Killing Eve burst onto the scene in 2018 to rave reviews, as viewers and critics alike were enthralled by the sexually charged cat-and-mouse game playing out between MI6 agent Eve (Sandra Oh) and expert assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Alas, while S2 had some powerful moments, overall it lacked the same taut, addictive focus. But the series came back strong for its third season, fleshing out the story in some fresh, fascinating ways. Small wonder it’s already been renewed for a fourth season.
(A couple of major spoilers below for first six episodes of S3—we’ll give you a heads-up when we get there—but no major reveals for the final two episodes.)
As S3 opened, we learned that Eve survived being shot by Villanelle in the S2 finale (duh). She is keeping a low profile, working in the kitchen of a dumpling eatery in London, and living on a shocking amount of junk food in her dismal flat. Her long-suffering math teacher husband Niko (Owen McDonnell) also survived his encounter with Villanelle in S2 (although his fellow teacher, Gemma, did not). He is now an in-patient being treated for PTSD, and unreceptive to Eve’s efforts to reconnect.
Meanwhile, Villanelle is marrying a wealthy heiress, but her plans for a life of semi-retired luxury are upended by the appearance of Dasha (Harriet Walter), her former mentor from Russia. She gets sucked back into working for the shadowy organization known as the Twelve in exchange for a promotion to “Keeper” (aka upper management).
Eve’s former supervisor, Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), is out of favor at MI6, with an irritating rival named Paul (Steve Pemberton) challenging her former dominance over her division. Carolyn’s estranged son, Kenny (Sean Delaney), has left MI6 and is working as an investigative journalist for an outlet called The Bitter Pill, while her former Russian paramour, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), is plotting to flee the country with his now-teenaged daughter, Irina (Yuli Lagodinsky).
In my review of the first S3 episode, I noted that the series faced a major challenge in its third installment, as viewers have come to expect shocking twists, thereby making it harder to achieve that element of surprise. “I trust that the writers and new showrunner Suzanne Heathcote have plenty of exciting twists and suspenseful moments in store for us [in S3],” I concluded. “But at some point, the basic premise—already wearing a bit thin—will run out of steam altogether. And then the real question becomes, where does the series go from there?”
Well, I’m pleased to report that S3 successfully met that challenge, mostly by changing the focus a bit. Keeping Eve and Villanelle (mostly) apart was a good creative strategy, even more so now that we’ve moved well beyond the “who’s the predator, who’s the prey” dynamic of S1. This third season is really about family, as every major character must grapple with the high personal cost of their decisions thus far.
(Warning: major spoilers begin below this gallery!)
Eve still clings to the futile hope that she can fix her marriage, unable to see just how damaged and shattered Niko has become after all she’s put him through by exposing him to the risks inherent in her job. Those risks are only heightened when Villanelle discovers she’s still alive and her obsession with Eve rekindles anew. But our favorite assassin is also confronting her own past in Dasha—the woman who turned her into the “perfect killing machine” and then betrayed her—and in a sudden desire to seek out the mother who abandoned her to an orphanage as a child.
Carolyn suffers a devastating loss when Kenny (allegedly) commits suicide by jumping off the roof of his office building at the end of the first episode. She’s a woman who has spent a lifetime suppressing any genuine emotion, who must now deal with her estranged touchy-feely daughter, Geraldine (Gemma Whelan), seeking to bond in their shared grief. Konstantin is trying to keep his daughter safe, only to realize she has her own inner darkness, exacerbated by his constant absence, the nature of his work, and Villanelle’s pernicious influence.
As always, all the performances are spectacular. Most of the attention has a focused on Oh and Comer, and rightly so. Villanelle is just as outrageously unpredictable and charming (in a deadly psychopath way) as ever, with even more spectacularly outré outfits. You never want to take your eyes off her; no wonder Eve remains obsessed.
But the supporting cast is every bit as strong, particularly Shaw and Bodnia, who quite possibly has the richest, most expressive laugh on TV these days. Among the new faces for S3, Harriet Walter is a sheer delight as Dasha, a chain-smoking, raspy-voiced former Olympic gymnast turned brutal assassin for the Twelve (and trainer of the the next generation of brutal female assassins). Game of Thrones fans will recognize Whelan from her days playing Yara Greyjoy, and she is given ample opportunity here to display her impressive range as an actress. And I loved seeing Lagodinsky return as Konstantin’s precocious, sarcastic, tough-minded daughter Irina.
The plotting is much tighter than last season—especially the final two episodes, as Eve pursues Villanelle by following the bodies piling up along the way—and while Villanelle’s kills don’t quite measure up to the macabre creativity she employed in the first two seasons, the S3 writers manage to pull off one very good twist. Concerned that Villanelle is once again behaving erratically because of her Eve obsession, the Twelve asks Dasha to intervene. Dasha decides to drive a wedge between the two women by killing Niko and framing Villanelle—making sure that Eve arrives at the Polish farm where he’s been working just in time to see it happen.
It’s genuinely shocking in a way that Kenny’s death, while tragic, is not, thanks to some very clever editing. Unfortunately, the writers then blinked: Niko barely survives, although he (understandably) severs ties completely with Eve when she comes to see him in the hospital. I love the character, but it does undercut the power of the attack. I guess the writers are keeping their S4 options open where Eve and Niko are concerned.
By far the best single episode is “Are You From Pinner,” in which Villanelle visits her hometown in Russia and reconnects with her biological family, especially her brother Pyotr (Rob Feldman) and her coldly distant mother, Tatiana (Evgenia Dodina). Comer’s social awkwardness and discomfort with even small affections contrast sharply with the loud and boisterously enthusiastic family members. She tries to join in on a post-dinner singalong to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” to comic effect, and watching her intensely compete in the dung-flinging competition at the local Harvest Festival—and her euphoria when she wins—is both hilarious and strangely touching.
Villanelle is trying so very hard to belong, even briefly bonding with her young half-brother Bor’ka (Temirlan Blaev), but she is far too damaged. And it is inevitable that the equally damaged Tatiana will reject her, telling her to leave and not bring her “darkness” into their house. Of course, Villanelle takes her revenge.
Killing Eve is based on Luke Jennings’ 2018 thriller Codename Villanelle, a compilation of four e-book novellas he published from 2014-2016. He published a sequel in 2019, Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, but despite Eve’s prominence in that title, Villanelle was clearly conceived as the central figure. So maybe it’s not surprising that we spend far more time on her backstory and family of origin issues than on Eve’s in S3, which makes Eve’s own journey back to Villanelle over the course of the season less impactful in comparison. The first two seasons did a better job balancing the focus between the two.
But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent season. These two women are clearly damaged in similar ways, with a shared social and emotional awkwardness, and morbid/violent bent. It’s just that Villanelle’s tendencies were encouraged and exploited via extreme physical and mental abuse, while Eve managed to channel her darker tendencies into her government work, and found some semblance of a family with Niko—at least until Villanelle burst into her life. But we still have little idea what Eve’s own early family life was like, or how it shaped her.
Here’s hoping that will be a major angle of exploration for S4, when Laura Neal replaces Heathcote as showrunner. Delving into how Eve and Villanelle have shaped and changed each other over three seasons would be another promising narrative vein to mine. Perhaps these two women can eventually find the families they have lost with each other, in their own uniquely twisted way.
Listing image by BBC America