Midway through Apple TV+’s new British spy series Slow Horses, veteran intelligence agent Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) studies a dead body at the bottom of the steps to his dingy office. Lamb’s mortified underling Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) insists that he didn’t mean to kill this man. “Of course you didn’t,” Lamb sneers. “If you meant to kill him, he’d still be alive.”
Lamb’s contempt for Min extends to all of the agents under his command, and with good reason. The Slow Horses, Lamb included, are all disgraced members of the British intelligence community for one reason or another. (In Min’s case, he absent-mindedly left confidential information on a train for commuters to find.) Each has been assigned to an office known as Slough House, given demeaning, pointless busywork in the hopes that they will quit. When new-ish Slough House resident River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) asks Lamb what they are going to do about the public kidnapping of a Muslim student by a group of white nationalists, Lamb replies, “What we always do here: absolutely nothing.”
If that was exactly what happened, Slow Horses — adapted by Veep writer Will Smith (no, not that 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 amusingly dark workplace sitcom with an overqualified star. Inevitably, though, the Slough House spies find themselves involved in the kidnapping case — and the kidnappers’ plan to behead their victim on a live feed — on multiple levels. And as a result, Slow Horses gets to have its cake and eat it too, combining a genuinely tense thriller plot with the unexpected comedy of the people trying to solve it being outcasts of 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 tell, really.”
A decade ago, Gary Oldman played a very different kind of British agent in the 2011 version of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Solder Spy. Lamb is presented as a man who has utterly given up. His hair is long and ratty, there are holes in his socks (which you can see because he frequently takes off his shoes at work), every pore and wrinkle on his face is on glaring display, and the only thing that tends to interrupt his regular naps at his desk is the sound of his own frequent farts. It is a delightful performance from a great dramatic actor who isn’t allowed to be funny nearly as often as he should be. Every resigned gesture and every disdainful line reading is just right. And Oldman constantly keeps the audience guessing about how much Lamb may still care about any of these spy games, particularly in scenes he shares with his Darkest Hour co-star Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays a high-ranking MI5 official who would rather Slough House sink into the ground, never to be thought of again.
River Cartwright is positioned as Lamb’s spiritual opposite. Blonde, handsome, smart, passionate, and the grandson of an MI5 legend (played by Jonathan Pryce), he is obviously meant to be the hero of the more straightforward version of this story. Instead, due to an extremely public mistake, he is a Slow Horse, stuck with the most humiliating tasks available, like digging through the trash of a pundit who is himself barely relevant to the current discourse. Lowden does a nice job channeling that do-gooder mode while also fitting into the story’s wry comic tone, and he’s well-paired early on with Olivia Cooke as Slough House’s newest recruit, Sid Baker, who seems even more misplaced here than River does.
The plot moves a bit sluggishly at first, though I should say that I’ve read and enjoyed several of Herron’s books, including the one that’s the basis of this first season. This is a case of an adaptation perhaps being more appealing to those who don’t know the source material — not because it’s of lesser quality, but because it’s so faithful that the early unfolding of the plot feels a bit obligatory. But by the time the Slow Horses have discovered their connection to the kidnapping — and, more importantly, have realized that they still like acting like spies when the rare opportunity arises — the rest of the season is on rails. There’s also an impressive command of tone throughout, so that one scene can center on a ridiculous joke involving a Nineties folk rock hit, and the next can be a chilling suspense set piece involving the kidnappers threatening their captive. Everything complements everything else and makes it more interesting, rather than the humor making the plot feel dumb, or the life-and-death stakes making the gags seem in poor taste.
Apple has already filmed a second season, which means the finale ends with an extreme rarity for a streaming show: a full trailer for what’s coming next. Based on how lively and sharp and fun this first tale is, hopefully there will be much more of Slow Horses to come.
The first two episodes of Slow Horses begin streaming on Apple TV+ on April 1, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six episodes.