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Slow Horses Compromises Solid Character Growth for Perfunctory Spycraft Thrills

As in previous seasons, the devout faithfulness to Mick Herron's Slough House books only works halfway.
  • Jack Lowden and Rosalind Eleazar in Slow Horses Season 3 (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Jack Lowden and Rosalind Eleazar in Slow Horses Season 3 (Photo: Apple TV+)

    In Slow Horses, as it presumably is in real life, agents in the UK's hush-hush security service are expected to perform competently. Should they come up short and not send the country into a tailspin of domestic havoc in the process, their careers are dispassionately shuffled into purgatory. That would be the House of Slough, Mick Herron's fictional flop comprising MI5 wash-outs, which only occasionally functions as the seedy epicenter of this slickly made Apple TV+ adaptation of Herron's novels.

    If spies were students, then Slough House would be MI5's version of detention. It's headed by the grizzled and socially spicy Jackson Lamb, played marvelously by Gary Oldman, who’s made a career of shifting into moral shades of varying murkiness, and his role in Slow Horses is fascinating to parse. After all, Lamb is but a debauched George Smiley, another atypical spy from fiction. There's more chili sauce on Lamb's tie, and his gastrointestinal ills are severe enough to be public knowledge, but both men's gray moral philosophies land the same: For King and Country, just don't make too much of a mess.

    Oldman has played both spies (and was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Smiley), so the greasy veneer he's adopted for Lamb is conspicuous by comparison. Smiley's career thrived because he seemed ordinary — rumpled, yes, but ordinary — while Lamb draws attention to himself with appalling manners and a propensity to ripen any room by simply entering it. Is Lamb famous in the spy community for his exemplary tradecraft or his prolific hostility? Three seasons in, that's still hard to figure.

    Here's another question: Is the comedy of Jackson Lamb's existence so enormous that it makes everything else around him feel dull by comparison? For a plot-heavy show as knotty as Slow Horses, the answer could be yes. There is a noticeable energy spike whenever Oldman commandeers a scene, dressing down muttering sadsacks like Jack Lowden's River Cartwright, who shuffles around Slough like a sturdier Simon Pegg making a go for James Bond and blowing it every time.

    Lowden downplays River's raw-nerve ambition this go-around, which makes it a shame that his time with Oldman is so sporadic. Lamb and Cartwright might have found some common ground, perhaps even mutual growth in their grating sub/dom professional relationship. Maybe next time.

    Still, he’s grown into Cartwright's status as an MI5 middleweight, striking a nimble balance between professional weariness and secret agent heroism. He certainly has more going on than Slow Horses' other prestige ringer, Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Diana Taverner, MI5's Second to Sophie Okonedo's First Desk director supreme. Thomas gives Taverner steel, not to mention a withering gaze equal to Lamb's contemptuous powers — only, it's the things she doesn't need to say that make subordinates feel so squidgy in her presence.

    That was in previous seasons; this time, Thomas spends her few scenes behind a desk, and when things pop off toward the last two episodes, she is tasked with doing little more than watching the outcome unfold in real time. As Taverner's superior, Okonedo is terrific — her scenes with Samuel West's chumpy Peter Judd are less vicious than those with Thomas, which comes as a relief — but Okonedo's role overshadows Thomas' in a way that leaves the latter with precious little to do.

    Slow Horses' ensemble remains its strongest asset, more formidable than its corkscrew plotting by a country kilometer. It's more fun — if exhausting — to watch these characters knock insults back and forth like a game of surly badminton. Certainly more than seeing them go through the perfunctory spy show stuff that occupies much of this ticking-clock plot line, which feels more violent and less compelling than what we've seen previously.

    Season 3, adapted from Herron's 2016 novel Real Tigers, splits Slough's motley crew into teams and scatters them throughout London to get to the bottom of a conspiracy involving the death of an MI5 agent played by Katherine Waterston and a rogue outfit headed by a vengeance-driven agent named Donovan (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). It's all connected to a tech scheme that would feel lifted from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight if it amounted to anything. But that’s where Lamb’s crew comes in.

    At its best moments, Slow Horses carefully works character beats into the ensuing action. In this batch of episodes, helmed by Late Night Shopping and Doctor Who director Saul Metzstein, the juggling of story and character amounts to a series of minor calamities. That's certainly the case for Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan), a Slough flunkie whose gambling addiction is confused for a personality. One crucial character note — he was once up for a position in MI5's dirty-job Dogs — arrives mere moments before it needs to matter.

    There's more concerning the long-suffering Slough admin Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), who endures the most consequential ordeal in her career but doesn't get any time to exorcise any Lamb-shaped demons until the final episodes all but wrapped things up in yet another tidy package. Too tidy, considering the utter messes these dim agents are supposed to be.

    As for the current state of Slough House, it continues to represent the kind of shambles Slow Horses could use more of. Yet, while the series's production continues to be a startling marvel of visual hyper-competence, its strange high-stakes spy games leave little time to spend in this grody departmental delight. (Oh, how things might have been if Slow Horses were an episodic procedural à la Poirot instead of a seasonal one.)

    Slough is missing quite a bit of the routine drudgery that made the series's first few episodes fun, though it is filled with low-level files sent over by "Lady Di" (Thomas), who's been tasked with housecleaning busywork thanks to the Cicada fiasco last year. (MI5 designates these unimportant files "Ringo-level," a term that's only slightly less obvious and dopey than last year's "Code September," the 9/11-evoking set of instructions that specified the use of a plane.)

    Other developments: Marcus is antagonized by Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), Slough's resident computer whiz, whose selfishness remains his primary trait (beyond his taste in dodgy EDM). There's Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), the diminutive new-ish recruit with a mean streak who is also, for reasons that will likely matter in future episodes (one hopes), a secret cocaine addict. Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar) still mourns Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) by devouring strange at local bars and covers up that she nicked a diamond from the Cicada case, in a subplot that develops into absolutely nothing.

    Things pick up when Cartwright is chosen to infiltrate The Park (MI5's high-security domain) to extricate sensitive info in service to some twisty business halfway through (a sequence that involves Freddie Fox's "Spider" Webb character, that slick, simpering series highlight). This sequence stretches to improbable lengths to hit its structural dramatic purposes, which makes things feel saggy when the tension should be pulled taut: There's an overlong bit where River tries and fails to dodge Hobbs (Chris Coghill), a former Dog rival, in one example of Slow Horses living up to its name. At least it's there to set up a joke — River hit Hobbs last season and must needs hit him again — and the yuk lands just as you expect it to. If there are laughs to be had in this instance, it’s because we're finally moving on to the next thing.

    As in previous seasons, the devout faithfulness to Herron's books only works halfway. Episodes pad themselves out to arrive at conclusions that have already been heavily telegraphed. Character work is spliced between ambitious, if over-produced, action set pieces, which remain the series's weakest element. Whenever the action needs entire episodes to convey its purpose, interest wanes like some shady character stealing into the night. Slow Horses is about disgraced agents blundering into paradigm-changing events, then setting all to rights. The way they carry on this season, one wonders what else they'd need to accomplish to finally have some respect put on the name Slough.

    New episodes of Slow Horses Season 3 drop Wednesdays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Slow Horses, Apple TV+, Gary Oldman, Jack Lowden, Kristin Scott Thomas, Rosalind Eleazar, Sophie Okonedo, Spy thrillers