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All Hail Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the Auteur of Female Dysfunction

Her new show, ‘Killing Eve,’ is one of the best of the year so far

Phoebe Waller-Bridge has an eye for the deliciously fucked up. The British writer and performer rose to stateside prominence in 2016 with Fleabag, a singular and intensely personal six-episode series that took expectations for the adrift urban antiheroine and pushed them past their Bradshaw-shaped limits. Waller-Bridge herself starred as the protagonist, known only as Fleabag, whose repeated fourth-wall breaks created the illusion of intimacy—only for a slow drip of revelations to make us seriously reconsider our connection.

Plumbing the depths that it does, Fleabag is a difficult act to follow. A second season will air in 2019, a delay due in part, according to Waller-Bridge herself, to the search for “an idea that was good enough.” In the meantime, fans have had to make do with Crashing, Waller-Bridge’s lighter, more ensemble-driven show available to stream on Netflix. (Fleabag is distributed in the United States by Amazon.)

Until now. This Sunday night, Waller-Bridge’s next series premieres on BBC America. At first glance, Killing Eve bears much less of an auteurist signature than its predecessor. It’s an adaptation, not an original story, and it’s based on the Villanelle novels by journalist Luke Jennings. Originally distributed as a run of popular Kindle Singles, the series is a Fifty Shades of Grey–like self-publishing success story, with an accelerated optioning process as its happy ending. (The first title, Codename Villanelle, wasn’t available as a bound book until August 2017, after Killing Eve had been ordered to series and cast.) Moreover, Waller-Bridge doesn’t appear in front of the camera: the title role, of a bored British intelligence agent who throws herself into a cat-and-mouse game with a female assassin, goes to Sandra Oh, while Jodie Comer plays her target, a Russian ex-con who now goes by Villanelle.

Still, Waller-Bridge serves as executive producer and showrunner for the eight-episode limited series, with sole writing credit on several chapters, including the premiere. (BBC America announced Thursday that the show has already been renewed for a second season.) Other signs of her stamp go deeper than a byline. Even when she doesn’t play them, Waller-Bridge is interested in women who misbehave and why, dissecting the complexes that drive said misbehavior without excusing or fetishizing it. Despite an excellent supporting cast, Killing Eve is essentially a two-hander, dependent on and driven by its equally virtuosic leads, but its heart can be traced to the change in title between Jennings’s work and Waller-Bridge’s—from centering on a beautiful, psychopathic killing machine to a more familiar kind of dysfunction. Killing Eve takes the seemingly irreplicable triumph of Fleabag and begins to hone it into an artistic signature. In the process, Killing Eve makes a specific insight that’s less about female depravity than why other women are drawn to it. It’s my favorite series of the year so far, not least because it makes me feel more than a little called out.

The first time we meet Eve Polastri, she’s screaming in her sleep. A lesser show might use this introduction to not-so-subtly hint at deeply repressed unhappiness, and that’s part of what’s going on here. But the crucial development is what happens when Eve’s devoted husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), wakes her up in a panic: She laughs. This is a woman who thrills at the extreme, no matter who’s getting hurt.

Eve is a de facto secretary stranded in a deadening desk job at MI5, the U.K. equivalent of the FBI. (Though she’s a British citizen, Eve was born in Connecticut, obviating the need for Oh to pull off an accent.) In her downtime, she’s been channeling her restlessness into researching a string of seemingly disparate killings throughout continental Europe: a discreet throat-slitting in Vienna, a shooting in Bulgaria, a hairpin through the skull in the Italian countryside. Eve is convinced these murders are the work of one person, likely a young woman—all the better to escape the notice of the authorities and her marks alike. “Nothing ever happens! Eve tells her superiors to justify the hours she’s spending on work that falls well outside her job description. “Now this woman is happening.” She’s trying to convince them that Villanelle is both real and a threat, though she ends up articulating her own problems better than those of the British state.

When she learns about an off-the-books MI6 (think CIA) operation dedicated to tracking down this mystery woman, Eve jumps at the chance to join. That it takes surviving a grisly quadruple homicide to land the assignment doesn’t seem to faze her. During a job interview with her soon-to-be boss, a bone-dry Fiona Shaw, Eve is pressed about why she’s spent so much time assembling a comprehensive dossier on what she couldn’t have known was more than a hunch. After sputtering through a few half-hearted explanations, she finally spits it out: “I’m just a fan”—as if Villanelle were a touring act, not the top of a Most Wanted list.

Beautiful, clever, and resourceful, Villanelle is certainly a subject worthy of Eve’s fascination. She’s also a cold-blooded killer. HBO’s Barry, another new and novel show about a murderer for hire, dwells on the corrosive effects the profession should and does have on an empathetic person. Villanelle feels no such remorse, or anything at all: Like Olivia Cooke’s character in last month’s Thoroughbreds, she observes and mimics human behavior with a detached bemusement, up to and including watching the life drain out of someone’s eyes. (If there’s any justice in the world, Comer will come out of this a megastar.) She’s someone to be respected, sure, but mostly feared, and probably despised. Needless to say, Eve stops with “respect.” She’s only half-joking when she says that Villanelle is “outsmarting the best of us, and for that she deserves to do or kill whatever she wants.”

A passive observer who craves a piece of the action and has difficulty internalizing the stakes of the life-or-death matters at hand, Eve provides an obvious in-text proxy for practically any viewer of prestige television—or, for that matter, sensationalized entertainment in general. But in a story where law enforcement and criminal alike are women, Eve’s obsession takes on an extra dimension. (Villanelle’s mysterious handler is a man, as are a few British intelligence officers of varying levels of marginality and incompetence. Other than them, however, Killing Eve’s core cast is female, notable in an espionage thriller.) Women make up a disproportionate share of the audience for real-life stories about murder and assault, which have seen a surge in popularity over the past several years. True-crime fandom often takes on a tone that resembles Eve’s borderline-inappropriate attitude, in kind if not degree. Take the recent vogue for podcasts, like My Favorite Murder, that combine lethal incidents and laughs to create “a kind of alternate-reality space where the rules of feminine propriety are suspended,” wrote Amanda Hess for The New York Times, “and where murder is something to laugh off, not seriously fear.” Were Eve’s job a little less hands-on, one could easily imagine her as a hardcore Murderino. And though Killing Eve itself is entirely fictional, it’s also viciously funny, cultivating its own form of irreverent appeal.

Eve, whose fascination with female assassins in general led to her fixation on Villanelle in particular, even appears to take a perverse kind of pride in Villanelle’s abilities. Villanelle’s gender means she’s underestimated, and some part of Eve enjoys rooting for the underdog, even when she’s technically working for the other side. As if body count were a glass ceiling like any other, Eve seems to get a kind of representational kick out of a woman killing with near impunity while she’s trapped behind a desk, which itself feels like a sly side commentary on the “more women guards” school of pop-feminist thought.

As Eve and Villanelle become ever more firmly locked into one another’s orbits, Eve is forced to come to grips with the full ramifications of Villanelle’s violent disposition. The two gradually form a genuine connection, though they’re hardly ever in the same room; in fact, the tantalizing close-yet-so-far-ness gives their bond its animating charge. There’s an undeniable sexiness to the proceedings, with Eve playing both Moneypenny and James Bond: Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase, buys her fancy clothes, and even asks an oblivious conquest to roleplay her pursuer. Eve is getting something out of this relationship she isn’t getting from her staid, supportive marriage, and Killing Eve enjoys teasing the audience as to whether it’ll ever make subtext text.

Partly, Eve’s complex is a standard gender reversal. Echoing Elizabeth Jennings in this final season of The Americans, she’s occupying the stereotypically male role of the put-upon provider who has no time for their partner’s relatively trivial concerns. But Eve’s dissatisfaction also feels connected to the same self-destructive urge that led Fleabag’s antiheroine to blow up her life, as does the solace she finds in her and Villanelle’s mutual understanding. Eve has the supportive partner and perfectly adequate job women are supposed to want from modern life, but she wants something more, whether or not that something is manifestly immoral and possibly going to kill her. There’s something taboo yet freeing about watching that desire be articulated onscreen. Call it Waller-Bridgean.