Slow horses was something of a slow-burn surprise when its first season kicked off in April. It was another Apple TV hit whose marketing didn’t do a good enough job of connecting with audiences, relying instead on word of mouth. What viewers found, however, was a low-stakes spy drama with the sort of soft, throwback thrill you rarely see in our more serious age. Mixed in with a shot or two of black comedy and it became a surprisingly compelling package I felt.

The show’s second season, which returns to Apple TV+ on December 2, continues in that vein, albeit with less of the show’s signature humor. It focuses again on the staff members of Slough House, the closest thing MI5 has to purgatory for disgraced intelligence officers. Led by the “colorful” Jackson Lamb, the Slow Horses are often left to do administrative donkey work that no one else thinks is worthwhile. Of course, you wouldn’t have a series if misfits weren’t frequently drawn into the larger machinations of the intelligence community.

The second season is based on Dead lionsthe second in Herron’s series Slough House novels and focuses on Lamb’s investigation into the death of an ex-officer. Apple’s usual ban on spoilers means that I can only say about the plot that it involves “long-buried Cold War secrets” that “threaten to bring carnage to the streets of London”. Oh, and that “when a relationship with Russian villains takes a fatal turn, our hapless heroes must overcome their individual flaws and up their espionage game in a race to prevent a catastrophic accident.”

We pick up shortly after the first season, and the Horses are disappointed that their heroics haven’t led to better things. Instead, the team has been reinforced with Shirley Dunder (Amy-Fionn Edwards) and Marcus Longridge (Cadiff Kirwan) and returned to regular duties. This, understandably, left River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) in something of a funk. But when a former agent is found dead on a bus, it suddenly piques Jackson Lamb’s (Gary Oldman) interest enough to return to field work.

Given that the first two six-episode seasons were filmed in one run, it’s no surprise that the show expects you to remember much of what happened in the first run. But despite the ongoing production, there’s a big tonal shift here, with the show becoming darker and dropping some of its trademark wit and humor. And, I’ll be honest, the rambling about Jackson Lamb’s lack of personal hygiene and constant farting starts to wear thin towards the end.

Fans of the books will already know why the series has a darker turn, although I found some of the twists to be a bit light at first. Maybe years of watching shows where you can’t believe anything you see meant I was always waiting for a non-existent second shoe to drop. Nobody exists here in the Slow Horses universe, and when you see some favorite characters go places you might not expect, keep in mind that none of this is for show.

It’s not a show you can watch with one eye on your phone, but it’s so lively that if you blink, you might lose your seat. I’d consider myself a keen observer, but even I found myself having to pause to figure out which creepy Russian expat was who. It doesn’t help that while you can see where all the different storylines are headed, their clash is a bit predictable. But I digress, and this isn’t the show you should be debunking on Reddit for hours on end — just keep telling yourself it’s just a show and you should really just chill.

And the second season of Slow Horses really belongs to Rosalind Eleazar (Guy) and Saskia Reeves (Standish), who are given time and space to develop their characters. The former carries much of the main narrative this time around, while the latter once again shows just how much steel is buried beneath Standish’s downtrodden personas. But the show is democratic enough to give each character a grace note or two during the explosive and gripping finale.

The second season of Slow Horses will launch on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 2 with two new episodes, with subsequent episodes appearing every Friday until December 30. Seasons three and four have already been greenlit.

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