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Everyone Should Be Watching the Best Spy Thriller on TV

Jack Lowden holds his badge as River Cartwright in 'Slow Horses' season 3

I love it when a show I adore drops a full season at once—there’s nothing like a good six-hour unblinking binge for distraction. But increasingly I see the benefit of airing an episode each week—the “traditional” model that many streamers have moved back to—so that the hype and excitement can build. I am, however, chomping at the bit at the current lack of content for one series in particular. I need everyone to start watching with me so that they continue to make new episodes until I’m ready to retire.

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Apple TV+’s Slow Horses is the best thriller on TV—and it’s one of the best shows on television, full stop. Based on the bestselling Slough House novels by British author Mick Herron, the series stars Best Actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman as the leader of a motley crew of disgraced spies. Think a bevy of James Bond-types gone to seed for various reasons, cast out of the A-team and landed in what’s regarded as an F-team.

MI5 had intended to put these agents out to pasture, but the sprawling intelligence apparatus—depicted as being smug, self-satisfied and self-interested, beset with politics and internal oneupmanship—could learn a thing or two from the Slow Horses’ grim, determined grind. The show is back for its third season, and it’s better than ever. Every week I groan as the credits roll and I realize I have to wait for another installment.

Slow Horses is a fantastic premise for a series, with a rotating door of spies who messed up or made themselves a liability in some fashion (botching a mission, substance abuse, gambling, anger management, general illegal activities). When regular people drop the ball at work, they can lose their job or be course-corrected, but what do you do with highly trained, once-elite agents? Their top-secret skillsets and knowledge are too dangerous to let out of sight, too potentially incendiary to keep within the inner circle. Thus: Slough House, a filthy, ramshackle building falling down but for the files stacked to the ceiling, where the Slow Horses are meant to pass their days in administrative drudgery.

Rosalind Eleazar as Louisa and Christopher Chung as Ho in a scene from 'Slow Horses'

But Slough House is run by Oldman’s Jackson Lamb, one of the most fascinating and complicated characters I’ve seen on television. A veteran of Cold War spy games, Lamb cuts an obscene figure—dirty, unshaven, often drunk, blisteringly rude, lashing his agents and anyone in his path with a barbed tongue. (Oldman is not without his own alleged controversies in past years; it’s an interesting casting choice, to say the least.) Lamb is also brilliant and usually ten steps ahead of everyone else, and he gives more of a damn about his team members than he’ll ever admit. Jackson Lamb is a grotesque human being, but he’s also one of the most incredibly human characters to be made flesh. Somehow you come to root for him, even if you also cringe at his antics.

This is not like any spy thriller you’ve seen before. We’re used to superhero spies, full of flash and dazzle, waltzing in tuxedos with a futuristic gadget in hand. Slow Horses is a gritty workplace drama that also hinges on international and intra-national intrigue. Can’t stand your annoying, screw-up coworkers? Okay, now try and stop a terrorist attack with them while operating outside the lines because the people inside the lines want to disavow any connection with you. The dashing, daring River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is the closest we get to a traditional spy drama’s protagonist; he’s A-team all the way through, consigned to Slough House after a training exercise went badly. River is a fish out of water, a strange fit in Slough House and the audience’s entry point into the madness. His is a hero’s journey abruptly derailed.

But what makes Slow Horses even more compelling is that none of the characters are particularly easy to like—they’re complex, prickly, pissed-off, shunted-aside people, and they have to find a way to coexist while dealing with abject personal failure and Jackson Lamb. The actors in this ensemble all sizzle with such meaty material, and there are standout non-Slow Horses performances from the magisterial Kirstin Scott Thomas as MI5 deputy “Second Desk” Diana Taverner and Freddie Fox as the exquisitely nicknamed Spider Webb, a love-to-hate-him former agent who channels a brattily entitled energy into his every breath and nimbly steals the scenes he’s in.

Freddie Fox and Kristin Scott Thomas in a scene from 'Slow Horses'

The third season of Slow Horses is based on Herron’s novel Real Tigers, and halfway in, I need more immediately. (The New York Times has an excellent profile on the slow burn of Herron’s now-“blockbuster” career that may inspire any latent authors.) The premise this season is that a “tiger team”—an outside team brought in to assess a weakness or work on an organizational issue—infiltrated MI5 on assignment, but they appear to have an agenda of their own. Their mistake is involving Lamb and his Slow Horses when they kidnap Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), Slough House’s quiet backbone and administrator who kept the place going. Each episode is better than any of the spy movies you’ve paid to see in the theater as of late.

As Mick Jagger declares in the theme song that he co-wrote and recorded for the show (which is a jam): being a Slow Horse means that you’re “Surrounded by losers / Misfits and boozers” yet “There’s always a hope … To get back in that game / And dance with the big boys again.” Those relegated to Slough House want to earn an escape from it, but this season, they seem to be the ones with skin in the game as the rest of British intelligence bumbles about at fancy lunches.

This is the perfect time to start watching Slow Horses if you aren’t caught up. The first two seasons are only six episodes apiece—the perfect binge—and there are three more episodes to go this season. Although Apple advertises the show as dropping a new episode every Wednesday, this week’s appeared on Tuesday at 9 pm Eastern. I’m hoping that the early release sticks. It can’t be Slow Horses day fast enough.

(images: Apple TV+)

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Author

Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.

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