Dial M for Murder
M takes her job as the head of MI6 very seriously. Maybe too seriously. But if you were the first woman in charge of the agency, you'd take your job seriously, too.
In the fifty-year history of the Bond franchise, in fact, M had been played by men until 1995, when Judi Dench took over in GoldenEye. She might be one of the most ruthless Ms of them all, but she has to be, because Craig's Bond is also one of the most ruthless 007s. It's a ruthless world. (Where has Ruth gone, by the way and will we ever find her?)
From the beginning, M sets the tone of Skyfall when she orders Eve to shoot with Bond in her sights, a decision that ends with Bond's death. Or so she thinks. M mourns Bond, but then she gets back to the business of keeping MI6 together. She may be sad about Bond's supposed death, but she can't let her emotions get in the way of serving her country.
Like Bond, M feels attacked for being old and out of date. After the Bond debacle, she finds herself being forced into retirement by Mallory, Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who thinks that it's time for the agency to move past her. She resists. Then, when Bond returns, even he suggests she cash in her chips.
M: You know the rules of the game. You've been playing it long enough. We both have.
BOND: Maybe too long.
M: Speak for yourself.
As you can see from her response, M will never back down. She fights as hard as she can to stay in her position, but why? Is it sheer stubbornness, or is it because she knows she is the best person to head the country's national security? Her response to Silva's accusations that she abandoned him without remorse definitely put a check in the "stubborn" category:
M: Regret is unprofessional.
But M also knows what she's talking about. The double-0 program is a shadowy organization, but it must be shadowy, because these people are dealing with shadowy enemies. And they need a shadowy leader, like M. Seriously, we can never tell what that woman is thinking.
Whatever motivates her, Bond has a suggestion for her:
BOND: You should try it some time. Get away from it all. It really lends perspective.
What does M need a new perspective on? Could it be possible that M is so focused on preserving her own career that she misses the bigger picture? We have to wonder if M's fate would have been different if she had taken a break, and not just because we'd love to be on a beach somewhere sipping martinis with Judi Dench.
M is for Mother
M may be strictly professional, but she is a woman, and her agents are predominantly men. And the two main agents in Skyfall—Bond and Silva—have some mommy issues.
An orphan, Bond finds a mother figure in M, which is why her betrayal hurts more than it might have if the order to shoot had come from any other boss. But the affection goes both ways. Bond isn't longing for the love of a cold mother; he's coming to terms with the fact that even though M loves him, she loves the country more.
Bond is a little bit petty about this slight, offering this bon mot up to the evaluator when he knows M is in earshot:
But although Bond's feelings are hurt, he is able to put them aside and reconcile with M in order to get the job done.
Mallory, on the other hand, sees M's love for Bond as a detraction from her job. As he tells her, "You're sentimental about him."
And he has a point. M is putting Bond in harm's way by making him think he is stronger than he is. We see this when he attempts to hang onto the elevator and almost falls off, for example. Bond's physical test results say he's in peak condition, but that's only because M lied about them. In fact, Bond could stand to do a few more push-ups.
As for Silva, he is longing for the love of a cold, distant mother. We don't know Silva's entire background. He mentions a grandmother, but not a mother. Perhaps he saw in M the same surrogate Bond does. Silva actually calls M "mother," but in the way a teenager might when he does something just to anger his mom.
M continues to be cold. She isn't the type to offer warm fuzzies when her kids act out. Just look at her response to him here:
SILVA: You're smaller than I remember!
M: Whereas I barely remember you at all.
M's as cold as chewing an entire pack of spearmint gum. Not only is she chilly toward Silva, but she also then says she will have his name scrubbed from the memorial wall of fallen agents. She denies Silva what he wants: recognition. And when he doesn't receive it, he wants to kill her. That's beyond Oedipus, guys.
Think On Your Sins
Silva's computer virus repeatedly tells M to "Think on [Her] Sins." And think on her sins she does. At Skyfall, Bond's family estate, M has time for reflection. Ever the stoic, she doesn't reflect out loud, instead doing it silently whilst—yes, we totally said "whilst," because M would, too—viewing the Scottish countryside.
M doesn't reveal the conclusion of her reflections until the very end, in the moment before her death—but we're saving that for our "What's Up With the Ending?" section. Tl;dr: M realizes that she was right about how great Bond is. Bond grieves M's death as he would grieve for his own parent—maybe even with more tears.
Like Judi Dench herself, M was a grand dame.