‘Slow Horses’ Star Freddie Fox Explains His Conniving Character: ‘River Is the Agent Spider Always Wanted to Be’

James “Spider” Webb’s plan to bring down his rival backfires in the third episode of Season 3 of the British Apple TV+ spy series

Freddie Fox, Slow Horses
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

This article contains spoilers for “Slow Horses” Season 3, Episode 3, “Negotiating With Tigers.”

In the this week’s episode of the Apple TV+ series “Slow Horses,” James “Spider” Webb (Freddie Fox), the insufferably cocky former MI5 agent, scores a major victory over agency rival River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) — only to have the whole situation blow up in his face.

Ahead of the episode, TheWrap spoke with Fox about his character being killed off. Fox said he was grateful to be “shoehorned” into the season, even though the character doesn’t appear in the third Mick Herron novel “Real Tigers,” on which the season is based.

Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas in Season 1 of "Slow Horses"
Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas in Season 1 of “Slow Horses” (CREDIT: Apple TV+)

In “Negotiating With Tigers,” Spider tricks River into thinking that the people who kidnapped Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) will kill her — and possibly him — unless River can access a top secret file from MI5.

A quick-thinking River uses the diamond from Spider’s tie pin to bluff his way into MI5 by “returning” what he says is a stolen gem as he races against the clock to find the file.

River nearly succeeds, only to learn that the kidnapping was staged and that he’s been made Spider’s personal patsy. What Spider doesn’t know is that Sean Donovan (Sope Dirisu), the rogue agent he hired for the job, is using the situation to retaliate against MI5. Sean ends up killing Spider and dumping his body outside a restaurant where a top British politician is dining.

TheWrap: When you took this on, did you know that Spider would be killed off in the third season?

Freddie Fox: Well, I thought Spider died in Series 2, to be honest. He’s not in the books. And he was never meant to make it into this series. But I think [showrunner Will Smith] enjoyed the rivalry between him and Jack, so I am very grateful that he shoehorned me into this series.

He’s sort of River’s nemesis, or at least in Spider’s mind he is.

Totally, he is. 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.

Did Spider imagine that that River would get as far as he did in infiltrating M15?

I think because they trained together, he always knew that River was a better man. 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. And then that being your whole read for the next however many years of your career.

River almost makes the whole thing work by grabbing the diamond from Spider’s tie clip. Was that part of Spider’s plan? 

It’s a good question, actually. Now I’m backtracking in my mind. I don’t think so. I never thought so as I was playing it. The diamond was sort of a character choice because he was such a flashy kind of … he’s like a bad real estate agent of a human being or a second hand car salesman. He just wears those kinds of things. And it was a bright idea of River’s that he had in the moment [to steal the diamond].

How did Spider get that amazing job after leaving M15? 

Well, he’s quite good at interviews. A little bit like some of the politicians we’ve been so unlucky to have in Britain lately. They’re very good at Instagram and selling themselves. But when it comes to the actual substance, not so much. And he’s also been at the top table. He has been the assistant to [Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and he’s been in the room where it happens. So I think that counts for a lot.

This must have been fun to play. Spider is in abject terror on the bridge that he’s going to be shot any second. And then the over-the-top gloating in River’s face when Spider admits he set him up. 

Yeah, it was always in the director’s and my mind to play it as real as possible but not losing sight of who he was. Even Spider would know that if he said River [was the only man for the job], he would go, ‘Hang on a minute, you’d never say that. Something’s afoot here’ So we had to load it with all of Spider’s natural cynicism and not wanting to have to admit that River is a better agent. And in that respect, he’s very smart. He’s worked out that reverse vanity is a way to undermine him, and does so very successfully. 

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. 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.

Major hubris there. Would you say the Spider’s death is karmic justice? It seems like Shawn didn’t actually mean to kill him.

Yeah, he’s gone in over his head just one too many times. And he’s got that arrogance of, if he talks a big enough talk, he’ll weasel his way through any situation. But this is just one time where the situation is bigger than him. We’ve seen him in Series 2 get in way over his head with the Russians, and it almost ends up being his demise. But he doesn’t learn his lessons from the series before. So yeah, major hubris, I would say.

Will you continue watching the series now that you’re no longer on it?

I so rarely watch my own stuff back. I find it’s the kiss of death and I hate myself for months afterwards thinking that I’m awful. But I will watch this, because it’s such a brilliant show. The acting from all the wonderful cast is so particular and so brilliant. And I hugely enjoyed making it. So I think for me, it will be a little bit like remembering a really happy holiday.

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