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Slow Horses: Season One

Josie’s Dad: “It’s really more about the character relationships than the spy work.”

In his second year of retirement, my father has finally hit his stride, bringing the same diligence and love of routine to his golden years that he brought to his 45-year career. Part of his new routine is reading books. This benefits me, because he tells me about those books during our weekly calls, after we’re done discussing the weather. Highlights include a book about the Marquis de Lafayette, who really might be the most interesting man in the world.

But this is not a review about interesting men.

This is a review of the Apple TV show Slow Horses, based on a series of books by Mick Carron, which my father read recently. I’d heard of Slow Horses when it came out to rave reviews, but those reviews made me think it was a traditional spy thriller with a patina of embittered malaise. I wasn’t in the mood for that. Listening to my father explain the books, I finally decided it was time to renew my Apple subscription and give it a try.

The first season has six episodes. I finished it in seven hours.

Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) oversees Slough House, a satellite branch of MI5 where they send the duds. Like the promising trainee who botches a training exercise (Jack Lowden as Cartright). Or the tech genius who is just so annoying no one wanted to work with him (Christopher Chung as Roddy Ho). Or the guy who left a top-secret folder on a train (Dustin Demri-Burns as Min Harper). A few characters—like Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) and Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke)—have similar sins in their past, but they’re left mysterious. There are plenty of “real spies,” too, like Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Travener, but they’re not the focus, and are often ridiculed by our main characters.

The “Slow Horses” team isn’t expected to do much, but when they stumble (or are pushed?) into a complex plot on the part of far-right British nationalists to kidnap a young Pakistani-British kid, they do their best to solve the problem, even as they frequently make it at least slightly worse.

It’s not a comedy, although there are plenty of comical moments, mostly of the droll, ironic sort one would expect from characters who have failed to be mediocre at the thing they really wanted to be great at. It’s a drama, in the sense that there are emotions and stakes and political commentary, but it’s all so British that the repression provides a muted sheen to the excitement: this show allows you to choose how much to engage, and how much to take it seriously.

I took it enjoyably but not too seriously. The sets, dialogue, and overall world had a lived-in feeling that I appreciated, as when some characters are mentioned repeatedly but never seen, so I got the sense that the world of Slow Horses didn’t end at the edge of my TV screen. I rooted for the team, especially when the team seemed to be doing something that was actually useful, but I also enjoyed watching them make the same sort of bungles that I would. (If I were a spy, I’d leave a top-secret document on a train, too, probably right next to my favorite scarf.)

Showrunner Will Smith (not the one you’re thinking of) has created something lovely here: just intense enough, but not too much, with an adult perspective on the moral grayness of both spyjinks and the regular, non-spy world. I watched the show in a big binge because I did care about how it would turn out, but I was also enjoying myself and the world. I’ve mentioned a few times in other reviews that I have really come to value any TV show or film that feels like it was made for grown-ups, and this is definitely one of those shows.

Slow Horses is currently in its third season, of a projected four seasons total. Unless there’s a steep drop-off in quality, I’ll review them all as I watch them.

In the meantime, please enjoy the Mick Jagger song, created for the show, used in the opening credits. I can’t believe he hasn’t retired yet!

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


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