Slow Horses Review: A Half-Clever, Half-Derivative Espionage Story

Slow Horses is more of a dark office comedy than spy show, finding most of its drama in the tension radiating between its characters.

Slow Horses
Photo: Apple TV+

Adapted from the first novel of the same name in Mick Herron’s crackerjack Slough House series, Slow Horses is a half-clever, half-derivative espionage story that falters somewhat when trying to insert 24-style ticking-clock histrionics into a narrative mostly driven by interpersonal drama. The more action-heavy moments can be distractingly banal, as in the boilerplate airport chase scene that opens the first episode.

The six-episode series at times recalls The Americans, with which it shares an executive producer, Graham Yost, and an appreciation for the workaday realities of spies’ tradecraft, as well as a tendency to resort to sudden bloodletting. Slow Horses similarly breathes life into a somewhat moribund genre due to its grumpy antihero, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the nontraditional gaggle of spies whom he has to rely on to save the day.

A raggedy old motheaten heap of a man who likely smells of cigarettes and single malt, Jackson is far from a typical fictional spy, more given to audible gastronomic distress than fast-roping from a helicopter into an enemy compound. But under that lank, unwashed hair is a finely calibrated, spy games-trained mind that spits wounding sarcasm at everyone around him until it has something better to latch onto. Even then, the sarcasm doesn’t stop.


At the start of Slow Horses, Jackson is a still a legend in Britain’s MI-5 security service for his Cold War exploits running the West Berlin station, but also something of a cautionary tale for how he has let his career disintegrate. He has been relegated by MI-5 to Slough House, a ramshackle building where the agency dumps their disgraced agents. Mockingly called the “Slow Horses” by those who Jackson refers to as “the real agents,” these drunks, screwups, and misanthropes turn out to be more useful than their former colleagues could have imagined. The fact that this ragtag group is able, after being sent on a mission with seemingly impossible odds, to rediscover their purpose will shock nobody. Fortunately, these more well-worn aspects of the show’s emotional arc rarely detract from how satisfying it turns out to be.

When Slow Horses begins, its putative protagonist, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), is overwhelmed by boredom and a refusal to admit that his career is over. This is partially due to his belief that the training exercise he screwed up so badly in the opening scene was actually a setup by a rival. But his stubbornness also seems to derive from that old British standby: class superiority. River’s grandfather, David (Jonathan Pryce), is wealthy, well-connected, and onetime bigwig at MI-5 but still unable to pull the strings to get River back into the action.

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The rest of the Slow Horses have mostly accepted their fate, aside from Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), who’s as bright-eyed as River and an overly obvious romantic prospect for him. It takes a few episodes for the others to snap into similar focus, with the exception of the in-house IT guy, Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), whose piercingly obnoxious superiority is a far cry from the more low-key charming nerds that normally fill out such ensembles.


When the Slow Horses stumble into realizing that they’re MI-5’s best chance to save a South Asian student Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel) who’s been kidnapped by right-wing terrorists who plan to behead him on a live video stream, it takes them a while to dust off their tradecraft and remember how to be proper spies. (A high-priority chase peters out after one of them forgets to fill up their car with gas.) At a crucial moment in the story, the Slow Horses are huddled in a dark London graveyard, realizing just how out of their depth they are.

Given that their careers and lives are in peril, Jackson announces that it’s time for a pep talk: “Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career.” This is about the nicest thing he says to the Slow Horses throughout the series. Jackson is like a funhouse-mirror reflection of John Le Carre’s George Smiley (incidentally played by Oldman with a more finely distilled existential exhaustion in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and briefly referenced in a throwaway quip in this series).

The closest thing that Jackson has to a rival in the series is Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), his Regent’s Park superior, a patrician who couldn’t look further down her nose at the Slow Horses if she tried. Jackson’s haranguing of his agents feels done primarily out of boredom (it eventually becomes clear that he does care for their survival, even if only as a way of sticking it to his superiors). But his exchanges with Diana spark with not just his working-class contempt for her well-bred contempt, but that of the field agent for the bureaucrat with the potential to do great damage in the interest of cleaning up a scandal.


Almost more of a dark office comedy than spy show, Slow Horses ends up finding most of its drama not in the somewhat perfunctory hostage drama, but in the tension radiating between Diana and Jackson as they hatch plots-within-plots in a tangled web of one-upmanship. As these competitive, cynical spymasters keep changing the rules of the game, the Slow Horses maneuver through an increasingly fraught and dangerous series of challenges with an earnest, seriocomic clumsiness that keeps Spy Horses from taking itself too seriously.

 Cast: Gary Oldman, Olivia Cooke, Jonathan Pryce, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden, Chris Reilly, Antonio Aakeel, Sam Hazeldine, Rosalind Eleazar, Christopher Chung  Network: Apple TV+

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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