In a media climate where we have to wait years between seasons of our favorite shows, props go to Apple TV+ for delivering the goods within a year of the previous finale. Clearly, Slow Horses has a leg up on entertainment titans like The Last of Us or Stranger Things; it’s a small-scale spy thriller adapting a cleanly plotted novel, with six episodes clocking in at four-ish hours of actual TV, shot in and around mundane London with a cast of working actors who don’t have to worry about massive schedule conflicts.
In under two years, we’ll have three seasons of adventures with MI5’s least appreciated and most cock-up prone agents – and the first two episodes of the third season (both now available on Apple TV+) promise the tightest, most sure-footed escapade yet. We are deftly caught up with our main characters: River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is still slumming it at Slough House after calling in a false Code September during last season’s Russian standoff and is feeling frustrated with Regent’s Park (MI5 headquarters) wasting his time – now making him and Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) do pointless archiving of old dusty files.
Last season’s newcomers Marcus (Kadiff Kirwan) and Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) have formed a closer bond with/against the resident irritating techboy Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung) – they’re first seen conferring about Marcus’ gambling habit, the hiding place of a missing Russian diamond from last season’s finale, and Roddy’s chauvinistic desire to hook up with Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar). Louisa is still deep in grief over losing Min in Season 2, busying herself with glasses of wine and unfeeling hookups. She is also hiding the missing diamond in a tub of Ben and Jerry’s. Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) is gross and unhealthy, farting in the waiting room of private clinics and drinking/smoking his way to ruin — the usual.
But before this, we’re plunged into some Istanbul intrigue. Two romantically entwined agents Alison (Katherine Waterston) and Sean (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), appear all sunshine and daisies, but Sean has been sent to stop Alison from leaking sensitive intel (a file named “Footprint”). She denies it point blank but has secretly hidden the file in a pot of hummus. Sean chases her across Istanbul’s streets and waters until he catches her at a stadium – but she’s been killed, with the file missing. Sean reappears in London at an AA meeting run by Catherine and asks her for a coffee so they can discuss her being his sponsor. His struggles with grief seem sincere, but Catherine starts to suspect something’s up with Sean and some watchful eyes around them.
She’s right! She’s pounced on and abducted. She has the worst luck. Quickly, the various agents suspect something’s up and work out Catherine’s been kidnapped (Jackson noticed some watchful eyes trained on him the night before, in case she tried to contact him for help). Louisa traces Catherine’s last known whereabouts, and her flat is searched – just as they start working things out, River gets a message from Catherine. It’s a photo of her bound with a gun to her head – a mysterious voice tells him to be on Barbican Bridge in the next minute if he wants her to stay alive. Things are cooking now.
River races to the bridge to find Spider Webb (Freddie Fox) and reasonably assumes he’s the kidnapper. Spider protests that the hostage takers have threatened his family if he doesn’t cooperate and instructs River to fetch a secret file from The Park’s securest archives within an hour. River snatches Spider’s gem-encrusted tie clip before legging it through central London. He muscles his way into the office of Nick Duffy (Chris Reilly), who’s not so chuffed to see River after the Code September fiasco, but River distracts him with Spider’s tie clip diamond (pretending it’s the missing Russian one) as he sneaks off to find the relevant file.
Almost in response to River’s relative passiveness last season, he’s at the center of a firestorm of physical antics in “Hard Lessons.” He delivers tense thrills as well as a whistle-stop tour of familiar faces, with Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Molly Doran (Naomi Wirthner) sparring off with Duffy’s new consolidation of Dogs inside The Park. Shirley and Marcus get to run a bit, too – an attempt to tail a suspicious watchman stationed outside Slough House results in an extended and fruitless foot chase through London that only results in the revelation that Shirley is an absolute speed demon.
Where are we at the end of the breakneck opening two episodes? Jackson called off River’s hunt after finding out Catherine was kidnapped by an independent Tiger Team of specialist agents. Catherine is starting to suspect she’s not at the center of an ordinary kidnapping – she’s held in a fetching thatched roof cottage rather than an anonymous safe house, her kidnapper seems to have told her his real name, and his team is less than forceful about their hostage-keeping duties.
Hopefully, by Episode 3, we’ll get some details on what the main spy plot is actually about, but we’ll take this propulsive thriller energy whenever it’s offered. If the show keeps being this fast-paced, they might have to drop the “Slow” from the title.