“What if a hyper-competent fictional archetype was actually just bad at their job?” is a tried and trusted setup. It’s usually mined for broad comedy: Think of Rowan Atkinson’s terrible James Bond spoof, Johnny English. It’s an easy route into parody, and the bathos and sight gags come naturally when your super-spy, or your vampire hunter, or your detective, is actually just a doofus.
Slow Horses, a new British spy drama streaming on Apple TV Plus, puts a different spin on it. These spies aren’t stupid, necessarily. But they are fuck-ups. Maybe they drink too much, maybe they don’t have the nerves for it, maybe they made one unforgivable mistake. Maybe they’re just mediocre. They’re not bad enough to give the sack, but not good enough to give anything important to do.
Rather than mine this situation for workplace comedy, Slow Horses thrusts its unlikely heroes into a fairly straight espionage thriller and asks them to keep up. Sometimes the results are funny, undercutting the pomposity of the genre. And sometimes they’re pretty sharp.
What is Slow Horses?
Slow Horses is a fairly close adaptation of the 2010 spy novel of the same name by Mick Herron, the first in Herron’s “Slough House” series about a crew of underachieving spies in MI5, the domestic arm of the British intelligence services. Herron has written 10 more books in the series, so if Apple TV Plus decides it wants to go back to the well, it has plenty of material to draw on. Herron combines robust thriller plots with a sardonic, humorous tone and a John Le Carré-style fascination with the political treachery and practical tradecraft of the secret intelligence world. And Apple’s deep pockets have brought two big stars to the series: Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott-Thomas.
Who’s behind the show?
Slow Horses is written and produced by Will Smith (no, not that one), a former stand-up comedian who has worked closely with Armando Ianucci on UK political satire The Thick of It and Ianucci’s follow-up take on US politics, Veep. Apple may be hoping that, in Smith, it has found its version of Succession creator Jesse Armstrong: another Ianucci-adjacent British writer with a cynical worldview and taste for bitter absurdity. His tone is certainly a good match for Herron’s, and an aptitude for skewering the British political class will go a long way in the world of Slough House. But this isn’t Veep gold Succession; it’s a mystery thriller, and a pretty good one.
What’s it about?
River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is a promising MI5 recruit whose grandfather (Jonathan Pryce) is spy royalty. But when a training exercise ends in disaster, River finds himself banished to Slough House, a dingy purgatory for the Service’s unwanted strays, overseen by slobby has-been Jackson Lamb (Oldman).
Chafing at the menial tasks he’s given, and itching to serve his country, River’s curiosity is aroused when his deskmate Sid (Olivia Cooke) is sent to steal files from a right-wing journalist. Slough House isn’t usually trusted to run operations, so why now? What is the apparently capable Sid doing in Slough House anyway? What game are the much slicker spooks at Regent’s Park, the head office ruled by Diana Tavener (Scott-Thomas), playing? Does Lamb really care as little as he appears to?
The plot thickens and the stakes are raised when a student, the son of Pakistani-born immigrants, is kidnapped by right-wing nationalist terrorists and paraded on a livestream with the threat that he will be beheaded. River resolves to do something, and the other “Slow Horses” get dragged into it — including Lamb, who, as Tavener warns darkly, is “burned out for a reason” and may not be as incompetent as he seems.
What’s Slow Horses really about?
Above all else, Slow Horses is about living with the ghost of Le Carré. It’s about finding a way to make the sort of grounded, politically pointed, exquisitely twisty spy thrillers of which Le Carré was the undisputed master work in a modern world. The producers surely cast Gary Oldman, in part, to summon the memory of his performance as George Smiley (scientifically proven to be the greatest British fictional spy) in the 2011 film of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
So it’s about intelligence war rooms dominated by huge multi-screen displays. It’s about clandestine meetings in empty cricket grounds. It’s about intelligence briefings with testy politicians. It’s about dead drops, and burn boxes, and encrypted files, and picking phones out of trash cans, and large men with earpieces stepping out of black SUVs. It’s about sparing but quite shocking moments of violence. It’s about every character having an uncertain motivation, and an even more uncertain fate.
As it scrapes away beneath the scurrilous machinations of the intelligence community, Slow Horses does dig into a bigger topic: sickness and division in the body politic in modern Britain. Le Carré used the international espionage of MI6 to examine Britain’s place in the world and cast a mournful eye on its history. Slow Horses uses MI5’s domestic agenda to look inward at the fault-lines in British society and the way unscrupulous journalists, politicians — and, yes, spies — are exploiting them for their own ends.
Is Slow Horses good?
Slow Horses is a solid, purposeful spy thriller that hits all the notes you want it to hit. The plot is satisfyingly dense and unpredictable without being unreadably labyrinthine. It’s expertly paced, and Smith’s scripts balance cutting humor with a real sense of danger and a hint of moral backbone.
Despite the splashy cast, this isn’t a particularly ambitious show, and it notably doesn’t think it’s high cinema. British TV abounds with lean, well-made, six-episode thrillers like this (shows like Line of Duty and Happy Valley) and the only thing that distinguishes Slow Horses from the rest of them is the magnitude of the stars and a certain visual gloss brought by Apple’s budget. That’s a good thing; this recipe for TV potboilers doesn’t need to be messed with. What it needs is twists that are carefully placed and not overplayed, a sense of urgency, a sense of place, and charismatic characters. Slow Horses has all of these, and director James Hawes, a TV veteran, knows just how to make the most of them.
While Oldman may have been cast for his buttoned-down Smiley, here he’s back in a mode he spent much of his early career in — cursing obnoxiously in a thick London accent — and he’s clearly relishing playing to type. You can say the same of Scott-Thomas, archly clicking down shiny corridors and snapping off orders to underlings, looking silky and refined. These aren’t profound characters, but they are fun archetypes.
What gives the show its heart, though, is the motley crew assembled around them. Finding out, one by one, what fatal flaw condemned these losers to Slough House, and watching them overcome those flaws and build a reluctant family, is a great formula for uncomfortable comfort TV.
When and where can you watch Slow Horses?
The first two episodes are on Apple TV Plus now. New episodes of the six-episode series will drop every Friday.