Why Slow Horses should be your next box set
James R | On 01, Apr 2022
Season 2 premieres on Friday 2nd December. This review is based on Season 1.
“Dogs are standing by, Ma’am,” says an MI5 agent. Before you can work out whether they mean real dogs, you’re distracted by the unfolding emergency at Stansted Airport, where a suspected terrorist has been spotted with a suspicious-looking backpack. Hot on his heels is River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), a would-be hotspot spy – except it soon becomes clear that he’s far from Tom Quinn or Jack Bauer. After chasing down the wrong man, he then rugby tackles anything in his path to try and catch up to his suspect – and that’s just the start of it.
So begins Slow Horses, Apple TV+’s new espionage thriller, which is deceptively fast for its title. Based on Mick Herron’s novels, it whisks us into the secret world behind the secret world – a place where spooks go not because they’re super-stealthy but because they’re not good enough. This is the back office defending the UK’s shores, a grubby place called Slough House that’s a long way from Thames House.
Leading the department is Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), a washed-up veteran of the game who spends half his time sleeping on the office sofa and the other half drinking from behind his desk. Liaising with Diana (Kristin Scott Thomas), who heads up those elite top dogs, he bullies his pack of donkeys until they agree to the grunt work nobody else wants to – including picking up the rubbish that’s literally littered around the desks for half of the opening episodes.
Cartwright, however, is still dreaming of graduating to the big league, and so he refuses to stop picking up the threads of a case on their doorstep. Soon enough, he’s unearthing a conspiracy involving a white supremacist network with links to the media and the kidnapping of a student in Leeds. Along the way, he annoys Sid (Olivia Cooke), his watchful, smart colleague, and buts heads with snooty rival “Spider” Web (Freddie Fox).
The resulting plot is familiar enough to follow without major surprises, but Slow Horses reins in your attention with everything else on offer. Gary Oldman at his most belligerent and Kristin Scott Thomas at her frostiest are the icing on a cake that’s deceptively layered, thanks to the rich source material. Herron’s books are adapted by The Thick of It veteran Will Smith, which gives the whole programme a darkly comic vein that pays off the more the show taps into it, as every opportunity for something spectacular is often undermined by the less glamorous reality.
And yet James Hawes (whose CV includes Penny Dreadful, Black Mirror and The Alienist) doesn’t skimp on the tension, from the riveting opening sequence to a chase sequence on foot that works because it’s so low-key. The result is an enjoyable walk on the shabby side of the spy world that feels distinct enough from Homeland and Spooks to keep you intrigued. MI5 not 9 to 5? These guys would struggle to make it from 8 to 3, and Slow Horses is all the better for it.