The following contains spoilers for the premiere of Slow Horses: S1E1, “Failure’s Contagious” and S1E2, “Work Drinks” (written by Will Smith and directed by James Hawes)
As I suppose is befitting its name, Slow Horses takes some time to establish its pace, but by the end of the two-episode premiere (S1E1, “Failure’s Contagious” & S1E2, “Work Drinks”), I felt like it had established quite a good trot, maybe even kicking things up to a gallup as it approached the cliffhanger at the close of Episode 2.
(Sorry for all the horse terminology. I’ll try to rein it in.)
It is true that, right out of the gate, S1E1 kicks off with an action sequence. I don’t know what it says about me that I found it fairly uninteresting, as though the stakes of a terrorist threat at a transit hub have at this point simply been overplayed. Perhaps I have watched too much 24, but if Slow Horses wanted me to be on the edge of my seat worried about the outcome of this operation, I can’t say that I was. And knowing a little bit about the premise of the show (though I have not read the books by Mick Herron on which it is based), it seemed pretty likely from the starting bell that this wasn’t going to turn out well.
River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) has that failure bear down on him throughout the scenario, even if it seems almost like a photo finish that he loses. His demotion to Slough House is fully deserved, particularly since this was a training exercise, as he continually points out. That doesn’t make it better; it makes it worse. He was ordered to stand down and then actually physically assaulted a cop after that. I imagine this was a bigger factor in the decision to put him out to pasture, actually, than the fact that the “bomb” went off. He needs to learn to follow orders, and he doesn’t seem to be getting much better at that in his relationship with Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman).
River is champing at the bit to play the hero, like he has watched too many action movies, and frankly I don’t like him. He’s the kind of guy who tries to get by on charm to cover over his incompetence, and who thinks leaving rubbish all over the office is somehow excusable because he’s maybe not done looking through it yet, when basic decency would clearly indicate otherwise.
The fact that Slow Horses is enjoyable despite a distaste for its protagonist is to its credit. The structure of the show is interesting, as the main plot lags behind for much of the first hour before taking the lead down the homestretch of S1E1. When we’re introduced to Hassan (Antonio Aakeel), there is nothing particularly noteworthy about him, and we might well wonder why we’re watching some amateur comedian and his friend at all until he’s taken hostage.
This style that puts the first emphasis on establishing setting and character before slowing working towards the plot is perhaps not so uncommon when it comes to British crime dramas, which can have a way of being more true to life than their American counterparts. But it is effective nonetheless, as the world of Slow Horses quickly feels lived in and the characters like real people. Their back stories, elliptically filled in without clunky exposition, intrigue me as much if not more than the hostage situation driving the story by S1E2.
Catherine (Saskia Reeves) has flashbacks to her husband Charles, and while the first seems to indicate that he committed suicide in their bathtub, the second features him alive and with Jackson Lamb in his parlor, which raises a question not only about what Lamb was doing before he came to Slough House but about the relationship between these three. If it weren’t for this small indication of a shared history, we might well have thought Catherine to have been merely assigned to him at Slough House, but clearly there is more to it than that.
Equally, if it’s true that Sid (Olivia Cooke) has been assigned to watch River by Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), we have to wonder if there is a reason we’re not yet privy to, or if it’s just that she would have liked to have fired him completely and couldn’t because of the clout his grandfather, David Cartwright (Jonathan Pryce), continues to hold. Taverner is set up in the Slow Horses premiere as something of an antagonist, but so far I’m just prone to think she’s good at her job and trying to rein in River’s tendency to buck authority. I don’t see much reason to distrust her at this point, beyond my blanket distrust for spies in general because they’re all liars.
The hostage takers in Slow Horses are also well fleshed out, and feel very human even if they are at the same time representative of aspects of humanity I wish didn’t exist. Their belief in the degenerative effect of immigration is clearly genuine, which makes it all the more terrifying, particularly insofar as it is hard to dehumanize them the way they dehumanize Hassan, given the nuanced portrayal.
Of course, it’s always like that in real life. The important thing to bear in mind is that it doesn’t excuse anything at all if the violent racist loves his family, or friends, and treats them well, or if he’s largely a decent guy except for how he wants to decapitate a person of color at dawn for symbolic reasons. The truth here lies in the symbolic register, and is repugnant in part because the bigot understands that.
The men who attack Robert Hobden (Paul Hilton) in his home at the end of Slow Horses S1E2 wear similar masks to the right wing terrorists who took Hassan—are we to conclude that they are a part of the same group?
I think so, but what information could Hobden possibly have had on his hard drive that he would be trying so hard to keep secure, while at the same time feverishly making phone calls trying to get someone to listen? The security measures are making more sense to me than the phone calls.
Taverner indicates that Hassan wasn’t a random victim and mentions a talk with the Pakistan ambassador, but it hasn’t been revealed by the end of “Work Drinks” just who he is or what makes him of particular significance. We know he is a natural born citizen of the UK, but clearly there is more to the story. He must be tied in some way to someone of symbolic importance.
Slow Horses S1E2 ends with Sid bleeding on Robert’s steps, as his house burns. I fear for her, as despite the fact that I haven’t found reason to mention her much in this article, Olivia Cooke’s performance may be the thing I enjoyed most about the Slow Horses premiere. Sid brings a levity matched by competence that stands in stark contrast to River’s attempts to mask his ineptitude with charm.
Surely they wouldn’t kill her off two episodes in, would they?