I can’t help but wonder how much of the success of “Horse To Water” depended on my willingness to invest in its scenario and how much was strictly a matter of atmosphere and calculated suggestion. We are, after all, talking about Covert Affairs, a show whose successes have all been modest. So I tend to think it’s more of the former than the latter. But honestly, “Horse To Water” does have something to it, and I don’t think it worked for me as much as it did because I was willing to fill in certain gaps in its story. I’m just not that generous.
“Horse To Water” begins bracingly: an American double agent is executed in public. (In Moscow’s Red Square, no less!) We get the impression that this murder is an important event based on the alarming immediacy of the scene. At this point in “Horse To Water,” we don’t know who Igor is and, furthermore, we don’t find out later, either. But the fact that he’s so abruptly dispatched gives the impression that his death is significant, even if he’s not. It’s a shock tactic, but an effective one.
Then we discover that Igor was just a pawn in a plot hatched by Max Langford, an American triple agent who’s been incarcerated on 12 counts of treason. Confined in a solitary cell, Langford is adamant that he’s innocent of the charges that were brought against him but Arthur Campbell doesn’t believe him. As it turns out, Arthur has good reason not to believe Max: he ordered Igor’s death from his prison cell. Max’s interaction with Arthur establishes the more interesting of the two main predominant themes in “Horse to Water,” namely that everything CIA agents do boils down to trust issues between peers. They need to be able to instantly read people and know whether or not their assets are lying. If they can’t make that distinction quickly, they’ll wind up like Igor.
The other main thematic component to tonight’s episode is how much the show’s protagonists can rely on their families to support them. Danielle and Annie start to bond at the beginning of the episode and even prepare to run in a Marine Corps Marathon together. But then Annie has to be debriefed on the Langford situation and is made to leave her sister. Annie is so wary of causing potential friction—especially now, since she and Danielle were in the middle of bonding—that she instantly regrets having to walk out on Danielle. But she does it anyway.
This plotline was not as well developed as it should have been. Considering that the last scene of “Horse To Water” is Annie firing off rounds at a target range, I’d hope that the end of the episode would, in some way, affect Annie’s relationship with Danielle. After all, while watching Annie kiss and make up with her sister is a minor motif of the show, this episode is supposed to be significant, because Annie sees her relationship with her sister reflected in the relationship that Max’s daughters, Grace and Bebe, have with each other (more on this in a moment). But it doesn’t, which makes Annie’s confession to Joan about how she felt really scared in tonight’s episode and hence now needs to learn how to defend herself feel weirdly tacked-on.
That having been said, I like the main storyline of “Horse To Water,” or more specifically, I liked watching Annie try to cozy up to Grace Langford. Annie is so convinced that Grace is not feeding her father information to and from his prison cell that she tells Joan that she just has to trust her (Annie), go against her own (Joan’s) better judgment and stick by Grace. Annie’s faith is ultimately rewarded in a rather disappointing way but, when she and Joan are talking and seriously considering whether Grace is who she appears to be or not, “Horse To Water” is a fairly compelling spy drama.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the episode is also poorly developed beyond a point. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be as suspicious of Grace as I was. She just seems too good to be true. After a rocky introduction, Grace trusts Annie implicitly. This makes Grace seem rather suspicious, so much so that after she tells gives Bebe misinformation later in the episode, and Grace’s phone conversation goes on longer than it needs to, it seems like she’s talking to Bebe in code. As in, a seemingly innocuous line about banana cream pie sounded like code to my tetchy ears. But it’s not code and it’s not even brought up later in the episode so maybe it was never supposed to be thought of as code? To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, this time the banana cream pie is just a banana cream pie. And that makes knowing that Annie is right and that Grace is as good as she (Annie) initially thought that much more underwhelming.
Follow-through is generally a recurring problem for Covert Affairs’ story-writers but it’s especially problematic in “Horse to Water.” Like, when Grace tells Annie that she doesn’t believe her when she (Annie) says that, “We have operatives in danger” because of Max Langford’s actions. Considering that there hasn’t been any scenes since the death of Igor that suggest that more of Max’s pawns have been sacrificed, I’m inclined to side with Grace. That’s the problem with opening with a shocking scene like the death of Igor: it’s a quick fix and not a sustainable means of suggesting that something is at stake in the episode. The more time passes in the episode without similar developments, the more “Horse To Water” feels like a potentially interesting story that’s neither organically developed nor thoughtfully resolved.
But I will say this: the Augie/Jai subplot in tonight’s episode was okay. Too often the fact that Augie’s life beyond being Annie’s handler feels stunted and inconsequential. But tonight, I like that his interactions with Jai had immediate consequences that will also matter later on. It was a serious Augie subplot that actually felt serious. Wow, how’d that happen?