state of the arts

Buzzkilling Eve: How did the BBC’s sharp, inventive thriller go stale so quickly?

What was once gleeful genre indulgence has long-since tipped over into daft melodrama, writes Louis Chilton. The towel should have been thrown in long ago

Saturday 26 February 2022 06:30
Comments
<p>A new kind of killer: Jodie Comer in her star-making role as Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve'</p>

A new kind of killer: Jodie Comer in her star-making role as Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve'

Back in 2018, Killing Eve cut through the stodge of the UK TV scene like an ice pick through the forehead. Produced by BBC America and BBC Three, the series focused on the deadly but oddly playful assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and the MI6 agent, Eve (Sandra Oh), bent on catching her. It was, for a while, must-see TV. It took several months to arrive in the UK, having debuted somewhat unusually in the US first. When it came, eventually, it seemed to bring with it some of the style and invention of the better US crime dramas. The innate tackiness that usually accompanies even the biggest British thrillers was nowhere to be found. Written by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it was also a welcome spin on a genre often dominated by men: a cat-and-mouse romp a la Heat, with the homoerotic subtext instead manifested as text.

On Monday, Killing Eve begins its fourth and final season. There are a number of likely reasons the show is being brought to an end. For one, there’s Comer’s burgeoning Hollywood stardom. There’s been a fair amount of creative upheaval behind the scenes – the showrunner has changed every season, with Waller-Bridge succeeded by Emerald Fennell, Suzanne Heathcote, and now Laura Neal. But perhaps the biggest reason Killing Eve is calling it quits is that it’s simply run out of road. The thrill has gone. Its viewing figures have remained solid – though down from the heights of season one – but it has, for want of a better phrase, dropped out of the cultural conversation. For many of us who were won over by Killing Eve’s first season, it feels like we’re now watching the afterglow of a star that burnt out years ago.

It’s fair to say that the first run of episodes was the tightest and most purposeful Killing Eve has ever been. Its premise, baked into its title, was simple and unambiguous. Season one saw Eve and Villanelle caught in each other’s psychosexual orbits; the finale brought them together for a fateful, inevitable showdown. It ended with the pair sharing a kiss, before Villanelle meets the business end of a knife. This being TV, however, she escapes – and the whole rigmarole began anew next season. While there were plenty of other plot threads thrown into the mix – deep state conspiracies, past traumas, credulity-straining twists – Eve and Villanelle’s relationship has remained the show’s heart and its driving purpose. But there’s a reason the most vaunted cat-and-mouse thrillers – Heat; Catch Me If You Can; No Country for Old Men – are often limited to the short duration of a movie. Keep extending it indefinitely, and the whole thing devolves into Tom and Jerry.

I don’t know whether the makers of Killing Eve can be blamed for letting the show doggedly persevere after its first season; it is probably oversimplifying to suggest that the show just got greedy. But it now joins an ignominious club within the world of TV, of bona fide erstwhile sensations that managed to rapidly overstay their welcome. Think of the superhero drama Heroes, which swan-dived off a cliff immediately after the end of its buzzy first season. Or Homeland, which set up a finite – and really quite challenging – conclusion at the end of its first season, only to bottle out of it and plough on for seven more seasons as a messier, aimless version of its past self.

It doesn’t bode well for Russian Doll, the superb time-loop dramedy from Leslye Headland, Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler, which released its first season back in 2019. This was a self-contained story with no obvious point of continuation that wouldn’t betray the ending of season one. And yet, it returns later this year for more episodes. Of course, some series manage to pull off the “unnecessary afterlife” with aplomb. Just look at Search Party. For four seasons running, Search Party seemed to lead its story down some cul-de-sac, building to a point of no apparent return (a murder; imprisonment; abduction). Every time, it would then shape-shift, embrace its changed reality, spring off in a new and surprising direction.

Killing Eve has never managed to shapeshift in this way. Rather, it remains stuck riffing on what it did well in its first run of episodes, serving you the same meal over and over, colder each time. What was once gleeful genre indulgence tipped over into daft melodrama. The performances remain solid (especially Oh and Comer, and from the distinguished supporting cast) but the plot convolutions have become increasingly hard to sell.

Sleeping with the fishes: Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in ‘Killing Eve’

Of course, another change of showrunner leaves open the possibility of improvement; maybe Killing Eve will get its act together in this last stretch. The fact that it’s already confirmed this fourth season will be the last adds a sense of finality to proceedings; for the first time since the first season finale, you can actually feel the stakes. But it’ll need more than a few choice deaths to make the last two years worthwhile. It’s not just a matter of killing Eve – it’s about finally giving her some peace.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in