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Sandra Oh on Killing Eve’s “cat-and-cat” game and ’ship name

Killing Eve stars Sandra Oh, Fiona Shaw, and Jodie Comer
Photo: Corey Nickols (Getty Images)

Killing Eve is back, and so are the mind games, sexual tension, and divided loyalties. Once again, Eve Polastri [Sandra Oh] is the hunted—she’s as sought after by international assassins as she is heads of intelligence agencies. Despite still coming to terms with whether she was defending herself or lashing out at Villanelle [Jodie Comer] in the season-one finale, Eve is also eager to get back to work, especially now that there’s a possibility that another accomplished assassin may be stepping into Villanelle’s former place (in the contract killer community, not Eve’s heart—for now).

For Emmy nominee Sandra Oh, season two is also about unlocking Eve’s potential; the same ambition that nudged her out of her old desk jockey post at MI5 is creating friction at home and even under her new boss, Carolyn [Fiona Shaw]. Eve was first drawn to Villanelle for her skill, for having outwitted so many of Eve’s colleagues. Villanelle challenges Eve, who’s been leveling up since the show premiered last year. To paraphrase Anaïs Nin, it’s much more painful for Eve to ignore her potential than it is to embrace it, even if it means losing the people who have been with her up until this point—namely, her husband Niko.


Of course, Oh doesn’t think it has to be an either-or situation. In fact, when The A.V. Club recently spoke to the recent Golden Globes host about the new dynamic between husband and wife, she suggested Niko doesn’t have to remain so hapless in the new season. In our conversation, Oh schooled us on preconceptions, both about the show and women’s potential for violence, as well as maintaining your identity in a relationship. Read on for more insight from the Emmy nominee, as well as her thoughts on “VillanEve.”

The A.V. Club: We see in a title card that the premiere picks up just 30 seconds after the first season finale. What is Eve’s state of mind after meeting—and stabbing—Villanelle?

Sandra Oh: I think Eve’s state of mind is utter shock and panic… and deep shame, and fascination… and a kind of panic attack-y drive to reestablish normalcy—which, I don’t think she can.

AVC: The show basically resets itself in the first episode of the season: Eve gets back on the job and Villanelle is basically hunting her down again. The cat-and-mouse game of the first season provided some of the biggest thrills, so how do you recreate that tension now that they’ve met?


SO: Well, because we’ve gone from “cat and mouse” to “cat and cat,” you know what I mean? The show hasn’t really reverted; we’ve changed it, because you have to change it. That’s the medium of television. This is not a play, and it’s not a film, where it holds in its two-hour format. That’s one of the things that I gotta tell you I love about television, and is also very challenging about television—it’s a living, breathing thing and it changes. It’s like, if you tell a joke, you can’t continue telling that joke unless you specifically do it as a callback. That’s the nature of comedy—it’s not going to be funny in the same way, so you have to change it.

Their relationship [Eve and Villanelle’s] has from the very beginning of the first season to the very last moment been changing. It’s changed. Now they know each other much more intimately—and to Villanelle’s thinking, very intimate. That moment of stabbing has, strangely, bound Eve even more to her.


I feel like I have to come up with a couple of different animals other than a cat and a mouse for this. [laughs] But it’s definitely moved to a “cat-and-cat” game.

AVC: That actually leads into my next question: how would you describe Eve and Villanelle’s relationship at this point? Is it romantic or purely adversarial? The show has been compared to Hannibal because of the closeness between its protagonist and antagonist, but Eve and Villanelle’s dynamic is also very much its own thing.


SO: Well, first, I would encourage people to not go down that pathway and not have to compare it because it’s limiting. I understand a basic human need for some sort of familiar pattern, but equally as important, I think even greater so, is the human need for uniqueness, originality, and truth. Things that are undefinable, we need that. People actually really need ambiguity and things that are undefinable, which I do think are two ideas absolutely held within this show on all levels. You know, there are some things that are stylistically familiar. For example, the way we go all over Europe, there’s something familiar in that spy-thriller genre, which makes you feel settled, right? But it’s also just unfamiliar enough; we don’t see the tour Eiffel, even though it’s Paris. What we show are the backstreets of Paris, which is equally as true. That’s friggin’ Paris.

With our show, you can tell in your bones that you’re in Paris or you’re in Berlin or wherever. We ground it in a sense of place, but a place that’s still ambiguous, confusing and challenging, because we’re looking into the psychology of these women. But even they themselves don’t know what’s happening, so it’s introducing something familiar but also throwing you off from what is familiar.


AVC: The show subverts a lot of ideas we have about women, about their ambition and their potential for violence. In the premiere specifically, Villanelle is quick to correct someone who says women don’t stab. We’ve seen that Villanelle will resort to all kinds of violence, but this was still a shocking moment for Eve. What’s the significance of this form of attack for her?


SO: I think there’s something regarding that very physical act that the person committing the act can’t be removed from it, you know? You can’t be physically removed from it, so you cannot remain unaffected by it. Because of the physical proximity, I would imagine one’s taking of responsibility of it, or one’s involvement in it, psychologically, is deeper. I mean, we have people growing up online and [in] gaming, pushing buttons and blowing up things. There’s no real emotional growth. And it’s like they’re being trained to be so. There’s not an emotional repercussion or consequence that you can feel in your body because you’re just pushing a button and if you started to play those games when you were 5 and now you’re 25, the muscle memory of it is not tied to an emotion, as opposed to being so physically close and having to use your own physical force to thrust something into someone.

That’s why Eve stabs her, and that’s why I loved playing that moment [in “God, I’m Tired”], because all these things that are within Eve that Villanelle doesn’t believe Eve has come out in that one action. But then in the second season premiere, you can see the other part of who Eve is come in and immediately regret what she’s done–she’s immediately unable to believe what she’s done, and doesn’t want to believe she’s that kind of person who can inflict that kind of pain on another person. But we all are.


AVC: Speaking of accountability, Carolyn has a lot of explaining to do to her once-and-future employee, though it doesn’t look like she’s eager to give Eve any answers. What is it going to be like for Eve to work with someone she’s not entirely certain she can trust?

SO: With Carolyn—I’m sorry, but when you say “someone she can’t trust,” immediately I think of Villanelle. [laughs] With Eve and Carolyn, I think you’ll see a struggle in that first episode, you see a real questioning. And then you also see how in a really sensible way—I think, anyway—Carolyn lays down the rulebook of like this is how this life runs, you know what I mean? If you want to know the truth in this way, you’ve got to be prepared to give up your secrets as well, which I don’t think that Eve is prepared to do at this point.


AVC: When Eve returns to London, she’s not just going back to her job—she also has to pick up her life with Niko once more. What does their relationship look like going forward?

SO: Oh, it’s another struggle. It’s a struggle for both of them. But I’ve always been so deeply interested in their relationship, because it’s really about what happens to a longstanding relationship when one partner has an immense growth spurt, you know? I see my friends going through this, I see them struggling through this. And I see my friends come apart when the growth isn’t equal. That is real, that is something that happens to these long-term relationships.


I love a metaphor, and here is someone—Eve—who is starting to learn something tremendous from herself, and the energy of that growth is starting to pull her away or pulling her deeper into herself. That’s the way I like to think about it, is that Eve is going deeper and deeper into herself and it’s whether Niko has the ability and the will to hang on. It’s also about how Eve is maturing. This is something I really like about Eve—when she really gets focused, she kind of gets carelessly oblivious. There’s a certain carelessness, I think, to Eve regarding her outlook on her own marriage, which can also happen when you’re into a decade and a half of being with someone.


AVC: You start to take each other for granted.

SO: Yes, definitely. But also, one has to keep up with one’s growth, too, you know? You can’t let go of that just because someone isn’t trying to keep up with you.


AVC: You and Jodie Comer are probably aware that fans ’ship your characters, but have you two talked about the couple name they’ve given you?

SO: Ohh, what is it?

AVC: It’s “VillanEve.”

SO: Oh! VillanEve! [laughs] VillanEve.... [stresses third syllable]

AVC: Do you think it should be something else?

SO: [laughs] Oh no, whatever the fans like, I’m game with it. But I do see how completely Eve’s name is absorbed into Villanelle’s—that’s something Villanelle would probably love.


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