With my summer goals focused around expanding my portfolio and, mainly, working on spec scripts for upcoming fellowships, I’ve begun studying the shows I’ve been watching more than I usually do. If you’ve been following this blog, you’d know that I’ve recently gotten really into Killing Eve, so much so that this post is going to be my fifth mentioning of the show. Naturally, I figure this is a show worth working on a spec for.
Figuring out how to write a spec episode is hard, with their being little to no resources discussing exactly how to approach it. I imagine this is due to a lot of things- namely, the fact that most writers would rather be telling their own story than working on someone else’s. I get it, and that’s largely why I’ve been so hesitant to fully delve into one.
But, after looking into the structure of Killing Eve, I was sold into the benefits of writing a spec episode. Even if what you write is simply a sample for others to judge you on, you can learn so much about structure just from analyzing and attempting to replicate your favorite shows/films.
Here’s a (somewhat lengthy) breakdown of Killing Eve’s second episode, “I’ll Deal With Him Later.”
Episode Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
- TEASER: We open in Bulgaria. Villanelle (the female assassin) kills a man as he begs for his life. She sits around, seemingly bored, after he’s finally died.
- (START ACT 1) Eve meets with Caroline, a senior MI6 agent. Eve awkwardly talks about her past, and ends up embarrassing herself. The pair discuss the case. Eve notes how skilled the assassin is, bordering on praise. Says that more people should take interest in her.
- Caroline shows Eve her “base of operations”. Tells Eve that, if they investigate the assassin, they will need to assemble a team.
- In Paris, we are with Villanelle. She enters her flat and is flirted with by Sebastian, a young tenant nearby.
- In her flat, Villanelle finds her handler, Konstantin. He’s upset with her, concerned with her mental state, and demands that she get re-evaluated.
- (START ACT 2) Villanelle is mentally re-evaluated by her assassination agency. She’s doing fine until the name “Anna” is mentioned. She isn’t cleared to go back out.
- Afterwards, Villanelle tries to gain Konstantin’s sympathy. Hugs him and, in doing so, pickpockets him. This gives her the location of her next assassination target- a woman named Carla. Konstantin tells her to “do something normal”
- Back at her flat, while working out, Sebastian comes to her door. Villanelle asks him out on a date. He enthusiastically agrees.
- Villanelle walks along with Sebastian on a “date”. She complains, using fake names/scenarios, about Konstantin and her business. She demands that Sebastian show her his flat.
- Villanelle and Sebastian have sex. Villanelle is scarily stone-faced throughout. Forces Sebastian to finish before promptly leaving.
- Back in her flat, Villanelle concocts a poison and seals it in a perfume bottle.
- Back in Belgium, Eve meets with Bill and Elena (her former coworkers). She shows them Caroline’s base of operations. Bill isn’t convinced of Eve’s logic in searching for the assassin.
- Eve goes to the bathroom. While looking at herself in the mirror, recalls that she met a mysterious nurse in the bathroom just moments before the recent hospital assassination.
- Eve returns to the base of operation. Tells Elena and Kenny to search through the database of nurses. Realizes that Bill has left.
- (START ACT 3) Eve meets up with Bill and argues over the case. Explains her logic and convinces him that they are searching for a female assassin. Argues that catching her could lead them to a larger organization.
- Eve tells Kenny to search through databases of female psychopaths. Tells Elena to schedule a meeting with Frank, their former boss, in order to uncover the missing CCTV from a recent assassination.
- Villanelle arrives at a gala, dressed as a waitress. She sneaks in unnoticed and watches as the head of the gala gives a speech about Carla.
- Villanelle follows Carla to the makeup room. While there, kills Carla using the perfume. Watches, unnerved, as Carla dies.
- (START ACT 4) At the pub, Eve and her crew confront Frank about the missing CCTV. He admits that it never existed, and he lied about it to inflate his ego.
- Eve, at home with her husband Niko, tells him that she’s joined MI6. He notes how she seems livelier, but is simultaneously concerned for her safety.
- Villanelle gets back to her flat. Is attacked by Konstantin, who is angry about her recent unapproved assassination. They are walked in on by Sebastian.
- They effectively get Sebastian to leave the flat. As he does so, he picks up the bottle of Villanelle’s perfume.
- Villanelle effectively threatens Konstantin, forcing him to back down. Konstantin informs Villanelle that someone is searching for her, and she must live low. Tells her that the person investigating her is named Eve Polastri. They hear Sebastian die outside the door.
- (START TAG) Villanelle begins searching for Eve online.
- Eve begins looking through the nurse database. Realizing that none of them are similar to the nurse she met in the bathroom…
- Villanelle and Eve realize, at the same time, that they’ve already met each other.
The Function of Each Section
- The Teaser solidifies the tone of the show and, though disconnected from the remainder of the episode story, hints at what’s to come. (Villanelle is an amazing assassin, yet isn’t satisfied by her work).
- Act 1 announces the various conflicts within the episode. (Eve will need to lead a team. Villanelle must prove herself as an assassin.)
- Act 2 adds more complications and specifies the obstacles in the conflict. (Eve’s team doesn’t fully respect her. Villanelle isn’t cleared for her next kill).
- Act 3 resolves the prior conflict, but a new conflict emerges as a consequence. (Eve gains Bill’s trust, but now must confront her old boss. Villanelle has killed her target, but has rebelled against her organization.)
- Act 4 resolves the consequences. (Eve confronts Frank and reveals her job to Niko. Villanelle avoids Konstantin’s wrath.)
- The Tag teases what’s to come. (Eve and Villanelle realize simultaneously that they’ve already met each other.)
Fanciful Assassination: One of the staples of Killing Eve lies in how it showcases murder and brutality in manners which are often more artistic than violent. Whether this be Villanelle’s perfume killing in this episode, or her red light district show in season 2, every episode has this Final Destination-esque approach to violence which sets it far apart from other detective shows. More often than not, this approach reveals itself in a distinct sequence, nearly separate from the remainder of the narrative.
Eve Learns to Trust/Doubt Herself: The key theme I’ve noticed in Eve’s character tends to be that of doubt. Whether she doubts herself, her partners, or her purpose, she is constantly shifting between being righteously self-assured or terribly self-loathing. Each episode’s arc revolves around her either overcoming or succumbing to her doubts. Here, she goes from being unsure about her ability as a leader, to openly decrying her old boss and revealing her new identity to her husband.
A Betrayal: Most, if not all, episodes of Killing Eve work with a betrayal of some sort which reveals new information to both the viewer and audience. This moment often occurs in the episode’s final scene, such as here when Eve and Villanelle discovering they’ve already met each other. Both are “betrayed” by the knowledge that the person they’re searching for is someone whom they’ve seen before. Each betrayal naturally sets up the next episode, thereby allowing the series a consistent pace of intrigue.
Plot Intersection: Even in these early episodes, the show’s “Cat and Mouse” dynamic between Eve and Villanelle is firmly established. The core thesis behind this is that, despite how far apart their respective plotlines may appear, they will undoubtedly intersect at some point in the episode. In the pilot, this occurs with Villanelle killing Eve’s witness. Here, it’s the tag, with Eve and Villanelle realizing that their future arcs will be revolving around one another. Though some episodes lean heavier on this intersection, there’s almost always a moment in each episode in which one characters’ actions effect the other.
Someone’s In Danger: Another routine occurrence in this show is the use of dramatic irony, in which the audience knows something the character doesn’t. Again, this is done in the tag, in which we discover that Eve has caught the attention of Villanelle and, as a result, is in danger. Eve, of course, doesn’t realize this. Not only does this further a sense of tension within the show, but it simultaneously furthers the show “Cat and Mouse” engine. This engine is predicated on the idea that one character will always have the upper hand on the other, yet what’s unique about this show is how they will consistently switch who has the upper hand. In some episodes, it seems Villanelle is on top, whereas in others, Eve is seemingly successful. This constant switching keeps the audience engaged and maintains the show’s unpredictable plot stylings.
What Does This All Mean?
Each of these elements point towards the apparent engine of the show. A show’s engine, effectively, is the thesis of what the show is “about”. Ozark, for example, runs on a story engine of “secrets”- every episode is going to be about characters either concealing secrets, or weaponizing secrets. Breaking Bad is about change, with every episode relating in some form to the essence of what makes people change.
Story engines are broad, but from what I’ve seen, tend to encapsulate the show’s themes and style simultaneously. It’s the tool that guarantees a blueprint of sorts for each episode and, by reading it, you can quickly imagine the plots inherent from episode to episode. The engine of a show like Grey’s Anatomy could be summed up as “people who must juggle their personal lives with their professional lives”. This engine highlights the two major themes of the show- professionalism and humanity. Each episode, therefore, will revolve around these concepts and could abstractly be summarized with this line of thought.
So where does that bring us in regards to Killing Eve? Well, let’s look at the recurring elements of the show. We have stylistic violence, unexpected character intersections, and themes of doubt, betrayal, and identity, all occurring with a distinct Cat and Mouse dynamic. With this, you could surmise the story engine is something along the lines of “Two diametrically opposed characters attempt to chase each other down, all while being unsure of their feelings for one another.”
This summary, though admittedly imperfect, starts with the most important aspect of this show — characters. We then transition to how the pair of them interact from episode to episode, which always revolves around them trying to figure the other one out which, more often than not, involves introspection on their part. As a result, those themes of doubt, betrayal, and identity shine through in how their relationship unfolds.
This is all done with the caveat that this is a single episode of the show. Regardless, it provides a rough framework and hypothesis of sorts which I plan to test against other episodes. Through this exercise, I personally felt I learned a ton, not just about how Killing Eve works, but about how shows in general function. It’s ridiculously intriguing to think that most shows all have a set of restrictions they must work around to maintain a sense of consistency, and yet these restrictions don’t turn the show into a cookie-cutter drinking game. Rather, these restrictions allow for creativity to flourish, as evidenced by the increasingly elaborate and unexpected developments which occur from episode to episode of this show.