Days before cult hit ‘Killing Eve’ wrapped its four seasons on BBC America, star Jodie Comer was dealing with the loss of playing Villanelle, the assassin with a keen sense of fashion and humor she had been playing for more than five years. How was she going to do it?
“Cry like a baby,” says Liverpool-born Comer. “I’m very emotional.”
That’s not the kind of response his alter ego would have given. Possibly a sociopath and certainly capable of slicing Achilles tendons while hiding under a bed – smiling the whole time – Comer’s Villanelle was a sui generis television anti-heroine not given to sentimentality. And when paired with titular MI6 agent turned renegade Sandra Oh, “Killing Eve” became a sight like no other on TV – funny, dark, bloody, full of jaw-dropping fashion…and created , written by and starring women.
Over the course of five years (the series did not air in 2021 due to the pandemic) and 32 episodes, “Eve” followed in the cross tracks of spies, agents and female assassins who bounce in a uniquely feminine way. Yes, there were gimmicks and secret organizations, prisons, death and black humor, but ultimately “Eve” was never about saving the world from another megalomaniac, a la James Bond. It was about women running away… but with a body count.
“The most important thing to me on this show is these two women [Villanelle and Eve] and their relationship with each other, and how they found their missing piece in each other, and through that relationship became more whole,” says showrunner Laura Neal, who joined the series in 2019 and became the lead writer for the final season.
“We have never seen such a two-handed film with women,” admits Dan McDermott, president of Entertainment & AMC Studios (AMC Networks includes BBC America). “It demonstrated very clearly that we can have big hit shows that are both commercially and creatively successful – and also award-winning – from women.”
Yet “Killing Eve,” based on the Villanelle book series by Luke Jennings, initially struggled to find a home. Developed by Sally Woodward Gentle’s Sid Gentle Productions, the series should have been an easy sell, especially with a first-season showrunner named Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”). (Each season featured a different showrunner, including Suzanne Heathcote and “The Crown’s” Emerald Fennell.) Still, it didn’t land for UK-based TV programmers.
“In the UK, scripts tend to be split into comedy and drama, and they’re handled by different people,” says executive producer Gentle. “It was confusing for people.”
But BBC America actively sought out female-led stories, and as former senior vice president of its scripted programming Gina Mingacci notes, “Fleabag” had “obsessed” executives. “It wasn’t even a question,” she said. “Creatively, that was our show.”
The twist wasn’t just that the women were killing in “Eve.” Villanelle and Eve (as well as Fiona Shaw’s boss, Carolyn) were tough – but also plagued by identity crises; they were both repelled and attracted to each other. It’s no surprise, then, that AMC Networks was interested – “Eve” sits on the spectrum with “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” in its overarching themes: Eve has reinvented herself as a killer, while that Villanelle reconsidered if she wanted to keep killing.
“Eve’s journey was a bit more cyclical than ‘Breaking Bad’,” suggests Neal. “She was discovering elements of herself that she was struggling to release. The journey of the show releases these elements, pushes them to the extreme and refocuses. [“Bad’s”] Walter White didn’t have that focus so much.
Then, premiering as it did at the height of the #MeToo era, “Eve” touched on another part of the zeitgeist. Villanelle’s behavior contained “a degree of wish fulfillment,” Gentle notes. “We talked a lot about what it would be like to live life without fear.”
Neal agrees: “Watching female characters act without shame or fear and worry about judgment is new and unique. It’s not ideal in the real world, but it sounds ambitious for a female audience.
Comer personally absorbed this message. “Through [Villanelle] I had to really get rid of my awareness of what people think,” she says. “I really had to be fearless in my decision making. She literally doesn’t apologize for anything. I probably say “sorry” 30 times a day. But I think she made me more free as a person.
Ultimately, however, four seasons was the limit of Villanelle and Eve’s journey. AMC’s McDermott says they were “open” to a “longer story,” which could be good news for spinoff rumors, perhaps more focused on Shaw’s Carolyn.
But Gentle insists that if it’s going to happen, “it’s a long way off.”
For now, “Eve” has come to the conclusion that she insists on staying true to their key women. “We wanted to think about what would be true for these characters,” she says. “We gave them the freedom to finish it, and not get away with it. We didn’t want to chicken out about anything.
And that’s something Villanelle would certainly have appreciated.