As an entertainment critic for The City Voice, I’ve watched a lot of spy dramas over the years. James Bond, Mission Impossible, Jack Ryan; I’ve seen them all and more. Yet none of them, in all those years, have quite been able to match the gleefully, darkly moody atmosphere of Slow Horses, Apple TV’s latest, wildly successful swing at changing the voice of TV drama.
Apple has done it before, with alternate histories like For All Mankind and ensemble dramas like The Morning Show boldly pursuing stories no one expected. Yet, even compared to those impressive titles, it’s hard to imagine a show with a more original premise than Slow Horses. The unlikely hybrid of James Bond and The Office, the streaming service’s new thriller, based on the book by Mick Herron, imagines the fate of spies too deep in state secrets to retire but too incompetent to live the hero’s life.
Such “slow horses”, the worst of Britain’s best and brightest, are instead sent to “slough house”, a rundown MI5 safe house which practically oozes off the screen, complete with an aura of rainy London damp and hopelessness. Inside are a motley crew of lovable misfits, the heart of any good drama, living out the rest of their disappointing careers somewhere they can do no harm.
There’s River Cartwright: golden boy, the grandson of an MI5 legend who never expected to fail at anything, and refuses to accept being relegated to the sidelines. Min Harper and Louisa Guy, a pair of genuine but sweet incompetents who spend most of the series failing at spywork because they’re too distracted by a cliche but sweet will-they-won’t-they love story. Catherine Standish, a widow of a legendary agent who serves as a kind of surrogate mother to her brood of heavily armed odd ducks. Roddy Ho, the computer whiz, a master whose skills are matched only by his unpleasant personality and acerbic wit, and Sid Baker, the crew’s collective crush and all around star agent, who seems suspiciously too competent to have ended up at Slough House.
And of course there’s Jackson Lamb, the slow horses’ disaffected leader and sardonic voice of wisdom. While he first appears in early episodes as a kind of stick in the mud obstacle to Cartwright’s heroism, Lamb slowly reveals himself to be a terrifyingly skilled agent and true leader, an old cold warrior who knows too much about the world to believe in it, and, perhaps, enough to change it. It’s Lamb who makes Slow Horses worth watching, with his wry humor and surprising habit of blasting The Proclaimers in the face of imminent death masking an inner heroism and unwavering courage in defense of his adopted family.
He also serves as the antithesis to Kristin Scott Thomas’ villainous Diana Taverner, the queen of MI5 and unquestioned commander of Britain’s cloak and dagger soldiers. They are the two great forces at war across the series’ six episodes: Taverner basking in the light and color of Regent’s Park, with the might of the state behind her and utter confidence in the rules of her world, and Lamb, cruising the streets in his rusty yellow car with no plan, no weapons, and nothing left to lose, leading his oddballs to save the innocent from harm, from Taverner, if he must, in the darkness and the London night.
They are, in their rivalry, avatars of two ways of thinking fighting for the hearts of the slow horses, and for the genre of spyfare. Because as familiar as Taverner and her speedboats and strike teams will be to old-school fans, Lamb is not the spy you think you know. He and his crew are the new spies, the ones too young or too old to believe that they fight for a noble state. They don’t drink martinis, shaken or stirred, and their enemies, in this case white supremacist terrorists aided by public figures, even government officials, are closer to the heart of London than any Bond would like to admit.
Even for its action fun, and there is some, Slow Horses is a maturation for the genre, a growing up that admits that the biggest night terrors of the modern world claim the colors of queen and country as fiercely as the spies ever did. It’s a show that recognizes that a new world, one we’re all beginning to fear, requires new heroes, ones more full of doubt, and more human, than the bullet-proof agents of yesteryear.
And that’s what makes the show truly brilliant, because there is no doubt that the Slow Horses are the true heroes in the end. They may be misfits, and losers, and incompetent at times, but they do what MI5 can’t: they fight for what’s right, risk their lives for someone they’ve never met, and always try to be better people than they were the day before. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the misfits who can change the world.
Part 1 of Slow Horses is now streaming all six episodes on Apple TV+. Part 2 will premiere sometime in 2022.