In a genre full of gentleman spies in expensive suits who drink martinis and handle heavy weaponry with aplomb, a greasy-haired spook with a paunch of the sort in Apple TV+’s Slow Horses is instantly a refreshing change of pace. You can look elsewhere for espionage heroics performed by James Bond types who fight off swarms of villains in scenes of gun-blazing glory and who always slip the tail, crack the code, find the hostage, bed a supermodel, recover the priceless whatever, and never fail to save the day. Slow Horses‘ appeal is in the way it turns all that on its head.
The heroes in this slick and addictive series are the charmless outcasts, washed-up spies who, for one nearly career-ending mistake or another, have been shunted out to MI5’s Slough House satellite office that amounts to administrative Siberia. Back for a six-episode third season on Nov. 29, this Apple TV+ standout is based on the events in Real Tigers — the third entry in author Mick Herron’s series of spy novels that have drawn comparisons to the work of the late John le Carre.
The biggest surprise in the newest batch of episodes is that Slow Horses manages to once again refrain from putting a foot wrong, despite having a third go at hooking readers with yet another intricate puzzle box of a mystery. It’s one that calls upon the rogue’s gallery of misfits at Slough House to punch above their weight and, this time, unravel a conspiracy that finds one of their own taken hostage.
As if that wasn’t enough, this ragtag B-team of MI5 led by Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb — an acerbic slob of a spymaster who looks like he’s spent one too many nights drowning his sorrows at a sketchy pub — also gets caught up in palace intrigue at The Park, the agency’s head office where a power struggle leads to a steadily increasing body count in the field.
Speaking of Oldman’s performance as the brilliant yet dreadfully offensive Lamb, that’s another of the show’s secret weapons. Slow Horses boasts a cast of heavy hitters that also includes Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner, the icy Second Desk and head of operations at Mi5, and the scenes in which she verbally spars with Lamb are worth the price of admission alone.
Jack Lowden’s River Cartwright, meanwhile, is the most pedigreed of the slow horses in Lamb’s stable, with a retired MI5 officer for a grandfather whose legacy he lives forever in the shadow of. Christopher Chung has way too much fun as the team’s slimeball computer nerd, while Aimee-Ffion Edwards is a coke-sniffing skull-cracker who shoots first and asks questions never.
In the new season, the action scenes are bigger and louder than ever, the stakes are higher, and the chaos of watching imperfect spies flail and succeed at the eleventh hour has a peculiar charm. Mostly, though, it’s the little things that make Slow Horses so satisfying. Lamb’s old-school techniques, like grabbing some spare change and a thermos from a car and then shaking it like a caroler in order to trick someone on the other side of a door. Spies who actually get out of breath when they run. A Slough House office that looks like a real office, with so many boxes of files stacked haphazardly that you can practically smell the accumulated dust.
None of this is new or especially revelatory stuff. In Season 3, someone sketchy needs a secret file from someplace he doesn’t have access to. He strong-arms one of the good guys into retrieving it. There’s a frantic meeting on a bridge. Lamb, meanwhile, is constantly finding out the truth ahead of his underlings and barking at them in dismay as a result. And then, just when you think the noose is tightening, Slow Horses throws a surprise your way. It’s not perfect, but the show, all in all, is very much a breath of fresh air — well, notwithstanding Lamb’s grimy, ill-fitting clothes and the cigarettes he relentlessly smokes in between serving His Majesty’s government.