Sam Brooks reviews the third season of Killing Eve, which trades a razor-sharp focus for a wide lens and pays the price.
Spoilers for the first two seasons of Killing Eve follow.
In the space of three years, Killing Eve has turned from unlikely success – a cult pulp series of novels adapted by a relative newcomer – into a genuine smash hit. The cat-and-cat struggle between Eve (Sandra Oh, Golden Globe winner) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer, Emmy winner) has been much obsessed over, and the pair’s performances have been rightfully praised. It’s not exactly a Game of Thrones-style hit, but the people who love Killing Eve really love Killing Eve, for good reason. It’s an excellently made, explicitly feminist spy thriller about the ever-shifting, bizarre relationship between an intelligence operative and a world-class assassin. What’s not to love?
The second season ended on a cliffhanger, a complete reversal of the first season’s one, with Villanelle leaving Eve for dead, having felt betrayed by her lack of commitment to their twisted, not quite romantic but definitely sexually charged, relationship. It came at the end of a season that was slightly meandering, which might be a casualty of the changing lead writer – from the first season’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag, duh) to Emerald Fennell (the upcoming Promising Young Woman). It remained a thrilling watch, but as the show widened its lens to focus on a twisty conspiracy, it lost sight of what made it great: Eve and Villanelle.
The third season, with a third lead writer (Fear The Walking Dead‘s Suzanne Heathcote), missteps by widening that lens ever further, drawing in another conspiracy to loom vaguely on the horizon. Even worse, it keeps our heroines apart and out of frame for too long. The best moments of the first two seasons have been when Eve and Villanelle are actually in the same space together; it’s why the finales of those seasons have been the highlights of the show so far. The first episode of the third season makes a misstep not just by keeping them apart, but keeping their plots entirely separated from each other. The core of the show is in the relationship between these women and how, despite their antagonism, it’s them against a world trying to destroy and manipulate them. Rather than honing in on it, from all appearances, Killing Eve appears to be widening its lens, with focus lying on the rest of the cast, or what’s left of it, given that the show is about as cavalier with characters (and actors’ contracts) as the aforementioned Thrones.
That’s nothing against the ensemble cast, who are as good as they’ve ever been, with newcomer Harriet Walter (Succession) bringing well-glazed, gourmet ham to the proceedings as Villanelle’s one-time tutor and newfound handler. But they’re not the killer weapons of the show, not even the great Fiona Shaw, who is still spinning comic gold from bland straw.
Those weapons are Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer who, thankfully, are still excellent. Oh is especially great at showing Eve reaching her nadir, seeming to almost literally dim the light behind her eyes as she sleepwalks through buying more instant noodles than a human should buy, and shrugging her way through a conversation with her estranged husband. Meanwhile, Comer still gets the lion’s share of the flashier, funnier moments, and the best scene in the entire first episode is watching Villanelle give a wedding toast, simultaneously awkward and totally unaware or uncaring of how she’s making anybody else feel.
That doesn’t shake the fact that it feels like a different show from the first season, which might be a casualty of the changing lead writers. Although Waller-Bridge has remained onboard as a producer, Killing Eve has felt like a subtly different show every season, with shifts in both focus and purpose. The first season felt more interested in playing with genre, while the second season felt more interested in subverting the dynamics of the first. The third season, to its detriment, seems more interested in the conspiracies and backstories, rather than dynamics. The already confirmed fourth season, helmed by Sex Education‘s Laura Nunn, will likely have a fourth, not necessarily compatible, focus. It’s like watching four different musicians play the same song, with instruments that are slowly going out of tune; it’s not the fault of those instruments, but it’s starting to sound like something different, and closer to something bad.
Killing Eve works best when it focuses on, well, the characters in the title – Eve, and Villanelle, the person ostensibly killing her. Whenever it strays elsewhere, be it to the other characters, or a hazy conspiracy, it loses momentum. Worse, it loses sight of the feminist core that has run through the show – it’s as much a commentary of the boxes that both Eve and Villanelle are stuck in, and how they struggle against those. It’s hard to tie a shadowy conspiracy into that. In saying that, if the show can narrow its focus once more on both theme and character, like it did in the flawless first season, then it’ll be a winner. As it is now, it’s cashing in on the time and love that people have given the duo at its centre. While they remain great, two of the best actresses currently working on television, there’s only so much they can do if the camera isn’t actually on them.
This begs the question: When you’ve got something that’s as fun to watch as that relationship, why the hell would you look away? The show is called Killing Eve, not Killing Other People.
Episodes of Killing Eve drop weekly on Mondays on TVNZ on Demand.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.