Sandra Oh scrabbled through the heaped-up trash in a dumpster, then suddenly let out a piercing scream.
Wow, excellent,” said her fellow actor Turlough Convery as the filming stopped.
It was a grey, damp day in mid-December, and Oh and Convery were on the set of the BBC America espionage drama ‘Killing Eve’ outside a shabby, institutional office building in East London. They were shooting season three, and the moment seemed to capture some essence of what Oh has always brought to her role as Eve Polastri — a quirky and passionate MI6 agent “whose instincts and resolve have to make up for her inexperience,” as Mike Hale wrote in The New York Times, “and her tendency to scream like a terrified child in the face of danger.”
But this time, Oh hadn’t been acting. “That was genuine,” she said, her expression panicked. “Something moved in there!”
Oh’s surprising, idiosyncratic performance, as well as that of her Emmy-winning co-star, Jodie Comer — pretty as a picture as assassin Villanelle, and far more volatile — were two reasons “Killing Eve” surged in popularity after a relatively modest, if critically heralded, debut in 2018. Another was its creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (‘Fleabag’), whose razor-sharp adaptation of the novellas of Luke Jennings was a genre mash-up of mordant comedy and tense thriller, infused with the whisper of dark, unspoken desires.
By the end of that first season, the series had doubled its audience, going on to win a Golden Globe. Season two built on those feats under a new lead writer, Emerald Fennell, earning the series an Emmy and multiple BAFTA awards, the British version of the Emmys.
Now ‘Killing Eve’ is back again, airing on OSN in the UAE — two weeks earlier than originally scheduled (“to put a bit of good news out there for the fans,” explained Sarah Barnett, president of AMC Networks Entertainment Group.) Once again, it returns with a new lead writer (the British equivalent of a showrunner), this time Suzanne Heathcote, a playwright and screenwriter best known for her work on ‘Fear the Walking Dead’. Once again, its producers are gambling with an already winning formula.
Can the series repeat its success? Can it sustain its unique alchemy, which has made it a favourite among critics and awards juries? Perhaps, as Heathcote suggested, repetition is not the point.
“There is always the issue of how to honour what came before and also do something new,” she said. “I spoke to Phoebe a lot, and she read the scripts, but she always said, it’s yours, make it your own.”
Barnett elaborated. “It’s the antithesis of the ego-driven male showrunner thing,” she said. “Both Emerald and Suzanne are extraordinarily accomplished but had never had the opportunity to be a lead writer on a show. I love the fact that the show has given these women the chance to show what they are made of.”
And, as she noted, they are all British. “I think there is something uniquely British in that mix of elegance and black humour,” she said.
Across the first two seasons, that mix sustained a plot that was harrowing, gruesome and hilarious in turn. In season one, Eve, an American working in British intelligence, has her life upended by her growing obsession with the terrifying but seductive Villanelle, who leaves a trail of bodies wherever she goes. In season two (spoilers ahead), the two become unlikely collaborators in pursuit of a megalomaniacal tech billionaire. It ends as a thwarted Villanelle shoots Eve and leaves her for dead — a neat parallel with the end of season one, when Eve stabbed Villanelle.
Heathcote’s approach to season three, she said, had been “to go deeper with each of the main characters.”
“I felt it was important to see the consequences of what had happened in one and two, personally and professionally for them,” she continued. “By a third season, we’ve earned that, we want to know what makes them tick.”
Season three picks up after Eve has survived the shooting, has left MI6, and is working in the kitchen of a Korean restaurant, trying to keep her head down and her thoughts away from the past. But the past won’t go away — not for Eve, and not for Villanelle, who is uncomfortably reminded of her younger self by the appearance of her former Russian trainer.
Nor will it rest for Carolyn (Fiona Shaw), the steely MI6 operative who again draws Eve into an investigative web.
“There has been a considerable evolution in Eve’s character,” Oh said in a makeshift dressing room inside the appropriated East London office building. “At the start of season one you had a person with a wonderful naivete about the world and her place in it. By season three she is aware of the darker parts of herself, but she also has a certain weight, an understanding of life that she was craving at the beginning.”
Heathcote’s emphasis on the characters’ psychology doesn’t come at the expense of the thriller elements that have infused the series with both horror and high jinks — part of the template set by Waller-Bridge, which the creative team says it has worked hard to preserve.
“What Phoebe managed to do in the very first script is to take away that spy-genre trope where people are very serious and talk in a rather urgent way,” said Damon Thomas, who has directed episodes of each season and is an executive producer of the show. “She made everyone very real and brought out the absurdity of real life, and both Emerald and Suzanne have continued that.”
‘Killing Eve’ is often described as female-centric, but it also has important male characters, like Villanelle’s handler Konstantin (Kim Bodnia); Eve’s husband, Niko (Owen McDonnell); and Carolyn’s son, Kenny (Sean Delaney). Shaw, who plays Eve’s boss, Carolyn, said that while she didn’t think the preponderance of major female characters and writers made any difference in the day-to-day experience of working on the show, she did appreciate the opportunities given to female writers.
“There is no doubt that some of the humour is spun from female minds, but it’s not the female equivalent of male humour, it’s just good,” Shaw said by phone. “All humour has to have jeopardy in it, and maybe that’s what women haven’t been allowed. It’s dangerous, it’s sexy, but it’s not crude, even if it’s miles from Jane Austen.”
Shaw, whose character is seen from a more personal perspective this season, said that Heathcote’s background as a playwright had been a boon for season three, which takes some interesting formal risks.
“She has the skills and surety to bring together themes and threads that are set up early on, and she can really play with comedy and tragedy,” Shaw said. “It all swerves completely and you are no longer in the places you were.”
It was odd, Shaw observed, to be talking about TV during a pandemic, which seemed to reframe so many aspects of daily living. But Oh, who made a similar observation during a recent follow-up conversation, said the current environment had made her think about the characters’ experiences in a new light.
“This third season really picks up on a more nihilistic tone,” Oh said, “where both the central characters wake up to an understanding of their lack of choice, of the oppression of having been controlled by an outside force. We can relate it to this time, when we are all isolated and forced to think of the systems we live under.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Killing Eve’ season three is now streaming on OSN in the UAE, with a new episode every Monday.