In a series rooted in dark and upsetting material—your crime dramas with cartels, mobs, grisly murders, assassins, and the like—it’s common to see a world filled out with characters who fall clearly on the good-evil spectrum, and whose motivations are laid out plainly. There’s no denying the intimidating power of Tony Soprano or the inherent goodness that radiates off Agent Dale Cooper; Gus Fring is so interesting because, to a Los Pollos Hermanos customer, he seems like a genial, normcore fast-food restaurant owner who does his part to help the greater New Mexico community. (His first appearance on Breaking Bad is deceptive and disarming.)
But as great and iconic as those roles are, lately I’ve found myself drawn to a more niche type of crime character: the droll, apathetic operator. There’s something undeniably amusing about watching someone handle chaos with a temperament more appropriate for running errands and filing taxes. I’ll leave it to a therapist to examine why I find these characters so entertaining, but for now let’s examine two perfect examples: Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn Martens on Killing Eve, and Janet McTeer’s Helen Pierce on Ozark.
Setting aside the fact both characters are played by celebrated European thespians who’re only a few years apart—McTeer, 58, is English; Shaw, 61, is Irish—there’s not much Carolyn and Helen have in common. At least on the surface. Carolyn is the leader of MI6’s Russian division who helps Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) track the dangerous hired killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer) across Europe; Helen is an attorney by trade who represents Omar Navarro (Felix Solis), the leader of one of Mexico’s biggest drug cartels, and is overseeing the Byrde family’s money laundering operation in the Lake of the Ozarks. In Killing Eve and Ozark’s third seasons, these characters both become further ensnared in the world of international espionage and money laundering, respectively, but also struggle with having to give away more about themselves.
In some ways, Carolyn makes for a quintessential MI6 boss: her life is like a Russian nesting doll of secrets, and it’s hard to discern what she wants in the big picture. (Going into Season 3, a popular fan theory among Killing Eve viewers is that she could be a member of “The Twelve,” the show’s overarching, unseen big bad with serious Illuminati vibes.) There’s an impassiveness about her that’s best represented in Carolyn’s relationship with her son Kenny (Sean Delaney), who also works at MI6; their dynamic is so transactional that it’s easy to forget they’re even related until you see him pop up in their house. But Carolyn is also supportive of Eve—if only out of necessity to catch Villanelle—and is bizarrely, and often hilariously, matter-of-fact. For someone whose profession requires so much secrecy, she can’t help speaking her mind—sometimes on the most mundane things.
It’s why Carolyn, despite being so mysterious and difficult to read, is Killing Eve’s greatest source of comic relief. One of my favorite little moments of the series happens in the pilot, when Carolyn takes Eve to her team’s nondescript hideout for the first time and says at the entrance, with utter sincerity, “I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Both hands. Extraordinary.” While her dry, acerbic wit is an occasional source of hot takes—in Season 2, she expresses her distaste for brunch because it’s so egg-focused—Carolyn also uses it to deflect when she finds herself nearly sharing intimate details of her life. At the end of Season 1, when talking with Eve about the complexities of love, Carolyn catches herself. “Oh dear, I’m bordering on the profound,” she says. “Bed.”
As Shaw told my Ringer colleague Kate Halliwell in 2018, lines like the rat drinking a can of Coke get the viewer “swallowed up into the person’s mind.” It is particularly compelling when Carolyn always appears three steps ahead of anyone else on the show, and yet alarmingly apathetic about, well, everything. (Except maybe cheese puffs.) It would be possible for the viewer to infer that Carolyn’s secretly one of the villains or a blunt force for good because both would make complete sense with her mannerisms.
But that’s what makes her such a singularly entertaining character. Villanelle gets all the creative kills and fancy outfits, but Carolyn remains my biggest source of intrigue on Killing Eve, even if the show’s best moments appear to be in the rearview. One of the best new additions to the third season is Carolyn’s daughter, played by Game of Thrones alum Gemma Whelan, who suffers from hyper-empathy syndrome—she’s the perfect foil for a character who struggles to show any emotion herself. As a viewer, though, having Carolyn offer deadpan observations is a key ingredient on Killing Eve, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; she wields nearly as much chaotic energy as the series’ serial killer. Like the rat grabbing a can of Coke with both hands, Carolyn is extraordinary.
Helen’s introduction in Ozark’s second season is, it should go without saying, much more sinister than Carolyn’s. There’s no ambiguity about where her allegiances lie. After one of the Navarro cartel’s top lieutenants is killed at the end of the first season, Helen comes into the picture as the new face of the operation—in a show with many terrible people, she’s the closest Ozark Season 2 gets to a chief antagonist. But even in what’s a largely familiar role for an antihero drama that takes so many cues from Breaking Bad, there’s an amusing and unique strain of banality in the way Helen approaches her dangerous line of work. Within the same breath as reminding the Byrdes what will happen if their money-laundering scheme fails—they will all die—the character complains about the crappy sheets at the Ramada Inn.
Perhaps this kind of blitheness is a commentary unto itself—you have to be like this if you can stomach working for a drug cartel—but McTeer’s performance is especially captivating because she makes everything Helen does seem so perfunctory. Even at the risk of her own peril, when Helen is waterboarded on the order of Omar Navarro to ensure she’s still loyal to the cartel, she’s disarmingly accepting of the situation—like a genuinely disturbing torture method is a totally normal workplace hazard. One of the character’s few giveaways are her piercing eyes, which express more than the character often does with words.
Ozark’s third season does a lot more to flesh out the character, as Omar comes into the picture and takes over as the big bad. And with a bigger spotlight—McTeer goes from being a recurring actor to a series regular—Helen begins to mirror the Byrde family. Unlike the Byrdes, Helen believes she can separate her job and her family, even as a nasty divorce with her husband (who has no idea she works for a damn cartel) disrupts the usual flow of her domestic life. It’s a tenuous balance, and that’s before she gets fed up and hires someone to beat the crap out of her husband in a parking lot. McTeer plays that moment (and the entire season) to droll perfection, as quick to remark on the poor quality of the Byrdes’ office coffee (relatable!) as she is to plot against them when she believes Marty (Jason Bateman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) are stepping out of line.
Undermining your coworkers in any context is probably a bad look, but despite treating the cartel like a banal office job, Helen’s cold, calculating tactics are done with the express purpose of having her coworkers wiped out by convincing her boss they aren’t worth the trouble. Naturally—spoiler alert—because Ozark is the Byrde show, the lawyer’s scheming backfires. At the end of the third season, when Helen, Marty, and Wendy are summoned to Mexico to meet with their boss, Helen is swiftly and unceremoniously shot in the head by her own henchman. It’s a darkly funny and fitting way for the character to meet her end; she is treated with the same casual indifference she had for a world that would scare most people out of their minds. If there was a way for Ozark to show Helen Pierce reflecting on what just happened in the afterlife, I’m confident she’d react with a blunt and terse “well played.”
Helen’s journey might’ve ended on Ozark, but Carolyn’s still in the Killing Eve game—assuming she isn’t killed in the back half of Season 3, which seems unlikely—as the show has already been renewed for a fourth season. But these characters, while they don’t get their own hands dirty and come from very different professions, feel like kindred spirits. It would be one thing if they were cold as ice, but Shaw and McTeer find plenty of grim humor through people navigating worlds often deprived of it—and became stealth MVPs of their respective shows along the way. Carolyn Martens and Helen Pierce might not stand the test of time like Walter White and Tony Soprano, but they’re deadpan icons all the same.