What’s The Show, JG? Slow Horses
What’s It All About? After screwing up a training mission, MI5 officer River Cartwright is kicked downstairs to the so-called Slow Horses of Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents. This is a humiliation where instead of pretending to be James Bond, he’s stuck with tedious paperwork overseen by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman!), his apparently-uncaring and uninterested boss. A British-Asian Muslim student is kidnapped by the Sons Of Albion – a right-wing fascist organisation – as a false-flag operation set up by Lamb’s boss, Diana Taverner (Kirsten Scott Thomas). MI5 have an inside man as part of the group but when one of the members goes rogue and executes the agent it’s a rush to find out where they’ve taken the student and rescue him before the Sons execute him. It’s down to the Slow Horses to come up with the answers as they go on the run to stop the fascist group and rescue the student.
Why Did You Give It A Go? The novel the series is based on, by Mick Herron, has a good reputation, so that’s a solid start, and really – how bad can a series boasting both Gary Oldman and Kirsten Scott Thomas be? Also the reviews have been very favourable and it’s been simply ages since there’s been a halfway decent TV thriller that was actually worth paying attention to (sorry, The Equalizer, that’s not you).
Is It Any Good? Yes. Yes it is. In fact, it’s great! Remember the show Spooks? Well, Slow Horses is basically that, but not quite with the top agents, and with Kirsten Scott Thomas playing the Harry role previously occupied by Peter Firth. They even have their own tech nerd, the appealingly unlikeable Roddy Ho, played with annoying intensity by Christopher Chung (who’s fantastic). Rogue agents, a mission gone awry, political stakes – the kidnapped student is the son of a Pakistani ambassador – and a hard-right fascist gang, all elements which have the potential to make for an explosive espionage thriller. And they do! There’s a huge sense of momentum to the series, and that helps a lot too. It’s incredibly addictive in that oh-stick-on-another-episode sort of way, and the plot moves like lightning. Yet it’s also clean and clearly written, so there aren’t a bunch of unnecessary hanging plot threads or things to get in the way of the story. It starts, it delivers six episodes of thrills, and it stops. That alone feels incredibly refreshing.
There’s plenty of time for slower moments, it’s not all-action-all-the-time, and a lot of the familiar tropes of espionage thrillers are in place here. There’s the boss whose apparently-foolproof plan goes awry. A late night meeting on a deserted bench, sharing information. Going on the run to escape oversight. An agent shot in the line of duty (kind of). All familiar beats, but all used in a way that really brings them to life. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything that qualifies as original here but then that’s not really the point. This is about using all the tools that a piece like this has to their very best advantage. They’re tropes of the genre, in other words, but even though they’re fairly obvious they also never feel like clichés.
At least part of that comes down to the performances. For the first couple of episodes it’s not entirely clear why Gary Oldman is in this – he’s great at playing the foul, uncaring Lamb but it’s not, you know, really a role that requires him. Then once things go south for Taverner’s operation and he needs to Sort Stuff Out it immediately becomes clear why he’s there. He simply inhabits the role with the sort of effortless ease you would expect from someone like Oldman, and the character is a repulsive delight. Even the sometimes-cheesy dialogue works coming from his mouth. “You really do care for them, don’t you?” asks Tarverner at the end of the aforementioned meeting on a deserted late-night bench. “They’re screw-ups,” replies Lamb, “but they’re my screw-ups.” Corny in the extreme? Absolutely, yet Oldman makes the whole thing work. Being opposite Thomas doesn’t exactly hurt either, and her role as an MI5 agent with balls of steel is one she completely inhabits too. She’s terrific, and such an asset to the series.
The rest of the cast are excellent too and indeed, this is an extremely well-cast show. Jack Lowden excels as the pretty-boy failure who nearly ended his career and only survived because his grandfather (a cameo from Jonathan Pryce, of all people) intervened. River is fairly straightforward as the “good guy” of the series but Lowden invests him with just the right amount frustration and derring-do to make the character work. His curiosity and his inability to just let things drop could, again, be a bit clichéd but he makes it work and is always a delight to watch. As the agent assigned to keep an eye on him, Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker is a charming presence and they two have real chemistry together. Which makes her getting shot at the end of the second episode a real shock.
And that’s another thing that Slow Horses is really good at. It’s able to deploy shocks and dramatic twists without them feeling cheap or like a lazy way of ratcheting up the tension. In particular, it’s fantastically good at cliffhangers, which is what drives that “put on another one!” feeling. Sid getting shot felt genuinely dangerous and unnerving. The third episode ends with one of the Sons of Albion going rogue, grabbing and axe and swinging it… cue credits! Did he kill the student? Someone else? Go for the old axe-misses-by-a-few-centimeters saw? Arrgh! Put the next one on and let’s find out! The show really knows how to derive a compelling hook from its cliffhangers and how to use them to really ratchet up the tension. The scenes of slow, tense investigation dovetail fantastically into the frenetic drive towards the end credits and the structure of the show is one of its greatest successes.
How Many Of These Did You Watch? Well, I’ve seen about a bajillion espionage and thriller series’, but in this case all six episodes. And it’s worth re-emphasising how refreshing that episode run is. Six episodes, no pointless plot diversions or side stories, and the right amount of material for the actual number of episodes commissioned. Fan. Tastic.
Would You Recommend It? Oh very, very much so. Everything in this show just works and it’s just incredibly compelling. There’s a whole sub-plot running about a right-wing journalist, previously respected but now rather toxic, who just can’t leave well enough alone and who might (or might not) have information about the Sons Of Albion. The whole plotline investigating the character – Robert Hobden played with slimy, sleazy presence perfectly by Paul Hilton – is really rather wonderful. He’s never quite the major player he so clearly aches to be, he’s really more of an inconvenience, but he still just keeps getting in the way and so never quite becomes an irrelevancy. He’s a thorn in the flesh that feels real. He’s also got links to a repellant yah-yah Tory-type who apparently has designs on Number 10, though this isn’t much explored and presumably is ripe for further development in future seasons.
The other thing that makes this show work is just how convincing even the smallest of characters are. As the abducted British-Asian student, Antonio Aakeel doesn’t get a lot to do beyond looking absolutely shit-scared that he’s about to be beheaded by a bunch of fascist nutters, yet he excels in the role and is worthy of praise. All the remaining characters in Slough House, the other agents who all get stuck there for one reason or another, feel like real people and have stories and lives going on which sometimes are relevant to proceedings and sometimes not – but the “sometimes not” just makes them feel like actual people, with concerns that don’t just serve a plot function. Even the reasons they get stuck there are pleasingly different. River’s there because he screwed up and, fair enough, that’s simple to understand. But Roddy is there not because he isn’t good at his job – he is – but simply because he’s unbearably annoying. Dustin Demri-Burns’s Min Harper is there because he left a disc with top-secret information on it on a train. They all have different reasons, but they all feel right.
And that’s the thing. Every time there’s a call that Slow Horses needs to make, it makes the right one. Every. Time. It’s all incredibly convincing. The casting is fantastic. The story is great. It’s completely gripping. It’s covering a hot-button topic but not in a stupid, crass way (the latter seasons of Spooks could be especially guilty of this), but in one that simply informs the story and gets on with the business of telling it. It’s well produced – not obviously high-budget beyond the cast, but it doesn’t really need to be. The direction is across-the-board fantastic and really knows how to wring tension from every single shot. This is just a straight top-to-bottom great series. A second season has already been announced. I cannot wait.
Scores On The Doors? 9/10