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'Killing Eve' and the TV tightrope of escalating conflict

Eve (Sandra Oh) gets sucked deeper into the vortex of Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in Season 2 of BBC America's 'Killing Eve.' Eve (Sandra Oh) gets sucked deeper into the vortex of Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in Season 2 of BBC America's 'Killing Eve.' Image: bbc america By Proma Khosla2019-05-28 15:11:32 UTC

Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Killing Eve's Season 2 finale.

If Eve Polastri's work-life balance was complicated before, she's really in the shit now.

After a season of increasingly tangled alliances, allegiances, and sexual chemistry (Hugo!), the latest episode of Killing Eve ended with a classic where-will-they-go-from-here moment. It's the job of a season finale to build events to a breaking point, and Killing Eve's "You're Mine" piles on obstacle after obstacle for our titular heroine and her antiheroic counterpart. 

The second half of the episode doesn't let up on complications; Villanelle murders Aaron Peel (and Niko's colleague), Carolyn plans to frame her, Eve kills Villanelle's new handler, and finally, Villanelle shoots Eve. Each additional conflict complicates the story and makes it less and less likely for these two to emerge unscathed.

The snowball effect is far from new in narrative fiction, but in peak TV it's more prominent than ever and being explored uniquely on multiple shows at the same time. Barry just wrapped an outstanding second season that began with our protagonist seemingly trapped in a web of his own lies and murder, but continuing to escape prosecution due to exceptional writing.

The snowball effect is far from new in narrative fiction, but in peak TV it's more prominent than ever.

In comedy, particularly in classic, multi-camera sitcoms, a situation escalates more ludicrously; a car crashes into the kitchen and a character decides to become a fugitive before all is forgiven without consequence. You spend half an hour inflating a conflict balloon only to pop it with a cathartic laugh at the end. 

In drama – and in the rough edge of modern comedy – stakes don't vanish into thin air like that. When you pop the balloon, it contains a grenade, and you better have a plan for what to do with it. 

On a show where tension is part of the very premise, writers are challenged to sustain and escalate conflict for the show's longevity, but keep it both surprising and believable. HBO's Barry in particular does this superbly. One Season 2 episode ends with Barry seemingly cornered by a detective (whose partner he killed) and betrayed by his former employer – only to be asked to do one last hit and make it all go away. One episode later, when he appears to be trapped again between the detective and the mark, they both end up dead and effectively erase Barry's role in the situation. 

It's a remarkable use of that conflict bubble and perhaps a testament to Bill Hader and Alec Berg's comedy training; every time one pops, a new one inflates in an unexpected direction. Dead To Me employed similar strategy, devoting Season 1 to conceal a singular, critical secret, and setting up new episodes to potentially cover up a new one.

Admittedly, Killing Eve's Season 2 plotting has been messier (although "not as good as Barry" is not an indictment so much as a fact of existence most shows must live with). Season 1 was a simple and exhilarating game of cat-and-mouse. Season 2 changed the rules of that game, arguably to the show's detriment, replacing the thrill of sexual subtext with clunky plot devices like the Aaron Peel storyline.

In Season 2, Barry trades offers to train assassins in order to pay a debt and get on with his life.

In Season 2, Barry trades offers to train assassins in order to pay a debt and get on with his life.

Image: peter lovino/hbo

As with Barry, the conflicts in Killing Eve often have legal consequences. Villanelle working with MI6 is a business transaction that temporarily distracts from the red in her ledger and the fact that she surely must be prosecuted for manslaughter in the future (think of Bill, you monsters!). 

Every time Eve and Villanelle break the rules (and they truly cannot stop doing this), they face the scrutiny of Carolyn and her superiors, of Konstantin and the Twelve – alienating the only groups powerful enough to protect them from their own enamored egos. The finale's fantastical us-against-the-world setup was admittedly hokey but looked like the only way out – until Villanelle shot that gun.

Since she'll likely survive, now as a victim of attempted murder, Eve will comfortably cash in her goodwill with the law. That's similar to what Santa Clarita Diet did in its excellent third season on Netflix. 

One of the most subversive and surprising (and tragically cancelled) comedies out there, Santa Clarita's leads are the only characters on TV who can't simply stop killing people when the stakes are too high, because Sheila needs to eat them! They cover murder after murder, each time with new hiccups, and with external aggravation ranging from the zombie-killing Knights of Serbia to religious zealots who see Sheila as a savior. 

Having more shows than ever means a higher likelihood of seeing any storyline repeated, and inevitably drawing comparisons between shows that may otherwise have no business being juxtaposed. It also means that content-hungry viewers are getting smarter; we see the signs of a snowballing plot line and we can start predicting its direction. 

The only way to to truly surprise the audience now is to pivot the story entirely and start from scratch on whichever new path the writers choose. It's an exercise in faith for everyone involved, audience included – and a journey we must take together.

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