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6 September 2019

In its portrayal of men and women, Killing Eve echoes life – with added weapons

By Rachel Cooke

I’m not sure anyone watches Killing Eve (8 June, 9.15pm) for its cartoony plot, enjoyable as it undoubtedly is. Its real pleasures lie in the close attention it gives to the psychology of its female characters. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote the first season, had it right when she said after the Baftas (where it won best drama series) that the show’s primary engine is the deep interest women tend to have in other women. This fascination lies not only at the heart of Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), the world’s least likely intelligence officer, and her obsession with Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the world’s least likely international assassin. You see it, too, in the way Eve and Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), head of MI6’s Russia section, respond to one another, their mutual curiosity always in play even when they’re absolutely furious with one another. Meanwhile, most of its male characters spend their time looking, and acting, baffled. In this way, at least, it’s just like real life – only with weapons and whackier clothes.

The second series (under lead writer Emerald Fennell) begins 30 seconds after the first ended. In Paris, Eve, having just stabbed Villanelle and fearing that she has killed her, is desperate to get back to London. The psychology I’m on about kicks in immediately. While another show would have Eve sobbing hysterically in a loo at the Gare du Nord, Fennell has her going into one of those self-service sweet shops – like Woolworths, only eight times more expensive – and filling a paper bag with about a kilo of sugar-coated jelly blobs (she buys so many, even a nearby kid looks appalled).

She then eats them by the handful, unthinkingly, while staring into the middle distance as if she’s just ended a love affair.

Of course, in a way, she has. If Villanelle is dead, their relationship will be oveweapons and whackier clothes.r. Is she, though? Don’t be daft. Fortified by her belief that Eve stabbed her only “to show me how much she cares”, she’s about to hitchhike to London in a pair of comedy pyjamas and some purloined Crocs (the scene where she has to place her feet in these crimes against fashion and hygiene is priceless), the better to continue their violent entanglement.

I’ve seen two episodes of this series and it still feels so fresh. Comer is as marvellous as ever, particularly when Villanelle is posturing (she acts acting so brilliantly); her petulant charm never fails. Her character also has a new, rather strict handler, Raymond (the wonderful Adrian Scarborough), who rocks up in an orange Volvo in the nick of time. You will enjoy Julian Barratt’s turn as a creepy bloke who lives with a load of dolls – I’d better not say more – and Carolyn continues to be one of the most understatedly bracing female characters ever written for television. I love the exchange she and Eve have about her moisturising cream en route to the morgue (“I’ll send you a link,” she tells Eve, having revealed that this potion, whose marvellous efficacy is all down to pig embryos, smells “like arse”). Ditto a conversation in which she reminisces about her father, who used to frequent a certain bathing pond (it was, she says, a place where men could have sex with boys, “which would have been an added bonus for Daddy”).

The small things are all great: so kitschy and retro, and yet so right, too. A ghastly Sixties china cat used as a weapon. The sight of Eve, still in shock, frantically chopping vegetables while dancing round her kitchen to Kim Wilde. A box of washing powder up-ended in an old-fashioned Basildon laundry (big pink letters reading BASILDON appear on screen, as if it was up there with AMSTERDAM or PARIS).

There’s no feeble girlishness here: our heroines hungrily scoff burgers in the morgue, their appetites piqued by the smell of formaldehyde. But these characters are voraciously female in the way that they shop, and pay compliments, and speak to the annoying men who constantly get in their way. “What was her flat like?” Carolyn asks Eve, wondering about Villanelle’s Paris apartment. “Chic as shit,” she replies, without a second’s hesitation. Even as she was busy pushing a knife through human gristle, she was covetously taking in her adversary’s fixtures and fittings: those curtains, that mirror.

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind

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