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Slow Horses review: Where the spy rejects go

The new Apple TV Plus series is a fun twist on the espionage genre.

Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses
(Image: © Apple TV Plus)

Our Verdict

A strong start to this spy story that quickly pulls you in while slowly unraveling a plot that is not what it seems on the surface.

For

  • Incredible cast
  • The office dynamics
  • Dark workplace humor
  • Strong production design
  • A different take on the spy genre

Against

  • Some of the exposition-heavy dialogue

NOTE: This post contains light spoilers for Slow Horses season 1 episodes 1 and 2, "Failure's Contagious" and "Work Drinks." 

Fictional spies are often sent on a global adventure to luxurious locations to face off against villains with a wide-reaching network. But what about those agents who haven’t scored a James Bond-level gig? Apple TV Plus’ new six-part series Slow Horses answers that question with its less than glam London setting that is a far cry from the nearby shiny MI5 headquarters. 

Based on the best-selling novel series by Mick Herron (opens in new tab), the first two episodes set up a cloak and dagger world that has the hallmarks of a John Le Carré plot without straying too far into familiar storytelling. 

Leading the impressive cast is Oscar-winner Gary Oldman as the curmudgeonly Jackson Lamb, who is in charge of the MI5 rejects banished to Slough House. He has no time for anyone in his office and is perpetually annoyed with those under his command. Lamb bangs on the floor to get the attention of an agent and flouts no-smoking rules. 

Tenacious River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is cut from the Bond cloth (Lowden has even been touted as the next possible 007), but the suspenseful opening sequence reveals how he ended up stuck in spy purgatory. River is also the closest thing you can get to a secret agent nepotism baby, even if he isn’t living up to the reputation of his family lineage. He is reminded on several occasions that the only reason he wasn’t kicked out completely is due to his connections. 

Jack Lowden and Olivia Cooke are playing MI5 team members in 'Slow Horses'.

Jack Lowden and Olivia Cooke in Slow Horses (Image credit: Apple TV+/See Saw Films)

River’s presence in the dreary office — which looks like it hasn’t seen a lick of paint since the start of the Cold War — has unsettled the balance of this environment as he actively tries to dig deeper into the hostage situation that has thrown the country into crisis. Certain moments early on suggest there is nothing particularly original about the villains of this story, but appearances are deceiving, and thankfully it isn’t a replay of racist clichés and reductive counter-terrorism targets.

While Lamb day drinks and stinks up his upstairs office with a case of bad flatulence (that he seems particularly proud of), River attempts to figure out why he has been tasked with going through the trash of an ostracized right-wing journalist. Robert Hobden (Paul Hilton) appears to be at the center of the Slough House surveillance and the overall plot, but he cannot connect the pieces without defying a few orders first. 

River isn’t the only half-competent agent languishing in these walls and there is an immediate competitive dynamic with Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), which is further fueled by her secretive role in the Hobden investigation. 

Olivia Cooke and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses

Olivia Cooke and Jack Lowden in Slow Horses (Image credit: Apple TV+)

“Cry me a river, River,” is Sid’s response to his whining about the kind of work he has been tasked with, but she also indulges his complaints. There are flirty undertones and, like any office environment, there is the chance for a blossoming romance. 

The first two episodes set up another flirtatious pairing, as well as showing fragments of a dark past between a different duo. How Lamb came to be the reluctant boss of this collection of screw-ups is unclear and despite his vocal annoyance, there is an element of enjoyment with this gig bubbling beneath the surface. It's in this workplace arena that Slow Horses is at its strongest thanks to the interpersonal set-up (including the one employee who cannot get enough of his co-workers) and the dark comedy flourishes. 

"Failure's Contagious" effectively world builds the office setting that offers a flicker of a Killing Eve season 1 aesthetic, but without the game of assassin cat-and-mouse across Europe. Production designer Tom Burton (who also worked on espionage drama The Night Manager) makes Slough House, the fictional Regent’s Park MI5 HQ, and the location of the hostage situation at the heart of the season look lived in, which further adds to the authenticity. 

When River stops by his former stomping ground to drop off a package, he is reminded of his failures by the smug Spider Webb (Freddie Fox) — who may or may not have led to River’s current posting. Juxtaposing River’s past and present in this way emphasizes the depth of his screw-up and his frustrations with his current assignment.

Jonathan Pryce in Slow Horses

Jonathan Pryce in Slow Horses (Image credit: Apple TV+)

A conversation with his grandfather, David (Jonathan Pryce), speaks to the way Cold War methods and perspectives persist even after that conflict has officially ended. It is an exposition-heavy scene and requires someone with Pryce’s gravitas to sound effortless rather than regurgitating pages of information. 

He’s evasive when River asks about Lamb, so no doubt there is history there, but he is forthcoming with other intel. He also asks his grandson to recite an important piece of covert advice that underscores the machinations at work. "Moscow rules, watch your back. London rules, cover your arse," River says with a tone that suggests this was drilled into him early in his spy career. His grandfather doesn’t want him to get in any more trouble than he already is and his extra-curricular activities are sending him down a dangerous path. If he wants to keep his job then he will have to ditch the sloppy tactics.  

Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas as British intelligence officers in 'Slow Horses'.

Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas in Slow Horses (Image credit: Apple TV+/See Saw Films)

Of course, River’s desire to win back favor with his old boss Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) means his grandfather’s words of wisdom are quickly forgotten. Suspense levels are dialed up whenever River heads out of Slough House. Oldman is the lead of series, but Lowden is excellent as the audience entry point, as we share his highs and lows — including the frustrations of only being in on half the story.

As the pieces of the spy puzzle fall into place, Slow Horses finds its footing and the small moments of tradecraft are as enticing as chase sequences. It also happens to feature an evocative theme sung by Mick Jagger, which adds to the overall tone. The overlap between government officials, disgraced journalists and the hostage plot at the center is an angle that separates the series from other recent spy stories like Bodyguard. Events at the end of the second episode, "Work Drinks" left me reeling and eager to watch more.  

Emma Fraser
Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.