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Slow Horses - Failure's Contagious & Work Drinks - Review

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Note: This is a spoiler-heavy review

1.01 Failure's Contagious

AppleTV+ are having an excellent 2022. Having recently won best picture for CODA, becoming the first streamer to do so – their ongoing shows; The Afterparty, Severance and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, are really living up to the streamer’s potential that it showed back at the start; held back with a limited but -mostly impressive slate. Whilst there are still misfires like Suspicion, Foundation and Invasion, Slow Horses feels instantly recognisable as one of their better series as of late – and not just because it sees Gary Oldman return to the role of an MI5 spook. Unlike the John Le Carre 2011 film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this film feels like a different beast – and his character here a completely different animal.

Jackson Lamb is a slob – in charge of an organisation called Slough House, called so because it’s where they send the MI5 agents who screwed up – failing an elaborate training exercise at Stansted Airport where he was unable to catch a terrorist and a bomb was detonated. There are shades of Line of Duty presented in this first episode as we meet Jack Lowden’s River Cartwright after a mission goes badly wrong and he fails to stop a suicide bomber – and the show goes into the workplace irregularities of it all like Killing Eve, expect without the charismatic presence of a serial killer like Villanelle. Here; Cartwright is paired with Kristin Scott Thomas’ Diana Taverner and Olivia Cooke’s Sid Baker, all working under Lamb all with one goal: to do as little as possible, not upset the apple cart and not make waves.

There’s a reason why River’s former colleague, now working in a HR-like subdivision - tells him that Slough House is called what it is – even though it’s only 3 miles away from MI5’s Headquarters, it might as well be in Slough, which those unfamiliar with the London geography – is outside the oyster card zone. Cartwright, Taverner, Baker and even Lamb all have chips on their shoulder, and Lowden, Thomas and Cooke all give them firecrackingly magnetic personalities with the dry wit of a writer who clearly has an eye for dad humour. The episode’s title: Failure's Contagious, shows that all of these characters come from a place of failure and despair – and what we’re seeing of them is them at the lowest of the low, grappling with past failures and how they handle them is a brilliant way to introduce who they are as characters.

Slough House is full of character – the building itself feels like a relic of the Cold War. Its resident occupant, Lamb – is as every bit as grotesque as a character actor like Oldman demands – “MI fucking useless” he puts down the secret service – and whilst Oldman’s Lamb isn’t the protagonist he feels like the Ted Hastings of the operation, casting a looming shadow over it all. Also a delight: Jonathan Pryce, as Cartwright’s grandfather, who feels like a distant relic in the service, able to keep him around thanks to his established career as a veteran. Slough House was supposed to be a six month stop gap. For Cartwright; it feels like an eternity.

Directed by veteran TV journeyman James Hawes and penned by William Smith, the first episode feels like a pilot – or to put it bluntly, like all of AppleTV+’s projects, the first act of what looks set to be a six-hour movie – which is an instant turn-off normally for me. Whilst there are questions as to whether Slow Horses can sustain its length – there is a shade of UK freeview shows like Bodyguard, Years and Years, Unforgotten (especially in its handling of old evidence) and Trigger Point in its set up that give audiences an instance jumping on point – the location of London is eye-catchingly shot and the show looks so expensive that if you saw it as a film in cinemas you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There’s enough depth in Slow Horses that it goes above and beyond recent spy fare The Ipcress File, the remake of the Michael Caine film starring Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole.

The main antagonist is a Nigel Farage stand-in and the series addresses right-wing nationalism in a way that Trigger Point fans will be familiar with. It sets up a clear objective as to the enemy and lays down a mystery to solve – as a pilot, it doesn’t do much wrong – creating conflict instantly in the ranks of Slough House and giving these characters enough depth to suggest that it can go all the way. Fans of series like The Night Manager, Le Bureau, The Americans and The Little Drummer Girl will find themselves right at home, and thanks to impressive performances by its central cast, you’ll be kept there; and although it’s too early to tell whether or not Slow Horses will reach the heights of other AppleTV+ projects – there’s enough signs there to keep me back for more; weaving a strong hook and drawing you in with its well-executed themes of redemption ever present in the first episode.

1.02 - Work Drinks

The second episode picks up from where the first left off and gives us an insight into our kidnappers, a mix of Call of Duty players and right-wing nationalised gamers and an ex-military man. The dialogue is as sharp as ever here – and they’re keeping their victim in their basement. MI5 are quick to get ahold of this but although Hassan Ahmed may appear ordinary at a first glance – Diana gains extra intel which she keeps secret from them.

Lamb continues to be a toxic mess, calling out Catherine for her alcoholism despite being in AA meetings – the flashbacks to her past linger through the episode – a flashback to the past of most Slough House members wouldn’t be a wrong prediction as to what will take up the episode’s time. Cartwright learns from Karl there’s nothing on the USB stick – just PI, and Hobden has no online presence on top of that – the only solution is to grab the laptop the old-school way.Bugs are the watchword of the day: Mr. Moody was an ex Slough Houser-himself for 6 years, and planted one in Lamb’s office. He’s able to find out about Sid and Lamb’s operation through that – and tells Diana – who tells him to do some work for him and get rid of the bug.

It turns out that Sid has been tasked to keep an eye on Cartwright – who’s doing his own off the books investigation. That leads to both of them being involved in a massive shootout – Sid is injured – enough to call an ambulance.

These blinkers of the past that we get help characterise Slough House’s team – Roddy was put on the sex offenders register, because apparently he took someone's seat on the bus. Cartwright is no closer to learning that why Lamb was put there than he was before – but it’s a good move for the show to use this opportunity to spend time with characters like Roddy and Catherine. Cartwright may have stumbled into a game being played deeper than his own (is one of the Sons of Albion deep undercover and they don’t want Cartwright revealing the mole?) – the ticking time bomb of it all really emphasises the Trigger Point comparisons that I made recently – but this show just has a slightly bigger budget. Slow Horses really does arrive confidently and assuredly out the gate with these two episodes that flow nicely from one to the next, and you can see why AppleTV+ wanted them back to back.

Will this show be able to find a voice amongst the myriad of high-quality AppleTV+ series that are all debuting or set to debut within weeks of each other? Let’s find out as the weeks progress. I wonder if AppleTV+’s dedication to the Friday release drop will come back to haunt them.

Slow Horses Episode 3 airs on AppleTV+ globally on Friday.

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