Apple TV+’s Slow Horses was quite the Gary Oldmastravaganza, the veteran actor’s turn as a not-very-lovable slobbo fueling the series’ critical acclaim. And so he returns fronting a fresh volley of episodes, playing the Michael Scott of Slough House, an officeful of MI5 rejects: “Bunch of f—ing losers, but they’re MY f—ing losers,” he says in a recap of the first season. Will they keep on losing almost lovably for season two? Seems likely.
SLOW HORSES SEASON 2: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Rain pours down outside a porn-shop storefront; the rack-focus shot slowly sharpens on a white-haired man working the counter.
The Gist: Our porn-shop gent hangs a blister-packed dildo on a pegboard, and suddenly notices a man outside: Bald, hat, talking on a cell phone. He walks off, and Porn Gent follows. Through an alley, crowded streets and a train station, then onto a bus. We flash back to Younger Porn Gent being abducted and tortured by the bald man, who forcibly pours liquor down the poor guy’s throat. Porn Gent finds a seat several rows behind him – and looks increasingly distressed. In pain, it seems. With shaky hands he pulls out his cell phone, types something, stuffs it next to his seat and puts his head back. Porn Gent dies. Poor Porn Gent.
In a basement archive, a woman pulls out a file with a profile of Porn Gent in it. RETIRED FIELD AGENT, it reads. She puts a new stamp on it: DECEASED. Cut to the bus station, to Jackson Lamb (Oldman), a sad old f— pretending to be a different type of sad old f—. Posing as Porn Gent’s aggrieved brother, he convinces the bus driver to let him sit in the final resting place of his late sibling. He takes a moment. Pretends he’s “feeling” his brother’s “presence.” When the driver turns his back, Lamb pokes and prods the area, finds the phone, turns it on, finds the notes app open, reads the word “cicada” and responds by saying “F—.” I think that means something. Cicada, not f—. We already know what f— means.
Now we catch up with some characters left over from last season: River (Jack Lowden) interviews for a job at a private intelligence firm, but all his interviewers want is funny stories about Lamb. Smooching couple Min (Dustin Demri-Burns) and Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar) consider taking a security gig involving a Russian oligarch, and you know anything involving a Russian oligarch is bad news. Tech-hacker guy Roddy (Christopher Chung) gripes about having to share an office with new agent Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards). The Olivia Cooke character is still presumed kaputskies.
Lamb lays out an agenda to figure out what the hell happened to Porn Gent, who, yes, has a name, but it’s not as fun as Porn Gent. River consults with his retired-agent grandfather (Jonathan Pryce), who seems to know more than he’s willing to share. Min and Louisa prep for a stakeout. Shirley proves her meddle by heisting hard drives from a security-firm server room. River figures out what “cicada” means and sits down to share the intel with Lamb while he slops down noodle soup in a restaurant like an ape. The intrigue builds with every disgusting slurp.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Slow Horses boasts the most ridiculous collection of misfit spies this side of Archer.
Our Take: Season 2’s cold open keenly sets the hook – it’s a crisply executed, suspenseful sequence crafted to pique our curiosity. From there, the episode establishes its rogue’s gallery of characters within this framework, sort of, considering nobody seems to want to show up at the office anymore. I guess that’s what happens when you work for an abrasive guy like Lamb, who looks like he smells like B.O., halitosis, bottom-shelf whisky and whatever he ate yesterday that dribbled on his shirt. Real charming guy here. But Oldman makes him the guy you love to hate – to get a whiff of (rimshot).
Without Oldman disgustingly masticating baby corns and bantering with his weary and cynical underlings, Slow Horses would likely function at a charisma deficit. The most compelling development isn’t the Pryce character biting his tongue or whatever Min and Louisa are doing, stuff that seems like bare-bones plot development. No, it’s Shirley, who proves herself smarter than a couple of minimum-wage security guards (a rock-solid achievement within the context of Slough House) and plays like a solid addition to the team who also might just be a low-level sociopath. Where the plot takes us is fine; what she does to enliven it (and likely replace Cooke) may be what enlivens it.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Zoom out on Lamb parked in his seat at the Chinese restaurant.
Sleeper Star: Edwards is terrifically deadpan as Shirley, a slovenly-but-not-as-slovenly-as-Lamb spy who actually seems to be relatively competent at her job.
Most Pilot-y Line: River asks Shirley what she did to end up at Slough House: “It was the second punch that did it. He said I hit like a girl. He didn’t get up after that.”
Our Call: Of course you’re going to want to see Gary Oldman act his brains out and make it look like second-nature – he carries Slow Horses through its more boilerplate scenes. STREAM IT and hope Lamb never, ever becomes a better person.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.