The Eve is dead; long live the Eve! That might as well be the rallying cry for Killing Eve, the Emmy-winning, genre-defying series that, two seasons in a row now, has ended with a near-murder and woken up with a new showrunner. But maybe that’s fitting for a show that’s about chameleons, destruction, and reinvention — and burning down what no longer serves you just for the pleasure of watching the flames dance.
The third season of Killing Eve, which premieres tonight on BBC America, comes at a moment in history when we could all use a little (or hell, a lot of) escapism. And what high-test escapism it is, into a world of globetrotting assassinations, fabulous outfits, and flirtations with the moral abyss. But three years in, the series is beginning to wear out its novelty. What felt so urgent and deliciously twisted in Season One — the push-and-pull relationship between MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and her adversary/crush, the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) — has lost some of its vigor in the first half of Season Three.
That probably has a lot to do with the fact that Killing Eve has been trading out showrunners like Villanelle switching designer lewks between murders. The show’s flawless freshman season was under the purview of Fleabag scribe (and, let’s be honest, certified genius) Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who established a singular tone of spy thriller-meets-dark comedy-meets-twisted romance. Emerald Fennell took the reins in Season Two, maintaining Killing Eve’s fricative energy and sexual tension, but losing some of its strangeness and stretching the limits of plausibility. Would a high-functioning government organization like MI6 really let a literal psychopath loose within its ranks and just hope it all turns out for the best?
Season Three has been handed off to Suzanne Heathcote (Fear the Walking Dead), who has the unenviable task of replicating the style and plotting of both of her predecessors. And, at least for the season’s first five episodes, Killing Eve 3.0 is more concerned with sounding the characters’ psychological depths than with building fresh intrigue. The thing is, you kind of miss the intrigue.
When we last left our… well, heroes feels like the wrong word… Eve and Villanelle had both been double-crossed by their bosses, and Eve, fresh off of committing her first murder, rejected Villanelle’s offer to run away together. Villanelle, in turn, delivered on the promise of the show’s title and shot Eve in the back, leaving her would-be paramour for dead in the gorgeous ruins of Rome’s Villa Adriana.
But her name is still in the title, so Eve is back and very much alive at the start of the new season, having traded espionage for a life of slinging dumplings at a Korean restaurant in the London suburbs, trying to get back into the good graces of her husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell), and dodging her former spymaster, Carolyn (Fiona Shaw). Eve is floundering and fading, and, like any good protagonist, believes she’s unique in her suffering. “You don’t know what it’s like when you’ve chosen to destroy your own life,” she says, to which a new character (played by Harlots’ Danny Sapani) replies: “Do not think that you are the only self-loathing asshole in the room, ever.”
Meanwhile, Villanelle, believing that Eve is six feet under, is in Spain breaking hearts and working with a new handler named Dasha (Harriet Walter, an always welcome casting addition). She’s up to her old tricks in a series of outfits both beautiful and bizarre, but three seasons in, Villanelle committing a strange and casual murder feels almost mundane. The surprising thing at this point, frankly, would be to see Villanelle choose not to kill someone.
It’s tricky to have an affirmed psychopath at the center of a TV show (and Villanelle is the more centralized figure than Eve at this point), because it’s hard to make a character with no morality change or grow. For all her magnetic bedlam, Villanelle is an immovable object. In Season Two she was a black hole, pulling everyone else, particularly the smitten Eve, into her event horizon. The drama was never about whether or not Villanelle would evolve, but whether Eve would degrade.
These new episodes see Heathcote digging into the assassin’s inner workings, with mixed results. With Eve nominally in her rearview, Villanelle is on the hunt for something to slake her thirst for novel experiences, and she finds her own past along the way. There’s a lot of introspection this season, whether it’s Eve brooding over her recent mistakes or Carolyn renegotiating her relationship with her job following a series of traumas. It makes for decent television, but it’s nowhere near as interesting a ride as the show was in its prime. Killing Eve is at its best when it’s going completely batshit, and Heathcote’s take is just a few hairs too normcore.
Even when it’s not at the top of its game, Killing Eve is still compulsively watchable, and that’s largely down to its excellent central performances. Oh deepens and complicates her portrayal of Eve this season, working the sum total of the ex-agent’s bad choices into every spilled glass of merlot and facial tic. Comer continues to prove herself one of the most interesting actors on TV right now, her Villanelle funny, unpredictable, and as alluring as she is terrifying, whether she’s stabbing someone with a sharpened tuning fork, or striding into a perfume shop demanding to “smell like a Roman centurion.” The chemistry between these two is the pumping arterial blood of Killing Eve, and the show is at its best when the two of them are in the same room. Shaw’s brittle, powerful turn as MI6 bigshot Carolyn is also a bright spot in a season that, so far, doesn’t give any of these three actors quite enough to do.
When it’s firing on all cylinders, Killing Eve is a machine that runs on chaos. As Lady Caroline Lamb once said of Lord Byron, it’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But even with some major shake-ups in the fates of a few supporting characters, the first half of Season Three feels a little too safe — and a little too sane.