Besides the “cock-up” interlude that opens the episode, in which Carolyn’s (Fiona Shaw) superior reads her for filth for allowing Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and Konstantin (Kim Bodnia) to elude capture, “Desperate Times” is Killing Eve’s most serious episode to date—even the episode built around Bill’s murder had a lighter touch than this. It’s not absent humor, though, so much as trending away from it. Shortly after the “bloody asshole” tirade at MI-6, Villanelle screams, “This is so BORING!” at a museum in Amsterdam; later, in the line of the hour, she calls after an Instagrammer who wants her photograph, “Get a real life!” (In fairness, V’s architectural pink dress and pyramidal gold earrings are to die for.) Eve herself (Sandra Oh) gets in on the act, admitting that, of the Doctor Who companions, she’d jerk it to Rose Tyler: “Come on! She’s adorable.” Then the mirth evaporates. The mischief runs its course. And “Desperate Times” brings the characters, most especially Villanelle, to a new nadir. The question is, where does Killing Eve go next?
To be blunt about it, I’m reaching the point of no return with the series’ “plot.” For one, “Desperate Times” offers an expanding picture of the intelligence community in which Carolyn and Eve operate—first with the suggestion that Operation Manderlay be shuttered, and then with tech scion Aaron Peel (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) sneering to Eve and Jess (Nina Sosanya) that private corporations are poised to replace the intelligence services—but so far that picture isn’t terribly arresting, let alone novel. (Let’s just say I’m starting to wonder if the Bond franchise has rubbed off on Phoebe Waller-Bridge more than she has on it.) And the swift capture of the Ghost appears to close off the potential for competing assassins and/or crisscrossing cat-and-mouse games, both of which held out promise for the series’ sense of fun. In fact, “Desperate Times” turns the sort of roguish, darkly comic set piece that defined the first season into a full-blown nightmare, as Villanelle’s eagerness for attention leads her to gut a philandering husband before a crowd of Red Light District gawkers (including his wife), all while wearing a dirndl and a pig mask. It’s not witty; it’s grotesque.
As I hoped after “The Hungry Caterpillar,” though, Killing Eve continues to press on its protagonists’ soft spots, and it’s for that reason “Desperate Times” works. In particular, the episode uses its more-dour-than-ever back half to steer into Villanelle’s skid, so that the over-the-top hideousness of the assassination in Amsterdam reads as a symptom of psychological distress: Coupled with her brutal (and genuinely frightening) attack on a rude woman in a dance club’s restroom, in which Konstantin has to intervene lest she kill the girl, we begin to sense at a more visceral level the burbling brook of rage and pain beneath her bubbly, bright-pink exterior. Similarly, Eve’s neglect of Niko (Owen McDonnell)—who, in one of the series’ many canny gender-flip scenarios, accuses her of “gaslighting” him by claiming everything’s normal—finally blossoms into action, as she allows herself a fried chicken-fueled flirtation with the oily Hugo (Edward Bluemel). He understands her desire not to “die of boredom.” He credits her attraction to both watching and being watched. He leans in to kiss her without a lecture or a nag. He, like Villanelle, sees her. In the professional sphere, Eve is not a ghost.
Against my fear that the series’ increasingly dark emotional palette threatens to destabilize its distinctive, knife’s-edge tone, then, there is the fascinating meta-textual question: What kind of TV show does Killing Eve want to be? Will it involve itself in larger conspiracies and surreptitious machinations, as when Carolyn cops Villanelle’s postcard to Eve from the mail pile? Will it And Then There Were None every person Eve gets close to until she gives up, and decides that the sacrifice isn’t worth the excitement? (Jess going to Amsterdam pregnant and solo means she’s almost certainly toast.) Is this a one-off departure, a season-long arc, or the mark of a fundamental shift in what the series is about? Whatever the answers to these questions, the remarkable closing sequence of “Desperate Times,” set to a sublime cover of “Angel of the Morning,” suggests that the grave tenor at hand is no “cock-up,” or mark of carelessness. In the many mirrors of those final moments—as Villanelle breaks down crying in the hotel bathroom; as Eve sees several forms of herself in her own face, in Carolyn, even perhaps in the Ghost—Killing Eve goes through the glass darkly, and comes to reflect the allure of spinning out of control.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.