This is the darkest season of Killing Eve yet

A sober turn was the show's natural progression, but it might be hard for some fans to swallow right now

Killing Eve.
(Image credit: Illustrated | BBC America)

We are a world desperately in need of diversion. Millions are out of work, thousands are sick, and the biggest cultural hit of the past month was an upsetting docuseries about animal abusers. Sensing the need for a respite, AMC and BBC America announced late last month that they would be moving up the season three premiere of Killing Eve by two weeks, to this Sunday. "We know how adored this series is and we know how keen people are for great content right now," Sarah Barnett, the president of AMC Networks Entertainment Group and AMC Studios, explained in a statement.

But Killing Eve returns a far different show than it was in its devilishly witty first season, or in the trudging procedural of its second. It is darker, more brutal, and in many ways more mature. While that isn't necessarily welcome — fans were initially hooked by Killing Eve's amusing cat-and-mouse games — this more sober season is also its natural progression, given all that the characters have been through. Keeping the same tone of its first two seasons would have been awkward at best, and farcical at worst. The result is less fun, more human and raw. And it will be up to you if that's a trade-off you're willing to accept.

Killing Eve's tonal shift can be attributed in part to its tradition of passing the baton off to a new showrunner every season. Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge helmed the brilliant debut season in 2018, injecting it with her spicy trademark humor; Emerald Fennell took over for the second season, an entertaining, if somewhat more plodding, structural reversal of the first. The third season, now in the hands of Fear the Walking Dead writer Suzanne Heathcote, is, then, a natural place for a reset. Season two ended with a cliffhanger: rogue MI6 agent Eve (Sandra Oh) gets shot through the chest in Rome by the glamorous, diabolical assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Sticking to the truism of television, though (if you don't see a body actually buried, the person isn't dead), sure enough, Eve has not been killed quite yet.

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But things can't simply go back to the blood-and-glitter concoction of season one; season two complicated the pulpy enjoyment of the first. Prior to being shot in the Roman ruins, after all, Eve had been lured by Villanelle into gruesomely killing the handler, Raymond, with an ax. Villanelle also traumatized Eve's husband Niko, and left him to discover his colleague horribly suffocated. Season three opens into this wreckage: Eve now lives alone, working a mindless restaurant job, while Niko is in rehab. Villanelle, living abroad in Spain and believing she's killed Eve, is drawn back into the fold of the Twelve by a former mentor (Dame Harriett Walter). Then the season three premiere ends with a death so unexpected that, despite understanding it was necessary to get this season's procedural arc rolling, it still feels like an unfair sacrifice.

The rest of the season reverberates from that loss. Eve is bowed by her grief; another formerly impassive character who'd largely been a quippy source of comic relief retreats into a bedroom, screams silently into a pillow. A new character confesses his own checkered past: he'd sold his best friend the drugs that killed him. One episode is entirely dedicated to Villanelle revisiting the ghosts of her past; it ends the only way it could, heartbreakingly. Everyone is scarred. Everyone is damaged.

Was the show always this brutal? Was it always this sad? Or has the feeling of grief we're all living with permeated this fictional world too, tainting the way we view it now? After all, in many respects, it is still recognizably Killing Eve. There are moments of hilariously inappropriate dark humor (Villanelle at one point, having killed an apprentice, moans astutely that "management sucks"). The show remains a smorgasbord of colorful fashions; more than seasons past, the architecture in season three is also a source of envy. The soundtrack is still unique and top-notch. And, with the protagonists having collided in season two and now splintered off again, characters get room to breathe.

The show's shift to a more sober and mature exploration of death, guilt, and viciousness wasn't without forewarning, either. In season two, Killing Eve began fleshing out Villanelle, making her more tragically human than mythically psychopathic. When the assassin attended an addicts' meeting undercover, she confessed with what seemed to be real honesty that she is tortured by her boredom and her inability to feel anything. And of course this is not the first time we've seen Eve in mourning either, hurt as she was by Bill's death in the first season. Season three is what Killing Eve has been moving toward all along: a narrative that doesn't use its humor to cover up its own cruelty, but to enhance it.

Timing, though, is everything. It is what transformed an otherwise mildly entertaining creature-feature released Friday into a full-blown pandemic parable, and reshaped the way we watch older movies, like 2011's Contagion. It's changed how we might approach the new season of Killing Eve, too, now that we are more attuned to suffering, more sensitive to brutality, and maybe less inclined to enjoy inventive killings, as we're preoccupied with a mass-murderer of our own. The third season of Killing Eve invites your tenderness, however you've come by it. It's been shattered by the world, too.

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