Slow Horses Updates, Subverts Spy Thrillers to Messy Modern Times

The first season of Slow Horses is now complete on Apple TV+, and it manages to be both an old and new take on the spy genre that's getting a lot of deserved attention. Mick Herron's books are getting their day with the TV series because they manage to capture the present in a bottle.

Slow Horses: Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas Preview Spy Series
"Slow Horses" image: Apple TV

Adapting the first novel in the book series, Slow Horses is the post-le Carré update of spy stories. As the drab, unglamorous anti-James Bond depiction of espionage, the series centres on a drab office building in Central London that houses screwups and failures who are kept well away from the real action, a place where careers go to die. The head of Slough House is Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman in a career-capping performance), a legend from the Cold War years who's now a burnout who just wants to while away his days free of incident and hassle and reckoned that supervising a bunch of losers was the ticket. But the world has other ideas. When a Pakistani-British university student gets kidnapped by white supremacists who announce their plans to excite him on livestream, Lamb's slow horses get caught up with MI5 boss Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and her over-reaching ambitions. Suddenly the slow horses are in the frame for her screw-ups, disposable fodder to take the heat for a cover-up.

Season One of Slow Horses adapts the first book in the series surprisingly faithfully, if slightly more conventionally to fit television and slightly less funny than the book. For fans of the books, it's validation. Oldman is clearly having a ball, even if he's slightly less disgusting and slovenly than the Jackson Lamb of the books. Only slightly. The reason the series strikes a chord now is that it captures the current mood of the UK. It nails the dull, grey, mediocre mood that resulted in Brexit. In Herron's universe, the threats to the country come as much from within as without, from right-wing populists and would-be fascists, self-serving politicians, and craven government careerists and oligarchs intent on having the government in their pocket. With this many enemies already chipping away at the country's foundations, foreign enemies – and they're still out there – are almost an afterthought. It's a far bleaker situation than John le Carré's scenarios, which Herron, a fan, used as a foundation for his world. Herron's Britain is more a victim of self-inflicted wounds than attacks from outside. And the guardian of this land is Jackson Lamb, a subversion of the George Smiley archetype. Where Smiley was a product of the Public School system and humble diffidence, Lamb is Cockney, working-class, foul-mouthed and out of fucks to give. His moral vision is as clear as Smiley's, though, as he can see through the system's entitlement and self-serving hypocrisies as embodied by Diana Taverner.

The end of Season One of Slow Horses is tagged with a trailer for Season Two, an adaptation of the second novel in the series, Dead Lions, where Lamb pursues a dead agent's discovery of Russian sleepers embedded in the UK, unleashing them after him and the slow horses with Taverner out to take advantage of the situation. Oldman has said he would be happy to retire from acting with Jackson Lamb as his final role. There are plans for more seasons, which will probably adapt the rest of the books. For Oldman, it's a glorious role to go out on if he decides to retire.

The entire first season of Slow Horses is now streaming on Apple TV+. It works as a binge-watch or gradual rationing of each episode.

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About Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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