Incoming Arts & Culture editor Milo Farragher-Hanks gives his thoughts on the third season of BBC One's hit thriller
As the finale to the third season to BBC One’s spy thriller/black comedy/Gothic romance Killing Eve saw Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and her nemesis/object of obsession/star-crossed lover Villanelle (Jodie Comer) meet at a ballroom dancing competition, a perfect visual metaphor for the season came into my mind; a tango danced by rote. The basic motions of passion and danger are there, yes, and often performed with skill, but the essential underlying charge and animating energy is absent. It’s not bad or “unenjoyable” television – it’s largely handsomely produced, mostly well-scripted, and consistently well-acted – but it is an altogether less assured, less singular, and less surprising piece of work than the bold prior two seasons, which were gleefully unpredictable and refreshingly irreverent toward genre convention in charting the tumultuous relationship between MI6 agent Eve and international assassin Villanelle. It feels all too often like the product of notes from executives who wanted something like Killing Eve’s prior seasons but less strange, less disturbing, more conventionally likeable – in other words, more like every other show of its kind.
Perhaps this season’s lack of the show’s earlier swagger is apt, given that it finds both leading women in states of listless ennui, six months after Villanelle shot Eve and left her for dead in the second season’s bold, blunt final image. We first meet Villanelle about to marry a Spanish heiress – with one eye on her fortune and the other, not-so-subtly, on the easiest way to make her death look like an accident (she gives a hilariously gauche wedding toast marvelling at her bride’s wealth). The ceremony is interrupted, however, by the return of a face from Villanelle’s past – Dacha (a vigorous Harriet Walter), a former Olympic gymnast and KGB agent now working for “the Twelve” (the shadowy cabal who initially served as Villanelle’s employers). She wants to bring Villanelle back into the fold – and in return, Villanelle, bored with the grind of killing, wants a promotion. Meanwhile, a recovered Eve is now working in a Korean restaurant in New Malden, ostensibly eager to put the world of international espionage behind her. Trouble inevitably finds her when her former MI6 colleague Kenny (Sean Delaney) – son of her ex-boss Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw, still able to steal entire scenes with glares) – stumbles onto some potentially incriminating information regarding the Twelve in his new position at a Vice-like online magazine. Inevitably, events conspire to set the two women on a collision course, their conflicted feelings regarding one another coming to the fore once again.
The prior two seasons of Killing Eve – the first overseen by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the second by Emerald Fennel – carried themselves with a refreshing, insouciant confidence. They worked in the mold of expressionistic thrillers by mercurial genre filmmakers like Dario Argento and Park Chan-wook (albeit with a distinctly feminine point-of-view), creating a baroquely designed world ruled by the primal, excessive wants and appetites of its characters, and using sex, violence, and intensely stylised costumes (has any recent show spawned so many think-pieces dedicated to the clothes?) and decor to dramatically manifest those wants. The show seemed joyously unconcerned with what anybody else thought of it, in a manner which felt genuinely liberating for a female-centered narrative. If you found its characters too strange or unknowable or unlikable, if you couldn’t keep up with its breakneck tonal shifts, then that was your problem; much like Villanelle, Killing Eve was intent on doing exactly what it wanted and looking fabulous doing it.
The third season sees Suzanne Heathcoat (best known for her work on Fear The Walking Dead) take over as head writer, and feels more conventional by comparison – perhaps even chastened, in so far as a series about contract killing and obsessive desire ever can be. There’s a lot more plot this time out, or rather the plot is more in the foreground. Where prior seasons used the broader machinations of espionage in figurative, dream-like fashion as a device through which to put the characters in situations which reveal unexpected shades and hidden desires (which is not a criticism – it’s true of many great thrillers, including almost every Hitchcock film), the third outing focuses more on revelations regarding who’s working for who and who might be manipulating who as assets in themselves. Most episodes are split between Eve investigating the Twelve alongside Kenny’s co-workers – a motley crew of basically likeable but forgettable characters – and Villanelle carrying out various assassinations while globe-trotting under the tutelage of Dacha. In contrast to the live-wire pacing of the prior two seasons, which wrong-footed the audience by playing out dramatic turns in unexpected ways or at unexpected times and almost always felt on the verge of exploding into violent, sensuous abandon, here both major plot threads are slow drip-feeds of information. There are still novel set-pieces, many of them entertaining (you’ll never look at a garden hose the same way again), but by and large this season is less concerned with striking individual moments than with laying the groundwork for the twists and turns which inevitably play out over the last couple of episodes.
This structure deprives the show of its essential charge of danger and makes the moments when the show does engage in hazy plotting feel less like part of an overall dreamlike or operatic design and more like contrivance or sloppiness. The moment when Eve and Villanelle first reunite is emblematic of this season’s structural issues. It’s a thrilling scene, played out with a subversive lack of ceremony (the abrupt cut to Villanelle sauntering into the last place we’d expect to see her is the season’s boldest formal touch) and acted with brilliant physical intensity by Oh and Comer; but where earlier seasons might have lingered on the two women’s reactions to such a moment, or let its urgent sensuality colour everything we see subsequently (the way Eve and Villanelle’s first encounter haunted them both throughout the initial season), here it feels arbitrary in its placement, just one more development on that episode’s checklist.
The softening of Killing Eve is observable in many aspects of the season, from the frequency of fake-out deaths, wherein characters are struck down only to turn up alive but injured in the next scene or episode, to the preponderance of dialogue wherein characters explain their emotions or motivations – the latter is especially bad in a maddeningly repetitive sub-plot centered on Carolyn’s rocky relationship with daughter Geraldine (Gemma Whelan), which is saved only by Shaw’s peerless deadpan and a terrifically blunt pay-off. The digressions into territory more personal (like Eve’s discussion of sexual fluidity with David Haig’s Bill back in season one) or downright bizarre (Villanelle, wearing a pig mask, gutting an adulterous husband in the window of an Amsterdam brothel) than your average spy thriller would dare venture are largely absent here, and while the costume and production design remains impressive, the compositions and cutting are less playful or expressive than in the earlier seasons. Even the structuring of the season around the theme of parents and children (not for nothing does one episode pointedly echo Skyfall‘s burning-familial-home climax – nodding to another spy saga marked by its Freudian fixations) feels the like the kind of hackneyed underlining of ‘theme’ that the show has previously refused to lower itself to.
It’s in the handling of the two leading women, however, that Heathcoat’s more conventional approach proves most frustrating. Initially so refreshing in their complexity, unpredictability, and unapologetic messiness, they’re both brought more in line with conventional wisdom about what makes ‘good’ (or, rather, easily palatable) characterisation; meaning consistently understandable, preferably “likeable”, motivations, emotions, and actions. Owing to both the trauma of the previous finale and a shocking bereavement in the first episode, Eve is more morose than ever before, her characteristic dark humour and overriding mordant curiosity replaced by the standard grief and remorse that drives most reluctant spies drawn back into the fold in fiction. Villanelle, meanwhile, is stuck in a story which at once over-psychologises her while failing to provide the coherent sense of her interior life it aims for. The first few episodes push her character in some interesting directions –an amusing sub-plot sees her mentoring a younger fledgling killer, with predictably disastrous results, while her reunion with her birth family provides the backbone for the season’s fifth episode, “Are You From Plinner?”, a pastoral tragicomedy with a chilling final image which proves this season’s finest hour. In the season’s back half, however, she’s over-taken by a bad case of burn-out, depressed and wanting out of the contract-killing game. Comer sells this with conviction, but the writing never squares this apparent crisis with the unrepentantly homicidal aesthete we’ve grown to know and guiltily love. Where once our reactions to Villanelle (intentionally) mirrored Eve’s – we were shocked by her violence while being delighted by her audacity and humour, jealous of her style and opulent living – here we’re asked to feel straightforward sympathy for her, to root for her to get out of the business. Once an unrepentant but twistedly aspirational uberfrau, a figure we were both disturbed by and drawn to, she’s now been flattened into relatability (the most nauseating of writerly buzzwords), at the cost of her own complexity – and that of the show.
With both women so drastically simplified, their ambiguities and rough edges largely dispensed with, their unique and fascinating relationship – the centrepiece of the show – slips into the background. Partly, this is because of the frustrating decision to keep the pair apart for most of the season, but I’d argue it comes down also to the fact that it was a relationship made of rough edges and ambiguities – stemming from their mutual capacity for obsession, rage, and overpowering passion. With those characteristics largely gone, who, exactly, are they to each other? What would their getting together mean? As the finale places Eve and Villanelle once again at a crossroads, torn between returning to their respective circumscribed worlds or running away together, it occurred to me that I didn’t particularly care what they did – that, surely, has to represent some sort of fundamental failure.
The show’s surface pleasures do, admittedly, remain potent. Sandra Oh continues to give one of contemporary television’s most layered, arresting performances, capable of finding nuances of humour and humanity in the most seemingly incidental lines or gestures. Watch the cheerful, laughing way she informs a new ally he’ll probably get killed, or the fervour in her eyes as she rifles through a bin – few actors would invest these moments with so much characterisation, and few shows would be smart enough to take advantage of such. Comer’s performance remains a dazzling high-wire act, layered in manner and artifice (her range of accents is still breathtaking) but underpinned by a palpable energy and impulsiveness. Her face is so expressive that certain close-ups almost totally negate the need for emotional exposition (of which there is, frankly, far too much). Walter also proves an apt addition to the cast, tearing into her dialogue with relish, methodically drawing out each syllable in a delightfully broad Russian accent. She seems to be having fun, even when the show itself isn’t. Heathcoat periodically does come through with the kind of unexpected character beats that made Waller-Bridge and Fennell’s versions of the show shine – like Caroline’s casually conducting a meeting while in the bath, or an extended, hilarious sequence involving Villanelle in a Build-a-Bear shop. There are some crackling dialogue sequences, too, with a stand-off between Eve and Dacha in a bowling alley standing out.
There’s enough of the show’s distinct charm still here, then, for me to not want to give up on Killing Eve – and, indeed, a fourth season is already on its way, with Sex Education’s Laura Neal set to take up the mantle of head writer and executive producer. But it’s hard not to feel disappointed by a season which sacrifices much of what made the show so unique and refreshing, in the name of making it a little more like everything else out there. “You were never like them”, Villanelle says to Eve in the finale, urging her to embrace the dark, strange qualities which set her apart from the people around her. It remains to be seen whether Eve will follow Villanelle’s advice; I certainly hope that the show bearing her name will.