Slow Horses’ darkly funny episodes 1 and 2 provide an introduction to an ensemble espionage thriller that’s more focussed on the spies than the spying.
This review contains mild spoilers for episode 1 (‘Failure’s Contagious’) and episode 2 (‘Work Drinks’) of Slow Horses.
Actions have consequences, even if the actions were done for Queen and country. Slow Horses is the darkly comic new series from Apple TV+ wherein MI5 agents are given the gruntiest of grunt work as penance for some pretty impressive fuck-ups. Think James Bond being assigned alphabetising files from the ‘80s after being double crossed by a beautiful bed-partner and risking the mission.
MI5 agent-in-training River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) has a visual on his suspect: ‘blue shirt, white tee’. But upon capture, it seems River was meant to apprehend someone in a ‘white shirt, blue tee’. Cue disaster. It’s a pretty damning mistake – if it was his at all – and sees River subjected to an indeterminable stint at ‘Slough House’, the dumping ground for the disgraced and discarded. Under the supervision of Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), a heavy-drinking, unpleasant agent of questionable standing, he’s now rifling through rubbish bins for clues and drinking terrible takeaway coffees. But when he catches wind of a possible lead in a hostage case dominating the news, it seems River might finally have a chance to prove himself to the higher-ups, escape the destitute offices and return to the fun stuff.
Slow Horses, held at the reigns by writer Will Smith (not that one) and director James Hawes, is a spy thriller with a heavy dose of reality thrown in. The banalities of paper pushing, monotonous fact-checking and bin raking are the orders of the day for our ‘heroes’. So, despite a thrilling opening that feels straight out of a big-screen spook caper, it’s hardly the stuff of 007-esque daydreams. But that’s what makes it work. It’s quintessentially British: avoiding drinks after work with the colleagues you barely tolerate, complaining about your boss and toughing it out purely for the smidgen’s chance you’ll get back to doing something worthwhile.
The humour is subtle but lands well, darkly funny without feeling out of place amidst the talk of far-right extremists, hostages and methods of surveillance. Its dry, sardonic wit keeps it from feeling too overfamiliar and tired, because lord knows the ‘spy’ isn’t exactly an unexplored venture within British drama. And it also doesn’t feel like its ideas are too big for its boots. Even though its constraints aren’t nearly as tight as they might be had it not been an Apple TV venture, Slow Horses feels grounded, tightly formed with an arc that isn’t trying to cover too much and aware of its own limitations.
While ostensibly spear-headed by Oldman and Lowden, these first two episodes give the impression of it being a burgeoning ensemble piece. A stacked cast includes Kristen Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner, a higher-up with some possible shade to her; Olivia Cooke as Sid, a fellow Slough House-er that’s a bit too good to have ended up in MI5’s landfill, and Jonathan Price as River’s grandfather who may not be as out-of-the-game as he appears. It also feels like a show that will give its smaller characters – such as Rosaline Eleazar, Christopher Chung and Dustin Demri-Burns, who round out the MI5 misfits – some decent development alongside its bigger names; because while the spy mission is interesting, it’s the spies themselves that are the draw here.
But speaking of those big names: of the two headliners, over the course of the first two episodes, one feels a lot more developed than the other. Jack Lowden makes for a really charismatic leading man; he sells the action hero bit at the beginning as well as he does the frustrated, sarcastic desk warmer. His narrative has agency, you know he doesn’t deserve to be there and are rooting for him to succeed, and he’s a really engaging presence with visible chemistry with Oldman and Cooke, in particular. But as Jackson Lamb, the miserable has-been who farts himself awake and seems to relish in making his underlings want to quit entirely, Oldman feels like he’s being held back. There’s hints at his background – at a history with Saskia Reeves’ beleaguered ‘secretary’ Catherine – and a clear misuse of alcohol, but these first two episodes don’t give a particular sense of who this guy is and why Oldman would sign up. It’s an intrigue for the remaining episodes to explore, that also suggests a heavier focus on the spies rather than the spying.
Overall, Slow Horses has a not-quite-as-slow start, with an impressive emphasis on character and a central action-focussed narrative that feels current and about-turns right as it feels like it’s heading into cliché territory. There’s an intriguing web of smaller personal mysteries that will presumably unravel naturally as the show progresses, and while episode two ends on quite the cliff-hanger, let’s hope the next keeps its tone, sharpness and dry wit as the plot thickens.
Episodes 1 and 2 of Slow Horses is now available to watch on AppleTV+.
WATCH SLOW HORSES: EPISODES 1 AND 2:
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