‘Slow Horses’ goes fast and hard in its third season

‘Slow Horses’ goes fast and hard in its third season

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The best spy thrillers are drab and a little hopeless.

Those who agree with me — and there are dozens of us — have probably already discovered “Slow Horses,” the Apple TV Plus drama about Slough House, the dilapidated office to which disgraced MI5 agents are sent to be verbally abused and routinely demoralized by the pungent, alcoholic misanthrope in charge. Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the brilliant grouch in question. And his talents have never, not even when he played George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” been put to better use.

The series’s third season begins Wednesday with an uncharacteristically action-packed sequence set in Istanbul that involves none of the principals but culminates in the death of an agent. The story picks up a year or so later, with the Slough House staff still moldering. The prospects of River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) have not improved after the mistakes he made in the second season, so he childishly revolts when Catherine Standish (the extraordinary Saskia Reeves) asks him to itemize some “Ringo-level” files no one will ever read before transferring them to a new facility. Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) is still mourning the death of her partner, Min, while Roddy Ho, the office hacker (Christopher Chung) comes up with elaborate schemes to get her to sleep with him. Newer team members Shirley Dander (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Marcus Longridge (Kadiff Kirwan) bond, a little unwillingly, as outsiders struggling with various addictions. And Lamb bullies his worried doctor into lying about how much he really drinks. He’s resigned to the consequences and is disinclined to change course.

When one of the “horses” gets kidnapped, the others … react.

The third season ratchets up the contrast between Slough House and its glitzy counterpart, the Park, where the agents are in good standing, the lights are bright and the staff is stylish, safe and well-funded. It is, however, contested domain, with Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her archrival and superior, MI5 Director Dame Ingrid Tearney (Sophie Okonedo), wrestling for control, and for the support of sleazy Home Secretary Peter Judd (Samuel West).

It’s not exactly an upstairs/downstairs dynamic, but there is a vaguely classed split between those who care (and are disenfranchised) and those who don’t (and accrue power). The third season confirms, in ways sophomore seasons never quite can, what the show is really is about. “Slow Horses” is ultimately less invested in fake-outs (of which there are many) than it is in the fascinatingly artless conversations that expose them. By this I mean that even bitter antagonists on this show tend to operate with striking candor. People lie, certainly, but everyone is a little too jaded to keep up the pretense once the other has guessed the truth.

That extra layer of cynicism matters. It adds a deliciously fatalistic dimension to a format vulnerable to the fantasy that powers a lot of forgettable “secret agent” entertainment, namely that outcomes can be changed by a combination of quick thinking and violence. That element isn’t entirely absent from “Slow Horses,” of course. The last two episodes of this new season rely on this fetishization of contingency more than they satirize it, in fact — to their detriment. (There is more action in this season of “Slow Horses” than in all the others combined.)

But “Slow Horses” is strongest when it’s thinking in chess metaphors. You can come up with a surprise or two, certainly, but you’re highly constrained by all that’s gone before. Your moves will be mostly predictable, and so will your team’s, because everyone knows roughly how knights and rooks move. The rules of engagement are set, and if you’re any good at the game, you’ll see exactly how it’s all going to shake out long before it does.

End of carousel

Militating against this largely deterministic backdrop is the adrenaline for which thrillers are famous. Some of that split-second decision-making this season comes from Dander, but most of it comes from Cartwright, the character who (if this were a less original show) would be the maverick. The cool guy. The sexy, rule-breaking protagonist. He’d be confident, and he’d be right.

In “Slow Horses,” Cartwright is wrong. A lot. For the consumer of thrills, this turns out to be oddly thrilling! We’re not used to the hero messing up badly, and it’s mildly destabilizing that so many of these agents, even the “good” ones, fail as much, and as spectacularly, as they do. That’s no more a condemnation of their merit than their placement at Slough House was: Cartwright is obviously talented. Many of his instincts are sound. He’s good-looking, resourceful and brave. Not to mention MI5 royalty: His grandfather (played by Jonathan Pryce) is a retired officer. But he’s also incredibly easy to bait, partly because he’s so eager to prove himself, so sure he should be the protagonist.

And indeed, in the first season, he sort of was. “Slow Horses” has since course-corrected, pulling focus from the guy with the leading-man looks. It was the right call. He would have been a bland hero. His adrenaline and idealism, on the other hand — as foils to Lamb’s pessimism and lethargy — make it possible for the show to run parallel plots at bizarrely different paces.

This two-speed trick is part of what makes “Slow Horses” feel new, even though it’s an obvious remix of familiar genres: Cartwright, whose impulsivity keeps landing him in hot water, is almost always running, whereas Lamb, who’s usually several steps ahead of him, barely moves. It’s a very funny setup, even if plot mechanics sometimes sag under the strain. (There are moments this season when Cartwright is seconds away from certain death while a leisurely Lamb storyline develops — with apparent simultaneity — over several minutes.)

The contrast between the two does deeper work, too, of course. Cartwright’s idealism goes a long way toward leavening a dour tone that could — without the former’s commitment and loyalty — pull the viewer asunder with lectures on meaningless work and failed systems. Underpinning “Slow Horses” is a convincing and deeply pessimistic consensus view of what intelligence services (and people, and countries) do. There’s a sense that it’s all been done before, it will all be done again, terrible things will happen, and very little can be done to stop them. Lamb’s “interrogations” don’t feel much like interrogations, because the moves are all so rote by now. (At one point last season, he complained that his hand was tired from holding a gun — so he and his interlocutor agreed to take the gun-pointing as read.)

This is bleak gamesmanship indeed, rivaling “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” (Mick Herron, who wrote the darkly comic books on which “Slow Horses” is based, adores John le Carré.) But Cartwright’s good intentions and Lamb’s strategic malodorousness (and humor) put a new twist on that potent old formula.

That brings me to my one serious criticism: Although the third season develops some long-simmering storylines beautifully, treating a couple of slow, important arcs with the care they deserve, six episodes aren’t sufficient to bridge the massive consequences of this particular plot. The show’s pleasure in twists sometimes feels as if it fails to really reckon with the bigger picture in ways that make Lamb’s conduct, in particular, feel tonally imprecise.

It’s still a fun, drab, smelly, unexpected watch.

Slow Horses Season 3 (six episodes) begins streaming Nov. 29 on Apple TV Plus with two episodes. New episodes will stream weekly.

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