How Accurate Is Slow Horses? 6 Things The Show Gets Wrong About MI5

March 12, 2024 - Movies

Spoilers are ahead for Slow Horses season 3.


  • Slow Horses
    is a TV adaptation of Mick Herron’s
    Slough House
    series, focusing on MI5 agents in an administrative purgatory.
  • Slough House isn’t a real-life MI5 branch, so, given the show’s invented premise, it certainly takes some liberties.
  • The spy thriller dramatizes intelligence officers’ fieldwork and exaggerates inter-office politics for entertainment value.

Based on the Slough House series of novels by Mick Herron, Apple TV+’s Slow Horses centers on MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. While Herron is a stickler for narrative details, the TV show adaptation of his best-selling spy thrillers isn’t an entirely accurate depiction of MI5. In Slow Horses, Slough House is an administrative purgatory for MI5 agents who have bungled high-profile missions. Led by their outright miserable boss, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), the so-called “slow horses” of Slough House still end up involved in some of MI5’s most compelling cases.

With three seasons already under its belt, Slow Horses has been renewed through its fifth outing. Needless to say, viewers can expect at least a few more misadventures from Lamb, newcomer River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), and the rest of Slow Horses‘ Slough House agents. For the most part, the Apple TV+ series has adapted Herron’s novel fairly faithfully, making minor story changes to Slow Horses’ plots to better suit the medium of television. However, there are some glaring MI5-related inaccuracies in Slow Horses that become even more apparent when shown on screen.


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6 Slough House Isn’t A Real MI5 Branch

Herron’s MI5 Purgatory Is A Fun Invention

While the darkly humorous, not-so-sleek spy fodder of Slow Horses gets some things right about MI5, it’s grounding premise is not one of them. For better or for worse, Slough House isn’t a real MI5 branch. Although some agents are likely relegated to more administrative duties, there isn’t an entire department that hinges on punishing those who’ve committed grave missteps with dull paperwork — as clever as it may sound. Some of the reasons various characters land in Slough House are probably grounds enough to get them fired in the real world of MI5.


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After all, in the world of counter-intelligence and national security, a high-stakes bungle could cost someone their life. That said, there are certainly other elements of the U.K.’s Security Service that the spy thriller gets right. While the offices on Aldersgate Street in London may be fictional, it is true that the end of the Cold War had huge ramifications for MI5, resulting in operational changes. In Slow Horses, the specter of the Cold War — a pivotal moment for counter-intelligence — can be deeply felt.

…a far cry from the glamorous thrills found in a
James Bond

5 There Is Much More Administrative Work Than Field Work

Intelligence Officers Aren’t Regularly Involved In Thrilling Chases

It’s a pretty well-known fact that TV shows and movies dramatize spy work in order to capitalize on the more thrilling, action-packed elements of the job. “I’m hard-pressed to come up with a show that gets it even in the ballpark in terms of what CIA officers do,” a former intelligence analyst told The Guardian. The same is true for on-screen depictions of MI5 officers. Most of the work counter-intelligence officers do is rather pedestrian — a far cry from the glamorous thrills found in a James Bond picture.


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While Slow Horses certainly doesn’t bill itself as a Bond-style spy show, it still puts an emphasis on field work. From chase scenes to shootouts to hostage situations, Slow Horses episodes can’t detach themselves from the action set-pieces that make spy thrillers so fun. Given that the agents of Slough House are meant to be confined to an administrative purgatory, the Apple TV+ show may do a better job than other series of showing the dull side of things, but there’s no denying that Lamb and Cartwright always wind up in the middle of some thrilling escapade.

Slow Horses

has already been renewed for a fifth season ahead of season 4’s premiere.

4 Slow Horses’ MI5 Agents Don’t Handle Their Weapons Correctly

A Problem That Persists In Most Spy Thrillers

Sope Dirisu as Sean Donovan pointing a gun in Slow Horses

Instead of spending 90% of its runtime on the very real paperwork that counter-intelligence work demands, Slow Horses stays in the field for a good chunk of its runtime. As a result, viewers get to see officers brandishing firearms, clearing rooms, and engaging in shootouts. While that can certainly be part of the job for undercover agents, that doesn’t mean Slow Horses gets the details right. Like other spy and law enforcement-centered series, the characters often mishandle their weapons.


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Not only are there too many gunfights and agents with over-the-top combat skills, but, according to vets from the field, characters often keep their finger on the trigger of a gun — even if they have no intention of firing it. Evidently, this is a glaring mistake. If an agent is clearing a room or holding their firearm, there would be no need to touch the trigger. Instead, they’d keep their finger along the barrel. “You don’t touch the trigger until you plan on squeezing it,” one CIA retiree informed The Guardian.

3 Slow Horses Features Dramatized Inter-Office Politics

Intelligence Agents Double Cross Each Other For The Drama

Kirstin Scott Thomas looking mysteriously off-screen in Slow Horses season 3.

No matter the field or industry, any and all workplaces will have their fair share of interoffice drama. Likely, MI5, which hinges on a kind of hierarchy, is no different. Still, the sheer number of double-crossings, moles, and revenge-seeking former agents in Slow Horses seems wildly high. Again, those are just the hallmarks of an exciting TV series. However, shows like Slow Horses and The Bureau do get a few things right about the friction between higher-ups at headquarters and agents in the field.

Slow Horses

season 4 should be released by the end of December 2024.

In Slow Horses season 3, quite a few plot points hinge on interoffice politics. For starters, Sean Donovan (Sope Dirisu) enacts his whole plot in the name of his late lover (and fellow former agent) in an attempt to expose MI5’s failings. Meanwhile, the way Kristin Scott Thomas’ Diana Taverner positions herself to claim First Desk (and oust Tearney) seems just a little too impassioned and plotted to feel convincing — or professional. Of course, without this ruthless self-preservation, there wouldn’t be a Slow Horses season 4.

2 MI5 Doesn’t Really Have “Grey Books”

The Slow Horses Season 3 Plot Device Was Invented For The Show

Gary Oldman sitting up from a laying position in Slow Horses season 3.

Slow Horses trades in career secrets and conspiracies, but season 3 of the series takes that notion to new heights. As mentioned, Donovan is intent on exposing MI5’s dark secrets, which leads to the reveal of the so-called Grey Books. Invented for the series, the Grey Books allegedly hold detailed records of every conspiracy theory that’s come to light over the last century — since MI5’s inception or so. As far as public knowledge goes, MI5 doesn’t have a collection of conspiracy theories recorded in anything resembling the Grey Books.

1 Cases Take Much Longer In Real Life Than In Slow Horses

MI5 Isn’t Actually All-Knowing

River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) looking over his shoulder in Slow Horses season 2, episode 5.

Condensing an entire case into just a handful of episodes can be tricky for any espionage-centered show, but that’s perhaps especially true for Slow Horses. Each season of the Apple TV+ show boasts just six episodes. Although that keeps things moving at a solid clip, it also requires more suspension of disbelief. Largely, running intel-gathering operations is a slow-burn process. Despite all the technology and knowledge organizations like MI5 have at their disposal, they aren’t omniscient organizations, which means cases often unfold over years — not a few days or weeks, as they do in Slow Horses.

All three seasons of

Slow Horses

are streaming on Apple TV+.

Source: The Guardian

  • Apple TV Slow Horses Poster Key Art

    Slow Horses

    Slow Horses is an adaptation of CWA Gold Dagger Award-winning Mick Herron’s first novel in the “Slow Horses” series, which follows a team of British intelligence agents who serve in a dumping ground department of MI5 – Slough House. Gary Oldman stars as Jackson Lamb, the brilliant but irascible leader of the spies who end up in Slough House due to their career-ending mistakes.

    Release Date:

    Jonathan Pryce, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden, Gary Oldman, Saskia Reeves, Chris Reilly, Rosalind Eleazar, Christopher Chung, Olivia Cooke

    Thriller, Drama


    Story By:
    Mick Herron

    Will Smith, Mark Denton, Morwenna Banks

    Streaming Service(s):
    Apple TV+

    Season List:

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