The Unicorn Scale: Killing Eve

By Jennie Roberson

April 17, 2019

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Well hey there, dear readers! I hope everyone is happy, healthy, and in good spirits. You know, I love me a good espionage thriller. Spy films both engage my brain and get my blood flowing, and that is the epitome of entertainment in my book. But I don’t always love what the genre has to offer. I don’t really see myself in these stories as a woman. Or if I do, often it’s just as some disposable femme fatale. So I’ve been craving something where I can see myself and that truly intrigues me.

So when I saw Sandra Oh was winning awards recently for her groundbreaking work on BBC America’s Killing Eve, I felt myself drawn in. Oh is a smart, capable actress with a nose for good writing, so I was curious to see what pulled her to her first hit role post-Grey’s Anatomy. (Love you forever, Cristina Yang.) Then I saw a lot of online chatter claiming the show was super-queer, and I knew I had to write about it.

Before I go any further into my thoughts on this show, I should put out a few warnings. First and foremost, this review will contain SPOILERS – right up to the final scene for the first season. (And trust me – that’s crucial.)  So if you haven’t seen the show in its entirety, I highly recommend you watch it before continuing with this review. Otherwise I will ruin the heck out of it and you will be shaking your fist at your screen. I should also warn there are scenes of violence – some stylish, others a bit more brutal. Oh, and if you have no idea what I mean by the Unicorn Scale, it’s probably best for everyone involved if you read the original article of this series.

Killing Eve is a 2018 spy drama derived from the Villanelle novels written by Luke Jennings. The program focuses on Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a young, brilliant but psychotic assassin who is a genius at executing her job with remarkable style but leaving little trace. When smart-but-bored MI5 grunt officer Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) intuits the assassin is a woman, the hunch leads her on an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase across Europe, trying to prove she is right – and discover who the hit-woman is working for.

WHAT I LIKED:

Sooo many queer reveals, and styles of queer reveals! Let’s break them down as the show progresses.

Villanelle. I loved that her reveal was placed in the pilot, in between hits. She immediately shoos away her ménage-a-trois of the night before as soon as her mentor comes in with her next assignment. Normally I would bristle at our ostensible villain being bi because it’s such a goddamn trope. But I’m a fan of how this was laid out. The nature of an assassin’s job is to lure and execute, and that can include sexual wiles a la James Bond. But this is specifically a tryst she does during her off hours. It displays her attractions in a quick way that makes it clear throughout the season her obsession with Eve and the way she approaches men (her mentor, prison guards) is not entirely off-base. Plus Villanelle is a far more complex, brilliant, and funny villain than we normally get, when their queerness is the most interesting thing about them.

Bill. Oh, sweet Bill. Who doesn’t love an endearing sourpuss? I knew from the beginning of Episode 3 Bill was marked for death – and it seems he did, too. Most characters who have a confession near the end of the second act tend to have their number up, as we all learned from Black Dynamite.

All joking aside, this sad turn didn’t make his queer confession any less tender. It was a surprise reveal for both the audience and Eve, but he also makes sure Eve knows he still loves and is attracted to his wife. I still really felt for his reveal, though – he was comfortable talking about being with hundreds of men and falling in love with whomever he does. Thinking about this a bit more considering Bill’s age, that probably puts his prime years in life and in this government job under the Thatcher administration – so his comfort with his bisexuality may seem nonchalant but it was probably hard-won through a lot of pain of keeping his identity under wraps for decades. It’s really lovely to see a bi man on screen – I just wish we had had longer with him before Villanelle gave him one of her deadly smiles.

Eve. Finally we arrive at the longest coming-out process of the season. Villanelle is upfront about her attractions. Bill was secure in his sexuality but kept it hidden. Eve needed more time to realize her fascination with Villanelle was more than professional, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. Her confession in the final scene may not include her actually spelling out her attraction, or if she has had any differing sexual history in the past (she said “no” in the scene with Bill, but her dismissal in Episode 7 isn’t very convincing), but it’s sincerely felt. Yes, she may have used her reveal in part to get Villanelle’s defenses down, but I don’t think she needed to go to the lengths she did in order to execute the ploy. And this whole thing goes beyond queerbaiting – we as the audience suspected there was something more to Eve’s focus on Villanelle since she gave the sketch description, but this suspicion actually bears fruit.

What’s even more of a triumph about all of these characters is they all have full lives beyond what we see on the screen – we slowly get Villanelle’s/Oxana’s background story, Bill has a family, Eve has a whole passel of friends.  Everyone gets development and empathy – even when that is uncomfortable to fork over (looking at you, Villanelle.)

As a spy genre, these gender role reversals are a real breath of fresh air, almost like a complete reverse-casting. Both Bond and her villain are women. The slightly more disposable “Bond girl”-esque characters like Frank are men. And the characters are resourceful – all cunning and no wizardry of Q making terribly-convenient gadgets. People bleed, people make mistakes, deaths are gruesome and have real consequences. Yet Killing Eve is still made with heaps of style and wit, with Eve being a far more accessible Everyman thrown into a role as a super-spy.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

I have a confession to make: it’s hard for me to find quibbles with this one. I know I’m already biased because I love a good spy yarn. Sure, no one said the term “bi” which is absurd, but there were so many queer characters on screen I was having trouble keeping track of anything like that – and that’s the kind of problem I am delighted to have. The only thing I can think of doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation, though. I find it a bit odd nobody mentions the fact Eve is Asian (updated from the novels) other than one quick description. Maybe since this is a British series that isn’t as vital of a part of the discussion. Still, it’s awesome to see a person of color in a lead role in this genre – and I hope this trend will continue. (I’m all for Idris Elba as James Bond)

THE RATING:

I’m a fan. There’s so much to love here, and so much to entertain if you can stomach some blood (it is a bit of a shoot-em-up at times, so that comes with the territory).  See it – and then we can dish about it together until the new season premieres in April.

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