Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Slow Horses’ review: Violence overwhelms Season 3 of the sardonic spy series

Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Season 3 of “Slow Horses.”  (Apple TV+)
By Nina Metz Chicago Tribune

The third season of “Slow Horses” is initially about files. That’s right, paperwork. Scintillating!

That’s not sarcasm. I’m a sucker for paperwork stories. And it feels like the right choice for this sardonic, John Le Carre-flavored spy series set in the U.K. With its ragtag team of MI5’s least capable – who somehow save the day regardless – “Slow Horses” (on Apple TV+) is more about brains than brawn.

And yet, this season the show devolves into a spectacle of nonstop violence. So much so that I was taken aback.

Were the first two seasons filled with endless scenes of gunfire and bloodshed? Not to my memory. The series has always featured some. But creator Will Smith (not to be confused with the American actor of the same name) picked his spots.

By contrast, his latest effort has fewer moments of cerebral gamesmanship. The ratio of violence to everything is higher. Much higher. (The previews for Season 4 suggest more of the same.) It’s as if someone in a corner office issued a dictum: Less talk, more action.

That might be fine for audiences looking for something high-octane, where countless extras are mowed down for effect. But the appeal of a show like “Slow Horses” – until now, at least – was that it was so human-scaled, depicting all the dirty tricks that keep everyone chasing their tails.

Adapted from the novels of Mick Herron (Season 3 is based on the book “Real Tigers”), the show’s strengths remain, if somewhat downplayed. Gary Oldman is the walking embodiment of body odor and mental acuity as Jackson Lamb, who oversees these expendables of Britain’s intelligence service. Why didn’t the agency fire them at the first sign of incompetence? Because the group comes in handy when things get messy and you need some disposable manpower. Might as well put the slow horses on the job rather than your top performers.

Early on we catch a glimpse of Lamb at the sink in his office, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, giving himself a birdbath. It’s more hygiene than you’d expect from the guy. Even so, doesn’t look like soap was involved in this exercise. If nothing else, Oldman’s performance is committed to reveling in just how disgusting the human body is sans basic grooming. But Lamb also has a knack for seeing things two or three steps ahead of everyone else, and his slovenly appearance never fails as a cover of sorts – people underestimate him at their peril. It only recently occurred to me that his dingy sartorial tastes, raincoat and all, have a lot in common with Peter Falk’s “Columbo,” which makes a certain sense; there’s a similarity in the way the two operate as far as personal appearance is concerned.

At the season’s outset, Lamb’s minions are tasked with sorting through files and carting them off to a secure location. The most dashing and restless of the slow horses, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), can’t believe he stuck doing such menial work.

How long can the series keep the guy treading water like this? What’s River’s endgame, anyway? Does he really believe he can make his way back into MI5’s good graces? And if not, what then? Nobody in power seems particularly interested in his future. “You are the bane of my career,” a higher-up sighs unhappily. “When you show up, frogs start raining from the sky and blood pours from the taps.”

All that aforementioned paperwork is being hauled to an old bomb shelter where it is categorized using a system that riffs on the Beatles: The higher level files – the Paul and John files – remain at MI5’s headquarters. Everything lower – the George and Ringo files – are buried away in that decommissioned bunker, where a nerdy young clerk remarks: “I find the nomenclature just a little harsh – big George Harrison fan!”

Guess who doesn’t care? MI5’s icy second-in-command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has met her match in scheming and cool detachment with the addition of Sophie Okonedo as her boss, Ingrid Tearney. They share perfect bobbed haircuts and a taste for sabotage. They are mirror images and therefore natural enemies, grasping for power oh-so-elegantly while running the slow horses ragged.

Turns out, there’s evidence of illegal doings in some of those files. Might be embarrassing – or even job-ending – for either Diana or Ingrid. Some people would like to expose those secrets. Lamb’s secretary Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) – the oldest of the slow horses and the one with the least amount of angst about her professional stalling – is kidnapped in an effort to force MI5’s hand. The file is the ransom. Turn it over and she goes free. If only it were that simple.

The other slow horses remain too underdeveloped to really build out the show’s world in unexpectedly compelling ways, more or less reduced to their vices (drug addiction and gambling among them). Smith, the show’s creator, has talked about a moment early on in the first book where author Mick Herron “follows all the characters home and gives you a glimpse into their personal lives. I’d never come across that in a thriller before and it felt as compelling as the action and plot twists.” And yet that’s not what he does here. It’s a curious choice.

By design, the show is most entertaining when Lamb is in the frame. One of the season’s wiliest moments has him strolling into a high-end restaurant to needle the home secretary and thoroughly ruin his lunch. Lamb is a bull in a china shop – that’s the wonderful comedy of it all – and the rancid fumes of his stench, paired with that abrasive personality, is such an affront to the status-minded bureaucrats and power brokers who think he’s beneath them. What they never understand is that Lamb could probably bury them all, if motivated enough. More of that please.

The dark humor of “Slow Horses” lies in its attention to the petty grievances and office politics that exist in any profession, even the intelligence service. But it’s also unsettling to consider how close to truth it might be. MI5 is where cover-ups are born and flourish, and where those in charge are forever passing the blame and ruining lives in the process. Even so, the slow horses are desperate to get back in the game. It’s time the series started asking why. Perhaps the choice to inject more violence and action is a way of putting that off a while longer.