If the season premiere of Killing Eve turned Villanelle’s (Jodie Comer) childishness into its foremost asset, and made Eve’s (Sandra Oh) reaction to their Paris encounter into dead weight, “Nice and Neat” offers an intriguing, if frustrating, reversal. Villanelle’s arc, in which she becomes the captive of a creepy Basildon doll collector named Julian (Julian Barratt), revs up the series’ penchant for excess so far and so fast it feels like a contrivance, while Eve returns to brilliant form, joining an MI-6 working group called Operation Manderlay and uncovering the existence of another female assassin. It’s a measure of the formidable task facing the episode’s writer, showrunner Emerald Fennell: The series hinges on keeping Eve and Villanelle far enough apart to avoid another confrontation, yet close enough together for each to read as a threat, a delicate balance that neither “Do You Know How to Dispose of a Body?” nor “Nice and Neat” manages on its own, even if the episodes seem to move in this direction when taken in tandem.
Balance—disrupting it, restoring it—is, in fact, one of the hour’s central motifs. Just as Eve tries to re-establish some semblance of normalcy with Niko (Owen McDonnell) at home and Carolyn (Fiona Shaw) at work, Villanelle’s sense of control comes completely undone. But nothing is nice or neat in “Nice and Neat”; if the moral of last week’s episode was normal is boring, the moral of this week’s is be careful what you wish for. Eve is still withholding from Niko—to the point that a foreboding warning doubles as a “touchingly reassuring goodbye”—and thrills to her instinct that Villanelle was not the killer of tech magnate Alistair Peele. She’s operating as an addict does, secreting Google searches under online shopping tabs, becoming giddy at the thought of a “new girl” to chase. (I’m honestly not opposed to Killing Eve turning into the Russian Doll of highly trained hitwomen, wrapping a fresh mark around the old ones with each passing season.) And her excitement’s infectious. The episode’s most effective sequences, if not the most obviously “memorable,” are set in Operation Manderlay’s nondescript office, as Eve delivers confident presentations, or shares astute insights, or shuts up the smug Oxford graduate (Edward Bluemel) with the temerity to talk over her. “What makes you think that?” he says of her suggestion that the new assassin, code-named “the Ghost,” is a woman of color. “The fact that you just interrupted me mid-sentence makes me think that,” she retorts.
If Villanelle’s suburban adventure proves less satisfying, it’s likely because the subplot strays from the series’ main pleasure principle: It’s exceedingly entertaining to watch capable women killing it at work. This doesn’t mean the characters should never be thrown off balance; I loved seeing Villanelle get a taste of her own medicine from that ice-cold laundromat attendant, pointing up at a sign reading, “Beware: Thieves Operate in This Area.” Nor does it mean the characters should be above the vanities that give the series so much of its style; I’m obsessed with Shaw’s imperious calm as Carolyn describes her pig placenta moisturizer. But it does mean that spending half an episode battling the personification of toxic masculinity is like relegating Villanelle to the JV squad for a week; Eve is her only worthy adversary.
Ultimately, Villanelle’s brief stint with Julian and his demented mother, wracked by infection from her nasty-looking knife wound and desperate to escape, seems designed primarily to force her back into the arms of her criminal organization: At the end of the episode, she meets her new handler, Raymond, while her former one, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia), turns up at Carolyn’s house. (In fairness, “It’s Cher Horowitz, I failed my driving test” is the best SOS signal since “Things are very topsy-turvy at the office.”) And like the knitting needle to Julian’s jugular, it’s sloppy—a characteristic unworthy of Villanelle, as Eve points out to the crew at Operation Manderlay. Much more exacting is the difference between Eve’s description of Villanelle as “flamboyant and attention-seeking and instinctive,” “spoiled” and “easily bored”—spoken in a breathy, almost longing voice—and her description of the Ghost as “the kind of woman that people look at every day and never see,” “careful and anonymous and meticulous and discreet”—as if she knows from whence she speaks. Whether the Ghost will emerge as more than a half-hidden figure remains to be seen, but it’s clear that she’s a deadly proxy for Eve herself, and in that her appearance is a promising development. After all, contrast is the key to establishing balance, or getting it back once it’s lost.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.