Dirty and nasty – not your average spy thriller

A rail shuttle bus service to Oxford Parkway isn’t the most glamorous of locations to start a spy thriller, but Apple TV+ Slow horses trade not in luster but in dirt.

As the first series of this adaptation of Mick Herron’s novels established, the run-down outpost of Slough House is home to MI5’s least promising staff. Now in its second season, the office remains a career dead end, led by Gary Oldman’s spunky, cursing spy Jackson Lamb, the world’s messiest noodle eater.

The second part kicks off in typically downbeat style, taking place mostly in minicab offices, old school drinks and greasy spoon caffs (these may be the brownest interiors on TV). The railway replacement bus turns out to be the final resting place for Richard ‘Dickie’ Bough, a retired MI5 field agent who now runs a sex shop in London’s Soho.

The tense opening scenes see Dickie spotting someone he not only recognizes but also triggers flashbacks to a harrowing interrogation. He promptly follows the man, only to die of apparent heart failure along the way, only managing to type a single word into his Notes app before turning it off.

That word is “cicada”, an old code for Russian sleeper agents supposedly embedded in British society, but they have long been considered a well-executed hoax by MI5, and their alleged spymaster, “Popov”, is alleged to was invented. Lamb—not convinced either that the cicadas are a myth or that Dickie’s death was what it seems—puts his team, nicknamed the “Slow Horses” together, finally giving something to upstart River Cartwright ( genius Jack Loughton). to be excited about, even if it’s just a small undercover mission in Upshott.

River – now unsuccessfully interviewing for private intelligence jobs – is still frustrated and foul-mouthed, haunted by the shadow of the mistake that opened series one when he staged a monumental counter-terrorism training exercise. Back at Slough House, tech whiz Roddy (Christopher Chung) continues to be a jerk and secretary Catherine (Saskia Reeves) continues to be overlooked.

There are also some new faces. Bolshy Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), who seems to have real seriousness, and poor forgetful Marcus (Kadiff Kerwan), who Lamb keeps calling Mike.

But Min (Dustin Demri-Burns) and Louisa (Rosalind Eleazor) get the show’s other big storyline. Now officially a couple, they are seconded to run security for a hush-hush meeting between Kristin Scott Thomas’ MI5 chief Diana and a dissident Russian oligarch, but soon their relationship is under strain.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner (Photo: Jack English/Apple)
Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner (Photo: Jack English/Apple)

This thread is definitely the less compelling of the two, but perhaps the auspicious timing of the meeting and Dickie’s death will bring these past and present entanglements with Russian intelligence together before the series ends.

Apple was so convinced that Slow horses it would be a hit that it did the first two seasons back-to-back, allowing for a nice consistency in how the second series follows on from the first. It feels lived-in and authentic, almost to a fault: some of the duller espionage elements don’t exactly make for engaging viewing, and those looking for high-octane action should look elsewhere.

But the charm of Slow horses it’s more than gunfights. It’s built primarily on character, and the well-cast ensemble has believable chemistry, picking on each other and trading insults as they struggle to stay motivated.

Nobody at Slough House is shy about the fact that their biggest desire is to put it behind them, but with another solid run under their belt, this bunch of losers could be stuck there for a while yet.

Slow Horses has two streams on Apple TV+ from Friday, December 2

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