Slow Horses: A Must Watch

Tom’s Note – I have a friend, Celia, who was in her day a topnotch career counselor. For a lark, a few decades ago she perpetrated a bit of career counseling on me. She gave me some personality tests, and we talked about my interests and goals. She decided I might make a good film critic. I never followed her advice, but I thought it was insightful. If you read this (somewhat unorthodox) review of the TV show Slow Horses, you can decide for yourself whether Celia was on to something.

I like British crime series, a genre in which the Brits put their Yankee cousins to shame. For my money, Foyle’s War is the best of the lot. But there is now a credible challenger, Slow Horses. This show was recommended by my niece, in her 30’s, very woke (and equally wonderful). This makes me think that the appeal of Slow Horses crosses both political and generational lines. (I am only a filament shy of 70.)

Slow Horses is blessedly anti-woke if only because the lead character is an old white male, one who evinces some traits of traditional manhood, not all of which should be modeled. There is one black agent, but he is not crammed in to meet a quota; he belongs there. Unlike in the world of woke, there are no double standards for “oppressed” minorities.

I admit to favoring crime dramas where the lead is a male, increasingly difficult to find in our woke world. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren is an exception. Speaking of Mirren, her recent movie about Golda Meir is quite good, although marred by the director’s fascination with Meir’s chain smoking. Another block buster, Oppenheimer, a ponderous 3 hours, has poorly developed character relationships, is emotionally and plot-wise flat, and is really two movies in one, which is a no-no. Every writer knows that, with very few exceptions, a movie or play cannot hold the audience’s attention for 3 hours. Not surprisingly, too many writers think they are the exception. The Holdovers, is only OK, in part, because the stakes are low. The Scent of a Woman a movie of the same genre (an older flawed man tutoring, and being tutored by, a young man in the ways of the world) is much better. I haven’t and won’t watch Barbie.

Slow Horses follows a MI5 unit of a handful of misfits. They have all committed a major cock up at the agency, but for one reason or another cannot be sacked without embarrassment or cost to the intelligence service.  So instead, they are quietly shuffled off to Slough House (as in sluff off) where they are told their job is to shuffle papers. One of the agents, has left a top-secret file on a train. (I don’t think we are told why he didn’t get the axe.) Another fallen agent, Rivers Cartwright, handsome and striving to make amends, screwed up big time in a training exercise. He was saved from expulsion by his grandfather who had served with distinction in the intelligence service. It remains a mystery exactly why other members of the unit were dumped into Slough House, although we often are tantalized, and, like many things in Slow Horses, we are eager to find out why. Wondering why is what keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Slough House agents, the “slow horses” of the title, may have bungled something badly, but they all seem talented. The unit’s obnoxious computer whiz is a first-rate hacker, who can find more information about bad guys than a large roomful of tech guys at the “Park” (MI5 headquarters where the “real” agents hang out). 

I can’t always follow the plot in perfect detail but well enough not to be bothered: I can tell the good guys from the bad ones, and I know that the slow horses ultimately will save the Park’s bacon. That’s all you really must know because, like all good drama, Slow Horses lives not on plot but on character and relationships. The series shines brightly in both respects. The characters are not stock types, all are likeable, talented and flawed. You root for all of them, even the obnoxious hacktivist. There are different types of relationships—love, rivalry, buddy, familial. Each is allowed to breathe. We care about each, and we keep wondering how they will play out. This is the mark of good drama.

Although there are several well-developed relationships, we never lose sight of the main attraction, the unit’s leader, Jackson Lamb, played by the inestimable Gary Oldman. His personality—dark, solitary and cynical—establishes the setting and tone of Slow Horses.

Lamb is on the far side of middle age, once a very fine, highly regarded agent. Despite appearances, his spy skills remain mostly in tack. He sees almost everything, although he only reveals what he knows when it serves to belittle his own agents, who are invariably a step behind him.

He is a connoisseur of fine intelligence work. His standards are happily very high (another anti-woke feature) and he acknowledges the superior work of others, even when it comes at his own expense.

Today, it is very difficult to get away from wokeism.  It wrecks everything it touches. When watching a movie or television program and a woke bit pops up, I experience a moment of disdain before I return to safety behind the fourth wall.

Lamb’s skills may not have been much dulled, but his reputation has.  There are, however, a few old hands at the Park who know he has been badly treated. Talented people who have been badly treated is a plot trope that I have always found alluring (Branded starring Chuck Conners was my favorite of this type when I was a boy. Chuck Conner’s character, a rugged, independent America, was drummed out of the army for not properly guarding Lincoln on the night of his assassination. Now, I am a big Lincoln fan—there is a 7-foot statue of him behind me as I write—but even at age 10 I knew with certainty that this was a scandalous charge.) 

Superficially, Lamb is distinguished by his disgusting appearance. He takes pride in the fact that he brushes his teeth only twice a month and, by the look of things, combs his oily, stringy hair even less frequently. The knot on his tie falls to his navel, perhaps a protest against the establishment. He drinks heavily (whisky is his morning orange juice), smokes fiendishly and cultivates a growing paunch. On occasion I had to turn away in disgust, as when he was slurping his noodle soup non-stop for an entire scene. As disgusting as his table manners are, his flatulence is worse. He uses it as a weapon, a sabre he always has by his side. He can’t make tea; indeed, the only thing he can do for himself is pour a glass of whiskey and use the loo.

One continues to hope he will clean his always-present trench coat that is so stained we can hardly make out the original color. So far, we have been disappointed. He did once throw his coat into a washing machine, a contraption of which he is predictably unfamiliar. He also seemed unfamiliar with the fact that soap is a necessary part of operation.

Although he likes nothing better than putting down his agents, he clearly, if perhaps begrudgingly, loves them and they love him, or at least they respect him and wish to earn his respect.

It must be a pleasure to write for Oldman. A good screenwriter or playwright must write lines that are open-ended enough to give the actor the opportunity to shape the line to his character and the situation. Usually, a good line can be interpreted in several ways. You can count on Oldman to always make the best choice and squeeze more out of the line than the writer thought possible.

For the most part, Slow Horses avoids the standard techniques of spy thriller. A trivial but revealing example. In most spy thrillers at some point the hero is tied up, but for some reason bad guys are not very proficient at tying knots and so the hero wiggles free. You would think that tying up people is bad guy 101. Apparently not. But in Slow Horses the bad guys know their trade craft. Our hero, tied up, tries mightily to extricate himself but he makes no progress at all. By the way, I think the show reveals the secret to tying someone up, but I shall leave you in suspense.  

There are times, however, when Slow Horses reverts to the template of spy thriller, in which cases the show suffers. There is car chase scene, although a standard ploy of a thriller (it is usually a crutch) it is out of place in this character driven show. And then there was the time where Rivers and his sidekick, caught in an out of the way warehouse, armed only with pistols, fights a large squad of well-trained militia in riot gear with mean-looking machine guns, grenades and other explosives. In the shootout Rivers avoids death from a grenade that lands only a few feet away. I understand why it was necessary to get Rivers out of this scrape (it’s too early to lose him) but he should have extricated himself and his partner by guile, not by Ramboesqueness.

And then there is the matter of Rivers’s early blossoming love interest who is shot in the head in one of the early episodes. We see her in hospital, as the Brits say, in what looks to be stable condition. But we never see or hear from her again. You just can’t stop a love story in mid-sentence.  I suppose she could return but there is not the slightest hint she will. Also, there is a running gag—a stuck door that takes both finesse and force to open—that goes stale after a while and is beneath this show. These slip ups are worth noting because they put in bold relief what is so good about the show.  

There is humor but more of the low, slow chuckling kind. On one occasion, Lamb extracts a secret from a low-level female accomplice of some bad guys. This puts her in danger of retribution, but Lamb tells her that should she ever feels threatened she should call a particular number, and then give the operator the code number 7. It turns out the phone number is for Lamb’s favorite Chinese restaurant and number 7 is his favorite dish. He walks away quite pleased with himself. We savor this scene when we later rehash it in our head, and we belatedly chuckle with him. Like a cow regurgitating its cud, you can chew on an episode of Slow Horses for days.

On one occasion he offers his personal assistant, a recovering alcoholic, a glass of whiskey. She is sorely tempted but she resists. My head says this is cruel, but at the same time I try hard to find a more charitable interpretation: could it be he was showing her she had the willpower to resist? Probably not, but I like my heroes to be heroes.

The closest Lamb has to a respectful relationship is with this personal assistant, ever so middle class British and in his age cohort. She is the closest we ever get to normal. She understands Lamb, and he understands her though he is reluctant to show it. There is no romance, one shudders at the thought. Talking about sex, there is, much to my relief, very little of it.

Many of the slow horses, despite their talent, continue to bungle. At one point, Rivers phones in “code September” that requires the highest level of police alert and the evacuation of London. Rivers calls in the alert to Park’s second in command, nicknamed “Lady Di,” played by the lovely Kirstin Scott Thomas, who, as she has made clear to Rivers, does not think at all highly of his skills as a spook. (She had overseen his disastrous training exercise.) We pray Rivers will redeem himself; alas he has made another colossal mistake, highly avoidable.  As it turns out there was no threat at all. At this point he finds himself in a position we all have experienced at one time or another: He must admit his mistake to an adversary whom he needs to disabuse of the notion that he always makes mistakes. We are as pained as Rivers himself. He hesitates to call back Lady Di. He knows, and we know, he must, as he eventually does. We feel for him for we know he is not the bungling idiot Lady Di thinks he is.  Again, I may be giving my hero too much of the benefit of the doubt.

Lamb gets off lots of clever one liners, almost always biting criticisms of his agents, but they evolve organically, unlike your typical sitcom that is mostly an excuse to deliver catchy one-liners. The scene with Rivers mistakenly calling in code September involves other agents who, at the same time, are in a life and death struggle with some Russian bad guys. All ends well for the slow horses, but Lamb, instead of congratulating his agents or expressing relief at their close call, says, “Fucking paperwork’s gonna be a ball ache.” This catches us by emotional surprise, an important element of comedy.

The acting is superb. Oldman steals the show, but Scott Thomas, as well put together as he is discombobulated, is not far behind. She is one of the few who has the acting chops to go toe-to-toe with Oldman.

Each episode lasts a short 45 minutes. It goes by too quickly. Like Foyles War, Slow Horses is so good that it can be watched multiple times, perhaps once a year, even more frequently for those of us of faltering memory. Whether it shows the mettle of Foyle’s War, depends on whether it can sustain its excellence in coming seasons.