Slow Horses: Season 3 REVIEW – Lively Nags

The Slow Horses throw themselves into the fast lane.

Gary Oldman in Slow Horses
Gary Oldman in Slow Horses

Any work of spy fiction must constantly grapple with the temptation to go a bit James Bond, a bit Call Of Duty, a bit shooty-shooty bang-bang gun. This third season of Slow Horses is no longer so much grappling with that temptation as embracing it wholeheartedly, like a long-lost lover.

Although it doesn’t have all its guns blazing straight out the gate, it does start off with a cold open that’s definitely a bit more Hollywood than you might expect from the show about MI5’s misfits and their cramped, scrotty office. Got the budget to zip off to Istanbul now, do we? How lovely.

Beneath this sort of incongruous flash, though, the scrottiness is at least still there. The Horses’ bumbling here isn’t merely a starting point, but a key element of the plot. And most of them do get their own spotlight moments of doing something really stupid, which, even when they come out of absolutely nowhere, are still enjoyable enough to watch.

Rather than reheating old Cold War dynamics, here the bigger conflict is the British security services getting all tied up in their own intrigue, which is inherently a juicier plum. The higher level of carnage is, inevitably, borne of this, yet considered as a whole it seems a shame it had to.

How would the Slow Horses have bumbled their way out of MI5 infighting? Well, who can say? By contrast it’s all too easy to say how they’ll get out of it when everyone’s firing automatic weapons at each other. It reflects a sigh and a surrender to that kind of action-movie mentality, and it actively shies away from the kind of invention or creativity we might otherwise have expected.

Perhaps the best way to conceive of the show’s change in temperament is in its ancillary characters. The white nationalists of season one were nasty pieces of work, but had names and personalities. This season actually gives us that old action-movie staple, faceless goons with guns who exist to be shot by named characters – and yes, this is alongside that other action-movie favourite of bullets bending around the surface of the main characters while being drawn as if by magnets towards the faceless baddies.

Slow Horses was never quite the cold hard realism of a le Carré, but it’s spiritually far closer to that than it is to James Bond abusing alcohol and women in Monte Carlo. So I cannot as a matter of principle not call out this increased broadness, this flash over substance, this (without wishing to be impolite) crowd-pleasing tosh.

There is a reason for this: the show still finds itself wobbling slightly when it tries to keep touching on all the convoluted backstories of characters who were always there. Those prominent in episode one find themselves sidelined by episode six, in favour of other things that were still on the slate.

And it can still flesh out its bit-parts when it wants to, as we see with the caretaker of an MI5 records depository, an infuriating, people-pleasing Lord of the Rings fan. Yes, I know it’s tired shorthand for a nerd, but the way it’s done here, you actually believe it. My bone of contention is simply that they’re not doing this more.

Gary Oldman’s walking-cigarette-end of a station chief is of course still the main draw. He will always be the main draw, and I don’t think I would be alone in suggesting that in any scene without Oldman’s Jackson Lamb present, all the other characters should be standing around going “where’s Lamb?”. I’m not exaggerating, him scattering Pringles around a country cottage ends up ten times as gripping as scenes which actually involve live grenades.

The only real contenders, and this is in the way a tiny, babbling infant might contend in the ring against Mike Tyson, are those figures who are also amusingly awful (my notes credit Freddie Fox with being a supreme example of a word I’m hesitant to use). Annoyingly, it’s usually these figures who end up first on the chopping block – are they just too awful to be left alive? Presumably, since they’re never any sort of threat to Oldman’s crown.

Meanwhile, the other Slow Horses’ charm has always stemmed largely from them being dysfunctional underdogs. And when they were fumbling around in the shadow of the broader MI5 apparatus, this made sense. But when the show has them not simply going up against their better-funded, better-equipped rivals, but also handily beating them in pitched battles, we’re no longer watching dysfunctional underdogs, we are all too clearly watching The Protagonists.

Admittedly the nature of narrative does demand this in one way or another. There’s not much market for stories about fumbling underdogs who go on to fail utterly. But again, the Slow Horses being the underdogs was their unique selling point. If they outcompeted the rest of MI5, it was through their own humble never-would-have-thought-of-that means. When this bedrock element is suddenly missing, the foundation of the whole edifice cannot help but shake.

Here is the saving grace of this change into an action-movie gear, that this doesn’t cause it to collapse completely. You can point to flaws, as I’ve been doing for the past 873 words, but the action blockbuster is famously something you can switch your brain off for. You don’t really need to think about it, just enjoy the ride – which is backhanded praise maybe, but still praise of a sort.

If this run seems like such a sea change from its two lower-key predecessors, this is probably because Slow Horses is made in blocks of two seasons at a time. And with something as generally watchable as Slow Horses this is no bad thing, but does mean the fourth season, probably in post-production right now, will be taking the same big noisy tone.

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Gary Oldman in Slow Horses
An enjoyable enough watch, but one which has found itself a little helpless before all the beguiling allure of cosplaying Mission: Impossible.