Apple TV+’s Spy Thriller With Gary Oldman Maintains Its Gold Standard

Nov 20, 2023

“There’s always another game being played, isn’t there?” The game on top of the game is the overall theme of the three stellar seasons of “Slow Horses,” one of the best Apple TV+ original dramas. The first two six-episode installments premiered in 2022, offering fans of spy dramas largely standalone jolts of espionage-driven entertainment, and there is zero dip in quality in the upcoming third chapter of this excellent series. In fact, the third season may be the most propulsive, an outing that jumps right into the action, takes place nearly in real-time, and never lets up for six hours. Based on the Mick Herron novel “Real Tigers,” it’s a great year-end gift for fans of this kind of television and should work even for those who don’t know their MI6 from their CIA.
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“Slow Horses” returns this year to the crew at Slough House, the depository for MI5 agents who have been deemed inferior to the agents back at headquarters, as they go through the mundane task of record-keeping. River (Jack Lowden) is working with Standish (Saskia Reeves) to reluctantly go through old boxes of paperwork that no one even wants to keep around, a symbol for these agents on the last rung of their career ladder. Meanwhile, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) looks worse than ever, so unkempt that one can almost smell the booze coming out of his pores. Oldman is delivering one of his career-best performances here, having fun with the broad elements of the character while also imbuing a deep intelligence and even a reluctant loyalty in the smaller beats.
River and Lamb are the most prominent members of Slow Horses, but the writers are careful to sketch out a shifting crew of supporting spies each season. Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar) returns in a self-destructive pit of grief over the loss of Min. Ho (Christopher Chung) is back to provide technical assistance when needed. And two of the newer members get prominent time this outing in the forms of Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan). The former is a drug addict, and the latter succumbs to gambling addiction. They’re not exactly James Bond, but sometimes you need loyalty more than savoir-faire.
The action of series three of “Slow Horses” actually opens with familiar faces playing new characters overseas. Alison Dunn (Katherine Waterston) is in bed with a man named Sean Donovan (the great Sope Dirisu of “Gangs of London”). After leaving the room for a minute, she returns to find Sean going through her stuff. He tells her that he’s worried she’s about to leak MI5 information, and Dirisu conveys a blend of doing his job as a security officer and actual concern for his partner. Alison races to the handoff, but she ends up dead, the victim of a murder meant to look like a suicide.
Back in London, Sean leads a team that begins a twisting narrative this season with the kidnapping of Standish of all people. It’s a move designed to get River into action, and it works. Sean and his team send River a shot of Standish with a gun to her head, insisting he does exactly what they say, starting with essentially breaking into MI5 headquarters. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but Lowden gets to have some fun in the early episodes as a former elite spy now essentially breaking into his old house, a place where he has few friends given the bridges burned in the first two series of this show. Speaking of burned bridges, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) is still skulking around the building, clearly up to no good as she butts heads with her icy replacement Ingrid Tearney (Sophie Okonedo). Both of them have connections to Sean and the Standish kidnapping that no one could predict.
In an era in which streaming shows so often sag under the weight of episode orders that the writers can’t seem to fill, there’s something so refreshing about a program like “Slow Horses” that has nary a bit of fat on its six episodes. There’s never a point when “Slow Horses” sags, and yet it’s not an overheated action show at the same time. It allows for just the right balance of plot and character, often pushing the two forward at the same time. It’s a show that can balance high-level conversations between power brokers like Diana and Ingrid with two desperate people wondering if they still have a job like Shirley and Marcus. In just 18 episodes, it’s displayed a remarkable ability to pick itself up when it loses key players like Olivia Cooke or Dustin Demri-Burns, replacing them without losing a step. That aspect allows for great unpredictability because it feels like no one except Oldman and Lowden is irreplaceable. It ups the stakes.
The cast and direction are great but “Slow Horses” works largely because the writing is consistently stellar. This year’s narrative digs into a government willing to betray not only its people but its most loyal soldiers, and there’s a suggestion that the corruption at the top of spy organizations like MI5 is only even moderately alleviated because of the less morally bankrupt agents who have refused to play the game. It doesn’t just present the team of Slough House as misfits; it argues that these are the kind of people who are really maintaining any semblance of world peace because they have the knowledge and skill set to do so but not the moral bankruptcy to succeed as super spies. We don’t need more James Bonds. We need more Jackson Lambs. And as many seasons of “Slow Horses” as we can get. [A-]
“Slow Horses” premieres on Apple TV+ on November 29.

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