Slow Horses premieres with two episodes on Apple TV+ on April 1, 2022, followed by one episode weekly every Friday.
Gary Oldman received an Oscar nomination for playing the brilliant British intelligence officer George Smiley in the 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyand his role in Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, a faithful adaptation of Mick Herron’s 2010 spy thriller of the same name, feels like a direct extension of that performance. Oldman’s Jackson Lamb is a flabby and flatulent desk jockey leading a team of MI5 rejects. But there are hints in his excellent performance of an odious character that Lamb was once a master cold warrior, and that he might just be capable of calling up those skills again should he decide to care.
But Slough House, the colloquial name for the shabby office where Lamb rules as a petty tyrant, is where spies with once-promising careers are exiled after making embarrassing mistakes. Lamb’s latest charge is River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), who seems like he was pulled from Central Casting for star spies when he appears in the opening of Slow Horses’ two-episode premiere. River’s on a mission to stop a terrorist that feels like a well-executed if highly traditional thriller sequence except that he doesn’t actually catch the suicide bomber in the knick of time. By the time we see River again, he’s already spent eight months at Slough House, paying for his failure by doing the most menial and disgusting work Lamb can find. Lamb hopes to crush his employees’ spirits and make them quit the service altogether, and it’s a credit to both the makeup team and Lowden’s performance that the time seems to have visibly aged the bright young actor.
There’s a bit of the early episodes of Orange Is the New Black in Slow Horses, with flashbacks and whispered secrets slowly revealing the misdeeds that landed each member of the ensemble in their current purgatory. There’s Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns), who left a classified disc on the train, and Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), a hot-shot hacker desperate to know why he was sent to the doldrums of Slough House. Lamb treats his entire office with the sort of acidic contempt mastered by Alan Rickman, but special abuse goes to his personal assistant, Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), recovering alcoholic traumatized by finding her former boss’ dead body.
Their uselessness and despair feels physically manifested in the dark and dingy Slough House as compared to the sleek glass of MI5 headquarters, where the regal Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) commands agents who actually get things done. It’s easy to understand why Lamb’s charges seek to escape from their particularly dark office comedy and find their way back to crisp action of real spy work.
When a British Pakistani college student is kidnapped by white supremacists, River sees an opportunity to both do good and get back into MI5’s good graces. The first two episodes tantalizingly begin setting up the pieces of a conspiracy, lightening the mood through the goofiness of its underdog heroes who are either desperate to turn their work relationships into something more meaningful or expressing their bitterness by firing barbs at their coworkers.
Herron’s novel was forward thinking in 2010 as it looked beyond the heroic stories of thwarted Islamic terror threats that dominated the genre following the Sept. 11 and 7/7 attacks, turning instead to examine corruption within security agencies, the rising threat of white nationalism, and the general feeling that Britain’s best days may have already passed. That last sentiment manifests both in Lamb’s frayed nature — even his socks have holes in them — and the reminiscences of River’s grandfather David Cartwright, a retired legendary spy whose influence is both a benefit and a burden to the agent eager to follow in his footsteps.
While the two shows are radically tonally different, there’s a bit of similarity in the core messages of Slow Horses and Peacemaker. At a time when it’s hard to like or trust institutions, both shows instead put their faith in a band of misfits who might just be able to grow together and save the day. Like Oldman’s sharp version of Smiley hiding under Lamb’s ill-fitting clothes and greasy hair, the premiere of Slow Horses hints that greatness might be found where it’s least expected.