AppleTV+’s new spy offering focuses on failures, but turns out to be anything but.
It takes a special sort of show to go from a terrorist bombing to a fart joke.
Slow Horses is that sort of show.
The title refers to a term of derision given to agents who bust out of MI:5. For instance, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) ends up amongst the sluggish equine after botching the show’s opening mission. Suppose you fail at spycraft working under MI:5’s number two, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas). In that case, you end up at Slough House (those familiar with the British Office should get the joke of that location right off) being overseen by the cantankerous, flatulent, and often drunk Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman).
At the start, Slow Horses does have a bit of the rhythm and tone of a British workplace dramedy. There’s the lousy layout. The annoying IT guy, Roddy (Christopher Chung). The office cheerleader, Loy (Paul Higgins), desperately trying to get his coworkers to come out with him for pub trivia. Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the show’s façade.
To start with, there’s the matter of Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), an agent clearly too competent for Slough. Cooke plays Sid as someone who’s trying hard to blend into the crowd but can’t conceal her talent. It’s an impressive piece of work for the actor. Then there’s the suggestion that MI:5 is tapping Slough to run surveillance on an especially infamous target.
[T]he dialogue is quick and quick-witted, peppered with well-timed insults and barely disguised contempt.
Before the strangeness can fully register, though, a terrorist group calling itself the Sons of Albion breaks into television feeds. They’ve kidnapped a British man of Pakistani descent, Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel). They intend to murder him live via beheading in two days’ time. The right-wing group, of course, assumes Hassan is a Muslim immigrant despite all signs making it clear he is an Anglicized citizen born and raised in the UK. Americans may not know the specifics of anti-Pakistan bias in Great Britain, but they’ll recognize the kind of opinions the group spouts as chillingly close to home.
Cartwright’s refusal to accept his status as a failure means he plunges almost immediately into the case. Try as he might, though, he can’t make all the pieces fit. When masked killers start roughing up conservative reporting and attacking Slow Horses in the office and on the street, it becomes clear there’s far more afoot than one domestic terrorist group looking to make a gory splash for attention.
One thing you can’t say about Slow Horses is that it lives down to its name. Even during the scenes of office comedy, the dialogue is quick and quick-witted, peppered with well-timed insults and barely disguised contempt. It should come as no surprise that the writer/co-writer of every episode, Will Smith, is a veteran of Armando Iannucci’s productions like Veep, The Thick of It, and Avenue 5.
Series director James Hawes does strong work representing all the show’s sides—comedy, hushed spy drama, run and gun actioner—without losing the thread. Frequently, he makes choices to play things visually seriously in a way that furthers the comedy. Oldman and Lowden speeding past some colleagues during an attempt to track a lead comes immediately to mind. Hawes gives the viewers the visual language they’d expect while letting it clash against the dialogue and the colleagues’ reaction/predicament.
Slow Horses’ Production Designer Tom Burton also deserves tremendous credit. Nearly everything on-screen feels old and ill-used, droopy with time and lack of attention, not unlike Oldman’s Lamb. Yet, whenever the story heads to MI:5’s headquarters, the sets shine with sterile cleanliness and a sense of the state of the art. Once again, the show gets that the juxtaposition between elements is where the story lives.
There’s something wonderful about how much better spy thriller this group of incompetents, these slow horses, deliver compared to AppleTV+’s grave recent offering Suspicion. It turns out foul-mouthed irreverence beats intense self-seriousness.
Slow Horses stumbles and bumbles towards saving Britain starting April on AppleTV+.