The perils of recapping a serialized thriller is that future events on a show often date several of the 1,200 words you wrote on the episode before. This is why I try not to speculate on what might happen. (Also: I’m absolutely terrible at it.) And yet sometimes, things that do happen turn out to be deliberate misdirection, which might seem like a civil offense to political weirdos, but is, in fact, a common tool for surprising and delighting audiences. So I must confess up top that I got two things wrong about the fifth episode — one relatively minor, the other about as massive as a sleek, modern London office building.
The minor mistake: James “Spider” Webb, the duplicitous toady who sabotaged River’s training exercise and roped Slough House into an operation with more red flags than Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, is not dead, despite taking a gunshot square in the chest from Pashkin. He will continue to bring his particular set of skills to MI5: Toxicity, ineptitude, and a dictionary-perfect understanding of the “meet-cute” device.
The major one: Well, you know that bomb-loaded Cessna putt-putt-putting toward the London financial center Glasshouse — a situation so eerily similar to the 9/11 attacks that it’s actually called “Code September”? That was a ruse. The hidden Cold Warriors, known as the “cicadas,” were using the threat of just such an attack to clear out the building for another job.
My only consolation is that River, a professional spy, would have filed an erroneous recap, too, and the consequences are potentially much more severe for him. It’s one thing to screw up a training exercise, which resulted in wasted resources and River’s subsequent relegation to Slough House, but sounding a false alarm on a 9/11 sequel would be an embarrassment beyond redemption. Entire MI5 training classes might devote units to River’s errors for fear they would be repeated. If the public knew anything about it, he couldn’t get relegated to a game of Clue.
And yet, in his defense, a lot of smart people went through a lot of trouble to set him up. In “Old Scores,” the frantic, twisty, and mostly satisfying season-capper to Slow Horses, River realizes that Alex, the sleeper agent from Upshott, has left the bomb-making materials in the airplane hangar, meaning that her plane isn’t targeting Glasshouse, at least not as seemingly intended. A plausible scene had been staged for his benefit: Before Alex tased him, he could see Katinsky and Chernitsky right in front of the homemade explosives, which would lead anyone to assume their intentions. Surely they knew the particulars of River’s failed training exercise because it made him the ideal candidate to make more or less the same mistake twice.
In both cases, poor River was totally framed and has proven himself to be an agent of keen instinct since. But the misdirection puts him in the terrible position of having to call back the Code September from Taverner, who already has a low opinion of him, and to stop British aerial forces from shooting down Alex’s plane, which her husband and daughter don’t want, despite the sham life she’s built around them. Overall, a very bad visit to the countryside for River, and he’s too far from the action to get much redemption. His best hope is that the right people are motivated to forget all about it.
The title, “Old Scores,” says everything about an episode where the ghosts of the Cold War do worse than haunt the Western world that assumed they’d been defeated. Chernitsky’s resurfacing into the first episode to kill an agent was just the opening move, followed here by another ex-KGB agent, the seemingly innocuous Katinsky, revealing himself to be Alexander Popov, the fabled mastermind behind the cicada project. For new agents like River and Louisa, they can only hear stories about Cold War spy craft and treachery, but the scars of the period have never left old-timers like Lamb, who witnessed good agents die due to treasonous acts.
The clearing out of Glasshouse was about giving Pashkin access to Nevsky’s materials, but even that feels like misdirection for what “Old Scores” is trying to do. As much as the show implies that we’re in the middle of a new Cold War, it’s the players from the last one who ultimately take center stage: Lamb, Katinsky, Chernitsky, and, finally, River’s grandfather David, a retired officer who was part of that generation. Bough’s murder had a domino effect that finally leads Lamb back to Katinsky’s questionable admission to the country as a defector and to a First Desk officer named Charle Partner, who betrayed the MI5 and lead many of his own agents to their deaths. Though Lamb was immersed in all that intrigue, even he got fooled by Katinsky, who seemed harmless to him for years until he suddenly emerged as the guy behind the guy responsible for the whole mess.
Lamb finally takes care of Katinsky — or, rather, puts Katinsky in a position to take care of himself — and River’s grandpa takes care of the rest with an old shotgun. But the whole affair shakes Lamb’s already low faith in the MI5 highers-up and appeals to his better instincts as a leader who protects his people. He really does care about Min’s death and Min’s life, too, which the agency can’t bring itself to respect enough to give him at St. Leonard’s. To his eyes, there are plenty of agents less reputable than Min who have gotten properly honored, so he assembles his people and does the honors the Slough House way — which here involves bribing the doorman, holding a brief ceremony with Min’s colleagues and hiding a mounted gold plaque.
Once again, his people may be fuck-ups, but they’re his fuck-ups. And he treats them like the wayward children they are.
• Lamb isn’t going to be fooled twice by Katinsky, so he calls him at his own office, knowing that he’s waiting with a gun. Asked by Katinsky if he wants to meet, Lamb retorts, “Well, that’s a tempting offer, but you wanna murder me, Nikky, so if it’s all the same to you, I’ll get an armed response unit to drop by on my behalf.”
• We’re going to get more information doled out about Standish’s experiences in future seasons, I’m sure, but she was the one who discovered Charles Partner’s body after Lamb killed him. She’s been around.
• Nice to see Roddy out in the field rather than lobbing smug jokes about the other agents. Against Chernitsky, a self-satisfied genius like him is due for a comeuppance.
• Shirley motorcycles to the train on time to help Roddy fend off Chernitsky, but her character was a bit underserved in a season that found time to introduce her yet didn’t find enough time to develop her.
• Great old-timer talk from Lamb to Katinsky about the labor of waving guns at each other: “I don’t know about you, but at my age, it’s murder on the wrists to keep them pointed more than five minutes.”
• “I wanted the professional humiliation of you and your team,” says Katinsky to Lamb about his motives for roping in Slough House. “Well, that was a waste of effort,” replies Lamb. “My team have already professionally humiliated themselves. That’s why they’re my team.”