Slow Horses and Surprising Heroes

Robert Hubbard

Driven by a funky beat, the lyrics of Mick Jagger’s “Strange Game” can be heard during the opening credits of Apple TV’s Slow Horses, providing the perfect preview:

Surrounded by losers
Misfits and boozers
Hanging by your fingernails
You made one mistake
You got burned at the stake
You're finished, you're foolish, you failed

Three impressive seasons in, this adaption of Mick Herron’s espionage novels portrays a ragtag unit of losers and misfits clinging to the edge of Britain’s prestigious MI5 administration. These so-called “Slow Horses” derive their disparaging nickname from the barely habitable Slough House, a bleak urban facility that houses their decrepit offices. Whether due to drug or gambling addictions or previously bungled intelligence campaigns, these relegated agents receive no respect from the larger intelligence community and little from themselves. Within the seemingly elite establishment of high-level espionage, the Slow Horses exist in intelligence purgatory, performing mundane and useless tasks from their condemnable office complex. In a sense, the agents of Slough House represent the least of these.

But as the Apostle Peter (a biblical slow horse if ever there was one) reminds us, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” In Slow Horses’ cynical depiction of Britain’s post-Brexit cultural malaise, this cast-off team consistently rises above the rampant institutional corruption plaguing the highest levels of MI5. Despite serving beneath a corrupt administration of power-seeking and murderous bureaucrats, the Slow Horses repeatedly stumble into what is right and good on their dirty journey toward redemption.

This is not to suggest that they do their work joyfully. Boss Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) offers viewers one of the most delightfully disgusting and miserable characters on television. A burned-out, Cold War warrior, Lamb spends his workdays drinking whiskey, inhaling disgusting food, farting constantly, sleeping at his desk, and verbally berating his already deflated underlings. Yet in a heated Season 3 argument, Lamb’s loyal and longtime secretary, Catherine (Saskia Reeves), accuses her boss of secretly caring. “You hide your sense of duty around your cynicism,” she claims. “You don’t want people to see the decent side of you because it makes you feel vulnerable.” Rather than admit this probable truth, Lamb chooses instead to destroy Catherine’s idealism with an acerbic blast of toxicity. This man is not easy to love.

But moments of crisis inevitably unlock the hidden competence and abiding benevolence of the Slow Horses unit. Without ever shedding his flatulating and slovenly exterior, Lamb consistently protects and rescues his crew throughout the series, with wily tricks that prove he is the smartest spy in the room. In similar fashion, every member of Lamb’s rejected team eventually proves their sacrificial love, often in spite of their unwavering flaws. A grief-driven nihilism does not prevent Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) from recklessly rushing to assist a fellow agent in a hopeless mission to preserve incriminating documents. Likewise, unrepentant drug addict Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) willingly drives into machine-gun fire to prevent an ambush of two fellow agents, drugs likely still coursing through her brave body. Even blue-blooded River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), the most promising agent in the lot, cannot resist breaking the rules, even when doing so will once again sacrifice his career for a greater good for which he never receives credit or reward.

Clearly, the resourceful rejects of Slough House bear little resemblance to heroes we expect from our British spy thrillers; there’s not a James Bond among them. In a similar way, a low-status carpenter shattered the expected mold for a dynastic king, causing the Pharisees to reject their Messiah. Indeed, God’s frustrating tendency to use the lowliest and most disparaged of his people as special agents for his Kingdom represents a persistent norm within the Christian story. In some ways, Jackson Lamb and his ridiculed crew occupy a similar cultural space with checkered-past biblical heroes such as Noah, Moses, Jonah, Paul, and Peter.

At its thrilling best, Slow Horses reminds us that salvation is often carried out by the most broken and disparaged. It’s an echo of 1 Corinthians 1:27: “. . . God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Or, as the minor prophet Sir Michael (Mick) Philip Jagger poetically concludes in his second stanza of “Strange Game”:

There's always a hope
On this slippery slope
Somewhere a ghost of a chance
To get back in that game
And burn off your shame
And play with the big boys again

Topics: TV