Assassination Nation!

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Two big shows out now about assassins, and I actually like them both despite the fact that I’ve really grown sick of the assassin trope in fiction as of late. These killers for hire with hearts of gold that we’re supposed to sympathize with have gotten to feel stale and inauthentic. Obviously they should be written as morally complex, but often that complexity can feel self-indulgent, and sometimes even grating. Thankfully, these two shows, Barry and Killing Eve, avoid that by adding interesting twists to the characterization of their assassins.

On Barry, the titular character and killer for hire is less the roguish bad ass we’ve grown accustomed to in these stories, and more a developmentally stunted man with zero social skills. Having been a killer for so long, and being pushed and prodded into the business by his deceptively manipulative handler (played by a reliably funny Stephen Root), Barry cuts himself off from his emotions and human society as a whole to make his job as easy as possible. In a twist of fate, he’s forced to confront what he is and reconnect with his emotions and society when through a bizarre series of events, he becomes enrolled in an acting class and falls in love with one of its students (played by a terrific Sarah Goldberg). In her wild and flailing emotions, the girl Barry falls for represents the opposite of what he is, and everything he wants out of life. The twist here that makes the show great, is that it understands that Barry is living in a fantasy world if he truly believes he can be redeemed through love or passion. As the season goes on, he is coming more and more to terms with what he is, and what he’s done to countless people in his wake, and that there are no ways to undo that and start over. His dreams of actually living a normal life with the girl of he loves are as impossible as her own dreams of being a famous and successful actor. Eventually his past will catch up to him, and he’ll have to truly confront everything he’s done to himself and others over the years, and I cannot wait.

Meanwhile on Killing Eve, our assassin (who pretentiously goes by the name “Villanelle”) isn’t presented as redeemable in the least, but is such a fun and specific character. She’s an ex-con turned killer for hire that gets into a vicious cat and mouse game with an MI6 operative named Eve. Villanelle’s a psychopath, full stop, but is also quirky in a way that feels less annoying, but more relatable. She too is trying to make her way in an unfeeling world and is constantly imitating and learning from others, trying to adapt to the vigorous social standards humans have put on themselves even as she constantly flouts them for the sake of her job. The character almost comes off as a playful demon, who is fascinated by humans and desperately wants to connect with them, even if she isn’t one herself. It gives her oncoming obsession with Eve more texture, and makes her character relatable without having to be sympathetic. Sandra Oh brings in a spectacular performance as the titular Eve, but it’s really Jodie Comer’s delightfully amoral assassin that makes Killing Eve instantly addictive.

The chief mistake of creators writing fiction about assassins is their desperation in making them likable. They add in weird beats, like how they’re really doing this job to support their families, or that they went down a dark path because a mob boss had a loved one killed in front of them, or that they only take jobs against people who “deserve” it. Here’s the thing, you’re never going to convince an audience that a person who kills for money is a paragon of morality. They are instruments of the most primal urge in human society, the desire to see our brethren dead for one reason or another. They are undoubtedly fascinating, but to play up their “redeemable” facets really misses the point of why we’re so interested in them. In Barry we see someone who was cut off from their humanity for so long come to grips with having lost it, and the consequences of that, which include the question of if he can ever really regain it. With Killing Eve, we see an assassin who never really felt like a normal human desperately reaching out for another despite knowing the impossibility of it all. Being an assassin isn’t just some bad ass job damaged heroes take up, it’s a truly dark path for a person to be on, and the emotional cost of that must be depicted in a way that doesn’t just amount to man-angst. It’s gotta mean something, because the story of a killer for hire, a person whose sole purpose is to sever human connections at the behest of other humans, is one of the most emotionally resonant types of stories you can write about. Psychopath or not, every person on this Earth wants something, and even the most violent and depraved career a person can have is intensely human at its core.

Gif of the Day:

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– Killing Eve

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