Why Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn is the Best Thing about “Killing Eve”
The veteran spy is an enigma that viewers can’t help but want to solve.
I’m about to make a controversial claim.
In my considered opinion, neither Sandra Oh nor Jodie Comer should be considered the best things about the hit series Killing Eve. No, that honour should go to none other than Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn, Eve’s boss (and sometime nemesis) at MI6.
This isn’t to say that Oh and Comer aren’t great, because they definitely are. There’s an electrifying chemistry between the two of them that lights up the screen any time that they appear together (and hell, any time that they don’t). However, as I made my way through each of the three seasons of the series that have aired so far, it was Carolyn that I found myself drawn to again and again. Something about her just seemed absolutely captivating, even though the for the most part we learn less about her than we do either Eve or Villanelle.
Part of her allure, certainly, is the appeal of Fiona Shaw herself. Like most people my age, my first real introduction to her on the screen was as the embittered yet ultimately somewhat sympathetic Aunt Petunia to the titular Harry Potter. Then, of course, she was one of the main antagonists of HBO’s popular (but increasingly irritating) vampire series True Blood, where she played the witch Marnie. Shaw was, in fact, almost the only thing about her season that was appealing, since by that point the series had already begun to go quite thoroughly off the rails.
Then came Killing Eve.
For most of the first two seasons, Carolyn mostly lurked in the background. There were some parts of her past that slowly bubbled to the surface. We learn pretty quickly that she has had a long series of lovers during her service as a spy, including with the morally ambiguous (if not outright villainous) Konstantin. She seems to know just about everyone there is to know in the various ministries of Europe and we, along with Eve, are never quite sure if she’s really as devoted to the well-being of the UK as she appears to be.
Yet toward the end of the second season, as Eve gradually closed in on Villanelle, Carolyn came to play a greater role. She’s always there, ready to swoop in and (thankfully) rescue Hugo after he’s shot and nearly dies, and she neatly cleans up Eve’s mess. By this point, she’d become almost as much of a nemesis to Eve as Villanelle herself was, if not more so. After all, she is the epitome of rigid self-control, her lips often pressed into a firm line, every word spoken with almost surgical precision and tight diction. This is a far cry from either Eve’s almost manic behaviour or Villanelle’s penchant for elaborate executions.
It was the third season, however, that really allowed Carolyn to shine, and Fiona Shaw absolutely makes the most of it. Of course, this is in some ways the most gut-wrenching season, since the very first episode sees the tragic death of Kenny, Carolyn’s nerdy (and very cute) son who had already left employment at MI6. While Carolyn is not the sort to express emotions openly, her daughter Geraldine (played by none other than Gemma Whelan, famous for portraying Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) is the opposite. The constant sparks between the two of them are some of the best scenes in the third season, and they consistently manage to bring out the worst (and, sometimes, the best) in one another. Indeed, Geraldine often forces her mother to confront the emotions that she’d clearly much rather keep rigidly contained, boxed up and repressed.
In many ways, Carolyn’s gradual coping with the death of her son — as well as her own possible complicity in it — is the emotional heart of the season, far more interesting in its own way than either Eve’s or Villanelle’s storylines (though the latter’s ill-fated trip to Russia to reconnect with her family is a highlight in an otherwise rather scattered and narratively formless season). After all, this is a woman who has clearly committed a great deal to her profession and, as she says to Geraldine in one of their most wrenchingly honest conversations, Kenny was hers in a way that her daughter never was.
The brilliance of Shaw’s performance is that she manages to convey Carolyn’s rigid sense of self-control while also occasionally offering the viewer glimpses of the profound feelings that lie beneath. For make no mistake, Carolyn feels very deeply about certain things, and one of those things is the death of her son. In one of the season’s most heartbreaking moments, we watch as she goes to her bedroom and, putting a pillow against her face (presumably to hide the sound from her daughter), screams out her grief, her anguish, and her frustration that she might have been responsible for his death and that she has so far failed to find his killer. The entire scene is a powerful testament to Shaw’s tremendous talents as an actress.
All through the third season, I found myself getting worried that the series would decide to get really brave and kill Carolyn off as well, particularly now that it seems that Eve and Villanelle have finally decided that they might just be made for each other after all. Again and again, we see how she has begun (or perhaps is merely continuing) a descent into alcoholism, and it’s her indulgence in drinking that is one of the few things that signals to us that she is not nearly as collected and sanguine as she might appear. In the end, of course, she takes control of the narrative and, getting both Konstantin and the duplicitous Paul (who appears to be part of the Twelve, the nebulous criminal organization), appears poised to shoot both of them for her part in her son’s death. She even has Konstantin beg for his life, before ultimately slaying Paul and allowing Konstantin to live. It is, I think, one of the most exquisitely paced and terrifyingly suspenseful moments in the entire season.
And it’s all down to Fiona Shaw.
It’s precisely the fact that she’s such an enigma — even now, after we’ve seen her put through the wringer and survive — that makes Carolyn such a fascinating character. It’s also a testament to Fiona Shaw’s talents as an actress that she manages to convey so much depth, richness, and complexity without resorting to overacting. There’s still a lot of room for her to grow and to reveal her hidden depths, though it’s hard to imagine what new things they are going the throw at her.
If I know Killing Eve, it’s sure to make for riveting television.