Slow Horses

Spoof of Spooks ‘Slow Horses: Season 3’ Is a Wild Ride

Slow Horses is acutely aware that it’s entertainment. Many scenes play like spoofs of the straight-faced crummy thrillers that pose as prestige cinema.

Slow Horses
Apple TV+
29 November 2023

I have said this before and will say it again: Slow Horses is the best thriller on television today. It is also easily the funniest, most humane, least self-serious spy affair in years. Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb and his cohort of MI5 rejects trying to stay afloat won us over last year when two excellent seasons dropped within eight months. The viewership in the US has been relatively modest, with reports stating 1.9 million streamers in the first 31 days from release, but those who watched it fell head over heels. 

This season, the Slow Horses’ magical recipe for awkward soul-searching amid mayhem and disaster is now done up to the nines in the show’s biggest and best installment yet. The cast, spearheaded by Oldman, Jack Lowden, and Kristin Scott Thomas, is a marvel, as are the watertight writing and taut direction. There’s nary a weak spot in the six hours of throbbing action, backflipping plots – and noxious farts. 

Based on the bestselling Slough House series by Mick Herron (three plus million copies sold to date), Slow Horses is a spy thriller dramedy no macho adrenaline junkie would ever dream of making. It follows the “administrative purgatory” of MI5, a department for the intelligence service untouchables who have fumbled their careers in richly diverse ways. Alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, agents who’ve catastrophically botched big jobs, or just those generally least apt to cosplay as James Bond end up on this pathetic road to nowhere. If ever called up to The Park (fictional MI5 HQ), that’s mostly so that top dogs could further belittle them while handing out bottom-rung tasks. 

At the top of this carnival of embarrassment sits Jackson Lamb, a greasy, boozing, flatulent veteran spook with a potty mouth but likely the sharpest brain in the Service. Plagued by inner demons we know little about, he’s a lone wolf with an impeccable moral compass, insufferably snappy but deeply caring of his company of fuckups. Though Lamb is occasionally secretly called upon by deputy director-general Diana Taverner (Scott Thomas) to muse on current affairs, the job of the “slow horses” is basically to stay away from the action, i.e., the good stuff of the world of spy fiction. 

None of this sounds like compelling thriller backdrop, but rest assured, Lamb’s team, despite the odds, still gets tangled up in some big-time schemes way above their pay grade. In the first two seasons, following Herron’s entry novels in the series Slow Horses (2010) and Dead Lions (2013), the show trails the Slough House staff as they navigate a high-level kidnapping and a conspiracy of Russian sleeper agents, uncovering various ugly truths behind the glossy facades of The Park in the process.

While the thrills and twists never let up, the story’s real focus is the characters and their many battles against themselves, the world, and an all-too-familiar hostile work environment. As such, this is a deliciously humorous, touching saga of humanity and camaraderie, with endless love for its many misfits and all those down on their luck. It’s a shock Herron took years to get such stellar material as Slow Horses published; luckily, the franchise finally found its backdoor way into the mainstream, as River Cartwright, Catherine Standish, Louisa, Roddy, Shirley, Marcus, and (of course) Lamb found their way to our hearts.

Now it looks like Apple TV+ joined the growing cult following of critics and viewers, as Season 3 breaks out of the grubby offices and dingy alleys right into king’s ransom speedboat chases across Istanbul, culminating in hour-long shootouts in industrial compounds. Petty personal schemes have evolved into international conspiracies, shaking the MI5 and the British government to their core. Agents will turn, and allegiances will be put in doubt as the very nature of the spy trade is brought into question. The six new episodes look and feel more like Lethal Weapon meets Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than cautious b-rolling. This is a good sign. 

Given that the world-building over the first two installments has been impeccable, Slow Horses bellyflops into the third installment in medias res. I will keep the plot reveal to the bare minimum shown in the trailer and the first episode – the less you know, the better. In a tense opening sequence, agent Alison Dunn (Katherine Waterstone in a guest role) is enjoying post-coital bliss with colleague Sean Donovan (a great Sope Dirisu), frolicking around their Istanbul suite only to find Donovan going through her things. Apparently, he’s looking for a certain file she intends to leak, seemingly worried for her safety. Bourne-ish hounding with bitter consequences for Alison ensues. What happened? More importantly, why? And what the hell is in the file that made Alison turn against her own? 

Surely none of this A-level intrigue ought to interest River Cartwright (Lowden) or Katherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), Lamb’s wrongfully ostracized prodigy and secretary, who rummage through mountains of spored boxes assorting files in Slough House. However, as the boisterous former wunderkind flicked away after a false accusation of incompetence and meek Standish – a reticent but loyal assistant hung up on a personal tragedy – bicker over their differing personalities, something shocking happens. Standish (as you see in the trailer) gets swindled and kidnapped by none other than Donovan and his team. Cartwright is shocked, and the rest of the “horses” are confused. Meanwhile, Lamb is in his element, casually farting in other patients’ faces while waiting to argue about acceptable alcohol intake with his doctor. He’s also nonplussed about Standish’s disappearance and seems to discard the whole ordeal as gratuitous?!

If all this sounds like a mind-boggle, rest assured that’s just the beginning. As Cartwright is instructed to break into The Park to secure Standish’s release, we are pulled into a layer cake of duplicity and cover-ups, with humor, but also gravity, to spare. By now, Herron is expected to indict the structures of power in his works, but in this instance, he outdoes himself. Without revealing the big twists from Herron’s 2016 book, Real Tigers Season 3, also named “Real Tigers”, questions how things are done and shows extraordinary empathy for idealist and disenchanted agents who end up collateral damage. 

Solemn as the overtones – including the dark secrets of our beloved spooks – may be, Slow Horses remains a thoroughly uproarious matter, with screenplay writer Will Smith (Veep) and the entire cast game for anything from deadpan to slapstick. Lowden delights as the anxious Cartwright, a clean-cut shooting star just too tired of everyone’s crap. Scott Thomas enjoys cracking the whip as a conniving Taverner almost too much. Then there is Oldman, unrecognizable as a bedraggled, unshaven, bloated, red-faced sack of sarcasm that is Lamb, except for his unique foreboding murmur, just before he’ll smack his lips and cackle at anyone brazen enough to address him. 

Lamb, Cartwright, and Taverner remain key players in this strange game, but the show-running team must be commended for fleshing out each of the supporting characters with care. Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) struggles to emotionally connect to people following the death of a loved one. Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Markus Longridge (Kadiff Kirwan) form an unlikely team while trying to keep their destructive vices at bay. Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), aka BIG ROD, is still responsible for most of the cringe as he obliviously cruises in his minor league hacker post. The quiet, kind Standish (Reeves), who has all but given her life up over grief she cannot overcome, is perhaps the standout in the least humorous of roles, but everyone contributes heartily to chuckles and feels alike. 

There are many reasons Slow Horses works like a Swiss clock. Besides the solid mystery, tight plotting, and generous laughs (did I mention it looks slick as hell, too?), its premier quality is the blend of relatable, humane stories with a fantastic lack of self-seriousness. This show is acutely aware that it’s entertainment, and many of its scenes play like spoofs on the straight-faced crummy thrillers that pose as prestige cinema. Cue jammed rifles, buses crashed in hysteria, or even literal evil laughs from James “Spider” Webb (Freddie Fox) and Nick Duffy (Chris Reilly), Cartwright’s slimy nemeses we love to hate. On the other hand, seeing River’s retired officer grandfather David (a wonderful Jonathan Pryce) slowly lose his grip, or Lamb and Standish in a fallout over her perceptions of reality, makes for anything but an easy watch. 

Even with a few narrative clunks in service of cohesion, this is a near-perfect action adventure with heart to spare. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and get on the Slow Horses bandwagon. For those already in love with this splendid franchise, I have one last piece of great news: Season 4 is already done. We eagerly await its release.