Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Slow Horses, on Apple TV+

In Mich Herron’s novels, Slough House is a lot like the “Circus” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, except anyone stationed there knows their career is on the skids. Typically, their crusty boss, Jackson Lamb, hands out demeaning intelligence busywork to his team of “losers,” but they suddenly find themselves embroiled in an act of domestic terror in the six-episode Slow Horses, adapted by Will Smith (relax, it’s a common name), which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

River Cartwright was cocky, because he thought he was a good agent and his grandfather David presumably still has influence after retiring from a very high position in MI5. Then he messed up during a highly visible training exercise, so now he is attached to Slough House. Lamb thinks he has only one decent agent, but it isn’t him. Instead, he means Sid Baker, who has apparently been tailing him since she arrived.

Cartwright discovers this while following up on leads he generated during some particularly nasty dumpster diving. Somehow, he might have a line on a disgraced far-right journalist, who seems to know something about the kidnapping of a young Muslim comedian by a mysterious cell of British nationalist extremists. However, Lamb’s rival, Diana Taverner, director of operations at the proper MI5 probably knows even more. Lamb deduces the abduction is part of a false flag operation she launched to entrap the “Sons of Albion” and discredit the far-right. If anything goes wrong, which it will, she intends to scapegoat Slough House.

Slow Horses follows in the tradition of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, even sharing the star of the film version, Gary Oldman. There is a lot of dry, cutting British humor, which is perfect for Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. Frankly, the actual terrorist-thriller elements are just okay, but the politics involved could very well alienate both sides (nationalists are bad, but the “deep state” is also pretty slimy). However, the backbiting, bureaucratic in-fighting, and double-crossing are all jolly good fun.

As you would expect, Oldman is perfectly cast as the caustic, boozy Lamb. The same is true of Thomas, who gets nearly as many laughs as the regal but acid-tongued Taverner. In terms of tone, the humor is somewhat akin to
Yes, Minister, but darker, because characters really die, pretty regularly.

Frankly, Jack Lowden is fine as Cartwright, the ostensive action hero, but he is constantly overshadowed by more colorful supporting players. For instance, Rosalind Eleazar and Dustin Demri-Burns are messily awkward as two Slow Horses starting a flirtation, but nobody ever gets too cute in this show. Plus, Jonathan Pryce further ups the le Carre-esque ante as Cartwright’s crafty old grandpa.

Spy shows do not get anymore rumpled than
Slow Horses, but it kicks off with some snarling attitude courtesy of Mick Jagger’s original theme song, “Strange Game,” which might be his grabbiest solo recording since “Just Another Night.” Yet, it sets the right tone for the show’s dirty, cynical spycraft. Highly recommended for fans of sly spy thrillers, Slow  Horses starts streaming this Friday (4/1) on Apple TV+.