JACKSON Lamb has had a style makeover for the second season of Slow Horses (Apple TV+), which arrives just eight months after the first one.
Or at least the closest the seedy, boozy, heavy-smoking spy, brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, will ever come to one. Out goes the heavy, dark overcoat spotted with food stains. In comes a lightweight, beige mac spotted with food stains.
This sartorial switch only serves to underline the similarities between Lamb and another great fictional character: Columbo. Both look like they buy their clothes in a charity shop. Both have minds like steel traps.
There the similarities end, however. Columbo is unfailingly polite, positively deferential, even when he’s slowly reeling in a cocky murderer. He also looks like he showers or bathes regularly.
The hygienically-challenged Lamb, on the other hand, is never polite. He’s rude, cranky, sweary and sarcastic – especially to his unfortunate charges, the denizens of Slough House, a grubby MI5 backwater where agents who’ve made career-wrecking mistakes are dumped to serve out what’s left of their careers in an administrative purgatory from which nobody has ever returned.
You don’t have to have read Mick Herron’s series of Slough House thrillers to enjoy Slow Horses. But those of us who have will appreciate the perfect job showrunner Will Smith (not that one) and his fellow writers have made of bringing them to the screen, undiminished, in just six drum-tight episodes per season.
Based on the second book in the series, Dead Lions, it opens with Soho sex shop manager and former MI5 operative Dickie Bow (a wordless Phil Davis) spotting a man he believes to be a Russian former spymaster from the Cold War days called Popov.
Swallowing his traumatic memories of being tortured by Popov, Dickie follows him and later winds up dead on a bus, apparently from a sudden heart attack.
Lamb, who worked with Dickie in Berlin before the latter disappeared off the radar, smells a rat. Pretending to be Dickie’s grieving brother, he requests a few minutes alone in the seat where Dickie died. Rooting around, he finds the dead man’s phone wedged between the seats.
When Lamb gathers the Slow Horses and, after the customary daily insults have been dispensed, announces they’re going to dig into Dickie’s death, spirits lift
Dickie left a one-word message on it: “cicada”. Lamb recognises this as the codeword for an old Russian operation involving KGB sleeper agents being embedded in British society.
When Dickie told his bosses about it back in the day, they dismissed it as a hoax and decided that the elusive Popov – who nobody but Dickie had ever seen – didn’t exist and was just a ruse to get MI5 chasing shadows. But what if Dickie was right all along?
Back at Slough House, things have both changed and remained the same. Office administrator Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) is as conscientious and underappreciated as ever. Tech wizard Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung) continues to be brilliant and obnoxious.
There are two new screw-ups on the team: Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), who has anger issues, and Marcus Longridge (Kadiff Kirwan), a gambling addict.
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The most capable member of Lamb’s team, River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), who’d fully expected to return to MI5’s gleaming Regent’s Park HQ in triumph after his role in foiling last season’s terrorist plot, is still stuck there.
Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) and Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns), who are looking for a flat together, have been co-opted by the architect of River’s downfall, the slimy, smarmy James ‘Spider’ Webb (Freddie Fox), into providing security for a visiting Russian politician – a plot that delivers the biggest shock of the six episodes.
When Lamb gathers the Slow Horses and, after the customary daily insults have been dispensed, announces they’re going to dig into Dickie’s death, spirits lift – especially those of River, who’s thrilled to be told he’s going undercover in a Cotswold’s village called Upshott, which appears to be connected to the mysterious Russian.
“It’s exciting!” beams River, gazing at his fake ID and feeling like a real spy at last.
“Yeah,” deadpans Lamb. “From Upshott with love.”
Slow Horses was already my favourite series of 2022. Now it’s my favourite series twice.