In Season 2, Slow Horses Goes Full Bond — For Better and Worse

As clandestine meeting places go, a laundromat was an unexpected choice. Yet that’s exactly where the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses, an adaptation of the Mick Herron novel by the same name, decides to take the action by the end of its second episode. It’s a move characteristic of the eccentric but charming series, which rebels against the traditions of the spy thriller by focusing the action on MI5’s worst and dimmest (or, as the show’s theme song calls them, “misfits and losers, hanging by a thread”).

In Season 1, golden boy River Cartwright was punished for a dangerous mistake during an MI5 training exercise with an assignment to Slough House: a dead end unit where the agency’s screwups are sent to while away their remaining years before retirement somewhere they can do no harm. Unfortunately for them, and possibly for the world, River’s refusal to give up on a lead eventually drags the whole motley crew of oddballs — the hacker, the wise guy, the hotshot, the old hand, and of course their underestimated but acerbically witty leader Jackson Lamb — into a surprisingly nail-biting chase to uncover an illegal op in the heart of MI5 and, in doing so, save an innocent London immigrant from assassination by a white supremacist terror cell.

The series’ premiere, which I adored for many reasons, brilliantly mixed that peculiarly British brand of dark humor with the tension of a classic MI5 story and the grounding of a political thriller. Season 2, which premiered on Apple TV+ in early December, brings all of that to the table and more, but as it ups the stakes it loses something of the first season’s frightening realism. In the new installment, which shares little more than a set of shared characters with the first, Slow Horse leader Jackson Lamb sets out to avenge his old agency comrade Dickie Bo, who he believes has been assassinated by Cold War era sleeper agents known as cicadas.

Of course, the idea that a deep cover operative planted before the fall of the Berlin Wall has been living in London undetected for decades seems ridiculous to the point of insanity to MI5 command, so Lamb turns to his resident bunch of crazy people (hey, team!) to solve the case.

Cue the music, hop on a motorcycle and be ready to give chase, this high-flying adventure will be shaken, not stirred. And indeed, the Slow Horses’ second outing has the feel of a Bond story, much more so than their first. Episode 2, “From Upshott With Love,” makes the show’s heritage clear with an explicit reference to Fleming’s work, not to mention providing us with the entertaining spectacle of River’s terrible attempt to go undercover as a “local journalist.” (Seriously, has that guy ever met a journalist? The fact that the Russians don’t shoot him on sight is a minor miracle.)

I’m sorry, but this man is not a journalist.

Yet, while I enjoy this season’s spy spectacle — complete with car chases, skyscraper shootouts, radioactive poisons, and a guy’s thumb getting cut off for reasons I still don’t fully understand — I find myself missing the gritty, edge of your seat tension of the series premiere. The first chase, six bad spies against four domestic terrorists, was gripping precisely because it was so disturbingly, chillingly plausible. That could happen, it has happened, and as a result the message season one left in its wake — a story of the misfit, imperfect and inevitably flawed heroes who nevertheless stand against hate, no matter what — was all the more powerful.

Season 2, with its focus on Cold War lore, feels like a regression to an earlier, now vanished era, when spies were still unquestioned heroes and “communism” was a realistic threat to UK national security. While the twists of the season finale begin to steer the story back into the grey, I remain disappointed that the series’ return to screen lost some of the innovative brilliance of its first outing, yet hopeful that Season 3, which is already in production, will be well worth the wait.

By Declan Bradley

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7 months ago

Love Mick Herron’s Slow Horses and Jackson Lamb? Interested in real spies like Kim Philby, John le Carré, Alan Pemberton or Bill Fairclough and how they got on with the SAS? Then read Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files espionage series about the real scoundrels in MI6 aka Pemberton’s People. See a brief and intriguing News Article dated 31 October 2022 in TheBurlingtonFiles website and get ready to call your local film producer!

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