TV Review: Apple’s ‘Slow Horses’ Delivers A Nice Spy Homage

Catherine Springer reviews the first season of Slow Horses, a darkly comedic spy series starring Gary Oldman.
User Rating: 7

As the search for a new James Bond intensifies, there may be no more perfect time for Slow Horses, a new series on AppleTV+ about a ragtag group of British spies who dream of being Bond but can’t make the cut. Executive Producer Graham Yost knows a thing or two about spy shows, having been an executive producer on The Americans, FX’s critically-acclaimed series about Russian spies posing as an all-American family during the Cold War, which ran from 2013 to 2018. But Slow Horses is a far cry from The Americans, as the series, adapted by Will Smith from a novel by Mick Herron, is not about elite spies given the most critical assignments, but rather a group of misfit members of MI-5 who have been given a time-out for any variety of reasons and are being forced to work in a run-down office building on the other side of town from the gleaming, fancy MI-5 headquarters. This Breakfast Club of outcasts is lorded over by cynical and jaded former MI-5 star Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman, who has fallen from grace and feels as much resentment towards his charges as he does being there in the first place. But when Lamb and his agents get caught up in a hostage crisis, their anti-establishment and off-the-grid tactics might be exactly what’s needed to save the day.

The first season of Slow Horses comprises six hour-long episodes, and production on season two is already underway, which is a good thing because the show takes its own sweet time playing out. After an opening sequence that features agent River Cartwright, played by Jack Lowden, in an action-packed chase scene that has every Bond-ian influence imaginable (including an impressive 007 audition by Scottish actor Lowden), the series then slows way down by moving from the bustling streets of London to the decrepit and decaying office building where the cast-off spies, unaffectionately known as the Slow Horses, have been relegated by MI-5 boss Diana Taverner, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.

In this multi-level tenement, known as Slough House, with its rusty doors, thin walls, and a broken elevator, MI-5 agents are serving detention, biding time with busy work until they are invited back to play with the big boys again. They all work for Lamb, who sits in his office on the top floor, drinking and farting the day away, occasionally banging on the floor to signal he would like his assistant, Catherine (Saskia Reeves), to bring him some tea. Lamb is gruff and obnoxious, and Oscar-winner Oldman sinks his teeth into the character’s sarcastic and cutting dialogue, mostly made up of jabs at his minions. He seems to revel in the insults he lobs at his agents, which come fast and furiously, unavoidably reminiscent of Veep, a show that Smith wrote for.

Elements of dark comedy are strewn throughout Slow Horses, as the clever dialogue introduces us to this motley crew of agent wannabes, each one there for a different reason, and each one just as eager to escape. Perhaps none are as ambitiously chomping at the bit than Cartwright, the once-promising young stud sent to Slough House after failing a training exercise. Cartwright’s grandfather, played by Jonathan Pryce, is a legendary agent, but even he can’t do much for him except offer him advice on how to improve his situation. But Cartwright is a bull in a china shop and just can’t help jumping into deep water every chance he can get. So, when a British student of Pakistani heritage is kidnapped by white nationalists, Cartwright feels compelled to get involved, much to the chagrin of Lamb, who gives him explicit instructions to stand down. But when deeper threads of conspiracy are revealed, threatening the existing MI-5 infrastructure, Lamb and his agents realize their fringe status might be the only thing that can help rescue the hostage.

There is an undeniable element of charm in these characters, as we are destined to root for the underdogs, the misunderstood misfits who want nothing more than one chance to prove themselves. What makes Slow Horses so worthwhile is the avoidance of all the tropes and natural pitfalls that exist with this approach to the genre. While toying mightily with stereotypes and black comedy, it manages to stay this side of spoof and maintain a believability that works. We genuinely like and root for the cast-off spies and inherently boo the big, bad establishment bullies who try to keep them down. Dustin Demri-Burns and Rosalind Eleazar stand out as an odd couple who act on their attraction for each other while, at the same time, trying to chase down the bad guys, which is a lot of fun. Christopher Chung is perfectly smarmy as the tech wiz with no social skills. Reeves is intriguing as a woman haunted by secrets. Olivia Cooke is excellent as the promising agent who seems curiously out of place.

But despite the endearing characters and the thread of comic relief they provide, the show’s tone grows increasingly darker as the seriousness of the hostage situation takes center stage. A considerable amount of time is spent with the kidnappers and with the hostage, played by Antonio Aakeel. The scenes get more disturbing and violent, making the tonal shifts a little more difficult.

But the most difficult element of Slow Horses is also its biggest draw, and that’s Gary Oldman. His performance, although intended to be obnoxious, is so unappealing and low-energy that he repels most natural instincts to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a character we’ve all seen before, so I understand him wanting to find a different take on the curmudgeonly, reluctant mentor, but it all falls flat and never comes around to being sympathetic, which is a disservice to the overall effect of the series.

However, Lowden and Scott Thomas, the other two stars of the series, are each compelling and perfectly cast as flawed trope characters who can infuse depth into otherwise standard roles. Lowden comes the closest to comedy, playing the handsome, young, fit spy who becomes the butt of the joke when his skills can’t quite live up to his confidence. Lowden, who looks like a young Simon Pegg, exudes the same kind of comical dorky coolness that works perfectly in this series, and Lowden’s energy keeps the whole thing going. And, of course, it’s lovely seeing Scott Thomas in a meaty role again, this time as a spy chief with a whole set of secrets of her own. Conspiratorial, aggressive and manipulative, her MI-5 boss runs a tight ship until, that is, the water starts to leak. Scott Thomas’s deadpan panic is a thing of beauty, and Oldman’s best scenes are the ones where he’s sparring with her.

The look of the series is dark and dreary, perfectly reflecting our heroes’ status. The production design by Tom Burton is wholly effective, as the varied locations, from the dingy office building to the corner café to the dark basement of captivity to the shiny MI-5 headquarters, all are evocative and contribute mightily to the believability of the story.

Although Slow Horses breaks no specific new ground, it does throw enough familiar elements into a blender, creating an atonal, slightly weird confluence of spy movie and black comedy; Bond meets Breakfast Club with just a hint of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier Spy for good effect. There is even a sly reference to that novel and its fictional spy George Smiley, not coincidentally played by Gary Oldman (leading to his first Oscar nomination) in the 2011 film. The show doesn’t fully hit its stride until the fourth episode, and by the time the first season is over at episode six, you are wanting more. Still, despite its slow start and occasionally meandering plot, Slow Horses is a nice homage to the classic spy genre, with a heaping dash of irreverence and self-awareness thrown in to create an effectively compelling watch.

Slow Horses will be available to stream on AppleTV+ starting April 1, 2022.

Written by
Catherine is a senior writer for We Live Entertainment. She has also written for Awards Watch, In Session Film, and Awards Radar. She is Rotten Tomatoes-approved and a proud member of The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. Offline, she loves baseball, World Cup soccer and all things ‘80s.

Your Vote

2 0

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.