River, Jackson, and Louisa in a promotional image for 'Slow Horses'

Did ‘Slow Horses’ Really Just Kill off One of Its Best Characters?

Apple TV+’s Slow Horses is the smartest thriller on television and one of the best dramas in the streaming multiverse. We’re mid-season three, the strongest yet, with each episode adding to a delicious boil of mystery and intrigue. Yet a sudden death appeared to occur at the end of episode 3, verbally confirmed in episode 4, and I can’t help missing the character we lost—and side-eyeing his murder. Is everything what it seems? This is Slow Horses, so the possibility remains that we’re being deceived. Let’s investigate.

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***Spoilers for season three of Slow Horses ahead***

In episode 3, “Negotiating With Tigers,” we learn that Freddie Fox’s weaselly ex-MI5 agent, James “Spider” Webb, helped coordinate the initial “tiger team” operation that ended up going rogue. Spider had gotten a job working for the private mercenary outfit Chieftan, and because he loves to mess with the Slow Horses (problematic MI5 agents relegated to obscurity in a dilapidated building called Slough House) and especially his former friend River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), he even involved himself in a stage of the op. Spider pretended that his family was endangered by the tiger team and acted terrified to spur River into action. For a moment, Spider appeared to the audience and to River as almost a sympathetic character, but I didn’t trust it. I texted a Slow Horses-watching friend, “What if he’s really working with the tiger team?” And it turns out I was right. That got my, well, spider senses tingling that there could be even more to the character than meets the eye this season.

Later in the episode, Spider boasts about fooling River and acts like a stuck-up, self-interested brat, which is what Spider Webb does best. But he makes a serious mistake when he taunts rogue tiger team leader Sean Donovan (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), who reacts with a furious punch. Spider reels back against a car window, his head connecting with a sickening crunch. Donovan then dumps him in the street outside a restaurant where the home secretary and the head of Chieftan are dining, using Spider to send a bloody message about the seriousness of his intentions.

A tangled Webb

I thought that we’d find Spider badly injured the following week, but episode 4, “Uninvited Guests,” opens with news being broadcast on multiple channels that what Donovan dumped was a dead body, and Spider’s death is a topic of conversation in several scenes. While most of the characters shrug it off—the guy was pretty odious—River is shaken and expresses his dismay. The two of them were friends once, and Spider was violently killed by the same man who is holding his kidnapped fellow Slough House member Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves). The stakes and the danger are thus upped considerably by Spider’s death. Narratively speaking, these events add fuel to the season three plotline. But I was surprised that Spider was killed off, and my surprise also led me to doubt. Things are rarely what they seem in the world of Slow Horses. Could Spider actually still be alive?

Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas in a scene from 'Slow Horses'

Here’s why I think it’s possible. We already had one big fake-out where Spider is concerned—we thought he was being threatened by the tiger team when he was behind that op’s planning. There’s a general air of duplicity surrounding the character that would lend itself well to further twists. Spider is not a lead character, but he’s part of the formula that makes the show hum, and as one of the few non-Slow Horses he’s a link to the world outside.

It would fit in a show full of feints to have a scene in upcoming episodes where it’s shown that Spider is hurt but still alive, being kept under MI5 care. All of this season’s activities are so murky, and seem to involve top-level MI5 secrets and conspiracies, that it’s not so over-the-top to imagine that MI5 would want the world to think that Spider’s dead while holding him for their own purposes. Publically broadcasting that Spider is dead enables MI5 and other agencies to pursue the tiger team ruthlessly and puts a lot more power in the hands of MI5 first desk Dame Ingrid Tearney (Sophie Okonedo). She had been on the backfoot before the Chieftan operation went so disastrously; add in the death of a former agent and she now has the home secretary at her mercy and all of MI5’s resources at her disposal.

A season of conspiracies

I’m further bolstered in the writing of my personal conspiratorial Grey Book by a Deadline report from April 2023 that mentions Freddie Fox amongst the cast list of “the returning Slow Horses ensemble” for season four of the show. Filming for the season was already underway when the article was filed. Now, this could have been a blanket list given to conceal the deaths that are occurring (and those that have yet to occur) in season three. Or it could mean that Fox does return in some capacity that means that Spider’s still dead—a flashback, a dream sequence, a clip from a video. But it could also mean that Spider is revealed to be alive by season’s end and will be part of that returning ensemble.

Now I know what you may be thinking—Spider is an awful person, so why do I care? Well, it’s true that morally speaking, this guy sucks. A lot. He’s an arrogant, self-centered bully, absolutely the most nightmare coworker and monstrous ex-friend, and some viewers no doubt think he got what was coming to him. But Spider is an excellent character. He’s a compelling foil for River and the sort of person that you love to hate when they’re onscreen. On a show full of broken people, Spider stood as a reminder that sometimes the least deserving still have a way of ending up on their feet—a very real-world phenomenon in a narrative that paints with relentlessly frank colors. And Freddie Fox imbued Spider with such a memorable performance that the character already came back from one seeming death; he’s not even in the Mick Herron Slough House book, Real Tigers, that the season is drawing from. There’s a unique kind of magic when an actor turns a character into far more than is written on the page, and the creatives already recognized that was happening with Fox when they included him in the current season.

Freddie Fox as James 'Spider' Webb in 'Slow Horses'

Fox, a veteran of memorable performances (you’ve seen him in The Crown, The Great, and Cucumber & Banana, amongst other turns) is certainly acting as though Spider is dead, but then again, he’s an actor and that’s his job. If there’s going to be a late twist that Spider is alive at the end of the season, Fox won’t reveal that in mid-season interviews. He recently spoke with The Wrap, giving insightful answers about Spider’s character and seeming demise.

“I think River is the agent that Spider always wanted to be and just was never quite good enough. So he’s using his Machiavellian machinations to try and bring River down to, satiate his own insecurity, really,” Fox says of Spider’s motivations in season three. He further speaks to how Spider acts as a kind of dark mirror to River. “They even look quite similar. So I think it’s a little bit like looking in the mirror and being dissatisfied with what you see.” If this is it for Spider, at least he went out after reaching a sort of personal peak, however briefly. “When he is able to have the big reveal, it’s almost the apotheosis of his whole character being able to ridicule River Cartwright in front of a roomful of people,” Fox explains. “That’s basically as good as it gets for Spider. So it’s fairly fitting that he should die immediately afterwards, having fulfilled his life’s ambition.”

Episode 4 sets us up for what’s likely quite a few more deaths before season’s end, and it’s possible that we really have seen the last of Spider Webb. We’ll no doubt be mourning several more people we’ve come to appreciate watching as part of Jackson Lamb’s (Gary Oldman) stable of down-on-their-luck spies. But I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to this show and the masterwork it does with characters. For any of us to assume we know exactly how Slow Horses will play out is a losing game.

(images: Apple TV+)

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.