job. And Killing Eve has created a relationship between Eve and Villanelle that has never before existed between women on television: a queer will-they-or-won’t-they romance in which one suitor is an admitted psychopath.
BBC America greenlit Killing Eve in November 2016, and by the time it premiered in April 2018, the story seemed like a perfect creation for these roiled, radical times. It’s a show created by women, and starring women — who are playing complicated women. It’s queer; it’s feminist. And it is co-led by Oh, a woman of color, who during her long career had mostly played the best friend part until Killing Eve came along, thrusting her into unexpected real-life roles like hosting the Golden Globes with Andy Samberg. (Oh’s awards circuit dominance has in itself directed the conversation in subtly meaningful ways; her SAG acceptance speech was a “master class in intersectionality,” according to the Boston Globe, and a joke she made about whitewashing during the Globes’ opening monologue prompted Aloha star Emma Stone to yell “I’m sorry!”)
The continuous ripple effects of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up in 2018 felt like actual change, which is something Oh has thought a lot about in relation to Killing Eve. “When all of that was happening, and everything was happening, I felt my life and my world opening up,” Oh said. “The voice, the explosion, the rage, the catharsis. We were aligned — and our show was aligned — with the stars. So we could just go, Boop: here, guys! I know where you’re at — and how about this?”
“We had no idea that the conversation, the culture, around gender was going to be so explosive,” said Sarah Barnett, AMC Networks’ entertainment president, who oversees of BBC America. “But Killing Eve blows the Bechdel test off the scale.”
The British writer Luke Jennings self-published his first novella — Codename Villanelle — as an Amazon Kindle single in February 2014. Eve doesn’t even appear in that story. It revolves around Villanelle, a brilliant former college student with a personality disorder (real name: Oksana Astankova). She has been conscripted to be an assassin by a shadowy international crime organization called the Twelve.
The novella drew the attention of Sally Woodward Gentle — a London-based producer and former BBC executive who runs the production company Sid Gentle Films — through happenstance. “A work colleague of ours was at a dinner party sitting next to Luke, who said, ‘I’ve written these novellas and they’re literally published on Amazon to be read on commute,'” Woodward Gentle said in an interview.
She optioned the novella. Jennings was already publishing more of them, introducing Eve, a 29-year-old MI5 agent with the drab job of arranging security for important international visitors — but whose hobby is tracking women assassins.
To adapt the material, Woodward Gentle thought of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer-actor whose one-woman show Fleabag had created a huge stir at the Edinburgh festival in 2013, and then at the Soho Theatre in London.
“To take a female assassin and put it through the kaleidoscope of Phoebe was something I thought was going to be far more interesting than going to a male writer to get them to do an action thing,” Woodward Gentle said. Together, they developed a Villanelle-focused pilot script for one of the Sky TV channels in the UK, which ended up passing on the show in spring 2015.
Meanwhile, BBC America was looking for a drama that might replicate the buzz it had achieved with Orphan Black, a cult science fiction show that was ending in 2017, after five seasons. The network that airs Doctor Who certainly understood fan-driven programming already. But Orphan Black had proved to executives that a noisy fandom — the #CloneClub, to use the Orphan Black parlance — could cut through the din of Peak TV, in which a show can easily come and go from television without anyone even noticing.
“The note that we kept giving Phoebe was to add her trademark edgy darkness to it — to keep it weird!”
According to Barnett, Orphan Black attracted an “underserved audience” of women, and BBC America wanted to find a new show that would serve its “ridiculously passionate” viewers. BBC America executives were also aware of — and adored — the work of Waller-Bridge, having watched the first episode of the TV version of Fleabag when the show was looking for a US broadcaster. “We were just blown away by the freshness and the originality,” Barnett said.
Fleabag wouldn’t have worked for BBC America, but when the network learned of Killing Eve — as it was now called — they bought it, and began to redevelop the project with Woodward Gentle and Waller-Bridge. It “cleaved a little more closely to the original source material,” Barnett said, but “the particular point of view Phoebe brings to the infused queerness of the show was very fresh and very real, and we knew from our fanbase around Orphan Black that our viewers would really enjoy that kind of representation.” Everything had to revolve around the two women, Barnett said, calling it “the core relationship.”
In another change, Waller-Bridge aged up the character of Eve to her forties, so that she had something to lose. “She had to have made some choices, and be far enough down the line for it to be very meaningful for her to unravel some of the safer choices she’s made in her life,” Barnett said.
And one more thing: “The note that we kept giving Phoebe was to add her trademark edgy darkness to it — to keep it weird!”
Oh was cast as Eve, and then the Killing Eve production searched for its Villanelle, eventually landing on Comer, who had been a standout performer on the British dramas Doctor Foster and Thirteen.
Villanelle was a challenging role to cast, because although she seems fun and likes to dress in hilariously over-the-top clothes — indeed, Villanelle’s pink organza dress was a popular Halloween costume last year — more than anything else, she enjoys watching the spark of life leave the eyes of those she has killed.
Barnett said that when there were questions internally at the network about how to make Villanelle charming, all of them were answered when Comer joined the show. “There’s just something so incredibly relatable that Jodie Comer brings to the role of a psychopath,” Barnett said. “She can’t bear the bullshit.”
Eve and Villanelle are in very few scenes together, so Killing Eve‘s ensemble is crucial. We’ve gotten to know the central duo, after all, through their relationships with other characters, like Villanelle’s teasingly bratty — and later murderous — dynamic with Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), her silver fox handler from the Twelve. And we see that Eve seems shy about revealing to her husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), just how much she has been awakened by this new job.
A few casting choices were more whimsical. When Waller-Bridge wanted the classically trained Fiona Shaw to play Carolyn, the boss at MI6 who tasks Eve with finding Villanelle, the two of them went to lunch to discuss the possibility. (The character was originally written as a man, which Waller-Bridge changed.) “Why do you want me to play this?” Shaw remembered asking Waller-Bridge. “She said, ‘Because I saw Medea when I was 13.’ ‘You saw Medea! What’s that got to do with it?’“
“That’s a very Phoebe mind,” Shaw said with a laugh.
Woodward Gentle said it became clear that Waller-Bridge wouldn’t be able to run Killing Eve‘s second season while Season 1 was still in production. Waller-Bridge had gotten an idea for a second season of Fleabag, “and she clearly needed to do that,” Woodward Gentle said.
Sid Gentle Films met with different writers to take over, but it was Waller-Bridge’s idea to bring in her friend Emerald Fennell to be the new head writer. Like Waller-Bridge, Fennell both acts and writes. She has written horror novels, has written for television (Drifters), and played Patsy for years on Call the Midwife, a lesbian character who launched a thousand YouTube tributes. She will also play Camilla Parker-Bowles in Season 3 of The Crown (though she’s in only two episodes so far, Fennell said).
Fennell and Waller-Bridge met as actors when they both had small parts in the 2011 Glenn Close movie Albert Nobbs. “I think you can see the corner of my elbow and Phoebe’s hat,” Fennell said. “But we were actually shooting it for two weeks in Dublin. This happens to Phoebe a lot, but I think we both completely fell in love. As fast as you can fall in love with a friend.”
Fennell, Waller-Bridge, and Woodward Gentle talked about what a second season might look like as Fennell watched Season 1 being edited. “I got to see it in its rough cut form, and I was like, ‘Well, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen — this is sensational,’” Fennell said.
Waller-Bridge’s writing has a specific, unique tone, as does Killing Eve. But Fennell said, “I feel like the sense of humor that I have and the interests that I have are quite aligned to the show.” And Waller-Bridge had created a solid foundation for Killing Eve that has “very strict parameters,” Fennell said, that are about getting to the truth of daily life. Both Fennell and Woodward Gentle said that Waller-Bridge is often heard asking the question, “What’s the truth?”
“Yes, it’s a feminist masterpiece. But only because these two women would be interesting if they worked in an office.”
“People work at MI6, people are assassins: These things aren’t imaginary. But that doesn’t mean that every day is extraordinary,” Fennell said. “You still have to go to the loo, you still have to go to shops, you still buy milk. And that stuff to me is always what makes Killing Eve fascinating.”
“Yes, it’s a feminist masterpiece,” she continued. “But only because these two women would be interesting if they worked in an office.”
“Emerald isn’t Phoebe, but she is a fantastic writer,” Comer said. “The tone of the show — the wit, the darkness, the humor — it’s all still there.”
“There’s a real kind of similar sensibility that I think that they have,” Oh said of the two writers. “I do feel like the show has a specific British female voice. Or that is what it is turning into. Things change, and have to change.”
And presumably, they will change again. Fennell called Killing Eve “a 22-hour-a-day job — one hour for showering, and one hour of eating.” She was once so crunched for time when on deadline that she ate a piece of pizza out of a trash can. At the end of March, Fennell began directing her feature-film debut Promising Young Woman, which she also wrote, starring Carey Mulligan.
Barnett has not yet renewed Killing Eve — though she surely will — and when asked whether Fennell would be the head writer for a third season, she wouldn’t say. But she did emphasize that Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris, another executive producer from Sid Gentle, will remain as guiding hands. And that the actors have “an incredible understanding” of the characters.
“I think if the writers change season to season, it’s about picking great people,” Barnett said.
A lot happened in the first season of Killing Eve, and it’s clear that the show will have to reset itself to go forward. “The consequences in that scene leading into Series 2 are enormous,” Comer said of the Season 1 finale. “And the connection they now have with each other, from Villanelle’s point of view.”
“I think that they are even more bonded — because they shared blood,” Oh said. “Eve did something that Villanelle did not believe she had it in her to do.”
Without spoiling specifics, Eve needs to get back to work under Carolyn, and try to save her strained marriage to Niko. And the Twelve aren’t just going to let Villanelle merrily look for Eve — whom she now refers to as her “girlfriend” — without hunting her down. New characters will be introduced, as will new mysteries. There’s no more Elena, because Kirby Howell-Baptiste is on both The Good Place and Barry. (“She’s afraid of being murdered,” is how Elena’s absence is explained.)
And BBC America will seek an even bigger audience — a “sophomore surge,” Barnett said — by simulcasting Killing Eve‘s season premiere on both BBC America and AMC. “We believe this show has the possibility to go broad, and has the entertainment DNA to appeal to a really big audience,” she said. “It’s having such a fizzy moment.”
Fizzy, yes — but Oh said that Season 2 gets very dark. “I found it extremely challenging to play,” she said.
“At the beginning of the first series, she never expects that this fascination would go anywhere, or be anything,” Oh said of Eve. “But at the end of the first series, she stabs her! You know? So the questions of Who am I now? really come into play. The second series, at least for Eve, goes down a much darker and into a much more compromised place.”
According to Fennell, Season 2 picks up where Season 1 left off with a classic Waller-Bridgeian “what’s the truth?” moment. As in, “What’s the truth of what happens after a normal woman stabs someone?”
“Eve and Villanelle have changed fundamentally by something that’s happened,” she continued. “After you’ve stabbed someone — and after you’ve been stabbed — you’re different people.”
Comer found Villanelle’s physical state at the beginning of the second season — bleeding out, and in desperate need of medical care — to be difficult to play. “But it was great, because I feel like the show picks up with the intensity that it left off,” she said.
“She’s used to having control,” Comer said. “But now we also see a desperation in her.”
Oh wouldn’t say how she herself thinks about Eve and Villanelle’s relationship — she wants each audience member’s interpretation to be equally valid. She did add a bit of analysis, though. “They have a driving force in equal measure towards each other. Not for the same reasons,” Oh said. “And they both don’t understand it. And honestly, for me playing it, it’s constantly evolving. It’s constantly evolving.”
For Killing Eve‘s audience, it’s delightful and fun, and harrowing and thrilling. But isn’t it also fucked up?
“Of course it’s fucked up!” said Comer. “It’s the most fucked-up relationship on television! I think that’s why people love it. And that’s really what we explore in Series 2, this impossible romance: How long can it go on for?”
Oh did have an answer for that.
“As long as we love them.” ●