Killing Eve: Will Gompertz reviews season two of the award-winning drama ★★★★☆

Killing Eve

Killing Eve season two picks up where season one ended, which is to say… badly. After seven faultless episodes, the grand finale of the best TV series of 2018 was almost as underwhelming as Eve Polastri's marriage.

All the delicious ingredients of the previous shows were still there (excellent acting, writing, soundtrack, and directing), but someone tweaked the recipe and served up a bit of dog's dinner with a distinctly hammy whiff.

The smell lingers well into the opening episode of the new series, which is a little too knowing and, on occasion, close to becoming a pastiche of itself.

Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is too predictable, Eve (Sandra Oh) is too wrung out, and Niko her husband, too needy. Thankfully, Fiona Shaw shows the way with understated class and intelligence, as Eve's boss Carolyn.

Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Fiona Shaw as the ruthless spy chief, Carolyn Martens, who has a tricky relationship with Eve

The action begins 30 seconds after the last season finished.

M16 agent Eve is standing on the staircase of assassin Villanelle's Parisian apartment. She is holding the bloody knife with which she stabbed the ruthless Russian psycho-killer, who has played her party trick and disappeared into thin air.

Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Sandra Oh says agent Eve Polastri goes to "a psychologically dark place" in the second series
Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Filming the scene where assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) tries to hail a taxi, moments after being stabbed

There's a lot of hyperventilating and many a furrowed brow. That's on screen, and maybe off it as well in the writers' room.

The daunting task facing Emerald Fennell and her scriptwriting collaborators was how to pick up where Phoebe Waller-Bridge left off and somehow re-juice a dried up drama.

The mutual obsession between Eve and Villanelle, which is the key dramatic device driving the story, had climaxed at the end of season one in a disappointingly limp stand-off followed by a dull heart-to-heart and a half-baked fight.

It put the show into intensive care, which is where Villanelle soon fetches up while Eve heads back to London to try to fix her marriage and find a new job.

Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Villanelle, still in her pyjamas, leaves hospital sooner than she should after being treated for her injuries

The quality of the acting, our investment in the characters, and some quickly laid new plotlines are enough to entice you to watch the second 40-minute episode.

At which point Killing Eve returns gloriously to form, with a funny, clever script that starts to rebuild the sexual tension between agent and assassin. The two remain infatuated with each other but now there is some added spice.

Villanelle has competition for Eve's attentions and it ain't coming from Niko. That's the hook, not the mysterious baddies The Twelve, who any one of the protagonists could belong to for all we know - or care. Needless to say, Villanelle still murders people with the regularity and sensitivity of an automated phone call asking if you've been in a car crash, but the killings are a side show.

Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Owen McDonnell is back as Eve's long-suffering husband, Niko
Image copyright BBC America
Image caption Sean Delaney plays Kenny Stowton, who is a loyal part of Eve's team, and Carolyn's son

The real drama is in the relationships between the players: Carolyn and her son Kenny (Sean Delaney). Eve and Niko. Villanelle and her handlers. And, of course, between Eve and Villanelle.

Will they get it together? Will one kill the other? Can a cold-blooded murderer become a vulnerable, compassionate human being?

In other words, the same issues that kept us on tenterhooks in season one.

It fell short.

Will season two be better and succeed in delivering its punchline? You can find out later on Saturday when the entire series drops on the BBC iPlayer.

I've seen the first four and my hopes are high. Killing Eve is top quality television. And not just from a British standpoint, it ranks with the very best shows coming out of Hollywood. It's no surprise the head of Netflix has cited it as the one title he truly covets.

That it is superbly made is a given in these golden days of box office box sets.

But that's not what makes it stand out; it is not the reason that Killing Eve will sit alongside Friends and Breaking Bad as an all-time TV classic. It is the balance it strikes between bone-dry humour reminiscent of the best of early James Bond, and an exploration of identity, sexuality, and isolation in the second decade of the 21st Century.

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Image caption Fiona Shaw, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Jodie Comer all won Baftas for Killing Eve

For this, much of the credit must go to Luke Jennings, the Observer's dance critic. For Villanelle is his creation. He originally self-published the story as a series of online novellas before it was picked up by a canny TV producer. Once it had been commissioned for telly Jennings had his work cut out to do his day job while collaborating with Waller-Bridge on the television scripts, "I felt like Stalin, planning murder all day and watching Swan Lake in the evening," he wrote in the Observer last year.

His background in ballet provides an interesting insight into his creation.

The juxtaposition between beauty and the beast is what makes Killing Eve so compelling. As does the not-always merry dance he takes us on. You could argue that Jennings has written the most brilliant, exquisitely choreographed, blood-soaked pas de deux.

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