I’ll start off by saying I could have done without the farting. I imagine Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb character probably passed gas in the Slow Horses novel from which he’s derived, but it’s a strange hokey thing in what is otherwise a pretty fun and interesting spy thriller. Plus, even in 2022, the industry still hasn’t mastered that particular sound effect. They can do amazing dinosaur roars and the incredible sound of a planet exploding, but the realistic fart is the elusive trophy for a couple generations of foley artists and digital engineers alike. But this show isn’t all about stinky wind, so let’s move on.
The aforementioned Jackson Lamb is the head of a group of misfit MI5 agents, sent from the agency’s Regent’s Park headquarters to the crappy auxiliary office at Slough House. This small troop is made up of agents who have publicly shamed themselves in one way or another. Slough House is the equivalent of the rubber room, or whatever it’s called when indigenous tribes exile bad folks into the wilderness. Or Siberia, I guess. The name Slow Horses is a moniker they’re branded with; a bastardization of the Slough House location. Lamb rules over his group with disdain, abuse and general lake of care. His intention seems to be to get them to quit so he doesn’t have to worry about bossing them around. They are given very low-level tasks to do. Ones that should keep them out of harm’s way, but also bore them to the point of depression. It’s a pretty low existence.
We’re introduced to what type of fuck up lands an agent here by River Cartwright (Jack Lowden). We witness his disastrous mission that blows up in the most embarrassing and public manner. As he goes from action-hero type to being assigned to sort through some random’s garbage in what seems like perhaps an intentional wild goose chase just to humiliate him. This is Slough House kind of work, though. We find out over the span of the season why the others ended up ostracized and demoted to this drudgery, but Cartwright’s is by far the most spectacular fail. Despite being an agency legacy, his grandfather, played by Jonathan Pryce, a retired agency legend. Which I suppose makes his fall from grace all that much more embarrassing. Though, despite being thrown out, he still takes his job seriously and is a dedicated and intense — albeit a little overzealous — agent. Much to Lamb’s chagrin.
Cartwright’s stick–to–itiveness and desire to redeem himself leads what is supposed to be a dead-end investigation into something legit. Of course Lamb doesn’t really want his agents doing anything, and Lamb’s boss at The Park, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), definitely doesn’t want his agents doing anything. But once this public kidnapping of a Pakistani-British student by a right-wing group called Sons of Albion — who threaten to behead him live on video — happens, and there is a clear connection between what Cartwright was looking into and this kidnapping, they can’t stop him from revving it up. And off he and the team go, misfits all.
The show is well-written and well-acted. The whole white supremacist threatening a public beheading of a Muslim bent is a little too on the nose for my taste, but I suppose the book on which this is based was written in 2010, so I’ll forgive it a little. But the good thing is that, despite the many spy thriller machinations, the pacing is really good. They keep up the energy and propulsion even when there are scenes of expository stuff and/or scenes of British people talking in a room. Often times in heavy accents that would probably be better with the closed captioning turned on. There is also some humor, mostly emanating from Oldman’s character. Who is part Buttermaker from The Bad News Bears, part Oscar Madison, but mostly the asshole team owner in Major League (but way schlubbier and fartier). But all the Slow Horse characters essentially get some time on screen, even ones you’d expect to be more peripheral. They get backstories. They get human moments. It’s a delicate balance to keep the core narrative going while telling us about everyone, but they pull it off. After all, how are we going to watch the next god knows how many seasons of Slow Horses unless we see these people as something more than the pathetic losers their boss paints them to be. Even though he clearly cares for them in his own downtrodden way.