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No one puts much stock in the so-called Slow Horses, which is perhaps why they’re always exceeding expectations. A group of disgraced intelligence agents, banished from proper espionage and field work in Regent’s Park and downgraded to menial labor (see: slow horses) in a ramshackle building known as Slough House, has met every attempt to prove themselves capable with failure. Unless, of course, in classic television fashion, all goes well this one time.
Based on the Slough House novels by Mick Herron, Apple TV+’s spy thriller returned for its third season last week. This run of episodes, in which the Slow Horses team tries to relocate one of their own—who has been kidnapped by an ex-MI5 agent turned private military contractor and conspiracy theorist gone rogue—is its best to date. Part Killing Eve, part John le Carré lite, Slow Horses continues to stand head and shoulders above its streaming peers when it comes to sharp and truly bingeable TV.
The ragtag group of failed intelligence agents falls under the exhausted eye of one Jackson Lamb—played by an excellent, funny Gary Oldman—a former Cold War agent too over it and traumatized from his years in the service to be of much use to anyone who needs something from him. Oldman’s Lamb is a boorish asshole: unkempt, gassy, rude. But, like any burned-out boss with a heart of gold, he cares deeply about one thing and one thing only: getting lunch (and the well-being of his agents). Opposite Oldman is up-and-comer (if not already up-and-arrived) Jack Lowden, known to true cinephiles as Siegfried Sassoon in Terence Davies’ Benediction, though he also made appearances in Dunkirk and Mary Queen of Scots. Lowden plays River Cartwright, a nepotism hire whose botching of a training exercise has made him the enemy of a number of his posh co-workers. In many ways, River—a brash but begrudgingly noble upstart—feels like a course correction for decades of James Bond’s unflappable success; that Lowden has been rumored to be one of a handful of handsome youngish actors in the running to play the next Bond (Lowden himself denied it earlier this year, but still) only deepens the irony of his playing a different kind of spy altogether. Rounding out the cast is an icy Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner, the deputy director of MI5 who acts with much impunity and scant transparency.
There are a number of spy thrillers and espionage thrillers that saturate the streaming landscape, but Slow Horses sets itself apart in its razor-edged writing and keen politics, both of which feel timeless. The series shares disdain for everyone and everything: The cops are bad, the government is bad, journalists are bad. The British domestic intelligence agency MI5, though ostensibly the employer for these characters, is also bad, eager to sell out its own agents to turn a quick buck. This particular season, in fact, sets the intelligence community against itself, with the ever-excellent Sophie Okonedo back as Ingrid Tearney, the director of MI5 and Taverner’s boss, against whom her underling might be making a serious play. No one is trustworthy or particularly honorable here. That cynicism might feel tired elsewhere, but in writer and showrunner Will Smith’s (not that Will Smith) hands, the jokes are wry and sharp. In the first season, the group’s resident techie Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung) repeatedly refers to other branches of law enforcement as “the pigs,” only to be reminded that they too are all pigs. It is easy to compare Slow Horses to le Carré—as I just did—but it feels closer in tone to the work of Armando Iannucci, with whom Smith wrote on both The Thick of It and Veep. At their keenest, both shows were stark reminders that governments—both British and American—do not serve anyone but themselves. As every Slow Horses season comes to a close with another disillusioned reminder of the grimy indifference of power structures, it’s easy to wonder what it’s all for.
The comedy underpinnings of the show grant it a rich textural irony, as well: Here we’ve gathered some of the U.K.’s most promising rising talent, as well as established and esteemed acting legends (and one Oscar winner), and more often than not, you’re tuning in to watch them fumble the bag. They will show up too late; they will target the wrong guy. Their hearts are in the right places, but what can be said about the rest of their bodies? You hope, and perhaps deep down even know, that every season will come to its version of a happy ending, but how much will these characters have to goof up before it gets to that place? The titular Slow Horses are often so bad at what they do that their successes, even minor, are triumphant. You feel their joy, even when they don’t see what might be coming around the corner.
That irony doesn’t mean, however, that the stakes don’t feel legitimate in the show’s reality. Slow Horses benefits from an almost ripped-from-the-headlines approach to its central mysteries. These instigating events, ranging from sleeper agents to rogue nationalists to conspiracy theories, are convincing enough to feel as though the world they operate in is our own. The show’s keen cinematic direction, especially the most recent season’s work by Saul Metzstein, allows it to look expensive without being decadent, intense without burning itself out. Slow Horses feels, as disappointingly few shows do nowadays, like real television—no small feat.
There are series regulars (the aforementioned Christopher Chung, as well as an excellent Rosalind Eleazar) and occasional guests (Jonathan Pryce pops up now and again as Cartwright’s retired spy grandfather, and this season’s cold open revolves around a brief appearance by Katherine Waterston), but life is not precious in the show. Each season features at least one major death or disappearance from which all of the show’s characters reel. The stakes are practical, heightened. Time matters, which explains why the pacing feels so essential to Slow Horses’ success. Though the third season premiered on Nov. 29, newcomers will find that they don’t have all that much to catch up on. The show benefits from the British television programming model that discourages both overlong seasons and overlong episodes: Seasons 1 and 2 are six episodes each, with most episodes hovering around 45 minutes. That each season also takes place over a series of days rather than weeks or months grants Slow Horses an urgency that feels rare—watching it is the opposite of a slog.
There is also, importantly, just a lot of pleasure to this show. Like a number of great television programs before it, Slow Horses is a series about co-workers who become friends, kind of—so long as their job does not get them killed. That the most recent season also calls upon the team to rescue one of their own only emphasizes the begrudging love they have for each other, loath as they might be to admit it otherwise. Whenever the show catches its breath enough to treat its characters to some mercy and Jackson Lamb to a big bowl of noodles, the reprieve feels truly earned. It’s been a long day for these guys. They need a minute, or three, before the next long day begins.