It was of last year’s standout series and Apple TV+ recently premiered season two of Slow Horses, based on the ‘Slough House’ series of novels by Mick Herron. Celebrated by critics, and with a third and fourth batch of episodes already commissioned, it looks set to become the streamer’s signature series, especially given the rather chaotic second season of The Morning Show. Adapted for TV by Morwenna Banks (the voice of Peppa Pig’s mother!) and Will Smith (not the face slap one but the British comedian who is also a novelist and was a writer for Veep), the new episodes revolve around the death of a retired agent and a suspicion that the Cold War may not be over after all.
Despite being one of the more mysterious professions, by its very nature, spying is an occupation that has fascinated multiple generations of readers and viewers. And, precisely because of the enigma surrounding it, it’s an occupation that inspires a fantasy of a fast-paced life – far from the monotony of a regular office job – peppered with exotic and amazing sexual encounters. Yet when you then discover what espionage really involves, beyond the myth perpetuated by books, films and series, you realize that rather than torrid affairs and bomb blasts, the daily diet of a spy involves a lot of boredom and time just hanging around waiting.
Slow Horses manages to portray both sides of the coin. On the one hand, it’s your typical spy series with action-packed missions that only get more and more complicated with each episode, until the uneasy realization dawns on you that the corruption has infiltrated into the innermost enclaves of power, especially those that society naively considers ‘the good guys’. But it also captures the flip side of it all, thanks to focusing on an exiled unit within the British secret services – the so-called ‘slow horses’. The name refers to agents who have botched an assignment and, since their past access to classified information means they can’t simply return to civilian life, they are dispatched to a seedy building – nicknamed the Slough House – where it’s hoped they’ll blend in with the furniture and eventually die of boredom, once they realize they’ll never receive another assignment.
The king of this dumping ground is Jackson Lamb, played masterfully by a Gary Oldman who seems to effortlessly make endearing a character that, on paper, should make you want to vomit. This human discard is a slob who verbally abuses his subordinates and drinks to the point of falling asleep at his desk and yet, despite his unbearable and unappealing conduct, he respects a basic code of honor – he defends his people, even if in his own rather strange way. Moreover, he is still an expert agent in the old school sense and enjoys putting in their place the techies and well-groomed powerpoint freaks who strut about the luxurious head office.
In these elegantly-furnished office suites resides his antagonist, Diana Taverner, an MI5 boss with whom Lamb has a tense relationship. They each absolutely hate what the other stands for but, at the same time, they know they have to try to get along. And somehow, even though they will never admit it, they admire the other’s problem-solving skills and pragmatism in a world tainted by mediocrity and opportunism. Even so, both go all out to ensure the other one owes them a favor. Or to hold them by the neck. It was astute casting to put Kristin Scott Thomas in this role, one that demands a strong screen presence in order to hold her own againstOldman.
To make all this grime and decadence tolerable, the writers throw in copious doses of humor and the bungling spy trope provides ample scope for it. Lamb’s verbal abuse, though unacceptable in the modern workplace, is also very funny. Even if the setting is very different, you can spot the influence of the team from the hit show Veep, which in turn was a translation for the American market of the British series The Thick of It, which also featured a fusillade of insults and abuse, in that case in a political hierarchy, at the hand, and from the blowtorch mouth, of Peter Capaldi.
Slow Horses also addresses, albeit tangentially, the current geopolitical context and, in particular, the domestic situation in Britain. While season one dealt with the rise of extremist groups, part of the storyline in these new episodes has to do with an anti-capitalist march and the government’s desire to rile up the protestors so it has an excuse to flex its muscles and to enforce stringent law and order. As do many others in the noir genre, the series mounts a compelling defense of losers, of flea-ridden but lovable underdogs, of society’s outcasts. And above all, it offers solid, intelligent entertainment while also forcing you to consider whether those tasked with protecting us aren’t perhaps themselves a perturbing threat.