Slow Horses’s Jackson Lamb is an out-of-shape, slovenly, insulting cynic who runs the small fiefdom known as “Slough House,” an outpost of British foreign intelligence where the worst spies in MI5—the ones who have screwed up to an almost unforgivable degree—are put out to pasture in the hopes that they’ll never be heard from again (worst case) or simply quit in shame (best case). Slough House is itself a term of derision (it’s not actually in Slough, but so far from the main action that it might as well be), and the term “Slow Horses’’ is a perfect punny fit for the has-beens and screw-ups who populate its halls. Lamb is their cruel king, and as such, you might suspect, the worst offender. But there is a passage in Mick Herron’s bestselling book, which presaged the 6-episode Apple TV+ show, in which Diana Taverner—who is one or two heartbeats away from the very top of MI5—warns a man named Jed Moody who is set to cross Lamb:
“Oh, and Moody? Word of warning. Lamb’s a burn-out for a reason.”
“Meaning when he was in the field he had more to worry about than his expenses. Things like being caught, tortured and shot. He survived. You might want to bear that in mind.”
Jackson Lamb, in short, is a complicated character, and you don’t have to go very deep into Herron’s book to realize he’s a tremendous one. Before cracking Slow Horses, I read comparisons between Herron and John LeCarre. While those comparisons annoyed me as a card-carrying LeCarre worshiper, after reading his prose I’m willing to concede at least that Herron belongs in a very small group of writers—LeCarre and Alan Furst among them—who write electric spy fiction. Jackson Lamb is his stand-out, and the ultimate brilliant choice made by Apple TV+ was to fill that role with a man who once played LeCarre’s stand-out, George Smiley: Gary Oldman.
To say it’s a pleasure to watch Oldman in this role is inadequate; if you’re a fan of spy fiction, you have to use words that make you feel almost corny, like, “it’s a gift.” Depending on the scene, he’s hilarious, odious, intimidating, and thrilling, and unlike the genius of his understated Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Here he has free emotional range to embody the almost repellent cynicism of Lamb. Much of it is deeply, darkly funny, and his treatment of his team is verbally abusive in ways reminiscent of the best Iannucci characters. In an early scene, one of his charges kills a man, and protests to Lamb that he didn’t mean to do it.
“Of course you didn’t!” Lamb spits back. “If you meant to kill him, he’d still be alive.”
If this show were simply a showcase for Oldman-as-Lamb, it would still be worth watching. Luckily, as adapted by Veep writer and producer Will Smith, it’s far more. Jack Lowden as River Cartwright, the promising young agent sent to Slough House after an error that resulted in thousands of deaths—theoretical ones, as he’s eager to remind everyone, in a training exercise—perfectly balances his character’s youthful bravado with the sobering and humiliating fact that he’s been sidelined from the very start. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Taverner with the ice-cold ambition appropriate to her station, but expertly lets the insecurity and near-panic crack the veneer at her darkest moments. (While there are not many scenes with Scott Thomas and Oldman, the ones that exist are practically iconic, especially their clandestine meet by the riverside at night.)
The plot here is equally solid. A British student of Middle Eastern descent is taken hostage by a group of white nationalists calling themselves The Voice of Albion who apparently want to behead him in what they see as a poignant commentary on similar crimes across the globe. To say more would be to give too much away, but Herron’s text and the show itself contain just the perfect amount of twists and reversals to keep the characters, and the viewers, on their toes.
In its many strengths, Slow Horses joins a very short list of recent TV series from the espionage genre which rise to the level of greatness. Some, like The Night Manager and Little Drummer Girl, are LeCarre adaptations, while others like, The Bureau, are overseas gems that seem to have come out of nowhere. While there will certainly be some disagreement here, I put these in a class above the merely “good” shows, like The Americans or Killing Eve or even Homeland, which too easily lose their touch with reality or succumb to the temptation of putting style above story. It’s a great joy to report that Slow Horses rises above these limitations and takes its rightful place in the upper echelons.
Even more impressive, it does so through the strength of wounded people. These are misfits, outcasts, and self-loathers, people who were once promising and have been thrown on the dust heap with the earnest hope that they’ll never make noise again. But humanity beats within them, from Lamb down to Cartwright and all their semi-miserable colleagues. A personal favorite is Christopher Chung as Roddy Ho, the eons-beyond-arrogant computer genius who knows everything except why he’s been sent to Slough House (when the simple answer is that nobody could stand him). On another note, it’s practically criminal that I’ve come this far without mentioning that the great Jonathan Pryce plays a small but vital role as Cartwright’s legendary grandfather, and is every bit as unforgettable as you’d expect.
Slow Horses manages the incredible task of being a human redemption story, a genuinely funny comedy, and above all, a terrific spy saga. Apple TV+ has a hit on its hands, and unlike the sad, exiled souls of Slough House, you won’t have to look very hard to see its merits.
Slow Horses premieres Friday, April 1st on Apple TV+.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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