TV review: Killing Eve, Series 2, BBC One (4 stars)

TV review: Killing Eve, Series 2

Thriller element remains crucially compelling in much-anticipated second season

At last, Killing Eve returns to our screens with its much-anticipated second season, although why the BBC chose to sit on the series for a whole two months following its BBC America debut back in April remains a mystery. To those many fanatics for this show out there who managed to avoid a proliferation of online spoilers seeping across the Atlantic over the past few months, congratulations; you must be almost as quick-witted and elusive as Villanelle herself.

When we left Jodie Comer's bright-eyed but deadly young assassin and her nemesis/love interest – the earnest but world-wearily harangued MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) – at the end of series one, the terrified Eve had stabbed the killer in Villanelle's stylish Paris apartment, in a scene which was deliberately equivocal about whether it wanted to be the great Holmes-meets-Moriarty showdown of the series, or the fated romantic clinch at the end of a romcom.

Final closure on that dramatic crescendo is delayed here; the first episode begins thirty seconds after the last, with Eve and Villanelle fleeing separately, while a gang of assassins dressed as paramedics invade the scene, scrub the apartment, and – a jarring moment – execute Villanelle's elderly neighbour off-camera. For Eve, things go strangely back to business as usual, as she's recalled to London by her boss Carolyn (Fiona Shaw, reassuringly brusque as ever) and set to work with a team of old and new faces finding an assassin known only as the Ghost.

Of the two episodes which have so far been released for preview, it's the second which best sets up the tonal shift instituted by new head writer Emerald Fennell. Following the extremely hard act that Phoebe Waller-Bridge set up during the first series (she only retains an executive producer credit this time; a different female showrunner will take on each new series of the show, with Fear the Walking Dead writer Suzanne Heathcote already announced for the third), Fennell comes with an unlikely CV for this job. She's most well-known for an acting career which includes four years on Call the Midwife and a forthcoming turn as Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown, as well as a trio of YA books and an adult horror novel.

Yet by the second episode she's made a convincing pitch as a writer who isn't just the keeper of Villanelle and Eve's stories for a time, but as their owner for these eight episodes. While there's a reassuring familiarity about Eve's return to office work and home life – the events in Paris still clearly playing on her mind – Villanelle feels somehow transformed and progressed as a character. Her ruthlessness remains intact, as does her gleeful upsetting of sexual convention; one glorious scene has her, wounded and in need of treatment, throw herself at a taxi and then guilt trip the male driver into taking her to hospital. Yet her only kill of the first episode, although not unexpected, is a disturbing and morally queasy moment.

There are no magic plasters for that stab wound, however, and Villanelle's quest to reach London to see her 'girlfriend' Eve – whether with menace or a misguided sense of love in mind, it's uncertain as yet – reveals a new side to the character, and further depths to Comer's striking portrayal. Her wounded vulnerability seems to have thrown her into a state of existential crisis, and when she attempts to manipulate Julian (Julian Barratt), seemingly just another rube with a hero complex and a cock for a brain whom she picks up in a grocery store, a sense of real peril emerges.

The action is brutal and the thriller element remains crucially compelling, but Fennell appears to be bringing home some of the themes which Waller-Bridge set up in the first series with confident style; that, despite the stabbings and threatened assassinations, Eve and Villanelle are not one another's natural enemies. Those, instead, are the men who would control with violence, and in removing Villanelle's air of anti-heroic invulnerability against them, the stakes have been raised exactly as they needed to for Killing Eve to thrive.

Killing Eve Series 2 begins on BBC One, Sat 8 Jun, 9.15pm