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In Season 2, ‘Killing Eve’ Stays in Top Gear

Phoebe Waller-Bridge isn’t in total control of the series anymore, but all of the creative minds and forces that she put in place are still maintaining its tone and pace

BBC America/Ringer illustration

Television shows are massive undertakings that require the labor of hundreds of people. Still, they’re often attributed to a single creative voice. Deadwood will forever be synonymous with the baroque, obscenity-laced dialogue of David Milch; Girls is defined by the polarizing reputation and confessional ethos of its writer-director-star Lena Dunham. Such metonymy is partly rooted in reality. Through the last two decades, shifts in TV production have made the medium more open to bona fide auteurism. Steven Soderbergh really did direct every episode of The Knick; Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan really did co-write every episode of Catastrophe. It’s not inaccurate to describe these creators’ series as theirs, because the final product is a genuine expression of their top-down artistic intent.

But just like the original kind, TV auteurism is also, frankly, convenient shorthand. “David Lynch’s Twin Peaks,” for instance, is a lot easier to write than “a collective of actors and craftspeople’s Twin Peaks, created under the supervision of director David Lynch, with significant contributions from co-writer Mark Frost.” There’s a certain amount of truth to using a single person as stand-in for a show’s entire creative team. The device just doesn’t wholly reflect conditions on the ground.

So, when the most famous name associated—and often credited—with a series steps away, the change isn’t necessarily a death sentence. In the case of Killing Eve, the BBC America spy drama that defied the laws of Peak TV physics by growing its audience every week of Season 1, that person is British writer-performer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. My own, glowing review of the season, which was named The Ringer’s top show of 2018, focused on the connections between Killing Eve and Fleabag, Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show-turned-TV series. Though based on a series of novels by Luke Jennings and brought to life by actresses Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh, the attraction of Eve’s namesake spy to a deadly, perversely whimsical assassin felt borne of Waller-Bridge’s demonstrated interest in self-sabotaging women.

Beginning with Sunday night’s premiere, “Do You Know How to Dispose of a Body?,” the second season of Killing Eve enjoys an elevated platform—episodes will air simultaneously on BBC America and its more well-known corporate sibling AMC—as well as an audience amplified by a streaming run on Hulu. Yet it also faces a significant road bump. Between crafting Fleabag’s second season, staging the original show on Broadway, producing an upcoming HBO series, and voicing a socialist android, Waller-Bridge’s creative commitments prevented her from maintaining top-level control of Eve’s follow-up. Waller-Bridge remains an executive producer, but handed over head writing duties to Emerald Fennell, a former colleague on the U.K. sitcom Drifters and fellow multi-hyphenate. (Fennell will portray Camilla Parker Bowles on the upcoming season of The Crown, and may be best known to American audiences for her role on Call the Midwife.) Fennell shares showrunning duties with Sally Woodward Gentle, who also served as an executive producer on Season 1. Killing Eve remains a show anchored in women’s perspectives—just not the woman’s perspective that became so closely associated with its critical and commercial success.

Still, what’s true of every other so-called auteurist show remains true of Killing Eve. Waller-Bridge’s perverse comic instincts and fine-tuned psychological awareness informed Eve’s sensibility. But so did Oh’s Emmy-nominated performance, Comer’s star-making one, Phoebe de Gaye’s costume design, Catherine Grieves’s music supervision, and the band Unloved’s custom score. And many of those building blocks remain in place, even as the most widely publicized one has taken a step back.

As with Barry, its sibling in hit(wo)man humor, invested observers have plenty of existential questions for Killing Eve’s sophomore effort. Can the show sustain its tonal tightrope walk of glamour, gallows humor, Le Carré–lite spy work, and operatic violence for more than eight episodes? Will the cat and mouse eventually tire of their chase, or us of watching it? Does hype incentivize Killing Eve to extend past its natural conclusion? Fortunately, Fennell, credited with the scripts of both episodes sent out to critics, has much more pressing matters to sort through. We last saw Eve immediately after she’d stabbed Villanelle in her Parisian flat, only for her target to disappear. How does Eve explain this situation to her alienated husband and pissed-off boss? What will Villanelle do about that pesky stab wound? Who else is on her trail besides Eve? And perhaps most importantly: Can their unlikely connection survive attempted manslaughter?

Such plot necessities mean that Killing Eve retains the breakneck pace that forms the core of its effervescent mood. The premiere brings the audience up to speed on where the characters we left behind stand post-stabbing; the second episode, without spoilers, introduces new cast members and story lines for the season to come. Between Eve’s escape from the scene of the crime and Villanelle’s search for off-the-books medical attention, there’s hardly time to stop and consider how blackmailing a cab driver or lying to a terminal patient’s wife measure up to spilling a child’s ice cream on Villanelle’s personal psychopathy scale.

Still, glimpses of Killing Eve’s signature cheek peek through into a largely pragmatic premiere. A traumatized Eve finds solace in a telemarketing call from a guileless window salesman. Villanelle appears as pained by the Crocs she has to lift from the hospital as the serious injury that put her there. Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn, ever the unflappable spymistress, casually references her father’s sexual predilection for young boys, right before introducing Eve to a jolly coroner who keeps whiskey next to the embalming fluid and knows nothing pairs better with a decomposing body than a good hamburger. Killing Eve’s underworld of espionage is populated by capable, caustic women, as is its writers’ room: My single favorite grace note of the hour is Eve disposing of a bloody knife in a bathroom-stall bin for used tampons. We may be overloaded with spree killer shows, but you won’t find that anywhere else on TV.

I nonetheless found myself catching certain breaks in the show’s tone, possibly because I was already on the lookout for them. A stranger mistaking Eve for an addict makes the show’s central metaphor head-smackingly literal; Villanelle, always disturbingly juvenile, gets told flat-out that the lollipops in her ward are reserved for children. Killing Eve’s breezy feel has always belied a delicate balance between blatant showmanship and unspoken intuition, which mirrors the contrast between an exhibitionist serial killer and her dogged pursuer. The resulting equilibrium is hard to define, but easy to detect when thrown off by the obvious or predictable. Then again, when has a show that began with a poisoned hairpin to the skull ever been subtle?

The greatest tests for the new Killing Eve regime still lie ahead. The chase structure of the show necessitates that interactions between Eve and Villanelle are both exceedingly rare and absolutely crucial. Season 1 has just three: an initial meeting in a hospital bathroom, the climactic tryst-turned-stabbing, and the infamous dinner scene, which was so vital to the story Waller-Bridge wrote it out of order for Comer’s audition. Given that both halves of the central relationship are still recovering, both physically and emotionally, from their last encounter, there’s some time until we can see how Killing Eve will present the latest incarnation of its ever-shifting bond. For now, Villanelle offers her own perspective. Eve is her girlfriend, she tells her 12-year-old hospital roommate. She stabbed Villanelle because she cares about her—because “sometimes, when you love someone, you will do crazy things.” Later, she snaps the disfigured orphan’s neck in an act of what she thinks of as mercy. To a psychopath, violence is just another form of affection.

For now, the elements of Killing Eve’s strange chemistry remain in place. They’re there in Eve’s unhinged laugh when she realizes she’s the subject of a would-be intervention, and the pop art kids’ pajamas that fit the adult Villanelle suspiciously well. By definition, a show’s second season contains less novelty than its first as it conducts the unsexy work of sustaining a vibe instead of establishing it. But so far, Part 2 of Killing Eve does that work well—and given how intoxicatingly original its predecessor was, even maintenance means preserving what makes the show exceptional. Waller-Bridge may no longer be conducting this symphony. The orchestra she’s assembled plays on.