This interview contains spoilers for Killing Eve season one.
The Killing Eve season finale may have left viewers with a killer cliffhanger as Jodie Comer’s Villanelle and Sandra Oh’s Eve Polastri converged in an unexpectedly violent confession of obsession, but there is one woman in the cast who displays just as much cryptic strength as she exits the season one stage: Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn Martens. Shaw spoke to us about how her character defies audience expectation of what a leader should do or how she should act, similarly to the way the other two principal women in the show surprise viewers with their mixture of intelligence and impulsiveness, essentially making Carolyn Martens the third female lead in the series.
When we’re first introduced to Carolyn in Killing Eve, not much is known about her other than the fact that she was a legend of the Cold War and “has saved the world at least three times” according to Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s character, Elena, so we’re predisposed to think of her as a by-the-book MI6 agent, which is exactly how Shaw likes it. “I was so delighted that finally there was something that was neither goofy nor silly nor crazy, but actually pure intelligence. That was such a phenomenal gift to be asked to play this brain,” she says of Carolyn. “I’ve played such huge classical roles of tragedy and comedy that to be allowed to play the stillness of someone who is inscrutable was really a great pleasure.”
This inscrutability and our preconceptions of a professional woman in charge color our judgment, and as a result, we’re surprised when it turns out that the reserved Carolyn Martens is actually quite open and effervescent around her Russian intelligence counterparts. “The one thing you can learn about humans is that they can have many sides to them,” says Shaw. “So having spent four episodes very uptight, to have a few glasses of wine in Moscow and turn into a complete, mad flirt was a delight… You assume when a person behaves in one way, that they are such a person, and then you discover they’re a completely different person. But that’s as in life, isn’t it?”
It’s no wonder that Carolyn’s son, Kenny, who really only knows the emotionless, efficient version of his mother seen in London, has such trouble talking to Elena or saying any sexually-charged words at all. “They both seem to have a slight, perhaps, spectrum-like behavior. I never touch him,” Shaw observes. “I mean, he’s an adult son, but there’s nothing gooey about them as a mother and son. I mean, it makes you wonder about his upbringing; you know, did they ever speak at all? … It’s something very British, too… They just are very logical people.”
This disconnectedness in some ways makes viewers suspicious of Carolyn with many wondering if she might be a part of the mysterious Twelve who are behind Villanelle’s assassination targets. “Well, of course, you’re dead right to think that,” Shaw admits. “There are lots of shades of things, as you go along. [Konstantin], Kim Bodnia’s character, is he higher up the list of the Twelve or not? And who are the Twelve? And in what way are the Twelve really a twelve, or does it refer to one person? Or does it refer to a ‘wizard of Oz?’ Or does it refer to an actual whole series of people that might include the Pope and various heads of government around the world? Or the UN? I mean, we just don’t know who the Twelve are.”
And, of course, if Carolyn really is duplicitous, why would she have recruited Eve in the first place? Shaw confesses that Carolyn may have gotten more than she bargained for. “I think Carolyn took her on on instinct. She didn’t know what she was getting entirely and then begins to learn who she’s got, and she can’t control her! I mean slowly, during the season, you see that Eve begins to pull away from Carolyn; having been her obedient servant for a while, she then begins to pull away and Carolyn doesn’t like that at all.”
What Carolyn would think about Eve’s actions during her final confrontation with Villanelle is anyone’s guess, but with the recent announcement that Killing Eve has been renewed for a second season, there will be a chance to explore all of these questions further. “I hope you don’t get them all answered,” says Shaw. “I hope that won’t happen until season three is out; that would be my aim, or that nothing harmful happens to any of us. But I think it will certainly have to go up a notch, won’t it? A bit like one of those kids games, you know; it’ll have to go into the next dimension. We’d have to get closer.”
Ultimately, Shaw considers herself as much a viewer of Killing Eve as any of us in the audience, and she’s amazed at what the show is capable of. “It is astounding how impolite the thing is, isn’t it? It’s not polite… because when Villanelle particularly behaves in this way, an amorality that would be very unaccepted in any decent society — where you make love to people and then kill them, or tell them you’re going to kill them and then you seduce them and then you kill them — is absolutely obscene! And yet somehow, the line of wit just protects you from believing it in a way that is distasteful, if not illegal.”
Shaw’s masterful portrayal of Carolyn Martens is only one aspect of Killing Eve’s brilliance, but her presence as a flawed character, one who is cryptic yet consistent, is definitely part of the allure of the series. You can watch Killing Eve on the BBC America website or through most SVOD services. The season one finale aired on Sunday, May 27, 2018.