That funky, profane, noodle-slurping, cast-aside spymaster from Britain’s MI5, Jackson Lamb, lets us in on a little secret in the second season of the offbeat-espionage program, Slow Horses. It just may be that he really cares
But every time Lamb, portrayed with crazed and comic brilliance by Gary Oldman, offers a hint that he still believes in the high-minded goal of safeguarding the nation in service to the Queen (the new season takes place before Elizabeth II’s death), his subordinates, all fellow washouts, take notice and look to him for leadership. That’s when he tells them to just bugger off.
Yet, despite all the constant insults he tosses at his earnest underlings and denials of any real concern for their welfare, Lamb does have one principle that becomes the heart of this second series of six episodes: He will protect those unfortunates who work with him and avenge the lives of those who have been murdered.
This time around Lamb and the Horses confront a contemporary sounding mystery: Have the Russians unleashed “cicadas” on us? Cicadas, in this case, are the spies and killers that Moscow Centre is rumored to have buried in the West years ago. Suddenly, Lamb believes, the cicadas have been suddenly activated for wet work, like the robotic hard-shelled insects that emerge every 17 years and drive everyone batty. Another term for them might be sleeper agents, or illegals, like the 10 Russian spies rounded up in 2010, whose lives inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create The Americans TV espionage drama.
But killer cicadas? Decades ago, defectors from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency told a congressional hearing that its agents had planted weapons caches in the U.S. and Europe for sabotage attacks should a shooting war break out. One said it was “likely” that GRU operatives placed “poison supplies near the tributaries to major US reservoirs,” including the Potomac River that supplies Washington, D.C. with drinking water.
“The defectors corroborated each others’ accounts, but it’s unclear whether any caches here were ever discovered,” SpyTalk reported in 2020. “Swiss authorities reported finding a cache that had an exploding mechanism to destroy the evidence should an unauthorized person try to unearth it.”
But back to Slow Horses. After the death of an ex-MI5 colleague from what has initially been ruled natural causes, Lamb unsurprisingly goes against the resident wisdom, convinced that the retired operative was murdered. From there, the disheveled spook hits the streets of London to track down the culprits and to resolve a nagging question. Was his colleague liquidated by a cicada? And why?
Once again, Lamb’s support staff includes River Cartwright (Jack Lowden, Dunkirk, Mary Queen of Scots), a handsome young agent thrown into the Slough House counterintelligence purgatory because he’d screwed up on a final training exercise. Eager to redeem himself, and clearly less dysfunctional than other members of the, shall we say, eccentric Slow Horses team. Cartwright gets some sage guidance from his worldly grandfather, a retired senior MI5 official, portrayed here with magnificent precision by the always authoritative Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall, The Crown). The younger Cartwright feels he is chased by bad luck, relegated to Slough House unfairly. His grandfather urges patience—and caution on the cicadas case.
The action in Slow Horses is gripping, but the portrayal of spy craft sometimes suffers in service of the story line. How many times can a lone MI5 officer conduct clinging surveillance on a bus or a train and survive after being spotted, or use half-baked cover stories that wouldn’t survive a casual double check, or burst into a suspicious building without guns at the ready? Can it be that British gun laws allow them to be so complacent?
All the while, Lamb is jousting with his superiors at MI5, in particular Diana Taverner (the luminescent Kristin Scott Thomas), who is deputy head (Second Chair) of the domestic spy agency. She has her own set of skeletons: her ambitions for promotion to First Chair have brought her more than once to the brink of illegality and malfeasance. A running gag in the series is her insistence that she and Lamb meet on park benches, not only for the implied operational reasons (nonsense in real spook life), but because his farts, cigarette smoke, and general overpowering odor are dispelled in the open air.
Gary Oldman, of course, is no stranger to spy roles. The much-lauded Englishman played George Smiley in the 2011 film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The 64-year-old actor, who could have swapped roles with Pryce in Slow Horses, hinted recently that this may be his final on-screen role. “I’ve had an enviable career, but careers wane, and I do have other things that interest me outside of acting,” he told The Times of London.
Jackson Lamb is the creation of novelist Mick Herron, whose Slough House franchise now includes twelve books and novellas starring Lamb and the team that has been sent to MI5 purgatory. His series got off to a slow start in 2010, but recently his books have been flying off the shelves. A spot check at a local library in suburban Washington, for example, showed that all 11 copies of Slow Horses, the first book in the series, are checked out and 69 people are in line to read it.
Each TV episode of the series, which debuted last year, ends with a cliffhanger followed by the creaking-door voice of Mick Jagger, a fan of Herron’s books and now the Apple TV+ series for which he co-wrote and sings the theme song, Strange Game.
It’s no real spoiler to say that Jackson Lamb and most of the Horses survive and will be back next year. Series three is in production now with a fourth season slated for 2023.
Makes you wonder if real intel screw ups could hang on that long. Probably.
Peter Eisner, a SpyTalk contributing editor, is the author of three World War II nonfiction books, including MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, The Singer, and the Spymaster who defied the Japanese in World War II.
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