This piece contains spoilers about episode one of Killing Eve season three.
The first episode of Killing Eve’s third season ends on an extremely jarring note, even for a series with an established reputation for rampant murder.
While Eve, who survived having been shot at the end of season two, tries to track down her former colleague Kenny at his new workplace — this season, he leaves MI6 for the exciting and highly stable world of online journalism — his body can be seen outside the window of the building, spiraling from the roof toward the ground. Eve rushes outside and confirms the worst: Kenny, the son of Eve’s former boss, Carolyn, is dead, either because he jumped (seems unlikely?) or was thrown off the roof by some unseen assailant.
There is really only one way to react to this news: Oh my God, they killed Kenny! But seriously, though: Oh my God, they killed Kenny. Major characters usually don’t die in the first episodes of new seasons. The fact that Killing Eve has pulled that lever so quickly and bluntly (and, spoiler, not for the last time), is a sign of how far the show has moved from the elegant sneakiness it achieved in season one.
To be fair, Killing Eve has always loved a good shock. Its very first episode opened with Villanelle (Jodie Comer, whose entire audacious performance is one surprise after another) suddenly and intentionally flipping over a young girl’s bowl of ice cream, followed by a scene in which Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh, portraying a woman’s lack of control with total command) screams repeatedly in her sleep. Unsettling the audience has always been in Killing Eve’s DNA. But so was an ever-present, mordant sense of humor, a slow-burn, see-saw seduction between its two leads, and a commitment to infusing the spy genre with feminine perfume. All of those qualities are what distinguished it from other shows, in the genre and in general.
And those qualities sprang from series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also acted as lead wrier in season one. Though she’s still an executive producer, Waller-Bridge has passed that baton to a different woman each season. Last season it was her friend, actress (Call the Midwife, The Crown), writer, and now director (Promising Young Woman) Emerald Fennell. In season three, it’s Suzanne Heathcote, a British playwright who previously worked on Fear the Walking Dead. It’s wonderful that different women are getting this opportunity and being encouraged to pursue their own visions. But inevitably, it leads to a show that, season to season, lacks consistency and has lost the idiosyncrasy that originally defined it.
While season two eventually took off in some wild directions — I found it hard to believe that Villanelle actually wanted to be in some semblance of a real relationship with Eve — tonal connections to season one remained. The humorous asides echoed those in season one. The tango between Eve and Villanelle continued, first from a distance, then close up when Eve clandestinely hired Villanelle to whack her and, later, to go undercover and assist MI6. The violence, while more brutal and heavy-handed, still had a subversive bent rooted in femininity and/or feminine wiles. For example: Villanelle killed a man by complimenting his tie, then gripping on to it while a set of elevator doors closed, transporting him to a death by strangulation. To let Eve know she was responsible for the murder, Villanelle sent Eve a tube of lipstick called “Love in an Elevator.” Naturally, there was a razor blade embedded in it. This was all very Killing Eve.
In season three, Villanelle remains sly and unhinged, but her murders are less inventive. The flashback that opens episode one shows a young Dasha, Villanelle’s former and once again handler, turning a kiss with a gymnastics peer into a bite, and then an efficient beating that leaves the guy dead, if not from the beating than certainly from suffocation due to the mound of chalk she dumps on him. This season, Villanelle’s killings are a lot like that: less calculated and more improvised based on the tools at hand. Later in episode one, in an echo of the flashback, Villanelle kills the proprietress of a shop in Girona by coaxing her up a ladder then pulling it away and dumping a ton of flour on her. In future episodes (I have seen five in advance) Villanelle uses whatever she’s got at her disposal — guns, piano tuners — to get her assassination jobs done. The cleverness in her crimes has been sapped and refilled with, mostly, hardness and pure rage. That may be an intentional choice, a way to illustrate how lost and desperate Villanelle has become. But it also makes Killing Eve much less interesting.
It also works at cross-purposes with a simultaneous effort to find the humanity in Villanelle. We are led to believe in season three that she’s become extra angry in part because she’s heartbroken by Eve’s absence. Future episodes also build upon seeds planted in the premiere regarding Villanelle’s desire to reconnect with her family. Some viewers may be intrigued by a Villanelle origin story, but the mystery around her, the completely inexplicable nature of her psychopathy, is what always intrigued me and, certainly, what intrigued Eve, especially in season one. While Comer remains fascinating to watch — the way she carries herself with simultaneous intimidation and utter irritation while dressed in a clown suit in episode two is a gift — Villanelle as a character has been flattened by the contradictory storytelling.
So too has the magnetism between Villanelle and Eve, the beating black heart at the center of this series. Once these two felt a charge from just the whisper of each other’s presence. When an incognito Villanelle passed by Eve, Eve could feel her in the air even even when she couldn’t see her. That dynamic gave the show a queer sexual energy and raised provocative questions about whether Eve was genuinely attracted to Villanelle or merely attracted to danger. To the show’s credit in season one, it didn’t answer those questions. By the end of season two, though, Killing Eve asked us to believe that Eve had snapped out of her fog of ardor and realized that her feelings for Villanelle, whatever they were based in, would never lead anywhere. Her rejection of Villanelle, and Villanelle’s unsuccessful, as it turns out, attempt to kill Eve created a cul-de-sac that the series is having a hard time getting out of in season three.
Villanelle is still making her presence known to Eve. She leaves her gifts and, at least once, confronts her in a more direct manner. But now, understandably, Eve is afraid of her. What used to be a game of cat and mouse in which the two took turns playing feline and rodent is now, at least in the initial episodes of the season, a situation in which Eve is the mouse who fears that she’s being chased. It also doesn’t help matters that Oh and Comer get very little screen time together. That will likely change in the second half of this season — at least that’s my guess — but that may be too late to salvage this volume in the Killing Eve saga.
It’s unfair to ask Fennell or Heathcote or Laura Neal, the Sex Education writer who has been tapped to lead season four, to repeat what Phoebe Waller-Bridge did in season one. There’s nobody quite like Waller-Bridge, and that’s precisely what makes her such a fantastic storyteller. But Killing Eve should still feel like something distinctive and imaginative, even when the imagination behind it springs from a different showrunner. In season three, it feels like a sense of imagination has been replaced with one of shock, the equivalent of how one feels upon seeing a body suddenly fall from the sky. Killing Eve still knows how to startle us, and for some that may be plenty. But I wish it could still astonish.