Better Late Than Never: Slow Horses

David B Morris
16 min readJun 10, 2024

A Brilliant Espionage Drama That Shows Again How Well The Brits Can Do Peak TV

A bit of personal history before I begin my review properly. Throughout my criticism I have far too often ignored many of the best series in TV history for a fairly basic reason. There have been countless Emmy nominatED and winning series over the years that I didn’t watch the first season despite planning too and then kept falling behind. I intending to watch The Handmaid’s Tale when it was still in its first season, never got to it and then fell so far behind that I never watched it. (It sounds like I didn’t miss anything given how the series is playing out.) I honestly tried to watch Ozark after two seasons but the first was such a drag that I outright refused to watch the second. I have tried to do the same with some series after they began their second season with more success than others: it worked fine with Justified and The Americans; it was a disaster for Westworld and Euphoria. (I think history bore me out with the first choice and I still hold firm on the latter.)

This wasn’t always the case with me prior to that. Before the final season of Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica aired I essentially watched the entire series leading up to it on Netflix and was completely up to speed for the final season. I did the same with Breaking Bad. In both cases, this was prior to streaming so I watched the entire show on DVD. I did so even further back, watching the first season of The Sopranos in reruns before Season 2 aired and did the same after coming in the middle of Season 2 of OZ. All of this was done well before the era of streaming so it’s clear my commitment to this kind of thing has changed partly to do the explosion of Peak TV and partly my own stubbornness. Even though streaming has made it far easier for the average viewer to binge watch a TV series, I still have held to the same rules. If it’s already aired two seasons by the time it reaches Emmy consideration, I tend to ignore it. There have been some exceptions over the years but they’ve all been comedies, such as Fleabag or Ramy. I have never in the last decade been willing to do the same for dramas.

It became clear this year that the Emmys were going to be in a period of transition, particularly when it came to drama. All four of HBO’s nominees last year have either ended their runs or haven’t aired their seasons in the period of eligibility. (House of The Dragon debuts next week, and I may actually end up watching it.) Better Call Saul ended last year and neither Yellowjackets nor Andor will be eligible this year. The Crown is the only eligible series from last year and The Morning Show, which has been nominated before will likely be a major contender. Beyond that, we have a lot of question marks. I’m actually up two of the most likely faces — there is an advantage to Shogun being considered a drama and I’ve overjoyed to see the likelihood of The Gilded Age being in the ranks for the first time. This brings me to Slow Horses.

I had not heard of either the novels nor paid much attention to the show when it first dropped on Apple back in 2022. And honestly I doubt anyone did: that year the show on Apple everyone was talking about, justifiably, was Severance. Much as I admire so many of the cast, especially Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas I had a huge backlog and I ignored it. The following year, I focused my attention on Bad Sisters (which I didn’t finish sadly) and there was still no reason to do so with Slow Horses. By now three seasons had aired and I figured I had no chance. Not even Gary Oldman’s nomination for Best Actor by the Golden Globes was enough to convince me that it would matter. I did watch a lot of Apple this fall and winter but I focused first on Shrinking and then on Masters of the Air.

Then in April mainly for the purpose of doing research for this summer I went to Goldderby.com to see if I go find some clarity. Most of the major contenders — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Fallout, 3 Body Problem — were all shows that recently debuted but I was reluctant to watch any of them. (I’m probably going to wait until the nominations come to see which if any make it.) Then I saw listed fourth for Best Drama Slow Horses. Gary Oldman was the overwhelming front-runner for Best Actor (he’s still significantly ahead of Dominic West) and Kristen Scott Thomas and Jack Lowden where very much in the hunt for the Supporting Acting prizes. Still I was reluctant. It wasn’t until I learned that each season of Slow Horses was six episodes long that I reasoned: at most I’ll have eighteen episodes to watch and that’s far more feasible catch up that most series I get far behind on. So on a Monday in late April, I streamed Slow Horses for the first time. The rest is history.

I now firmly believe Slow Horses deserves to be in the conversation for Emmys this year but more to the point even if it doesn’t make the ranks this year (the Emmys have never been that smart) I’ll finish Season 3 and keep watching anyway. Having basically binged watched the first two seasons in little more than a month, not only am I in love with this brilliant series but now I have a new source of novels to track down.

Author’s Note: This review only covers the first two seasons. I’ve only started the third.

The Slow Horses novels are among the most well-known in British literature written by Mick Harron. Judging by the response by Oldman himself, he couldn’t believe he was lucky enough to play lead character Jackson Lamb. (Believe me, I’ll get to that.) The title is a derivative term for Slough House, the home for MI5 agents who have supposedly screwed up so badly that this is the last stop you go before you get kicked out. Having spent two seasons in Slough House, however, it’s becoming very clear that the only competent agents in all of MI5 may be the Slow Horses, which should make the blood of every British citizen run cold.

The perspective of the series comes through River Cartwright (Jack Lowden). In the opening teaser of the series, we see him trying to track down a terrorist in a London airport and he loses the target. He is exiled the Slough House in the aftermath — but it turns out all he did was fail a training exercise. As it turns out, we will learn that the head of MI5 Diana Taverner (Thomas) used this is an excuse to flush him from the service to cover her own incompetence, which seems to be her only skill.

Cartwright doesn’t know this at the start of the series and believes that he is being unfairly punished. He’s told in no uncertain terms anyone else would have been kicked out and it was only the actions of his grandfather, a legend in MI5 who kept from doing so (Jonathan Pryce in a recurring guest role). River hates his job, hates his colleagues and particularly loathes Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House. To be fair to him Lamb goes out of his way to make sure everyone loathes him — and the feeling may very well be genuine.

First George Smiley, then Jackson Lamb.

Lamb was a legend who worked for Britain during the Cold War, and actually spent time in a German prison. Lamb has ended up in Slough House after far too many horrific actions and has enormous traumas which he does his very best to hide by dressing slovenly, drinking and smoking excessively and always being free to rip one whenever he gets a chance. Lamb gives the impression he doesn’t care about anything and he doesn’t most of the time — but he does care about the job and national security infinitely more than anyone else at ‘The Park’ and especially Taverner, who he derisively refers to as ‘Lady Di’.

The more you watch Slow Horses the clearer it is that most of the ‘sins’ they’ve committed would be laughed out in most bureaucracies. In some cases they deserve it: hacker Roddy Ho is such as an arrogant and derisive monster that his vast talent has gotten him to the point that no one else in intelligence wants to work with him. In most cases, however, it is politics. Shirley Dander, a regular I met in Season 2, was kicked down to Slough House because her instructor sexually harassed her and she beat him up. Min Harper lost a paper on a subway. Catherine Standish (the brilliant Saskia Reeves) has been blamed for the death of a prominent MI5 agent that was actually assassinated under the orders of the Park (I’m still not clear on the details). But all of them show a commitment to doing their job and security when the chips are down, something that annoys the hell out of Lamb. The same can’t be remotely said for any of the other people we’ve met at the Park, who are at best grossly incompetent.

And this rot does seem to start with Taverner. In the first season Taverner runs an op out of Slough House without telling Lamb in an attempt to round up white supremacists and hate groups. To do she puts the son of the Pakistani ambassador in play and one of her own agents as the instigator. (Cartwright found out about this and that is one of the reasons he was ostracized.) When it goes balls up Taverner uses Lamb as to help her and then seems prepared to use him as a scapegoat rather than make an effort to find the hostage who is going to be beheaded at sunrise. When the Slow Horses do rescue the hostage, she is more concerned with making sure her involvement is not found out and covering her ass with those involved.

In the second season, James ‘Spider’ Webb (loathsomely played by Freddie Fox) hires Harper and Louisa Guy to run security to organize a meeting with a Russian dissident who he naively thinks they can help put in power. When Harper is murdered by the Russian, Taverner barely thinks a moment for him and only cares about how this will affect her career. It eventually comes out that all of this was a ploy by the Russian government to drain the dissidents accounts and that they killed him long before the meeting happened. Taverner barely seems to care about the fact about the fact that this went horribly wrong and simply moves on to trying to advance her career with a critical member of the British government.

This member of the government is Peter Judd, who we already know is a member of white supremacist hate group from Season 1 and is also a rich capitalist who flaunts his wealth. (The series so far takes place before Brexit but its pretty clear Judd is modeled on a combination of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.) Taverner knows the kind of monster Judd is — she actually used knowledge of his dealings to call off a terrorist attack in Season 1. But all she cares about is becoming the new head of MI5. She certainly doesn’t care about the lives of her agents or really that much for even the average citizen of Britain whose she’s tasked with protecting. For her, this chief position is basically about looking good on a resume.

Watching the first two seasons I am reminded more of The Wire then any spy drama. I don’t know if its intentional or not but the writers are showing a picture of the decline of Britain the same way David Simon used a crime drama to show the collapse of the American dream. Though I have to say there’s something more terrifying about the idea of the people who are in charge of national security thinking only about career advancement and anything else. At a meeting in the penultimate episode of Season 2 Webb has set up a meeting with a man who he believes is the bodyguard of a Russian dissident who we already know is responsible for that man’s murder. Webb prattles on about how he plans to change the government and when the body man tells him that the meetings between their bosses Webb keeps prattling that “we’re the real ones doing it. They just initial the changes.” Everyone else in the room can see how the mood is darkening and even as the bodyguard insults him Webb’s ego won’t let him admit it. Even when guns are pulled on him, he acts like a spoiled child refusing to acknowledge that he’s not getting the bike he wanted for Christmas. I’ve rarely been rooting for a character to die as much as I did Webb when he got shot during that encounter and I think I was as peeved as Lamb to know he survived. “Waste of a good pair of kidneys,” he says not sarcastic really.

It’s worth noting for all the contempt he holds his ‘Slow Horses’ Lamb actually gives a damn. When he learns that Harper was killed in Season 2, he runs over to the scene and looks concerned. Louisa (who was sleeping with him) learns about this and Lamb tries to tell her to take time off but she refuses. Lamb knows better than most how grief can guide you and later that season he has to talk her down from torturing and killing the man he believes is already responsible for killing a former agent of his. Throughout the second season from that point forward Lamb’s ire, which usually seems resigned, is actually more angry than usual: one of his own was being killed did hit him, much as he tries to deny it.

Gary Oldman is one of the greatest actors in history. He spent the first decade of his career in American films, memorably chewing the scenery for such talents as Tarantino and Francis Ford Coppola while mixing it with some more fixed character roles as Sid Vicious and Beethoven. In the 2000s, he played two of the most iconic fictional characters in history as Sirius Black and reinvented Commissioner Gordon so that I don’t think anyone else will be able to play him without being compared to him. In the 2010s he finally began to get the recognition he deserved from the Oscar for playing George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy winning his Oscar for playing Churchill and getting another nomination for his work in Mank. But in all my years of watching and loving Oldman’s work, I’ve rarely seen him having more fun than he does as Lamb, a man who has absolutely no F’s left to give and has no problem treating everyone who appears in his field of vision with the contempt he thinks they deserve. (To be fair, many of them actually do.) Overweight, eating like a slob, with no care for his bodily functions at all, his Lamb is the most fun I’ve had watching any lead of a show since the early days of watching Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood on House of Cards.

But Lamb is not an antihero in the way so many of the leads of Peak TV are. You get the sense watching him that if he were actually in charge of MI5 Britain would never have to deal with a terror attack. But its clear in every scene he has with Taverner that he has absolutely no patience for the political bullshit that have to deal with being in charge. He knows that while it might be more politically expedient to shoot a plane wit a civilian down who you believe has a bomb in her plane, you might want to hesitate if there isn’t actually a bomb — something Taverner blatantly seems to care less about when she has to do in the Season 2 finale. Lamb also gives a damn about his agents. At the end of Season 2 he wants Harper to have a place in the memorial for slain agents and Taverner tells him frankly no, even though he died trying to keep her safe. Lamb’s reaction is to put a plaque for him in that same church and says he hopes it gets back to Taverner. He also shows a certain compassion for a man who died in the line of duty chasing that same Russian agent, by posting a note for him when everyone else has left. (In typical Slow Horses fashion, it falls off the minute he leaves.)

If there’s a villain in this show, it’s clearly Thomas as Taverner, who is repeatedly referred to as the Ice Queen. It’s hard to tell watching her because her entire performance is reserve but I get the feeling that Thomas is having as much fun as Oldman is in her role. I suspect she did this just to have a chance to work with Oldman again: she played Clementine to Winston in Darkest Hour. Thomas has been working in film nearly as long as Oldman has, and because she is of French ancestry she has appeared in as many French films as she has British and American. She is best known for her work in The English Patient and Four Weddings and Funeral but she’s been a part of so many other great films, from The Horse Whisperer to Gosford Park. Pretty but not gorgeous in the same way so many great actresses are, she has been playing often the wife rather than the romantic lead (at least in British Films, French is a different story) and of her latest film roles was Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. So in a way she’s been working toward Taverner all her life.

Diana Taverner proves, once and for all, that a female leader can just as cold blooded, with no regard for innocent life or even national security, and still make it to the top of her profession. The only explanation for Taverner’s success to this point is that she is a political animal as well as some variation on diversity hiring, she certainly doesn’t seem good at any part of her job. The age of Peak TV has made it so much harder to have characters you love to hate, but I do love hating Thomas as Taverner, and that’s a compliment because I’ve never seen her play a character I disliked this much in more than a quarter of a century.

The rest of the supporting cast is brilliant from top to bottom, but if I have a favorite performance and character in this series, it is Saskia Reeves’s incredible work as Catherine Standish. If we use The Wire as the benchmark, then Standish is Lester Freeman, someone who looks harmless with her purse and always tidying up but is truly the smartest person in the room. She and Lamb go back to the Cold War (there are details about it that I won’t reveal yet, in part because I’m not sure if she does) and it’s clear she’s been tidying up after him for years. But she’s also always capable of surprises, such as when she pulls a gun on a shocked MI-5 agent taking them to the park, or when she managed to track down a car when Roddy tells them that technology do it. (She seems to love taking the piss out of Roddy, which makes me love her all the more.) Standish is also a recovering alcoholic, something that Lamb never stops reminding her of, either because he cares for her or because he can’t understand why someone would willingly give up drinking (both are possible) Every time Standish is onscreen you know that her opponent doesn’t stand a chance, no matter how frail she looks.

I wrote a series that the ‘special relationship’ Hollywood’s had with British actors and films is comparatively new: I don’t think we really started giving them the credit they deserved at the Oscars until at least the 1980s. The Emmys are even further behind the curve. Don’t get me wrong, we have no problem giving the actors nominations and awards but they have to be for doing our shows and proving that they can do American accents better than we can. Yes we have no problem honoring all their mini-series in the TV Movie category but it when it comes to comedies and drama, British shows have been until recent as unwelcome as, well, most minority actors and minority run shows. Turns out the Emmys xenophobia has until recently extended even to actors with the same skin color.

The Emmys during the 21st century would seem to bear this out. The American version of The Office won the Emmy for Best Comedy; the original British version, stay on your side of the pond. The Golden Globes for the record has been more generous to Ricky Gervais’ comedies than the Emmys have: The Office and Extras both won Best Comedy; the Emmys gave Gervais Best Actor but never nominated either series for the grand prize. I can’t tell you how many superb British comedies in the last decade, from Breeders to Sex Education the Emmys have told them; No Emmys, you’re British. They’ve been slightly kinder to dramas but Downton Abbey never came close to winning Best Drama and honestly I can only consider it their Anglophobia as the reason that Broadchurch and David Tennant were never even nominated for anything during that show’s run.

Streaming finally managed to break the chokehold. The Crown loosened the tap, first a trickle and then in 2021 a huge gush and it certainly worked wonders for Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Fleabag. Slow Horses looks like it has an excellent chance to enter the Octagon, though whether it will end up there as a member for the rest of its run (as is frequently the habit for the Emmys) or will end up, like the members of Slough House after they succeed in a mission, cast aside after every one of the ‘real great shows’ finally return after the strike imposed hiatus. What I do know is that Slow Horses is one of the best shows and most consistently good streaming drama since The Crown debuted and looks very much like it is going to be one of the best dramas of the 2020s. When it comes to ranking it among nominees for Emmys (which I’ll start doing this coming week) I’ll proudly rank the show among them. Not bad for a bunch of screwups.

My score: 5 stars.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.