Sorry spies a grungy delight

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The best new spy series going is actually an anti-spy series. Or maybe an alt-spy series. Based on the caustically funny and compulsively readable novels by Mick Herron, Slow Horses tracks a bunch of sidelined spooks whose main adversary seems to be ennui.

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Opinion

The best new spy series going is actually an anti-spy series. Or maybe an alt-spy series. Based on the caustically funny and compulsively readable novels by Mick Herron, Slow Horses tracks a bunch of sidelined spooks whose main adversary seems to be ennui.

This London-set story (streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping on Fridays) starts with a doozy of a set-piece. River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is a sharp-looking agent in a sharp-tailored suit following a suspected terrorist in a busy airport. There’s lots of tense, terse talk through the earpiece, lots of flat-out sprinting through crowds and bolting down escalators.

This, of course, is what we expect from the espionage genre — high stakes and cool competence.

Jack Lowden, Christopher Chung, Olivia Cooke and Paul Higgins in Slow Horses. (Apple TV+ / TNS)

And then everything goes sideways. (And I’m being polite here. In this gleefully foul-mouthed series, everyone gets creatively obscene when talking about failure of any kind.)

Cartwright, a now tarnished golden boy, is banished from MI5’s glittering and modern Regent’s Park headquarters to Slough House, a decrepit building where the service warehouses its losers and screwups, its disgraced drinkers and semi-feral tech guys. They’re called the slow horses, and they’re led by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), a once legendary field agent who now seems content to slide into irrelevance. Surrounded by the remains of takeaway curries and empty whisky bottles, he’s sardonic, slovenly and an unrepentant public farter.

He’s also mean. “You’re useless. The lot of you,” he tells his people. “Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career.” That’s supposed to be a pep talk, by the way.

Slough House’s demoralized inhabitants spend their days pushing paper and watching the clock. The only spying Cartwright does is trying to figure out why his colleagues have been exiled to Slough — at least until he stumbles over a plot involving a seedy journo (Paul Hilton), a rising right-wing politician (Samuel West) — think Boris Johnson with marginally better hair — and a white nationalist extremist group called the Sons of Albion.

Things get complicated when the Sons — another incompetent crew, of a much more malevolent kind — kidnap a Muslim university student (Antonio Aakeel) and threaten to execute him.

On the one hand, we have MI5 second-in-command Diana Taverner (played by Kristin Scott Thomas, as immaculately crisp and cutting as only KST can be). She stands in the middle of a gleaming high-tech command centre with a fleet of heavily armed men in shiny black SUVs and helicopters standing by.

On the other hand, we have the gang of mismatched no-hopers at Slough House, with its grotty little rooms and puke-coloured walls. They drive crap cars and make massive tactical errors.

So, who has the better chance of breaking this case?

The series is adapted with deft, dark wit by Will Smith. (No, not that one. The British one, who’s co-writer of The Thick of It and Veep.) Director James Hawes (who’s helmed several Black Mirror episodes) keeps things taut and brisk as we navigate a maze of unseen alliances and buried betrayals and head to a nerve-shredding finale. There’s even a louche original theme song written and performed by Mick Jagger. (Sir Mick is a big fan of the books.)

Casting and performances are uniformly good, led by Oldman, who could have come off as a one-note caricature of a horrible boss and instead gives Lamb a layered and lived-in weariness.

Most of all, Slow Horses succeeds because it’s a spy series for our confused times. These spies are serving a democracy in decline, and they know it: They reference John le Carré’s books the way the mobsters on The Sopranos talk about The Godfather. Just as Smiley’s people pined for the clear-cut days of fighting Nazis while they muddled through the Cold War, Jackson Lamb’s gang looks back to the Cold War as they plod through the moral muck of 21st-century geopolitics.

They don’t really know what they’re fighting for or what they’re fighting against. Mostly they seem to be fighting each other, in a service rife with petty power grabs and territorial squabbles with bureaucrats and politicians. As Cartwright’s grandfather (Jonathan Pryce), an MI5 grey eminence, likes to say: “Moscow Rules: watch your back. London Rules: cover your arse.”

Of course, in a world where the successful people are so appalling, failure has its own melancholy compensations. As Lamb declares, with what might be just a gleam of affection for his Slough House incompetents: “I think they’re f—king losers. But they’re my losers.”

By the end of this terrific six-episode series, they’ll be your losers, too.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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