Roush Review: I Spy a Winner in Darkly Amusing Thriller ‘Slow Horses’

Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses
Review
Apple TV+

Imagine 24 with an inferiority complex, or James Bond as an unloved Eeyore of the spy trade.

That’s the clever premise of Apple’s offbeat six-episode thriller Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron’s books set at Slough—rhymes with “ow”—House, a dumping ground for disgraced “slow horse” agents. It makes perfect sense that Graham Yost, a specialist in witty underdog crime drama (Justified), is among the executive producers.

Olivia Cooke as Sid, Jack Lowden as River in Slow Horses

Apple TV+

These sad sacks toil in obscurity in a rundown office building doing drudge work under the obscene rule of slovenly supervisor Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman, a riot), once a top spook at MI-5. Lamb, a faded lion, is truly the boss from hell: insulting, unruly, delivering his jaded harangues with his feet (invariably clad in socks with holes) on his cluttered desk, spewing cigarette smoke like a chimney. You wouldn’t want to smell, let alone know, him.

“Bringing you up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog,” Lamb growls to his sheepish crew, informing them that they have no business snooping into the kidnapping of a Pakistani college student who’s being threatened with live execution by a motley cell of alt-right London terrorists as the world watches. One of Lamb’s newer minions, however, is too bored to sit still, and when young River Cartwright (a rumpled yet dashing Jack Lowden) goes rogue to follow a lead with his alluring office mate Sid (Olivia Cooke), the fast-paced Slow Horses shifts into high gear with grisly twists aplenty.

From the opening vignette, in which River is seen badly bungling a rookie assignment, we’re made aware that nothing and no one are what they seem. That includes their icy MI-5 overseer “Lady Di” Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s more than willing to let Slough House take the fall for anything that goes awry.

This is where Slow Horses comes into its own, because the best surprise of all is that these apparent losers aren’t all that bad at spy craft, and most of the team (including an anti-social hacker and a couple distracted by their love-hate bickering) rise to the occasion when they’re suddenly thrust into a very fine, frantic and bloody mess. Even Lamb rallies to protect his underlings when deadly push comes to potentially career-ending shove.

Turns out it’s too soon to turn these dark horses out to pasture. (Following the finale, there’s a teaser for a Season 2.) Which is fine by me. I can’t wait to get back in the saddle with these beleaguered blokes.

Slow Horses, Series Premiere, Friday, April 1, Apple TV+