There's a scene late on in the first season of Slow Horses where David Cartwright (Jonathan Pryce) says to his grandson River (Jack Lowden), "Even the best spies have their time in the cold. Smiley was always coming back from redundancy". The Smiley in question, of course, is the legendary protagonist of many novels by John le Carré, the incredible espionage writer who passed away in 2020.
It's an important nod in this new series, adapted from the first in the acclaimed 'Slough House' novels from Mick Herron. You can certainly draw a direct line of influence between le Carré's work and this series, but there's an obvious intent to strike its own path and create its own distinct style.
'Slow Horses' stars Gary Oldman - who so memorably played George Smiley in 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - as Jackson Lamb, the cantankerous head of a division of MI5 called 'Slough House'. This is a place where agents who have botched a mission or otherwise besmirched themselves go to live out their careers after being banished from head office. To say that he doesn't take much care of himself is an understatement. The fact that when we first meet him, he's waking himself up at work by emitting a large fart is a perfect example of that. Of course, he's more than just an unshaven, flatulent mess. He's an incredibly smart agent, great at thinking ahead and a possessor of some of the most brutal put-downs seen on TV since 'VEEP' (not a surprise since writer Will Smith wrote on both that show and its predecessor 'The Thick of It'). He leads his team of agents on various terrible jobs, such as rummaging through the bins of far-right journalists. I say leads, but he's more likely to order said rummaging before falling asleep at his desk with a bottle of whiskey.
Then the aforementioned agent, River Cartwright, is posted at Slough House. Unlike the other put-upon members, Cartwright - full of pent up energy and bitterness, believing he shouldn’t be there - still wants to make a difference. So when a Muslim student is abducted in Leeds by a far-right group called The Sons of Albion, Lamb can't stop Cartwright from going off book and investigating. In doing so, he uncovers some suspicious links between the kidnappers and MI5 head office 'The Park', led by the ice-cold, brutally efficient Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas).
To say any more would be to spoil the twists, double-crosses and thrilling chases.
Smith’s writing is very sharp. Almost every scene and piece of dialogue is necessary and never padded, his adaptation of a book published in 2010 still feeling relevant today by not trying to ‘rip from the headlines’. This combination drives the entire series, even as the cast adds fantastic performances to the story.
However, what's immediate about this show is the realism and unglamorous nature, captured perfectly by director James Hawes and DP Danny Cohen. Filming in locations around London (Slough House is based just around the corner from where I work, in fact), the show refuses to resort to protracted gunfights or CGI enhanced action scenes. Instead, it leans on something much more effective: the real world. If you can see this happening in your world - all cafes, pedestrians and tedious traffic - it's far more riveting. One of the best action scenes the Bourne movies ever committed to film was one centred around Waterloo station. It felt real (and was actually shot during daily life) and so was even more engrossing and nail-biting. Slow Horses kicks off the first episode with a similar-feeling, pulse-pounding mission based around Stansted Airport, just outside London.
Nonetheless, as gripping as those opening moments are, the show is just as happy focusing on excellent character interplay, such as a perfectly framed late night meet between Oldman and Scott Thomas on a canal-side bench. That scene, glimpsed in the trailer, is one of the series' standout moments, with two acting greats verbally bouncing off each other to great effect.
The cast is universally first-rate, but the obvious stand out here is Oldman. The actor is like a pig in muck with this role (and sometimes doesn't look much cleaner). It's not often he gets to do comedy, but some of his lines elicit huge laughs as he brutally puts down anyone who dares answer back or challenge him, from the lowest grunt to Taverner herself.
The supporting cast is also used to significant effect. Other 'Slow Horses' that you would expect to be merely there for padding, fill out the rest of the story well and often shoulder long scenes together. It's a credit to the writing and acting that they are as immediately engaging as the leading three actors. All the supporting cast have enjoyable moments, but I developed a particular enjoyment of scenes involving Christopher Chung as hacker Roddy Ho.
It should also be said that Gary Oldman is not the true centre of this show and doesn't even feature a whole lot during the first two episodes. The dynamic lead of the show - and focus of a lot of the plot - is Cartwright, played brilliantly by the well cast Lowden. Oldman's Lamb isn't even the actual centre of Slough House. The true heart seems to be the downtrodden Standish played by Saskia Reeves, who plays her subtley, letting the tiny sparks of mischief and determination crackle.
All this, plus a striking score from Daniel Pemberton and Toydrum (and a theme from Mick Jagger sounding very Mick Jagger), make for an essential watch. As a fan of espionage and, in particular, le Carre's work, it's felt like the spy genre has taken a hit over the years. The emphasis on twists rather than characterisation and proper plotting, or just trying to clone James Bond, have not done anyone any favours.
Happily, it's not hyperbole to say that this is one of the best espionage thrillers in recent memory. It realises that the spy genre doesn't need fixing, it just needs doing properly. Season 2 has already been filmed, and with this season featuring an absolute doozy of an ending, it's clear there's lots more life left in this already rich and engrossing world.
'Slow Horses' premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday April 1st with the first two episodes. Each subsequent episode will premiere on Fridays through April 29th.
Jonathan, ScreenTimes’ Contributing Editor has been lucky enough to work on Apple products his whole life, ever since his Dad brought home a Mac Performa aged 11 (him, not his Dad). Apple is just engrained in his life, especially nowadays, as a graphic designer. His nerdy enthusiasm for Apple is only matched by his love of TV and film. Whether a buzz-worthy new show or blockbuster, a small cult show or an indie film, he’ll watch it. So Apple TV meets right in the middle of that Venn diagram! He also writes on his personal site, smallbites.me. He lives in London and is writing his own bio in the third person.