Apple’s darkly funny and thrilling spy saga Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron’s Slough House series of novels, enjoyed a relatively quiet debut earlier this year, which is to say that it arrived like the majority of the streaming service’s shows. But unlike those that are best forgotten, the British drama fully deserves to break through the noise when Season 2 premieres Friday with two new episodes.
If there was one issue plaguing Slow Horses’ first season, it was a lackluster kidnapping case that eventually mired the otherwise engaging series and its cast of lovable misfits in the resulting mess. The show’s six-episode second season seeks to make us forget that predictable first season with a twisty, Russian-themed narrative in which Jackson Lamb (a superb Gary Oldman) and the rest of Slough House—MI5 agents who’ve all been exiled to a kind of purgatory after screwing up on the job—must dig into long-buried Cold War secrets to prevent a potentially catastrophic attack on London.
Season 2 is based on the novel Dead Lions, and without having read it, I cannot say for sure how closely the new season sticks to its source material. But in some ways it feels like the show’s writers heard the faint criticism of the first season, attempted to course correct, and ended up with a narrative that tries to be sneaky and comes up just short. And yet, it does little to take away from the show’s innate charms.
When a former agent dismissed from the service after going AWOL before the fall of Berlin Wall is found dead on a bus in the season premiere, Lamb suspects his death wasn’t simple heart failure like it says on paper. Upon investigation, he discovers a coded, one-word message left on the man’s cell phone—cicada—referencing a former KGB operation involving sleeper agents embedded in British society that was discovered to be a hoax once the spymaster believed to be controlling them was revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
But what if it wasn’t?
This is the question that drives much of the action of Slow Horses in Season 2, as old secrets and channels from the Cold War era are given renewed life, and with them a fun game of cat and mouse that raises the stakes from the kidnapping scenario of Season 1. Everyone at Slough House, from the underappreciated and underestimated Standish (Saskia Reeves) and obnoxious Roddy (Christopher Chung), to newcomers Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan), has a role to play, even if it’s not immediately clear what that role is or how all the many moving pieces will come together in the end. Somehow, they do, and while it’s not always smooth sailing—don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing a game of Wait, Which Russian Is This?—it does make for an entertaining watch as the show balances the thrills of spycraft with a well-honed sense of humor. The fact that this ragtag group from the dumping ground of MI5 manages to find itself at the center of a mission that’s not on anyone’s radar but still has real stakes is what makes Slow Horses so much fun to watch.
Of course, much of that fun also stems from Oldman, who portrays Lamb as a man who is exceptionally, annoyingly good at his job while embodying him with a loathsomeness that explains why he’s running Slough House and not in the upper echelon with Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) at The Park. Meanwhile, Jack Lowden as River Cartwright remains not just easy to root for, but someone whose intelligence, skills in the field, and drive make him someone who can easily stand up to Lamb (and to Lamb’s best and most ruthless jibes). And yet, if there’s one person who stands out this season, it’s Rosalind Eleazar as Louisa Guy, who brings weight and pathos to the proceedings in a storyline that reminds us of the potential costs of the spy genre.
But while Slow Horses seems to have settled into a welcome, familiar groove in Season 2, there are some lingering question marks. In Season 1, the fate of Olivia Cooke’s Sid was left up in the air, though it was implied she was alive. There is no mention of her here, and at times it feels like Shirley was brought in as a one-to-one replacement. The fact that both women remain more or less mysteries by the end of the season does not help refute this idea. But Shirley is a welcome addition to Slough House’s coterie of misfits and a fun foil for Roddy, who continues to be both the best and the worst, depending on the situation.
The show has already been renewed for Seasons 3 and 4, and while it’s likely never going to be a huge cultural smash like the Emmy-winning Ted Lasso, or as critically beloved as Severance, Slow Horses is another quality addition to Apple’s growing slate of programs, and one that helps it expand into new and different genres. It’s a shame the show might continue to be as undervalued as Standish when it’s proven itself to be a wholly enjoyable and more than capable spy series. But then again, flying under the radar feels right at home for the men and women of Slough House.
The first two episodes of Slow Horses Season 2 are now streaming, with new episodes debuting weekly.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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