‘Slow Horses’ is a Near-Perfect Adaptation

Apple+ gives Mick Herron’s spy novels the royal treatment

“Slow Horses,” the new spy series on Apple TV, is a near-perfect adaptation of the bestselling series of books by the novelist Mick Herron. These are not the secret agents you want protecting queen and country. You’d barely trust them to bring coffee to their dank little offices. But somehow, they are the only ones who can stop a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of the British intelligence services.

Slough (pronounced like “cow”) House is the purgatory where the incompetents, addicts, and rejects of the intelligence services go when their embarrassments become too blatant to ignore. Their office is not in Slough (it’s a British joke — substitute “BFE” to translate to American), and it’s not a house. Instead, it’s a grimy little building on an anonymous street in London.

That’s where the Slow Horses—yet another play on words, this is TV that believes in doing the reading—do scut work tha their boss, Jackson Lamb, played by Gary Oldman, deposits directly into the garbage.

The show, like the books, opens with River Cartwright, played by Jack Lowden. River is a rising star in MI-5 — until he massively screws up a training exercise. Then the agency demotes him down to Slough House, where they give him a literal garbage detail—going through the trash of a disgraced journalist without being told why.

Meanwhile, Sid Baker, played by Olivia Cooke, gets a real job—taking the thumb drive from the same journalist and copying it for their superiors back in Regents Park, the shiny headquarters where River desperately wants to return.

There are other Slow Horses behind the worn desks. There’s Min Harper, who left a classified disk on a train, which cost him his position and his marriage; Louisa Guy (whose sin is so far unrevealed on the show); Struan Loy, who’s far too cheerful for someone trapped in this hellhole; Jed Moody, a former tough guy in MI-5’s internal affairs division; and Roderick Ho, a master hacker who is at Slough House simply because he’s a colossal prick. And finally, there is Catherine Standish, Lamb’s assistant, an alcoholic who was once the right-hand woman for the entire head of the service, until he killed himself.

When a far-right group kidnaps a student of Pakistani descent and threatens to behead him live on the Internet, the Slow Horses do… well, nothing at first. As Lamb puts it, “This is a job for the real agents.”

But of course, it’s not, and the Slow Horses have to prove themselves despite ridiculous odds.

The bad Hollywood logline is, imagine James Bond meets “The Office,” and that’s accurate enough to get you in the door. But it’s not enough to encompass all the delights of the show, which nimbly skips over all the swamps that bog down other prestige TV series.

“Slow Horses” allows the characters to show who they are, instead of lingering for episodes on each character’s particular trauma. The dialogue, much of it lifted and snipped from Herron’s books, is sharp and funny and dark, but not bleak. The creators of the show clearly put a great deal of thought into every choice, from casting to location—they shot it on the exact street where Herron pictured his spies stuck in their miserable lives.

But this is TV, so the series displays a little more generosity — or mercy — than Herron does. In the show, River is clearly the hero; any viewer can see he should be saving the day, not going through someone’s trash. In the books, his righteous zeal is an excuse to play the spy games he learned from his grandfather.

And, like the American version of “The Office,” the show softens all the characters a bit. Sid is warmer and kinder than in the books. Min Harper and Louisa Guy are sweet, rather than desperately lonely. Roddy Ho edges toward bearable.

The sole exception, at least in the first two episodes, is Jackson Lamb. As played by Oldman, he is wonderfully malicious. He insults everyone, drinks on the job (he taunts Catherine by offering her a shot), and never fails to remind the Slow Horses they are failures. He’s not at Slough House to inspire anyone. He’s there to punish them. He is mean, and petty, and gross.

But there are glimpses of the master spy underneath Lamb’s slovenly, greasy skin. He appears without warning in a building that is all creaks and loose boards. He knows what will happen. He’s seen too much for anything to surprise him.

This is mainly due to Oldman’s performance, which conveys boundless contempt in the smallest gestures. Another actor might oversell the lines, or chafe at playing such an unattractive character. (Lamb’s farts should be considered part of his dialogue.) But Oldman inhabits him. He doesn’t want to be the good guy. He is who he is.

And he scares people, even people who should not be scared of him.

Like Diana Taverner, played by Kristin Scott Thomas with icy control despite the chaotic events whirling around her. Taverner is the second desk at MI-5, in charge of operations, which means all of the responsibility and none of the credit. She oversees a hub of younger agents at their state-of-the-art consoles, peering down on them from her glass-walled office.

Taverner can end careers in an instant—she ended River’s. So she should be able to dispatch a slob like Lamb with a text on her way to the gym.

But the sparring between the two when they meet on a park bench is one of the show’s highlights. Despite appearances, they are equals.

Where they differ is intent. Taverner believes in protecting herself. Lamb believes in protecting his people, no matter how much he hates them. It is fascinating to watch Oldman bring such a repellent character to life, and make him almost heroic.

The books are better, but with the TV version of “Slow Horses,” it’s a close race.

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Christopher Farnsworth

Chris Farnsworth is the author of six novels, including Flashmob (one of PW’s Best Books of 2017), Killfile, and The President's Vampire. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Awl, E! Online, the Washington Monthly and the New Republic. He's also written screenplays and comic books.

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