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7 March 2022

Killing Eve shows the best way to ruin a perfect show: keep making it

The fourth season of the BBC drama is living proof that in TV commercial concerns always trump artistic ones.

By Jonn Elledge

Killing Eve had an amazing ending. After two seasons in which Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) has allowed her obsession with the assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) to consume her life and destroy her marriage, she finally walks away; Villanelle, being a psychopath who’s not great with rejection, shoots her. Just as we know, from Shakespeare’s prologue, that Romeo and Juliet will die, we should have known that Eve’s obsession would get her killed from the very title of the series, the ending hiding in plain sight all along. It was perfect.

The only slight fly in the ointment was that all this happened at the end of season 2, which came out in 2019, and the show has released nearly a dozen episodes since. It wasn’t the ending at all.

There are loads of reasons Killing Eve didn’t wrap up with season two, not least that it quickly became a huge hit, winning near universal critical acclaim and a heap of awards. Beautifully designed and stylishly shot, with witty scripts and great performances, it turned Jodie Comer into a star overnight. Throw in the fact that it acted as a sort of queer, feminist revenge fantasy, in which the women were glamorous and obsessed with each other while the men were boring and had a gratifying tendency to die (“Straight women are sublimating their rage against men by expressing their desire for starlets to strangle them or run them over with a car,” Natalie Adler wrote for Buzzfeed)… Well of course they kept making the show.

Yet — acknowledging my interest here, as a boring man of some years standing — the critical response and ratings for each season has been worse than the last, and it’s hard to avoid wondering if this has been a mistake. Instead of something small but perfectly formed, Killing Eve has become one of those programmes that seems mainly to inspire the response, “Oh are they still making that?” After the show returned for its fourth and final season on 5 March, the Birmingham Mail ran an entire article rounding up angry comments from boycotting “fans” who think it should have been cancelled years ago — although whether it’s a bad sign that the response is so poor, or a good one that the show is still considered a worthy topic for clickbait, I’m not exactly sure.

In offering its audience too much of a good thing, Killing Eve is hardly alone. Paul Abbot’s Shameless also made stars and created a genre and felt utterly unmissable for its first couple of years. By season four, most of the original cast had left; Channel 4 made another 100 episodes over the next half decade all the same. Community, which ran for six seasons, similarly kept trying to reformat itself and half-heartedly persuade its audience they were as interested in new characters as they were in the old. Then there’s The Simpsons, which is currently in the middle of season 33 even though literally none of the dozens of screenshots, clips and quotes you’ll encounter on social media on an average day come from a season whose number was in double figures.

Any show can go off the boil, of course, running out of ideas or losing a critical mass of talent on one or both sides of the camera. That may be part of the issue with Killing Eve — only season 1 had Phoebe Waller-Bridge as lead writer — but something else is going on, too. It’s run out of story.

It wouldn’t be alone in that, either — the initially brilliant thriller Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s novel, struggled in its second season because it had run out of book to adapt; the BBC really shouldn’t have made more Only Fools & Horses after the Trotter brothers finally became millionaires — but it strikes me as a much harder problem to fix. Season 34 of The Simpsons could, in theory, produce the sort of creative renaissance that would make us all grateful for the two dozen seasons of dross that preceded it. But it’s hard to imagine any future Killing Eve showrunner coming up with new things to do with its central relationship that don’t stretch credulity to breaking point or completely ruin the fun by turning subtext into text.

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Of course the BBC wanted to make more of a critically successful TV show that had only run for a couple of seasons. Armchair critics can bitch all we want about how great it was that they only made 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, but ultimately it’s an expensive medium and commercial concerns are always going to trump artistic ones. It’s surely better for fans, too, to get too much of a good thing than too little. I’m still not over the fact Channel 4 left Utopia on a cliffhanger.

All the same, I can’t help but mourn for the smaller but perfectly formed version of Killing Eve we never got. Also, if Eve isn’t dead at the end then seriously, what the hell have they been playing at?

Episodes 1 and 2 of ”Killing Eve“ Season 4 are on BBC iPlayer

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