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Can an hourlong TV drama skate by on scampish wit alone? That seems to be the gamble that Killing Eve‘s new showrunner Suzanne Heathcote, taking over from Emerald Fennell, is taking for the BBC America series’ third season.
The first two scenes of Killing Eve‘s promising premiere — set at a gloomy gymnastics training session in 1970s Russia and a ravishingly elegant castle wedding in current-day Spain, respectively — feature exactly the kind of mischievously malevolent twists with which creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge distinguished the first season. Their tableaux of antisocial violence slashing at romantic hope boast a sense of focus sorely missing from season two.
Air date: Apr 12, 2020
Reverting to Waller-Bridge’s women-behaving-very-badly sensibility, season three is, atmospherically at least, a return to form. There’s a devilish camp to several of the murder scenes, like when Villanelle (Jodie Comer), back at the hired-gun game, gets one of her unwitting targets to playfully chase her around a lavish English garden, trying to scare away the assassin’s hiccups, before completing her assignment. And while the rest of us are cooped inside, Villanelle gets to criss-cross Europe in boho finery (thank new costume designer Sam Perry for the eye candy) in a living, bleeding Anthropologie catalog.
But if Heathcote channels season one’s strengths, she’s also hampered by the storytelling traps the show set for itself from its earliest days on. By midway through the first season, it was clear that Waller-Bridge wasn’t sure what the Twelve, the shadowy group that employs Villanelle, was supposed to be or what it wanted. Though the first several episodes of season three brutally pares down extraneous members of the cast, the Twelve, and its amorphous powers and motivations, remain. Many monsters are scarier when hidden in the shadows, but given the repeated times we’re told how valuable Villanelle is as a hired hand, it’s not clear why she’s sent after spice-shop owners and patrician pianists, even if assassination via tuning fork is one of the raisons d’être of the show.
The colorblind casting of Sandra Oh as intelligence analyst Eve Polastri — initially a triumph of diversity casting — starts to show its wear, too, as the former MI6 grunt finds herself hiding out in London’s Koreatown of New Malden. It’s fun, even heartwarming, to see Eve — broken after killing handler Raymond (Adrian Scarborough) to save Villanelle, then left for dead after being shot by the mercenary for rejecting her offer to run away together — stock up on Shin Ramyun and Milkis cans at the Korean grocery store. But the show squanders an opportunity to deepen Eve’s characterization beyond the fact of her Koreanness, even as it finds her working at a Korean restaurant after being fired from MI6.
Eve is full of remorse at the season’s outset, but she made so many different kinds of mistakes in her pursuit of Villanelle in the previous season that it’s frustrating not to know exactly what she regrets. The same goes for Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), who suffers a devastating tragedy in the premiere and is forced to contend with her touchy-feely daughter (Gemma Whelan in a thankless role). The personification of the adage to “keep calm and carry on,” Carolyn being saddled with a loved one demanding she be more emotionally available is a hilariously perverse turn on paper, but the karmic joke is too underwritten to land.
With Oh and Shaw stranded in Glumville, Comer takes center stage. (The moment she tells a confused and terrified perfumier, “I want to smell like a Roman centurion,” begs to be GIF’d.) Even though many of her plots are retreads from season one, there’s enough new energy to carry her storylines through. That’s particularly true when it comes to Villanelle’s new handler, the former Soviet gymnast Dasha (Harriet Walter), whose patriotic nostalgia (and outdated nylon windbreakers) set her apart from the still-scheming Konstantin (Kim Bodnia) and the thuggishly foreboding Raymond. Villanelle’s former teacher in… assassin school (?), Dasha is less a parental figure like Konstantin than a comrade in fiendish hijinks, like when the two women dump a crying baby into a trash can.
Villannelle’s chaos-demon hedonism is one of Killing Eve‘s most distinctive assets, but it’s also an attribute difficult to build character development on. That makes the fifth episode (the last of the batch for review), in which Villanelle heads back to redneck Russia to visit her family, a particularly rich chapter.
Villanelle, refusing to speak her mother tongue as usual, gets to meet the family that believed her to be dead. In a scene that should garner Comer at least another Emmy nomination, she faces off against her mother (an excellent Evgenia Dodina) as the two debate which came first: Villanelle’s psychopathy, or her mother’s harsh efforts to keep her in line. It’s the rare bit of ambiguity in this season that feels productive, rather than neglectful. And like the rest of the third season, it’s hardly necessary, but boy, is it real fun.
Cast: Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer, Fiona Shaw, Kim Bodnia, Harriet Walter
Creator: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Showrunner: Suzanne Heathcote
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (BBC America)
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