When it comes to spy stories, it’s typically an all-or-nothing experience. The leads are either effortlessly efficient agents or thoroughly inept buffoons, played for high drama or laughs, respectively. But what about the spies who fall somewhere in the middle?
That’s where the characters in Apple TV+ series Slow Horses live, and the compelling show offers a reminder that there’s a wide area between James Bond and Maxwell Smart that remains fertile ground for good spy tales.
Directed by James Hawes (Enid) from a script penned by Veep co-writer Will Smith and adapted from Mick Herron’s novel of the same name, Slow Horses follows the agents of Slough House, an administrative offshoot of British intelligence agency MI5. Exiled after making mistakes that put them in MI5’s doghouse, the “Slow Horses” of the dismissed office toil away at dull paperwork and courier tasks, led by irascible, disgraced veteran Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman (Mank). When Slough House ends up involved in a secret MI5 mission gone awry, the misfit agents are forced to navigate the world of high-stakes smoke and mirrors that left them behind.
The first episode of Slow Horses does a brilliant job of demolishing your expectations for the series, which kicks off in typical espionage-thriller form, only to reveal how easily things can go wrong for an agent in the field. As the story continues to unfold across the first season’s six-episode arc, it manages to remain carefully positioned in the area between drama and dark comedy, blending an overarching tale of espionage and shadowy political machinations with the daily trials and tribulations of the colorful, castoff agents of Slough House.
Sentenced to sift through public officials’ garbage and catalog decades-old parking tickets, the Slow Horses are sympathetic characters rather than court jesters, and rarely played for laughs. You find yourself wanting them to succeed, but the mix of personalities, limited skills, and conditions surrounding them makes any victory — no matter how small — feel like a surprising development.
As the alcoholic, perpetually flatulent, frustratingly uninspiring, but quietly brilliant Jackson Lamb, Oldman delivers a wonderfully fun, nuanced performance that keeps you guessing about whether he’s a tactical genius or a washed-up old fool. No matter how much you expect him to be hiding some endearing quality under a gruff exterior, Oldman keeps Lamb’s moral alignment firmly in a gray area, and that uncertainty makes him even more fascinating as events play out around Slough House.
In fact, the closest the series gets to offering up a capable secret agent protagonist is Small Axe actor Jack Lowden as River Cartwright, the grandson of a former MI5 agent whose disastrous gaffe in the series premiere lands him in Slough House. Determined to work his way out of the purgatory imposed on him by the home office, Cartwright shows just enough flashes of talent for the audience to support his aspirations, but never quite enough to suggest that he’s in the wrong place at the moment. That’s a difficult line to walk, but Lowden makes it look easy with a standout performance.
Not quite a comedy, not quite a full-on espionage thriller, Slow Horses is a compelling series that keeps you guessing about where the story will take its hard-luck agents. By veering off the beaten path with its spy saga, the show offers up something unique that busts open the conventions of its genre and delivers more than you hoped for — and that’s no small feat with a cast of misfit spies who can’t help disappointing everyone around them.
Season 1 of Slow Horses premieres April 1 on the Apple TV+ streaming service.
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