‘Slow Horses’ Season 3 Episode 4 Recap & Ending Explained: What Did “Clear The Board” Mean?


Season 3 of AppleTV+’s spy thriller series Slow Horses reaches its most thrilling moments with this week’s episode 4 release, as the high stakes of the whole situation are revealed to all sides. Sean Donovan’s unintentional murder of James Spider Webb at the end of the previous episode has now blown the situation out of proportion, as the Chieftain private security firm is also under direct pressure by the MI5. Along with some personal struggles discussed, episode 4 also throws some more light on what Sean’s intentions are.

Spoiler Alert

Why does Tearney want to appoint the Slough House agents?

Slow Horses season 3, episode 4 begins with MI5 Director-General Ingrid Tearney walking into the office of Home Secretary Peter Judd. It is the very same office that was featured at the beginning of episode 3 as well, but the situation has greatly changed by now. While the earlier meeting had Judd exerting his influence, as he explained his plan to Tearney and got her on board, this time around, the wrath of the MI5 DG is evident. Judd is now on the back foot, for he has realized his mistake in trusting a Tiger Team hired by Chieftain to pull a stunt on the security agency, which has completely gone out of hand. The death of James Webb, too, in a very public manner, has already caused a stir in the media and society, as every news channel now covers the incident. Peter Judd is, therefore, desperate to ensure that his name won’t be linked with the matter.

Information getting out about Judd having organized the Tiger Team to test the MI5 and the team going rogue to even kill an ex-MI5 agent would be devastating for the politician. He would have to immediately resign from his post, and this would also most definitely end his political career forever. Other than these direct troubles, the man would also lose a lot of money and influence, as he has monetary investments in the Chieftain company. Judd even mentions having investments in the posh restaurant in front of which Webb’s body had been dumped, which ought to have bad business from now on. In order to save himself from the two other more severe problems, he asks for Tearney’s help in sorting out the matter and to ensure that his connections with the plan do not get revealed to the public.

Ingrid Tearney agrees to help Judd, as she has come prepared with a proper plan. She states that the involvement of the MI5 in this whole chaos and her being the head of the agency make her responsible for the cover-up as well. While this is true, at least to some extent, Tearney also seems to have some other intentions to fulfill through this plan. According to her, the only, or best, way to solve the problem at hand is to agree to the demands of the rogue Tiger Team and to let them access the Grey Books that they were after. Tearney feels that the team, headed by Sean Donovan, only wants to get hold of information regarding some old case, possibly some unimportant conspiracy theory, since the Grey Books mostly contain such records. Thus, she considers it most appropriate to let them get into the records and access whatever file they want.

The fact that the Grey Books have actually been removed from the records room at the Regent Park office and had been stored in the archive that Diana Taverner had been building makes Tearney’s intentions clearer. It has been quite evident since the end of season 2 that there is a suppressed rift, or competition, between the two women—the First and Second Desks of MI5. Taverner has been eyeing Tearney’s position for some time, and the Director General is very well aware of this. In order to secure her own place, she needs to sacrifice the second desk, and she does so without any hesitation. When Tearney calls Diana Taverner and informs her of letting the rogue Tigers access the files, the latter asks for confirmation that allowing outsiders into such confidential records won’t get her in any trouble. Although Tearney assures that Taverner will not face any heat for this decision, it is also suggested later on that she does indeed plan on putting the blame on the deputy DG.

Maintaining the hierarchy of assigning lambs to the slaughter, Tearney then has to appoint the foot soldiers to carry out her plan, and her obvious choice is the Slough House members. She first meets with Jackson Lamb and offers him or his team members to get the job done. Although we have not seen much interaction between Lamb and Tearney earlier in Slow Horses, their bitter relations are evident when Lamb immediately turns down the offer and reminds the DG of earlier instances when he and the Slough House had been pushed under the bus in a similar manner. The woman now directly contacts River Cartwright, knowing that he will not be able to turn down the order because of his intent to serve the agency and also to save Catherine Standish, and gives him the same offer.

River agrees, and the plan is revealed to be for him to meet with Sean Donovan at some predetermined place and take him to the archives building. Once the Tiger team has accessed the information, they are bound to release Catherine, and River is to leave the place with the woman. But Tearney also plans for the team to be taken down, as she instructs the Dogs tactical unit head, Nick Duffy, to be on guard at the archive building and wait for Catherine’s release. Following this, Duffy and his team are to take down the rogue Tiger team with the help of the Chieftain, who are bound to clear up their mess. Ingrid Tearney’s whole plan is based on the execution of the Slough House agents, for she intends to put all the blame on these agents if anything about this mission goes wrong.

Why does Catherine help Sean Donovan?

Catherine Standish, meanwhile, remains a hostage at the safe house of Sean Donovan, along with the Chieftain representative, Sturges. This situation goes extremely wrong when Sturges manages to get out of the safehouse and run onto the open fields. One of the members of the rogue squad, Ben, tries to get hold of the man, but Sturges’ professional abilities as a private security agent come in handy. By the time Sean gets to the scene, Sturges is able to stop a car on the road and escape the place. The man is finally able to get back to the Chieftain headquarters and inform everyone about what happened.

The incident naturally leaves the kidnappers shaken and worried for their safety more than ever before. Ben and Sarah, the two friends and helpers in Sean’s plan, are introduced better, as they are revealed to have been very close with Alison Dunn, the murdered MI5 agent, for they are her siblings. Following Alison’s unnatural death, which had been covered up by the MI5 as suicide, Ben and Sarah got close to Sean, who had turned to alcohol to cure his pains, and to do something about the woman’s death. They were all very sure that Alison did not kill herself and that the authorities were involved with it all, and so they agreed to this desperate plan.

During all this time, Catherine Standish had been using her intelligence to find out whatever she could about her kidnappers, and now, in Slow Horses Episode 4, she finally confronts Sean about his plans regarding her in her very usual soft manner. Unlike what she had expected, Sean Donovan does not react negatively to her words but instead opens up to her about his mission. He tells Catherine about Alison, the love of his life, and the brutal manner in which she was taken away from him by the very agency they both worked so hard for. Sean’s grief and his yearning for closure through revenge are evident in this scene, and his words remind Catherine of a similar situation that she herself had faced earlier in life.

Catherine had been very close to Charles Partner, an earlier Director General of the MI5, until the man was suddenly declared to have died under mysterious circumstances. While it was a cold-blooded murder, carried out by Jackson Lamb himself, under the orders of his MI5 superiors, this death too had been officially declared to have been a suicide. Therefore, Catherine, too, had to live with the same exact shock and disbelief as Sean about their conception that their partners could not have killed themselves. It is very possible that Catherine, too, had wanted to launch a similar rogue mission against the MI5 in her wildest imaginations, but while she did not carry it out, Sean has managed to pull through half of it. Nonetheless, Catherine identifies the similarity between her and Sean’s situation, and after learning that Alison’s siblings were the ones involved in the kidnapping and realizing that they were normal people looking for justice, she decides to help them out. It is only because she can very well relate to Sean’s situation of looking for answers regarding one’s beloved that Catherine decides to help out Sean.

What does Tearney’s order mean in the end?

Sean had revealed to Catherine that he was looking for a specific file in the newly formed archive that he could get access to with the fake demand for the Grey Books. Since Tearney had already informed Sean that he and his team would be allowed to enter the archive facility and go through the Grey Books, the path to get into the highly guarded building was secured. But Sean still needed to know where the file would be inside the place, and so he had asked Catherine for this information. While the woman had initially refused to go against the agency, she had finally decided to turn and tell her kidnappers the room number where the file would be kept.

With this information, Sean and Ben arrive at the meeting spot and get introduced to River Cartwright and the agent who has refused to let him on this mission alone—Louisa Guy. The four are let into the facility as per the instructions of the Director General, and the responsible guard at the place also instructs them about where to find the Grey Books. However, Sean and Ben now reveal their true intention—to find something else, regarding Alison’s death, at the place. They are able to go about their way as well, since Louisa cannot technically shoot them if they do not incite any violence first.

However, by this time, Ingrid Tearney is also able to learn about the true identities of the rogue Tiger Team members, and she is shocked to find out about Sean Donovan. Tearney is informed that the death of Alison Dunn is what the rogue agents are investigating, and a quick search into the system confirms her worst fears. Although the entire matter is not made clear yet, it is suggested that the death of Alison Dunn and the subsequent cover-up were intricately linked to the integrity and safety of MI5. By this time, Nick Duffy and the private security agents from Chieftain had gathered outside the archive building, waiting for Catherine to be released and then to take action against the perpetrators. However, Ingrid Tearney now changes the plan and orders Duffy to “clear the board,” which is the code to kill everyone at the place. The secret behind Alison’s death is such that Tearney calls for the killing of Sean Donovan and everyone associated with him, irrespective of their being MI5 agents. Not only does this put River and Louisa’s lives at stake, but also that of Catherine, since Tearney does not trust anybody that Sean has been in contact with in the recent past. Therefore, an epic fight between the Slough House agents and the MI5 agency itself can be expected in the last two episodes of Slow Horses.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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