Russian plot threatens London in Slow Horses [Apple TV+ recap] ★★★★½

The second season of Apple TV+ spy drama Slow Horses is through warming up and starting to boil over. This week’s excellent installment has Lamb revisiting the past, Catherine playing a very important game of chess, River up a creek, Louisa and Marcus in the dark, and Roddy and Shirley on the run. Plus, the Tropper family is in trouble.

The whole episode, entitled “Boardroom Politics,” is about mounting tension and slow (but not too slow) reveals, as everyone races to either create or prevent a catastrophe.

Slow Horses recap: ‘Boardroom Politics’

Season 2, episode 5: As the episode begins, River Cartwright (played by Jack Lowden) is all tied up — Russian spies Katinsky (Rade Šerbedžija), Alex Tropper (Catherine McCormack) and Andre Chernitsky (Marek Vashut) strapped him to a couch last night. Alex heads off in her plane towards what River can only assume is London on the day of minister Peter Judd’s (Samuel West) speech. And who’ll be riding in the car with Judd? Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas), head of MI-5 — that’d be quite the victory for the other side. Now, if only River could tell someone about their plan.

He did manage to plant his phone on Chernitsky before being detained, which means that Roddy (Christopher Chung) and Shirley (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) can track him and see that he’s headed into London. And that makes them nervous. Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves) suggests they follow him.

Catherine then goes back to talk to Victor Krymov (Branko Djuric), the agent who fixed up the Russians with Jim “Spider” Webb (Freddie Fox). She realizes that this man, in asking for a liaison within the service for the Russians, specifically requested that Slough House be involved. And that means that someone had a grudge against Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman). But who and why?

A plot in London

Louisa (Rosalind Eleazar) and Marcus (Kadriff Kirwan) escort the Russians to their meeting with Webb. She knows they’re going to pull something, but Lamb has instructed her to just go with it and let their plan unfold in front of her. So she misses it when they switch briefcases in the trunk of the car before the meeting. Then they miss what happens next… that is until Paskin pulls a gun in the meeting and shoots Webb.

Kelly (Tamsin Topolski) and Duncan (Adrian Rawlins) Tropper finally find River, who has to quickly explain that their wife and mother, respectively, is a Russian sleeper agent who is flying a suicide mission to London as they stand there and talk. Seeing the letter she left them, and her discarded wedding ring, finally convinces them when River’s words fail to connect. So Kelly unties River, and he phones for help while Duncan tries to talk Alex down from her mission on the radio.

Taverner calls it in and all of London is in a panic. Shirley and Roddy find Chernitsky, but he’s left his car and is on a train, and they get separated tracking him down.

Lamb heads to the record room at MI-5 to speak to Molly the keeper (Naomi Wirthner). He wants to research Katinsky after discovering the Russian defector may be more wily than he’d been letting on. Catherine finally outwits Krymov, and he confesses that Katinsky was the one who insisted Jackson Lamb and Slough House handle the Russians on their visit to London. Molly and Lamb discover that Lamb was supposedly the man who handled Katinsky’s defection twenty years ago, but Lamb remembers that this isn’t true. He was running ops in Prague when that was supposed to have happened. This whole operation has been a ruse to get the Russians close to Lamb and the fake defection is the smoking gun.

Slow Horses‘ second season seems unstoppable!

As impressed as I was by the endgame of Slow Horses season one, there was so much repetitive business involved in getting there. I dimly recall spending hours in a van with kidnappers, lots and lots of driving to a marina, etc. Nothing terribly exciting in the abstract, but necessary to move all the pieces into place for the final showdown between the Slow Horses and MI-5 and the kidnappers.

Season two of Slow Horses is quite different. This has been exciting the whole way through.

Partly it’s because we know everyone now, and there isn’t the need for slower character development or scene setting. But part of it is a writer’s room much more focused on action this time around. Even with the absurd number of players on the board (and not for nothing is the most exciting bit of business this week a chess game between Standish and Krymov), there’s momentum in each storyline. So switching from Louise to Shirley, or from River to Lamb, causes no appreciable loss in pace or excitement. We want to see everybody do their thing with equal fervor.

Of course, it helps that they’re all solving the same mystery from every different angle, everyone moving this or that piece of the Rubik’s Cube when it’s their turn. But then it’s also crucial that they just up and told us that a plane is going to hit a skyscraper in London in the next few hours. That tends to focus up the drama.

Stunning work this week on Slow Horses — the episode’s breathlessly paced and beautifully performed. We’re in the shooting and shouting portion of the denouement, but this team does that stuff very well. Let’s see how this plays out in next week’s season finale.

★★★★

Watch Slow Horses on Apple TV+

New episodes of Slow Horses season two arrives on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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