Halfway through Apple TV+’s new UK spy series slow horses, veteran intelligence officer Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) studies a corpse at the bottom of the stairs to his dingy office. Lamb’s mortified subordinate Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) insists he didn’t mean to kill this man. “Of course not,” Lamb snaps. “If you wanted to kill him, he’d still be alive.”
Lamb’s disdain for Min extends to all agents under his command, and for good reason. The Slow Horses, including Lamb, are all disgraced members of the British intelligence community for one reason or another. (In Min’s case, he scatteredly left confidential information on a train for commuters to find.) Each is assigned to an office known as Slough House, where they were given humiliating, meaningless busy work in the hopes they’d quit. . When River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), a new resident of Slough House, asks Lamb what they’re going to do about the public kidnapping of a Muslim student by a group of white nationalists, Lamb replies, “What we always do here: nothing at all. “
If that was exactly what happened, slow horses – edited by Veep writer Will Smith (no, not Which Will Smith) from a series of novels by Mick Herron, with a producer team that includes: justified boss Graham Yost – would have the makings of an entertaining dark workplace sitcom with an overqualified star. Inevitably, however, the Slough House spies will become involved in the kidnapping case — and the kidnappers’ plan to behead their victim via a live feed — on multiple levels. And as a result, slow horses gets his pie and eats it too, combining a really tense thriller plot with the unexpected comedy of the people trying to solve it, outcasts from whom nothing is expected.
When a civilian witnesses the Slow Horses in unconventional action and asks what kind of spies they are, River shrugs and says, “Hard to say, really.”
A decade ago, Gary Oldman played a very different kind of British cop in John Le Carré’s 2011 version Tinker Tailor Soldering Spy† Lamb is presented as a man who has given up completely. His hair is long and tousled, there are holes in his socks (which you can tell because he often takes his shoes off at work), every pore and wrinkle on his face is eye-catching, and the only thing that tends to be his regular naps at his desk is the sound of his own frequent farts. It’s a delightful performance by a great dramatic actor who may not be funny as often as he should be. Every resigned gesture and every disdainful line reading is just right. And Oldman constantly leaves the audience guessing how much Lamb still cares about any of these spy games, especially in scenes he shares with his darkest hour co-star Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays a high-ranking MI5 official who would rather sink Slough House into the ground, never to be remembered.
River Cartwright is positioned as the spiritual polar opposite of Lamb. Blonde, handsome, smart, passionate and the grandson of an MI5 legend (played by Jonathan Pryce), he is clearly meant to be the hero of the more straightforward version of this story. Instead, due to an extremely public error, he is a Slow Horse, saddled with the most humiliating tasks available, such as sifting through the trash of an expert who himself is barely relevant to current discourse. Lowden does a good job of channeling that benefactor mode, while also fitting into the story’s wry comedic tone, and he paired well with Olivia Cooke early on as Slough House’s newest recruit, Sid Baker, who’s here even more. seems out of place than River.
The plot starts off a bit slow, although I must say that I have read and enjoyed several of Herron’s books, including the book that forms the basis of this first season. This is a case of an adaptation that may be more appealing to those unfamiliar with the source material – not because it’s of lesser quality, but because it’s so faithful that the early plot unfolding feels a bit obligatory. But by the time the Slow Horses figure out their connection to the kidnapping — and, most importantly, realize they still like to act like spies when the rare opportunity presents itself — the rest of the season is on track. There’s also impressive tone control, so one scene can focus on a ridiculous prank involving a 90s folk rock hit, and the next can be a chilling suspense backdrop where the kidnappers threaten their captive. Everything complements everything else and makes it more interesting, instead of the humor that makes the plot feel stupid, or the life-and-death stakes that make the jokes seem in bad taste.
Apple has already filmed a second season, meaning the finale ends with an extreme rarity for a streaming show: a full trailer for what’s to come. Hopefully, based on how lively, sharp and fun this first story is, many more will follow slow horses come.
The first two episodes of slow horses start streaming on Apple TV+ on April 1 and additional parts coming out weekly. I’ve seen all six episodes.