Slow Horses enters the thick of its spy games this week in an excellent third episode. Jackson Lamb is in Dutch with M15 chief Diana Taverner just as she screws up an important operation — and implicates him and his whole team at Slough House, the reject pile of the British intelligence service.
As a result, they enter into a sleazy bargain to clean up the mess together. Of course, nothing’s ever as easy as it seems when your business is underhanded espionage. The pace and the tension ratchet up for a marvelous little installment of this new spy show on Apple TV+.
Slow Horses recap: ‘Bad Tradecraft’
In this week’s episode, titled “Bad Tradecraft,” River Cartwright (played by Jack Lowden) has followed his colleague Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke) to the hospital after she was shot, which was, in a roundabout way, his fault. Sid was tailing journalist Robert Hobden (Paul Hilton), looking for leads in the kidnapping of Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel).
River’s followed by a couple of agency goons, and he’d have trouble except his boss Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) shows up in time to help him escape. Even for an old codger, Lamb still has some moves, apparently. While they’re getting back to Slough House for debriefing, Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) and Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) are sneaking back to the office to have sex. They get intercepted by someone breaking into the office.
That someone? Their colleague Jed Moody (Steven Waddington).
The last time we saw Moody, he was liaising in private with the head of MI5, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas). Turns out the kidnapping is in part her doing. Hobden recorded Taverner talking about the kidnapping, and she wanted Sid to get the info off Hobden’s laptop to see if he had anything on her.
Now Hobden knows that the kidnapping is a false flag. Or anyway … sort of one. Three of the kidnappers are real white nationalist psychos; only one of them is an MI5 plant. The odds that he can defuse the situation aren’t great. We’ve been hanging out with them, after all, and they’re not the nicest fellows.
Lamb wants to leave Taverner hanging but she knows something about his relationship with his secretary, Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves). Whatever it is concerns the death of Catherine’s husband — and Lamb doesn’t want her to know.
So he takes Cartwright, Min, and Louisa with him to the safehouse where the kidnappers are holed up to perform the “rescue.” The only trouble is, by the time they arrive, there’s nothing left of the scene but a bunch of hacked-up body parts. One of the kidnappers went rogue.
A strange, strange game
Now that we’re thoroughly into the plot of Slow Horses, I’m starting to really enjoy this show. The pacing is expert, for one. Take this week’s opening scene of River at the hospital. The show doesn’t tell you that he was chased into a closet evading his surveillance unit. It just opens with him looking under the door at the guy watching the space and warding off hospital staff.
Lowden, gorgeous and charming, is a handy match for Oldman in ham mode. And together, they exhibit a kind of sparky chemistry. That’s handy, because I suspect the show is going to hinge on that for as long as the series continues.
Oldman’s presence, I take it, is meant to remind people of his appearance as George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s kind of wild to think that only a decade has passed since that adaptation. Oldman, for one, looks about thirty years older.
Oldman looked old in Tinker Tailor, but he exuded a certain stateliness, a graceful quiet. Here, he’s a flatulent, needling prick. He looks like a bookshelf kicked down a flight of stairs, losing pages all the way down.
James Hawes isn’t the meticulous stylist that Alfredon is, so Slow Horses misses the exquisitely bleak design and careful image-making of Tinker Tailor. But this is very, very fine episodic TV, so it’s OK by me.
A couple of losses
The show does miss Olivia Cooke, out this week because her character remains in a coma in the hospital, but the rest of the cast proves good and interesting. I was a little bummed they killed Steven Waddington‘s character, though. He’s such a captivating screen presence, going all the way back to The Last of the Mohicans in 1992. I don’t suspect the show will run low on charisma at any point, but still, it was nice having him around.
I dig the strategy of having each episode of Slow Horses transpire across one day. It keeps the pacing tight and the pulse of the show up when you know the next episode will pick up exactly where the last one left off. All in all, this is shaping up to be an excellent first season.
Watch Slow Horses on Apple TV+
New episodes of Slow Horses arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.