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Can 'Killing Eve' recapture what made the first season great?

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve.
(Image credit: BBC America)

This post contains spoilers for Killing Eve.

News of a final TV season conjures an array of emotions, ranging anywhere from sadness to relief. Knowing a series is getting the opportunity to end with a full stop and not mid-sentence is a gift that is not afforded to all. The announcement that Killing Eve’s forthcoming fourth season would also be the last, is bittersweet. Bursting out of the gates in 2018, the BBC America thriller was a heady mix of audacious performances, elevated costumes, deliciously dark humor, and an outlandish espionage plot. Starring Grey’s Anatomy favorite Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in a breakout performance, the dynamic cat and mouse game was a breath of fresh air. Debates about whether it should’ve been a limited series have since been bolstered by middling and meandering follow-up seasons that have benefited from strong performances when the plotting stalled. Can this final outing regain the glory of its debut?

Based on Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novel series, a different showrunner has led each season. Phoebe Waller-Bridge injected her trademark humor into the first outing and crafted two innovative characters that audiences fell in love with. Feeling listless in her British Intelligence job and comfortable marriage, Eve (Oh) is awoken by the work of an assassin leaving a trail of destruction across Europe. Exploring elements of female sexuality, rage, and curiosity, this is a potent mix of performance, writing, and design that made it stand out from the crowd. Awards beckoned and it was a mainstay on ‘Best Of’ lists from 2018; it was number two on mine, bested only by The Americans final season. A year later, it was still wowing Emmy and Golden Globe voters but it had completely dropped off my Top 25. The sophomore slump is a common phenomenon and sometimes it is hard to recapture what made a show great in the first place. 

Debut seasons are made in a vacuum without audience response to guide (consciously or not) the narrative. Recently Oscar-nominated writer-director Emerald Fennell took over from Waller-Bridge as the Season 2 head writer and while there are some strong flourishes, this was also the beginning of listless and repetitive storylines. After Eve stabbed Villanelle (Comer), the pair has a lot to work through, and the assassin’s road to recovery is suitably messy. Coming full circle, Villanelle shoots Eve in the following finale and leaves her for dead amid the Roman ruins, but any tension is distilled by the knowledge that she will rise as her frenemy did.

The follow-up still managed to inject fun and whimsy into the darkly comedic set-up, however, by this point, it became clear that it is hard to effectively sustain this cat and mouse dynamic without retreading old ground. Sanctioned team-ups stretched plausibility and Villanelle going off on her own to explore her past in Season 3 has left Eve unmoored. After recovering from a gunshot wound, Eve is out of work and out of friends. Kenny’s death is the shocking event that kicked off Season 3 and while it leads to a very bumpy road, Fiona Shaw as the grieving Carolyn is mesmerizing to watch. Showrunner Suzanne Heathcote does dive into Villanelle’s backstory and the most interesting thread is the assassin trying to break free of the killing bonds. In the finale — aptly called “Are You Leading or Am I?” — the pair reunite and discuss the magnetic pull they feel. Villanelle observes that "my monster encourages your monster" and an earlier slow dance is also oozing with chemistry. The final look at each other is reminiscent of a bittersweet romance like Casablanca and at least neither shot nor stabbed the other. Villanelle’s bold yellow oversized Lowe coat elevates the bridge scene visuals further and makes it impossible to avoid her in the frame.

Costumes are part of Killing Eve’s early popularity that saw designer Phoebe De Gaye utilize high-end designer brands as part of Villanelle’s on and off-duty look. A bubblegum-pink Molly Goddard mass of tulle paired with Balenciaga biker boots is an indelible image and this penchant for Miu Miu and Dries Van Noten has morphed into Isabel Marant, Alexander McQueen, and Vampires Wife in subsequent seasons. As with the showrunner, the costume designer has changed each year (Charlotte Mitchell and Sam Perry followed De Gaye) and the bold sartorial flourishes are a signature. However, the Molly Goddard frock is still the standout costume to date (one that I have seen up close in real life and imitated somewhat awkwardly at a costume party).

Jodie Comer’s chameleon skills are on point regardless of whatever persona and costume Villanelle is embodying that has made Killing Eve sing even when other elements fail to excite. Purpose is lacking for her counterpart, but perhaps there is enough time and space to course correct in the final season. The intoxicating mix of critical acclaim, fans asking for more, and a fun acting job can lead to hasty sequels and there is something to be said for the miniseries that recognizes storyline limitations — Big Little Lies also committed the error of making more.

Another dark comedy assassin series debuted in 2018, which also released its follow-up at the same time as Killing Eve. Created by and starring Bill Hader in the eponymous role, HBO’s Barry soared in its second year in its depiction of a killer-for-money who desperately wants out. Other than the assassin role, the two shows aren’t particularly similar in tone or even storyline — Barry is trying his hand at becoming an actor. Parallels are drawn in narrative choices that paint the hitman into a corner and while one flourished, the other faltered. Creative cohesion could be one reason why Barry works when it shouldn’t. One reason I bring it up is to highlight that some shows can surprise you when it comes to a story that has more to tell. 

Despite the bumpy years, Killing Eve has continued to enjoy some critical acclaim and award adulations (including 8 Emmy nominations in 2020). At the recent Golden Globes, previous winner Oh was not in the line-up that included co-star Comer (though they were both Emmy nominated). Season 3 aired early into lockdown last year and the follow-up has been delayed due to the pandemic. Like many shows, the writers’ room went virtual and the lack of diversity was more than apparent when writer Kayleigh Llewellyn posted a since-deleted tweet showing the Killing Eve creative team on their last day. It has been nearly a year since this incident and it is unclear whether changes have been made before this summer’s filming date. How the makeup of the writers’ room bodes for Eve is unclear as of yet, but Oh commented last year about the lack of diversity last summer saying, “The development of people behind the camera is very slow in the U.K. I don’t know about the rest of Europe. Sometimes it would be me and 75 white people and I have not come from that.” 

If the series is to return to form in its final year, an exploration of Eve and Villanelle’s partnership beyond the repetitive back and forth is required. A storyline that doesn’t leave Eve out in the figurative wilderness is a must and it is her time to shine once again. We know Villanelle wants out but what does Eve really desire? And if anyone can bring down the Twelve, perhaps a team-up between Eve, Villanelle, and Carolyn is required. “What I’ve come to realize is one cannot destroy the Twelve,” Carolyn notes in the Season 3 finale, but I’m sure she can be swayed. 

“We look forward to what is sure to be an unforgettable final season and to exploring potential extensions of this compelling universe,” said Dan McDermott, president of original programming for AMC Networks. The allusion to a spin-off could be interesting (although there is a sense it might lean into familiar territory covered by Red Sparrow and Black Widow if they opt for the assassin training angle), but my concern is too much time will be dedicated to setting up a show for the future that will detract from the farewell Eve and Villanelle deserve. Very few shows get a trailer announcing when filming will begin and no doubt this series is a phenomenon (even with its limitations), but I hope it will finally prove me wrong that it should have ended after one season.