Slow Horses excels in feeling like it takes place in the real world more than a lot of spy TV, while also extending itself into thriller trappings to make the story and characters really pop. After the first two episodes of Season 2, it’s clear lead writer Will Smith (along with a team brought over from Season 1) have ironed out some of the show’s more obvious kinks, launching us into a thorny mystery that stays just on the right side of pulp and shows remarkable confidence.
We kick off with an older Londoner in his Soho sex shop, who sets off in persuit after a bald man. We don’t know who either of these people are, but the Londoner has just suffered some violent flashbacks to unsavoury spy work after seeing this stranger. We’ll learn this is a retired agent, Dickie Bow (Phil Davis), who left the field obsessed with the idea of “cicadas”, Russian sleeper agents entrenched in British society, but you can already tell Dickie has experience in the field from the methodical, determined way he tracks his target.
This ruthlessness won’t last long; soon Dickie drops dead from heart trouble on a replacement bus service. On the surface, it doesn’t look like homicide, and no-one in the Service thinks it suspicious. Except for our hero, Jackson Lamb.
Things haven’t changed over at Slough House since Season 1’s events, much to the chagrin of its residents. Our man River Cartwright is interviewing for a private intelligence company, but they’re only really interested in gossiping about his current boss. There are a couple of new faces; Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) shares a room with Roddy, much to his annoyance, and Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan) seems happy, wiling away his time in purgatory by not doing much. Even after their victory with Hassan’s kidnapping, the Slow Horses still find themselves stuck, stuck, stuck.
Progress is happening for our burgeoning lovebirds; Min and Louisa’s snarky banter feels a lot more playful and affectionate now they’re in a relationship – a successful one, by the looks of it, as they’ve started looking for flats together. Spider Webb has tapped them for external work: setting up and securing a meeting with Arkady Pashkin, a representative of Russian oligarch Ilya Nevsky, who could pose a serious threat to Russia’s state power. Spider admits to Taverner he’s using Slow Horses to insulate his boss from any political destabilization that an eventual meeting between her and Nevsky would cause.
Despite Min and Louisa’s story being distinct from the show's central drama (at least until it’s revealed what the Russian sleeper agents have to do with Russian political dissidents), it’s impressive to see a complicated relationship dynamic work alongside the plot mechanisms of espionage moving forward. They started as distinctly supporting players, but the writers have judged how much time audiences want to spend with Min and Louisa.
After the obligatory “every Slow Horse assembles in the computer room to sort out what’s going on” scene, Lamb is deeply troubled by the “cicada” lead he finds on Dickie’s phone; something River works out independently through his ex-service grandfather. He confronts his boss about the intel to persuade Lamb to buddy up with their investigations.
Despite any lingering resentment, River does want to impress his boss. (Jackson also wrote a favorable reference for River’s interview, which you can only imagine was like pulling teeth for him.) In general, Lamb and River’s relationship feels more well-defined and dynamic, a back-and-forth of calling one another out but respecting each other’s intelligence.
It can be hard to follow the number of Russian names banded about without being attached to a physical person. In some cases, like Alexander Popov, the spymaster Dickie spent fruitless years chasing, they’re supposed to feel intangible and out of reach – their elusiveness is key to complicating the mystery. We meet Russian defector Nikolai Katinsky in Episode 2, combining the cicada plot with Min and Louisa’s meeting with Pashkin, who’s representing Nevsky, not to mention Nikolai naming Dickie’s assassin as Andre Chernitsky… (I know it’s to set up a foundation of exposition ahead of the action, but it isn’t easy to latch onto names and not tangible characters in two storylines.)
Roddy and Shirley do a bit of tag-team espionage to get CCTV footage of Dickie’s killer, leading River to a taxi driver who won’t talk until he’s been paid off, just as Chernitsky did. But River susses that he’s been fed incorrect info and resorts to choking out the driver to figure out the truth. The driver takes him to an airfield outside of London, just as Roddy tracks Chernitsky’s phone to Tallinn, Estonia – but seeing as the show makes a point to suggest River could be reading the number wrong, this may be a misdirect, and Chernitsky is still in the country. Even as Jackson gives River a new identity to go undercover at the airfield’s private flying club, he notes they could be being set up.
Things are tenser with Min and Louisa at the tail end of Episode 2. After a fight, the couple parted on bad terms, and Min starts tailing a Russian agent they had liaised with about Pushkin solo. Both sides know about each other’s suspicions; after an earlier public meeting, Min raced after them on a bike to suss out they were lying about where they were staying, plus they want to be present while Min and Louisa sweep the meeting room for bugs (always a bad sign).
Min’s tailing doesn’t go as planned; it results in his face being pushed against a wall and a gun held to his neck. Min may have a commendable knack for sticking his nose where it’s not invited, but he can’t exactly fight his way out of dire consequences. Hopefully, Season 2’s confidence builds up over the next few episodes and answers more questions. If things continue this well, it’ll cement Slow Horses as a standout in an oversaturated genre and a master of balancing the mundane and the thrilling.