'Slow Horses' review: Gary's got (strange) game


'When you said not to shoot till we could see the whites of their eyes, didn't it occur to you THEY could see the whites of OUR eyes too?' Photos: Handout

Hold your horses if you're about to scroll past this one – don't let the title of this Apple TV+ original deceive you into thinking there's anything laggardly about it.

Sure, some of the characters in Slow Horses may be a bit dim, and more than a few appear reluctant to get into anything with a whiff of trouble (or work) involved.

But this espionage series, developed from author Mick Herron's Slough House series by writer/producer/comedian Will Smith (no, not that one) (Veep, Avenue 5), is sharp, intriguing and captivating.

These MI5 operatives are nicknamed Slow Horses because they've been consigned to Slough House (it's a play on words, see), a run-down London building where washed-up spies are sent to linger until they're pensioned off or quit (no one gets fired from the civil service, apparently).

The place is run by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman, simultaneously slovenly and brilliant), who is the show's magnetic yet repugnant leading light. (Among other outstanding traits, he passes wind a lot – often in the general direction of others, including his boss. Yeah, you like the sound of that already, don't you?)

'If I ever get out of the spy game, I'm thinking of opening up my own pub – The Gassy Lamb. Sounds like a winner, eh?''If I ever get out of the spy game, I'm thinking of opening up my own pub – The Gassy Lamb. Sounds like a winner, eh?'

A veteran with many secrets and dark deeds in his past, he is too wise and valuable to fire but too much of a threat to MI5 director-general Ingrid Tearney (Sophie Okonedo) and her ambitious deputy Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) to be allowed near mainstream operations.

So Lamb has been consigned to the scrap-heap of the British spy game, ruling the roost of washouts and, well, foul-ups (to put it politely).

The most prominent among his charges is River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), who could almost be a 007 sort if he didn't lack the smarts for spycraft. Of course, he claims to have been set up to fail in a key training exercise by rival James "Spider" Webb (Freddie Fox) but hey, prove it or shove it, River.

It doesn't help that River's granddad David (Jonathan Pryce) was a big deal in MI5 back in his day, giving him big shoes to fill.

As some kind of divine penance for his messes, River takes his lumps, literally and figuratively, throughout the series.

There's one Season Three stretch that fairly tests the viewer's own endurance at witnessing such nastiness perpetrated on one soul; yet he takes it all with a grace that belies his (lack of) skill and reputation, and even when karma comes calling, River seems content that he doesn't even get to see it happen.

'I've got 20 quid says River will trip on his own shoelaces before he intercepts the courier. Anyone want some of that action?''I've got 20 quid says River will trip on his own shoelaces before he intercepts the courier. Anyone want some of that action?'

At Slough House, he is in the company of a long list of washouts, too numerous to go into detail here.

A few notables: Lamb's assistant Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), a recovering alcoholic still disturbed by the suicide of her boss, a former MI5 DG (a long-running subplot that gets a rude resolution by the third season); disagreeable computer expert Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), so full of himself that it's simultaneously laughable and admirable; and reasonably competent operative Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar), a Slow Horse thanks to a botched surveillance job.

With three seasons (six episodes per) available to stream so far, a fourth already shot and in post-production and a fifth recently greenlit, there's a lot to enjoy for those who haven't discovered this gem yet (like me, until early December).

Despite the Horses' lack of support (or regard) from HQ, they somehow manage to keep getting into the thick of things.

Whether it's being coerced into infiltrating MI5 headquarters, tracking down suspected sleeper agents left over from the Cold War, becoming pawns in the ongoing chess game between Tearney and Taverner, or even engaging in some Home Alone-style laying of booby traps when facing unfavourable odds, Lamb and Co usually make it through – if not always unscathed.

Sinister plots unfold, people die, revenge is exacted, relationships get shattered, running gun battles break out, long-buried truths bubble to the surface, and all in that inimitable British fashion that's gripping without resorting to over-the-top dramatics or Hollywood spectacle.

Toss in the eerily reverberant and thoroughly fitting theme song Strange Game by composer Daniel Pemberton and Mick Jagger (who read several of the books when he was approached for the job), and the package is complete.

Slow Horses subverts spy genre tropes in clever ways, doesn't always go where you imagine it's going, yet still rewards the attentive viewer with satisfying pay-offs. There's plenty of life left in these misfits, keeping the proverbial glue factory on the distant horizon for a while at least.

Three seasons of Slow Horses are available to stream on Apple TV+.

8.5 10

Summary:

Make one mistake, get burned at the stake

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