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Netflix's cheerfully murderous 'Kleo' is reminiscent of 'Killing Eve'

Jella Haase is a crack assassin for the German secret police in <em>Kleo</em>.
Julia Terjung
Jella Haase is a crack assassin for the German secret police in Kleo.

Stories about vengeful women are nothing new — just ask Medea— yet the new millennium has seen a boom in tales of heroines, or anti-heroines, violently righting wrongs. Whether it's Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, today's pop culture finds a special frisson in bad-ass women who get revenge.

We find the latest example in Netflix's thriller Kleo, a cheerfully murderous German series that will make you think of Killing Eve. Here's why: Its heroine, Kleo, is a cocky female assassin who wears wigs, struts around in disguises and knocks people off to the accompaniment of pop songs. Set shortly before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, her story equally recalls Tarantino movies like Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that fool around with historical facts. It puts a playful spin on the end of communism.

The year is 1987, and Jella Haase is Kleo, the granddaughter of an East German big shot, who works as a crack assassin for the secret police, the Stasi. She does her job with great skill and panache. But after completing a successful hit at the Big Eden nightclub in West Berlin, she's falsely charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison. Then history saves her. When the Wall comes down, Kleo is set free. Naturally, she sets about discovering who betrayed her — and making them pay.

As in Killing Eve, Kleo has a pursuer with whom she forms a bond. In this case, he's a man named Sven (Dimitrij Schaad) a shaggy West Berlin cop who nobody takes seriously. Sven had been present at the Big Eden murder and has been obsessed with tracking her down ever since. But it's a dangerous business, for her investigations threaten some exceedingly powerful people, including actual historical figures like Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi.

As Kleo zips from Germany to Mallorca to Chile in search of her betrayers, she and Sven are surrounded by assassins, double agents, false friends, a few random goofballs and a mysterious West German spy of Chinese origin who quotes Sun Tzu and may be the smartest person in the whole show.

Kleo's story is juicy enough that I'd like to tell you that the series is a knockout like Killing Eve. But the show is, alas, uneven. The Germans aren't exactly known for their light touch, and the show often goes awry when it labors to make Kleo a "fun" killer like Villanelle or serves up the failed quirkiness of a side-character who claims to be from the planet Sirius. If Killing Eve was a soufflé, Kleo is a dumpling.

But a tasty one. I gobbled down all eight episodes in two days. This is partly because its lead actors are excellent. With hints of both Elisabeth Moss and Florence Pugh, Haase drives the series with a spiky star turn that makes us feel the deep sense of loss eating away the core of Kleo's lethal bravado. As Sven, Schaad starts out so annoying that I wanted to smack him, yet by the end I realized that his performance was nicely modulated to gradually win over both Kleo — and us.

One of the real pleasures here is the sense of period detail — there are lots of bouncy '80s German pop songs — and the show has fun capturing the contrast between the West Germans, smug in their material success, and dutiful East Germans still bound to a communist system they can't quite accept is doomed. Kleo spends several episodes chasing a red suitcase that she feels sure will provide the key to why her superiors sold her out. When it's finally opened, well — a cynic would laugh with delight at what it irreverently suggests about the Cold War.

Now, with stories like this, the question always is, Will the hero get the satisfaction of happily offing all the baddies — you know, like John Wick — or will they come to discover that vengeance isn't the answer? I won't spoil things by telling you what Kleo decides, but I can say that she doesn't think that revenge is a dish that's better served cold.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.