Fiona Shaw is smarter than me. Not in a holier-than-thou way—she couldn’t be more down-to-earth. But as we chat, tucked in a corner table at an unassuming coffee shop in Chelsea, the gap between our intellects widens into a yawning chasm.
“Every question you’re asking is about how we do it, but it’s the same as you do anything else!” Shaw laughs, hands cupped around her mug. “What you really want to know is why is it so successful.” The “it” she’s referring to is Killing Eve, the BBC America show that’s amassed something of a cult following in the past year and change. Shaw stars as Carolyn Martens, an “inscrutable” (Shaw’s words) MI6 agent. Together with Jodie Comer (Villanelle) and Sandra Oh (Eve Polastri), Shaw is one-third of Killing Eve’s holy trinity.
And she’s right; I would very much like to know why Killing Eve is so successful. Many of the show’s main conceits speak to what was previously thought of as a narrow audience: powerful women, who also carry yeast infection creams (“poor baby,” Villanelle croons when she discovers Eve’s); lesbianism that isn’t designed for the male gaze. There is the undeniable draw of international assassins, psychopaths, and intelligence agencies—but more than often, television in that vein can end up feeling derivative, or predictable. Almost boring, in spite of itself.
Shaw hedges first, demurring that Killing Eve’s appeal is for me to write about, not for her to opine on. Still, she can’t help but throw her hat in the ring. As Killing Eve executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle will later tell me, “I don’t think [Shaw] ever intellectualizes. I just think she’s incredibly clever… She knows her stuff.”
She really does. Shaw leans in, her brows scrunching. “It’s the Triple Goddess, isn’t it?”
The what? “You read Robert Graves or…Did you read literature? Were you a literature student?” I was not.
“You have an older woman, and you have a very young woman, and you have a middle-aged woman,” she says. “This trilogy is very powerful in all literature.” I think I get it. I ask for other examples of this structure. “Everything has it,” she says, earnestly puzzled by my ignorance.
She launches into an explanation, occasionally pausing to reassure me that I’m not a complete fool for just staring at her, slack-jawed. And it might have be in my head, but I’m pretty sure coffee shop’s background music reached a crescendo as she laid down some wisdom.
The world “has kind of lost sight of an agreed morality, hasn’t it?” she muses. “Gods seem to be gone, so women are left finding out what it is to be free and young. And what do you do with your spirituality if you can’t share it with your community on a Sunday or a Saturday or a Friday? How do you discover what’s going on in your mind that has any value? There’s a lot of that. What do women do with the dark thoughts they have, what do they do with them? [Killing Eve] allows some vent to that I think.”
Again, Shaw’s right. Killing Eve stares into the abyss—and finds something hilarious in its darkest reaches.
It’s hardly surprising that she’s so on the nose. “She’s always got insights,” Woodward Gentle says of Shaw. “Sometimes she has pointed out plot holes for us. She’s really good. You can’t fluff past Fiona. She is incredibly rigorous.”
Woodward Gentle adds, “She’s really good at keeping the plot in her head, and remembering what her character knows and what her character doesn’t know.”
After some resistance, Shaw did admit that she knows more about Carolyn’s double-dealing than the audience does—she couldn’t play the role if she didn’t know a few secrets. Carolyn is “just bigger than you think she is,” she says. “And she’s probably even bigger.”
Big enough to encompass Shaw, too? She doesn’t seem to think she’s much like her onscreen counterpart—and in many ways, she isn’t. For one, Shaw actually cares about other people. She’s also got a sense of humor that would go right over Carolyn’s head. “Fiona is hilariously funny and her comic timing is absolutely impeccable,” Wayward Gentle says. “That sense of Eve and Carolyn not getting each others’ jokes, I just think is just so funny.”
But there’s still something about her that wouldn’t seem out of place in a real MI6 office. “There was a certain moment sitting in the makeup chair besides Fiona when I—and everyone in the makeup trailer—realized Fiona is actually the Carolyn of the theater world,” Sandra Oh tells T&C. Woodward Gentle agrees. “I think she’d be a bloody excellent spy. I bet she is a spy.”
Maybe it’s that her mind always seems to be whirring—albeit not to play Carolyn’s three-dimensional game of spy chess. Shaw studied philosophy in university before attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and she seems to have carried that knowledge with her, through her most iconic performances: Richard II, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Medea, and now, Killing Eve.
(Medea, by the way, seems to be universally admired on the Eve set. Shaw remembers the show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, wanted to cast her because of Medea. And Oh liked it too. “I completely fan-girled out and gushed about seeing her in Medea on Broadway,” Oh remembers of their first meeting. “I even acted out her last moment in the play.”)
She’s carried it all the way to this coffee shop meeting with me, when she casually mentions the Triple Goddess, a thing I, admittedly, have never heard about in my life. A quick Google, though, points me to a book by 20th century poet Robert Graves, called The White Goddess. “If anything, it’s not a scientific book,” says Fran Brearton, an English professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “I’m not sure what I’d call it. [Graves] called the book an historical grammar of poetic myth, which doesn’t really help anybody.”
As Brearton explains, Graves lays out a pseudoscientific study of ancient myths and legends, concluding that everything can be traced back to the Triple Goddess. This single figure is at once three: the “bride, mother, and crone,” which Shaw maps onto Killing Eve’s Villanelle, Eve, and Carolyn.
Brearton isn’t sold on seeing Killing Eve through this lens. But there’s another way in which Graves may be useful for thinking about the show. In the 1960s, after The White Goddess’s second publishing, “the Triple Goddess in Graves becomes a shorthand for saying the power of the feminine,” Brearton notes. Graves claimed that matriarchal culture came first, and was later erased by patriarchy. Despite his lack of actual evidence, it’s a nice idea. For anyone who’s wondered, “wouldn’t it be nice if women ruled the world?” Graves gives reason to think they did.
If Graves supposes the matriarchal came first, and was later overwritten by the patriarchal, Killing Eve does this in reverse. It takes the tropes of one of Hollywood’s most misogynistic genres—a spy-action drama in the mold of James Bond—and writes out the men. It’s a world where women are all-powerful. Bringers of both life and death, in spades.
As it happens, Carolyn is the product of this exact process. Woodward Gentle notes that in the books Killing Eve was based on, Carolyn’s place was occupied by a man. No longer. “With something that you suddenly realize is so female-dominated, why would you suddenly fall back into the stereotype that women are ultimately need to be managed by men?” Woodward Gentle says. After all, “the previous head of MI6 was a woman.”
Shaw is cautiously optimistic about what this means for culture, more largely. “I mean, 20 years ago, I played Richard II,” she says. “And I thought that we were going to make a sea change in gender-changing plays. Nothing happened for 20 years. Now it happens. So I don’t think necessarily that this thing is going to change anything overnight… And you can be well-assured that there will be elements that want to re-enforce their power.”
She pauses. “But the joy of it is that if there’s any self-censorship in women, that if they in any way underestimated themselves, I think that has been knocked out of the ballpark.”
Shaw begins to gather her things, clutching the glasses someone had helpfully returned to her after she left them in the car. She smiles at me, thinking, always thinking. “I hope I haven’t given too intimidating answers.”