The Spool / Reviews
Slow Horses returns, darker and thornier than ever
AppleTV+’s tale of bad spies stops telling jokes, starts getting intense.
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AppleTV+’s tale of bad spies stops telling jokes, starts getting intense.

The danger in revisiting anything surprising in its quality the first time around is the loss of that surprise. Once you know a book, movie, or TV series can tell compelling stories, crack great jokes, or create multi-dimensional characters, one can’t help but expect that from its follow-ups and sequels. When the shock is gone, can the work still deliver? If so, how?

After being a genuinely wonderful surprise earlier this year in season 1, Slow Horses is back to stare down that challenge. The show responds by coming back differently. The result is a tradeoff. Much of the humor of season 1 is gone or darkened significantly. What were laugh-out-loud moments in the initial season are more likely to be the sort of poke-you-in-the-ribs rueful chuckle that comes when facing a situation so terrible the only way you can think to respond is a laugh.

Slow Horses Season 2 (AppleTV+)
Jack Lowden’s hunger to be a hero keeps getting him in trouble. (AppleTV+)

In its place, Slow Horses has committed to the tension and action set pieces. Swapping out James Hawes for Jeremy Lovering on directing duties helps with this endeavor. Slough House’s workplace dramedy setting is rarely seen or pored over the same way. In its place, the series takes it offsite far more often. Season 1 mostly kept things at the home base with only the occasional diversion outside until the season’s final two episodes broadened the scope. Here, Slough’s spies are back in the world and reticent to return to life behind a desk, especially a desk in that miserable office.

In contrast to the characters being more in the world, this season’s storyline is inward-facing. A meditation on how the mistakes Intelligence made during the Cold War didn’t just disappear with the Soviet Union’s fall, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) finds himself dancing with the ghosts of his past. Even in British intelligence, the chickens do eventually come home to roost. Sometimes it just takes over 30 years.

[Slow Horses] provides thornier [pleasures], charms that sprinkle a generous helping of pain into the mix.

Thankfully, it isn’t as maudlin as that sounds. The tradeoffs prove worth it. Some may miss the humor, but the interpersonal dynamics are sharper and smarter. At times in season one, there was an almost cartoonish energy to the Slough’s bad apples, which made for delightful times. However, they feel more real here, making them easier to root for and their pains harder to shake. The show’s no longer content to pretend the team’s just filled with people lousy at their job. Now, it digs deeper to remind us what we learned last year. These aren’t bad spies. They’re good employees shoved into taking the fall for leadership that’s frequently power-mad, greedy, cowardly, and short-sighted. They’re paying for their sins by being stuck in the bush league of MI:5, but they’re paying for a lot of other people’s sins as well.

Slow Horses Season 2 (AppleTV+)
Slow Horses Season 2 new additions like Kadiff Kirwan don’t get much to do, but Rosalind Eleazar delivers a more complicated turn. (AppleTV+)

Refreshingly, though, Slow Horses doesn’t just let them off the hook. It takes the time to show us why each of them were such easy marks. Lamb’s dedication to his Joes makes him equally likely to go too far in their name or punish them swiftly when they run aground of his expectations. River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) can’t stop trying to live up to his master spy grandfather’s (Jonathan Pryce) good name, repeatedly sending him on “look before you leap” ill-advised attempts at heroism. Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) is so excited at having a shred of respectability back he becomes too reckless to protect it from what he perceives as slights.

So, no, Slow Horses doesn’t just deliver the same pleasures it did last season. Instead, it provides thornier ones, charms that sprinkle a generous helping of pain into the mix. Of course, there’s no replicating a good surprise. So the series does the next best thing—find new ways to grab your attention.

Slow Horses mount up for Season 2 December 2 on AppleTV+.

Slow Horses Season 2 Trailer: