The darkly comedic new spy series Slow Horses opens with a 10-minute stretch of action so thrilling, I was convinced that the Apple TV Spring—a month long period in which the struggling streamer has bloomed like there is no tomorrow—isn’t going to end anytime soon. But that James Bond-style prelude, like so many other scenes in the six-episode series, is revealed to be nothing more than a blunt misdirection.
You see, not only is Slow Horses as stylistically removed from the thrills of the 007 franchise as Bond passing up on an opportunity to say his name, it also never quite lives up to the promise of those opening few minutes. This wouldn’t be a problem had the show had settled into whatever else it was trying to be, but that doesn’t happen either.
Based on the first instalment in a series of spy novels by British author Mick Herron, Slow Horses follows the adventures of a group of outcast MI5 agents stationed at a nondescript London apartment known as Slough House, sentenced to carrying out menial tasks as punishment for high-profile goof-ups. We see one of those goof-ups unfold in that excellent opening sequence, as agent River Cartwright (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden) apprehends the wrong man in an airport chase, and lets the actual suspect—a bomber, no less—get away. It is revealed later that this was just a training exercise—yet another misdirection—but it was decided that River’s failures were still big enough for him to be sidelined to Slough House.
The facility is managed by the mysterious Jackson Lamb, another addition to Oscar-winner Gary Oldman’s long line of unruly older men. What he did to earn arguably the biggest demotion of them all—the head screw-up in a team of screw-ups—is teased throughout the season. But Lamb appears to be resigned to his fate. He is unwashed, wears socks with holes in them, has poor posture and a drinking problem.
Lamb’s only job, it seems, is to assign to his team tasks so menial that they quit out of sheer frustration. River, for instance, is told in an early episode to sift through garbage. One of his co-workers is told to shuffle through pre-9/11 parking tickets.
But River isn’t one to sit back and wait for things to happen. He belongs to the Timothée Chalamet school of getting things done: life is coming from you, not at you, etc. And so, when he stumbles upon a malicious right-wing conspiracy to kidnap a Muslim youth and kill him on live stream, he decides to conduct a rogue investigation.
By this time, Slow Horses has pretty much established itself as a show not to be taken at face value. And sure enough, there are revelations upon revelations in the four-ish episodes that follow. Not all of them are satisfying, and only one of them is logical. This is terribly unfortunate, because on paper, this should’ve been a home run.
Oldman is playing a cantankerous spy again, but Jackson Lamb couldn’t be more different from George Smiley. In that Oscar-nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy performance, Oldman’s expressiveness was limited to imperceptible curls of the eyebrow, which you’d miss if you had the hiccups. That film wasn’t my cup of tea. And Slow Horses, at least initially, felt like a nice little antidote to that; funny, fast-paced and in on the joke. Not dull and deathly serious.
But even at six episodes—most of which are around 40 minutes long—the show feels like it’s going around in circles, dragging you by the hand along with it. And a lot of it requires massive leaps of logic.
Ideally, a great film or a show is one that can successfully mask all its flaws. A good one, on the other hand, will nudge you to ignore them. But a bad film or show will positively parade them in front of your eyes. I’d say Slow Horses falls between the second and third categories. Unlike the best spies, it blows its cover fairly early on, and proceeds to unleash a string of plot holes that range from inconsequential to downright bizarre. For instance, on one occasion, the on-the-run ‘residents’ of Slough House choose to lay low at their place of work, and the people looking for them never think to check there. On other occasions, surveillance experts conveniently forget basics such as tracking cell phone records and scouring CCTV footage.
Director – James Hawes
Cast – Gary Oldman, Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jonathan Pryce
Rating – 2.5/5