Some of life’s most difficult moments are, on the outside, painfully ordinary. Such things are nearly universal. Changing jobs, or worse, careers. Dealing with a difficult coworker. Relocating. The death of a child, parent, friend. A bad breakup. “Killing Eve,” BBC America’s juggernaut thriller/drama series, has always concerned itself with such things, folding them in amongst the madness that envelops Sandra Oh’s Eve Polastri and Jodie Comer’s Villanelle. It’s interested in things even more mundane than those—think of the rat holding a can of Coke in his hands, or the sweater that’s attached to a shirt. But in its third season, the balance—between the universal and the extraordinary, between supertext and subtext, and between the thrilling if terrifying danger and the antics of a TV show aiming to please—goes a little askew. It’s still entertaining, often wildly so, and the performances alone are enough to guarantee that much week after week. But scattered amongst those great moments are some that feel like passable if pale imitations of what was. It’s as though the show, like Villanelle herself, is maybe a little bit burned out.
If that’s the case, it’s not because fresh blood is needed. “Killing Eve” has employed a new writer and executive producer for each of its three seasons—here a deliberate choice, rather than an indication that there might be trouble in paradise. This season Suzanne Heathcote (“Fear the Walking Dead”) takes over for Emerald Fennell (writer/director of the forthcoming “Promising Young Woman”), who in turn succeeded creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”). Rare is the writer who doesn’t need a few episodes in which to get her sea legs, and it must be said that Heathcote’s season gets stronger with each episode, though even the first is pretty sharp. While the second season launched like a cannonball, the third finds nearly all our returning characters in statis and struggling to find their footing. Villanelle (not her real name, but her only name—like Cher) spends a lot of time insisting she’s over Eve, in that way that indicates precisely the opposite. The world’s worst wedding toast is involved. Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), and Kenny (Sean Delaney) are all licking their wounds and struggling to get back to whatever normal life is supposed to be. And neither member of the Polastri household has shuffled off this mortal coil, despite some good hustle on the part of Villanelle and others.
If all the characters are stuck, then Eve is the quicksand tugging at their ankles. It’s not that she’s doing so intentionally. But Oh, as good this season as she has even been, takes the percolating energy that’s defined Eve and compresses it down into a small ball of fury. It shouldn’t be considered a spoiler that Villanelle’s season-ending shooting of Eve didn’t stick—her name is in the title, after all—but what exactly she’s up to is worth the surprise. Suffice it to say that Eve’s frustrated lethargy, her willful stagnation, set the tone for a premiere that’s very different from not only that quicksilver second-season opener but also most of what preceded and follows. Oh’s performance isn’t the flashiest of the series, but it is perhaps its most essential, pinning down that candy-coated bitter pill tone and rooting it all in emotional honestly. What some actors might do in a soliloquy, Oh does with a broken shopping bag—she mines the tragedy from comedy and the hilarity from pathos with staggering frequency.
She is, of course, ably matched by Jodie Comer, who gets to take much bigger swings and rarely misses. Even when the show doesn’t quite know what’s going on with Villanelle (more on that later) Comer always seems to, layering in the impulses of a child, the pleasure and focus of an artist at work, and the psychosexual fixation of someone with an untameable crush and wrapping them all in some gorgeous couture. Just as Eve has Carolyn to goad, ground, and torment her in equal measure, Villanelle has Konstantin—but in this season, Konstantin gets some competition from more than one direction. The first is played by one of several new additions to the cast, the terrific Harriet Walter (lately of “Succession”), who plays an important figure from Villanelle’s past who once again becomes a daily fixture in her life. The other is Villanelle herself, whose dissatisfaction and distraction threaten the balance of power in The Twelve.
Walter isn’t the only new person involved, but the most significant is of course Heathcote herself. The further the show gets from the two opening episodes, which contains a few examples of the show at its best and a few moments that play like scenes from a lackluster spec script, the more assured and compelling it becomes, even when it doesn’t work. The fourth episode, “Still Got It,” is a perfect example of this, leaping back and forth between characters and in time to tell the story of how a few precise and important moments come to be; it’s a break from form that’s downright refreshing, even if it’s a bit overly precious at times. The fifth, “Are You From Pinner?,” sees Villanelle take some personal time, and while it’s more of a mixed bag than its predecessor, it too feels fresh and unexpected—a surprisingly rare quality in what was once TV’s most consistently fresh and unexpected series.
Make no mistake, there are still plenty of surprises. A death in the premiere ranks among the show’s most startling, and the complex inner lives of Villanelle and Eve ensure that even the most rote, familiar scene has plenty of spark. There’s a brutal fight on a bus that illustrates both the successes and shortcomings of this season in one fell swoop: There’s untrammeled emotion and fascinating restraint, visceral violence and loaded silences, all good “Killing Eve” things, but there’s also a frustrating need for the characters to say the quiet part loud, verbally or otherwise. A strange thing to see in a show that reveled in its weird, sad, sexy subtext.
Still, who am I to complain? The return of “Killing Eve” means the return of two world-class performances and a hell of a supporting cast; it means the TV landscape gets two more messy, fascinating, contradictory lead performances in a world in which such characters are rare for anyone, let alone women; it means great music, killer costumes, and at least one dazzling piece of dialogue per hour. Sure, some of the spark is gone, but that’s just another of life’s more mundane losses. Nothing gold can stay, but even a stumbling, uncertain “Killing Eve” is still “Killing Eve.” Just as Villanelle does, one could say they’re over it, but they’d be lying, and badly.