Slow Horses’ Jackson Lamb is the Best Character on TV

It’s no contest.

Gary Oldman in Slow Horses
Photo: Apple TV+

I’ll tell you who’s boring: astronauts. Show me an astronaut and I’ll show you someone who’s only ever made sensible choices in life. Study hard, work out, eat right. When you’re driving somebody else’s 10 billion dollar space van, you can’t afford to get creative. That’s why there’s no such thing as a maverick astronaut; the insurance would never cover it. Put an astronaut in a TV show and create an instant vacuum of dull, reliable excellence.

Unpredictable losers in TV shows are much more entertaining. Unpredictable losers whose nihilistic fug conceals a brain sharper than several tacks are even more entertaining than that. And unpredictable losers who’d be just as likely to emit a long and noxious fart as they would to step out of a fourth-floor window or foil a multi-pronged Russian intelligence operation, are the most entertaining of all. For proof: see Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses.

Ex-Cold War MI5 agent Jackson Lamb is a sentient grease stain. He’s rude, lazy and takes less good care of himself than most toddlers would left to their own devices. His socks are holed. His hair is lank. He’s got sausage juice on his trousers. His diet is deep-fried and his cheap whisky is as on-the-dregs as the rest of him.

He’s also brilliant. Excavate the layers of grime and you’ll find what was once and still may be, the finest of spy minds. There was once talk, a long time ago, that Lamb could have been First Desk at MI5 but Certain Events sent him sideways instead of up.

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Lamb, as created by author Mick Herron and played by Oldman in Will Smith’s (no, not that one) Apple TV+ adaptation, runs Slough House, a sort of pupil referral unit for spooks who’ve shat the bed in a professional context. The ‘slow horses’ of Slough House are a joke to the preppy, pristine agents of Regent’s Park HQ. They’re a warning to the real operatives – mess up and you too will languish in a shithole office doing demeaning work under a boss who cares as little for personal hygiene as he does for your personal fulfilment or well-being.

Or at least that’s how Lamb presents. It suits him to be underestimated and for his people to be the butt of jokes. Mostly because Lamb enjoys cracking those jokes at his people’s expense (the slow horses shouldn’t expect encouragement, annual appraisals or birthday cake from their boss), but also, perhaps, because it allows him a certain latitude. Going unobserved, after all, is what spies do. Take out one of Lamb’s “Joes”, and – whether out of simple professional loyalty or extremely well-concealed personal attachment – God help you.

When Jackson Lamb is good, he’s very, very good. Think of the illicit thrill of watching The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker crush an aide under a snowfall of filthy derisive insults, or of seeing Succession’s Logan Roy tell someone to fuc’awff? It’s that much fun and more.

Whatever Lamb does, he does with a foul-mouthed, sardonic edge and the coolness of a rotting fridge cucumber. Whether royally winding up HQ’s puffed-up internal security service, taking down one of their “dogs” in a hospital corridor, or making life difficult for Park Second Desk “Lady Di” Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas – brilliant, their scenes together on a canalside bench are the show’s finest), he takes the piss first and asks questions later. Nothing seems to touch him. That nicotine-stained brain of Lamb’s works several steps ahead of anybody else’s, when he can be bothered to make use of it.

Don’t be mistaken, beneath Lamb’s carapace isn’t a heart of gold. He’s no secret Dumbledore. He doesn’t treat his team mean to bring out the best in them. He’s just… mean. Lamb undermines them, ignores them, mocks them and pours out measures for a recovering alcoholic to push them off the wagon. He expects his slow horses to keep up and is pitiless when they don’t. He’s pitiless in general.

And yet, there’s something about Jackson Lamb that makes the slow horses want his approval, and makes us want to see him grant it – unlikely as that ever is. It’s the same thing that makes this most unattractive creature extremely attractive to watch, even if you’d get off the bus a stop early if he sat down next to you in real life. My suspicion? That thing is Gary Oldman. Charismatic, handsome, cool Gary Oldman, who’s made Mick Herron’s unforgettable, stinking creation the greatest character on TV right now.

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There are three series of Slow Horses available, two more confirmed, and if there’s any justice in the world, there’ll be another one for every book in Herron’s eight-strong series. Watching that belching stinker outwit MI5’s best and brightest on the rare occasion he can be bothered to raise himself off his fart-soaked sofa is the best fun currently around.

Slow Horses seasons one to three are available to stream on Apple TV+.