Apple TV's New Spy Yarn ‘Slow Horses’ Offers an Unconventional Ride
Gary Oldman & co. shine in a dark spy thriller right out of le Carré
In the new TV spy thriller, Slow Horses (Apple TV+, new episodes on Fridays), we follow the fortunes of a team of broken down British counterspies and their alcoholic, belching wreck of a boss, played to perfection by Gary Oldman. Trailing along with them, through the halls of smoke and cracked mirrors and creaky old doors, we are invited to ask: Is redemption possible for absolutely anyone?
“Slow Horses” refers to a squad of shelved MI5 officers, all of whom have screwed up royally one way or another, derailed their careers, and then been consigned to Slough House, a fetid purgatory tucked away in the slums of London, far from the pristine confines of MI5 HQ in tony Regent Park.
Since Oldman is this generation’s embodiment of George Smiley – he’s set to reprise le Carré’s stoic hero once again in a remake of Smiley’s People – how can we not compare his role here as Jackson Lamb, the fallen spymaster, to the brilliant protagonist of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold?
At first glance, Lamb is the antithesis of Smiley. Our first image of him comes about 10 minutes in, just after an edge-of-the-seat terrorist prologue that presents us with the latest screw-up by an MI5 operative: Handsome young River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) appears to have failed the agency and all the United Kingdom on a colossal scale. Cue the dark theme song, Strange Game, co-written and sung by Mick Jagger, a great fan of spy thriller writer Mick Herron, author of the Slough House books that are the basis for the TV series.
Jagger’s gloomy, Stone-less song is piped in with only a rinky-dink piano, bass and drums behind him. These are the blues, British style, telling the story succinctly:
Surrounded by losers, misfits and boozers
Hanging by your fingernails
You made one mistake, you got burned at the stake
You're finished, you're foolish, you failed….
As the music trails off, we see our anti-hero, snoring on the office couch, a coffee table strewn with trash, cigarettes, an overflowing ashtray and discarded MI5 envelopes. He’s startled awake by his own loud fart. He could not be more of a failure or more disgusting.
Everything and everyone at the ramshackle Slough House contrasts starkly with the glistening modern MI5 headquarters across town, presided over by Diana Taverner (the always luminous Kristin Scott Thomas), who hardly even deigns to speak to Lamb, so repellent he has become.
The feeling is mutual. “Another day dawns, on MI-fucking useless,” he mutters, picking at his fingers.
The picture is complete. There is nothing and no one lower down than the low-down denizens of Slough House, the detritus of British intelligence.
“This is not casinos, champagne and Aston Martins,” Oldman said in an Apple+ backgrounder for the series. “It’s not James Bond.” We’re meant to be captured by the gloom—and we are.
Everyone at Slough House has fallen from grace—secretaries, researchers and computer whizzes, all a team of burnt out cases or misfits. Early on, there is a solid hint that even Lamb, that river horse of a creature, was once a prized MI5 officer. So we’re primed for something to happen, and slowly, the plot is engaged. The rusty Slough House ensemble has a case to solve.
The newest arrival at Slough House, River Cartwright, is onto something. Love, too, is in the air. Cartwright complains to high heaven that he has been wrongly sent to hell, that he has done nothing wrong. His lovely rookie officemate, Sidonie Baker (Olivia Cooke), starts to believe in him and is willing to help.
Lamb will have nothing of that. He despises the upstart, if only because the young man refuses to share his professional damnation.“I hate you,” he tells Cartwright, as much as, evidently, he hates himself. Cartwright has been held responsible (and perhaps framed) for what happened in the explosive prologue, apparently one of the more grievous mistakes in the annals of MI5. He would have been fired outright were it not for the intercession of his renowned grandfather, a retired spymaster, played with masterful reserve by Jonathan Pryce. The elder Cartwright sits at home, dispensing wisdom and displaying all the keen attributes of a George Smiley that he once was.
Swallow the degradation and humiliations of Slough House, he counsels his grandson. This, too, shall pass. You remember what I told you about the service? The lad nods. “Moscow Rules, cover your back,” he recites. “London Rules, cover your arse.” The old man approves.
River Cartwright is not so sure.
But Slow Horses is all about the finish line, redemption. We just know that Jackson Lamb will be a player again in the great halls of smoke and mirrors, along with the rest of his motley team, before this story has been told.
By the end of the second of its six announced episodes, whether or not the powers that be trust them again, River and his mates at Slough House are about to take themselves seriously and risk everything as they re-enter the game.
Former Washington Post, Newsday and A.P. reporter and editor Peter Eisner is the author of a series of nonfiction World War Two books, most recently MacArthur’s Spies, The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II.