“I think they’re f*cking losers,” spy veteran Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) says with characteristic brutal honesty to Mi5 superior Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) when asked if he really cares for his team of rejects, while they sit on a park bench at 2 am in the middle of a national crisis. “But they’re my losers,” he says with loyal punctuation. This moment might sum up “Slow Horses,” in a nutshell, a darkly humorous British espionage thriller featuring a rogue, insubordinate spy old-timer, who is the boss of Slough House: a punitive dumping ground shithole and spy division for banished agents, f*ck ups, and castaways who have been exiled from the main Regent’s Park M15 HQ for embarrassing career-ending blunders of one sort or another.
In the case of the brash, young, would-be hotshot River Cartwright (Jack Lowden from “Dunkirk”)—the newest Slough House failure and audience POV of this broken down milieu— his blunder is seemingly not living up to the promise of a highly capable agent. He’s the grandson of legendary spy David Cartwright (played by Jonathan Pryce), so expectations are sky-high. In a terrifically thrilling opening sequence that pulses with cracking energy, Cartwright is seen on an op, trying to chase down a terrorist in an airport. But he’s made, the terrorist gets the drop on him and the bomb goes off, killing and injuring hundreds.
Of course, it was all just a training exercise, but Cartwright failed nonetheless. So he’s shipped off to Slough House to join Lamb’s group of affectionally/derisively dubbed also-rans known as the Slow Horses. This group of outcasts includes asshole whizkid hacker Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar), and Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns), disgraced for leaving classified documents on the tube. There’s also Sidonie “Sid” Baker (Olivia Cooke), but she’s suspiciously capable, thus questionably overqualified, and seems to have a hidden agenda.
For Cartwright, being placed in the remedial purgatory that is Slough House seems like both jail and death, so he immediately goes to his grandfather for advice. While he’s given a modicum of sympathy, no one on “Slow Horses” suffers fools gladly, so young Cartwright is quickly told to watch his back and put on his big boy pants. Inquisitive and restless by nature and impatient about not being able to take on a real mission, Cartwright’s dream of action comes to bloom with the capture of a young Pakistani would-be comedian (Antonio Aakeel) who gets kidnapped by a group of indoctrinated English Nationalists. While his abduction—and loudly promised beheading on streaming live TV—captures national attention, Cartwright cases enough of the angles to discover that a disgraced English journalist turned White Nationalist mouthpiece is involved and this revelation ratchets up the tension and makes the clock tick with that much more anxiety given his ties to some powerful right-wing politicians.
Based on the book by Mick Herron, and very capably directed by James Hawes (“Black Mirror,” “The Alienist”), while the plot and various internecine squabbles between agencies is intriguing stuff, “Slow Horses” really excels with its characters, writing, and the quick-wittedness delivered by its excellent cast. Written by English comedian Will Smith, he of the Armando Iannucci stable known for work on “Veep,” “The Thick Of It,” “Avenue Five” and “Paddington 2,” “Slow Horses” has a similar crackling quickness and tête-à-tête of quips, jabs, and witheringly amusing rejoinders.
Unsurprisingly, Gary Oldman is outstanding as the disagreeable, obnoxious, and loathsome Jackson Lamb. Deeply committed to the character’s irascible nature and repellant slovenliness, Oldman leans into the character’s worst traits; a man who looks, feels and behaves like a cross between a dirty ashtray, a sweaty undershirt, a worn sock full of holes, and a booze-sozzled hangover. Vanity goes out the window for Oldman, who looks greasy, old, and tired, but that’s exactly this cantankerous, difficult, DGAF character. Jack Lowden is a star in the making with his rugged good looks and perfect charm, and Kristen Scott Thomas certainly doesn’t miss on an opportunity to make an already icy adversary seem cold and calculating.
While the misfits of Slough House get embroiled in the kidnapping thanks to Cartwright’s detective work, all kinds of complications arise, including spies from M15 keeping tabs on them, and other dramas that pit Lamb’s notorious irritability against his contemptuous and haughty Mi5 commander Diana Taverner. What ensues is a dysfunctional team trying to get past their various resentments, a detestable leader, internal politics, and all the smoke and mirrors tactics one can muster to defend England from sinister forces while wriggling out of internal political double-crosses.
Featuring an electric score by the great Daniel Pemberton, (‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Steve Jobs”), “Slow Horses,” pulsates with dynamic energy and gritty tension to match the fast-paced wit and jocularity of its sharp-minded characters. At only six episodes, its story about overcoming past fiascoes and proving your worth is tight, economical, and punchy. And *spoiler,* episode six ends with a trailer for season two, seemingly already in the can and ready to go. Either way, it’s a confidence that is well-earned. Its dark thrills and funny, mischievous sleaziness give it a feeling of crossing “In the Loop,” “The Office” and 007, while its poignant notions of redemption give it a bruising mood of chips on shoulders and something to prove. “Slow Horses” is a top-notch British espionage series with a superb cast, gripping vigor, and man, I cannot wait for more. [A-]