With long stringy hair, matching facial stubble, a perpetually sweaty brow, a rotund paunch, and disheveled clothes that look like they haven’t been washed in years, Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb is a TV spy one can almost smell—a notion accentuated by his trademark habit of farting in company.
A spook who affects a façade of disenchanted disgust with his professional lot in life, the B-teamers he’s tasked with overseeing, and the powers-that-be who fancy themselves his superiors, he’s a rumpled, ragged one-of-a-kind brought to brilliant life by the Oscar-winner. As a result, he remains the main (if not the sole) attraction of Slow Horses, the Apple TV+ adaptation of Mick Herron’s series of novels about a collection of rejects with a knack for stumbling into the center of big-time espionage trouble.
(Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)
Based on Herron’s Real Tigers, Slow Horses’ third season, which premieres Nov. 29, finds Jackson still punching the clock at Slough House, the outpost where MI5 sends the flameouts it prefers not to fire. Washing himself in his office sink without the use of soap, Jackson is his usual gross and caustic self, and his underlings are similarly no different than before, save that is for Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar), who in the aftermath of her partner/lover Min’s (Dustin Demri-Burns) Season 2 death is coping with her furious grief by having casual sex with men she doesn’t much like.
Of Slough House’s clowns, River (Jack Lowden) continues to be the biggest disappointment, both to others and to himself, because he clearly boasts the most potential. He once again proves to be a frustrating underachiever early on in this tale, failing to properly identify a shady individual on London’s streets and subsequently being manipulated into doing the bidding of seemingly nefarious forces.
Those untrustworthy elements are spearheaded by Sean Donovan (Gangs of London’s Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), a British secret agent in the Istanbul consulate who, during the premiere’s recent-past prologue, enjoys his final happy moment in bed with MI5 operative Alison Dunn (Katherine Waterston). Sean has genuine feelings for Alison, but he’s been tasked with locating a highly classified file, dubbed “Fingerprints,” that she intends to leak. When he's caught snooping about, the first of the season’s many foot and vehicle chases commences, culminating at a football stadium.
Sean arrives too late to either prevent the handover of the file to Alison’s associate or to save her from being killed, and his discovery of her murdered corpse hits him extremely hard. Cut to the present, and Sean is attending the same AA meeting frequented by Slough House secretary Catherine (Saskia Reeves), whom he lures to a coffee shop and promptly kidnaps, albeit not before announcing that his real interest is Jackson.
Catherine’s abduction is the catalyst for Slow Horses’ six-episode story, and it greatly destabilizes Slough House and its motley additional members: cocky tech whiz Roddy (Christopher Chung); gambling problem-plagued Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan); and struggling drug addict Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards). Directed by Saul Metzstein, the series keeps fleshing out these individuals in natural and amusing ways, and yet because its entire run lasts under four-and-a-half hours, it never dawdles on unnecessary backstories and personal hang-ups.
Fleetly paced and dramatized, the show is in continual motion, even when it takes detours to “the Park,” the MI5 headquarters that’s presently ruled by Director-General Ingrid Tearney (Sophie Okonedo), much to the chagrin of her demoted rival Diana (Kristin Scott Thomas). That setting is the locale for River’s simultaneous triumph and failure, given that he’s blackmailed by Sean into infiltrating the heavily fortified compound to steal a file in order to stave off Catherine’s execution, and yet after nearly pulling off that fantastical feat, he learns that he’s just a naïve dupe being used by his adversaries.
Lowden has the charisma of a bona fide movie star and he imbues River with a confidence that’s justified by his considerable talents, and an exasperation born from the fact that he’s constantly making the sorts of dumb mistakes that stymie promising careers. He’s the prototypical screw-up worth cheering for, and thus a perfect complement to (and foil for) Jackson, who’s accepted his lowly Slough House station because he prefers its losers to the Park’s villains. The latter group, at least, no longer includes Spider (Freddie Fox), who’s left the agency but winds up in the middle of this hostage situation, and who may be the single most detestable character on television, a smug little posh cretin with a face so punchable that it’s impossible to shed a tear over his less-than-heroic fate this season.
While Dìrísù is a welcome, commanding addition to Slow Horses, Sean’s motives are rather pedestrian by the show’s twisty-turny standards. The density of its past narratives is replaced by straightforward and routine action, and although that makes it easier to follow its plot, it drains the proceedings of its invigorating intricacy. Never is that more apparent than during the final two episodes, which commit a veritable espionage-fiction sin by reducing everything to—and resolving everything with—a trio of long-form combat set pieces.
The material’s climactic shootouts and Home Alone-style ploys are underwhelming for a series that’s previously defined itself by its John le Carré-style double-crosses and subterfuges. Moreover, those skirmishes are preposterously conceived, stretching credibility past the breaking point on multiple occasions. It’s an unimaginative end to a surprisingly linear affair, as if everyone had run out of ideas and simply settled for the easiest exit route available.
Nonetheless, Slow Horses’ cast is likable enough to keep things from totally falling apart, led by Oldman, who appears to be having the time of his life glaring and rolling his eyes at incompetent subordinates, and always shuffling this way and that—a cigarette frequently between his lips, when he’s not chewing on food in some semi-disgusting manner—with the nonchalance of a guy who knows he’s one step ahead of his enemies. Arrogant, cruel, and uncouth, Jackson is an entertainingly original spy, an apparent has-been who, sneakily, has lost none of his keenness or ruthlessness. No matter this installment’s closing stumbles, Oldman’s intensely prickly performance is more than enough to keep the series galloping along at a steady clip.