Nasrdin Dchar as Mardik Sardagh
On Television

Good cops and bad spies

Intelligence services as portrayed on-screen are pretty ghastly places to work

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Perhaps it’s because I have reviewed several fine Dutch television dramas, including The Adulterer and Floodland, that the Netflix algorithm suggested I might like The Golden Hour.

It was a good call. This enthralling Dutch crime series had me on the edge of my seat. Just six episodes long, it is tautly directed and skilfully scripted. Mardik Sardagh, marvellously played by Nasrdin Dchar, is an Afghan refugee now living a quiet suburban life in the Netherlands.

Happily married, with a daughter, Mardik is a detective. He wants to believe that he is accepted by his colleagues. But doubts linger — especially when Islamist terrorists go on a killing rampage.

Evocative flashbacks take us to Mardik’s childhood in Afghanistan and his best friend Faysal. Faysal’s family were killed at a Taliban checkpoint. He grows up to become an international terrorist mastermind. When an attack in a Dutch market kills numerous victims, Mardik learns Faysal is in the country.

But to track Faysal down Mardik has to go rogue. His under-the-radar journey into the world of Afghan exiles, their loyalties and relationships, takes us into the heart of a community usually closed to outsiders.

The niceties of police procedures are swiftly forgotten as Mardik kidnaps and roughly interrogates a potential lead. The Golden Hour deftly, without being didactic, raises sharp questions about identity, loyalty and integration. Does Mardik revert to the old ways of Afghanistan too easily, or is this what is needed to get the job done and stop further attacks?

Meanwhile his problems steadily mount: a psychopathic Dutch security service officer, determined to believe that Mardik is a terrorist himself, kidnaps his family and brutally interrogates his wife. Some very unsettling scenes follow. Be warned: the portrayal of the massacre in the shopping centre is unsparing.

The terrorists coldly and methodically pick off their victims one by one, reloading clip after clip of ammunition. I’m no expert, but some of the Dutch police tactics did seem a bit awry and not very reassuring.

The response to the attack was extremely slow as the tactical unit weaved through traffic en route to a live shooting incident. Don’t the Dutch police, especially elite squads, have helicopters? Such quibbles aside, The Golden Hour is golden television: fast-paced, nuanced and thought-provoking.

Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb

Slow Horses has moved from a canter to a thundering gallop as its storylines evolve and its characters become ever-more complex and engaging. Season three, now showing on Apple TV, is simply some of the best drama now on television.

The series is based on Mick Herron’s thrillers about MI5 officers who have failed or messed up and so get shunted sideways to Slough House, a very run-down office building in central London.

There are addicts of all stripes and a high-functioning near alcoholic in the flatulent, greasy-haired shape of Jackson Lamb, superbly played by Gary Oldman. Lamb is the boss, living on whisky and kebabs, perpetually rude, dismissive and apparently completely uncaring about his charges. “You lot are about as useless as a paper condom,” he thunders.

But behind his surly exterior he is ferociously loyal to his charges — and a highly skilled and determined intelligence officer. Which is handy for the team as they soon face a new enemy: their supposed colleagues — and rivals — at MI5.

The first episode opens in Istanbul with a nicely-shot, panoramic (if not very subtle homage to James Bond) chase and bedroom scenes and a nasty murder. From there a smart storyline emerges about a cover-up at the very highest levels of MI5.

I’ve noticed over the years that intelligence services of all nations are usually portrayed in print and on-screen as pretty ghastly places to work. Sure, there are risky assignments, but the main danger seems to be a bureaucratic knife in the back as colleagues and rivals compete to wreck each other’s careers and advance their own.

Slow Horses takes this to a new and eye-opening level. Ingrid Tearney, the boss of MI5, played with understated menace by Sophie Okonedo, despatches a special forces-type hit squad, a bunch of thugs and killers, known as “The Dogs”, to put down the Slow Horses.

The action scenes in the narrow corridors and twisting staircases of a remote MI5 archive are superb. Lamb’s team fight ferociously for their lives, flanking, deceiving and sometimes just charging ahead as they steadily take down their pursuers.

But what really lifts the drama onto another level is the show’s rich characterisation. Kristin Scott Thomas once again delivers a clipped, snooty performance as Lamb’s nemesis Diana Taverner, MI5’s deputy head.

We get to know each of the Slow Horses, their foibles and very human weaknesses. Shirley Dander, played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards, has a serious cocaine habit. Marcus Longridge, played by Kadiff Kirwan, is a gambling addict. Both joined the team in Season Two. When they mess up a mission, Lamb swiftly fires them. But when duty calls, their courage is tested to the limit.

And finally a brief reminder about The Night Agent, which I reviewed back in June 2023. This “intelligent fast-paced conspiracy tale set in Washington, D.C.” is based on a thriller written by Matthew Quirk, an American reporter. It’s a gripping journey into the dark side of the US military-industrial complex.

The Night Agent was Netflix’s most watched show in the first half of 2023, clocking up 812 million hours of viewing time around the world. Don’t worry if you are late to the party — it’s still showing.

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