Apple TV+ has been killing it lately, winning multiple Emmys for “Ted Lasso” and multiple Oscars for “CODA,” while also launching some of the best recent dramas, including “Severance,” “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” and “WeCrashed.” To this list of impressive original programming, we can add “Slow Horses,” one of the best spy shows in years, a smart, witty, cleverly plotted piece about a group of outcasts in the world of espionage who end up being essential to a headline-grabbing operation that’s unfolding behind the scenes in a very different way from what the public is seeing on the news every night. The natural comparison will be “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” but this Gary Oldman vehicle isn’t as calculated, feeling as much like executive producer Graham Yost’s “Justified” in how that program relied on sharp dialogue and characters who felt instantly three-dimensional to work. It’s one of the best shows of early 2022.
Based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Mick Herron, “Slow Horses” opens with an intense action scene in which an MI5 agent named River Cartwright (the great Jack Lowden of “Dunkirk” and the upcoming “Benediction”) is trying to apprehend a potential bombing suspect at Heathrow Airport. It all goes very wrong, and Cartwright, despite having a legacy in the spy business thanks to his famous grandfather David (Jonathan Pryce), is shuffled off to a place called Slough House, which isn’t in Slough but is far enough away from the pulse of the British spy game that it might as well be. As if Slough House wasn’t a demeaning enough nickname for this band of outcasts, they get a a secondary nickname based on it that gives the show its title.
The ‘Slow Horses’ are led by Jackson Lamb (a fantastic Gary Oldman), a curmudgeon who makes his disdain for his current assignment known on a daily basis, telling his team that they’re basically paper-pushing rejects and he hates everything about them. River resents being there too, and so he leaps when he suspects that their latest grudge work might be something more. Why are they going through the trash of a famous white supremacist? When evidence needs to be returned to his former allies at MI5, including leader Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), Cartwright pushes his way into the investigation, basically dragging the whole team with him, which includes characters played by Olivia Cooke, Rosalind Eleazar, and Dustin Demri-Burns. It turns out the surveillance is tied to the kidnapping of a British Muslim young man, whom a fringe group is threatening to behead on national television.
“Slow Horses” is another story of a spy in need of redemption, but writer Will Smith (no, not that one) never takes his concept too pretentiously, allowing for scenes that almost approach workplace comedy among these outcasts, some of whom are at Slough House just because of an understandable mistake. Director James Hawes—a vet who has helmed shows like “Doctor Who,” “Black Mirror,” and “Raised by Wolves”—knows how to balance the intense plotting of a kidnapping spy drama with character beats that keep the show from feeling distant. And so we get hints of Lamb’s past, a forming relationship between spies Min and Louisa, and questions about why a clear talent like Cooke’s Sid would even be there. A show like this needs to find the right rhythm, a balance between character and espionage plotting, and it’s almost dead perfect here, at least when the show focuses on the Slow Horses—long scenes with the kidnappers, especially in later episodes, feel like they could have been shortened a bit, to be fair.
It helps to have a cast who completely understood the assignment. Lowden is believable as both a super spy and someone weighed down by the mistakes he’s made and the lineage he worries about letting down. Oldman is at his best in this kind of cynical, world-weary mode. I could watch him play this character for 20 years. And while Oldman and Lowden are the show's center, everyone is perfectly cast, including legends like Pryce and Thomas and supporting players like Saskia Reeves and Christopher Chung. There’s not one player who feels like they don’t fit, which again reminds me of the consistently perfect casting on “Justified.”
When “Slow Horses” ended in a character revelation that qualifies as a bit of a cliffhanger, I dreaded the inevitable long wait between seasons ... only to be greeted by a preview for season two! It’s already been shot, based on Herron’s book sequel, Dead Lions. There’s no word on when it will air yet, but it can’t be soon enough for me.
Whole season screened for review.