'Slow Horses' "Cicada" Brings a Satisfying Twist to the Show's Second Season

Picture shows: Gary Oldman and Aimee-Ffion Edwards in "Slow Horses"

Gary Oldman and Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Jackson and Shirley in "Slow Horses"

Apple TV+

This time last season on Slow Horses, our characters sort of mirrored where they were by the end of season 2’s fourth episode. The conflict was escalating, and the strands were starting to unite, but there were still a lot of question marks floating about. Over a continuous, rolling time frame, the slow horses had to bury themselves deeper into their espionage to find out how to get the targets off their backs.

At this point in season 2, however, the show is lagging a fair bit behind season 1, and while “Cicada” succeeds in flipping our expectations by the end of the episode, it often feels like we’re a bit stop-and-start, only receiving small insights into storylines that should be expanding in front of us. We’re two-thirds of the way into the show; everything that happens needs to land a much more significant impact.

Last we saw River, he was undercover as journalist John in Upshott, having a nice meal with Kelly’s mother, Alex, and father, Duncan, and who were, if we remember correctly, a bit suspicious. (I wonder if that’ll be important later…) Our fears were confirmed when Chernitsky was welcomed into their gathering under the alias Leo, and for a lot of “Cicada,” River and Leo enjoy some back-and-forth James Bond-style as he picks at Leo’s facade while deflecting some of the Russian’s interrogations himself.

Picture shows: Jack Lowden and Tamsin Topolski in "Slow Horses"

Jack Lowden and Tamsin Topolski as River and Kelly in "Slow Horses"

Apple TV+

There’s chat about poaching and Kelly’s dodgy flying, and the whole conversation feels a little one-note. There’s not much going on in Lowden’s performance; River works best in the heat of battle, having to make tough decisions, not leaning back, and playfully studying his opponents. If you had your money on Lowden being the next pick for 007, I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Last week’s other cliffhanger gives a more exciting resolution; Jackson was pushing Rebecca (Emily Bruni), the driver who struck Min, for info on who staged his death. She reveals she was told to bring her car to the Russians’ residence, where she saw Pashkin’s goons take Min out and hit him with a car before Chernitsky deals the final blow with a minuscule poison injection. There’s also the chance that Pashkin was at the residence, tying him directly to Chernitsky’s assassinations. 

Our two main Russian stories — the Pashkin meeting and Dickie Bow’s assassination – haven’t been woven together that slickly or dramatically. In Season 1, the far-right group was firmly tied to the actions of our secondary antagonists — Taverner and MI5 organized the kidnapping and hunted down our cast of spies. It was much tighter than here, where the strands feel more disparate and thinly sketched. Most of this episode lacks the urgency the plot should be pulsating with by this point in the story, but the grisly procedural way we watch Min get dispatched in flashback still packs a real punch.

Picture shows: Gary Oldman and Emily Bruni in "Slow Horses"

Gary Oldman and Emily Bruni as Jackson and Rebecca in "Slow Horses"

Apple TV+

Jackson, it appears, is donning the role of spymaster admirably this season. He tries to get intel from his dissident friend Nikky, but he’s been set up as a distraction from shady Russian shenanigans elsewhere — so he sets out to find out what before it’s too late. Getting the locations Min went to prior to his death from his Fitbit watch, Jackson stakes out where the Russian agents went last — an import/export company where some illicit goods were picked up (this is what Min spotted while tailing them on his bike!) After he menacingly plays with some model boats, Jackson and Shirley stake out Nevsky’s mansion, where he swears and lightly compliments her (they have good chemistry) before they realize Nevsky’s front door is open. Despite all the CCTV cameras pointing at the street, no one’s come out to threaten them.

Meanwhile, Louisa is spiraling a bit, and Rosalind Eleazar does a commendable job of showing her character’s grief-stricken determination. Armed with a boxcutter, she chats to Pashkin at his hotel bar, and the sadness and anger at what she’s sure his folk did to Min is visible under her deceptively flirty expression. Pashkin invites her upstairs, where, armed with a boxcutter, she goes up to get some answers — but Marcus pulls her away at the last moment; he’s been instructed to keep an eye on her by Jackson. Louisa thinks something’s up with Pashkin’s relationship with Nevsky, which gets confirmed after Jackson and Shirley descend into his manor…

The scene where the two agents walk through the imposing, sleekly decorated house is a clear highlight of “Cicada.” The lighting, interior design, and snapshots of bloodied bodies and discarded documents make for a well-shot, eerie journey, and mixed with a great score by Toydrum and Daniel Pemberton; you’re reminded how stylized and atmospheric Slow Horses can be. As it turns out, Nevsky’s dead, injected with something deathly radioactive, and shot himself to escape the agonizing death – but he’s missing a thumb. So, Nevsky isn’t the big baddy of the season, and Pashkin wasn’t just his lackey.

Picture shows: Saskia Reeves and Branko Djuric in "Slow Horses"

Saskia Reeves and Branko Djuric as Standish and Krymov in "Slow Horses" 

Apple TV+

It’s a great subversion and redirects the story nicely for the final two episodes. Meanwhile, River tracks Leo down after he leaves the Tropper’s home and holds him at gunpoint — but his attempts to talk down a confused Alex end with him incapacitated by a taser on the ground. Don’t trust anyone, River! Why’d you let her get so close to you? Things should spice up for River next week.

A nice grace note for this episode: Standish has been in the backseat for too much of this season but thankfully gets to do a bit of demure spy work herself – posing as MI5 to get intel from the go-between who was setting up the Russian meeting for Webb in the first place. She finds him — Krymov (Branko Djuric) – playing chess and drinking vodka, and there’s a buzz between the two spies that was slightly lacking from River and Leo’s confrontation earlier. Even though the stakes feel a little undefined, Standish talks achingly about her alcoholism, and you get a clear sense through actor Saskia Reeves how she’s channeling something she feels as a weakness through her grief and boring work.

Hopefully, we get to see more of this Standish in the final episodes, but as it stands, “Cicada” gets by more on these tiny character moments and bubbles of tension. Still, the drama feels more tenuous than tight, and we really should be more invested in this espionage as we’re about to hit the final stretch.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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