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Season 3 turns into non-stop violence

third season “Slow Horses” initially it’s about files. That’s right, paperwork. Shining!

This is not sarcasm. I’m a sucker for paperwork stories. And for this cynic, it feels like the right choice. John Le CarreFlavored spy series set in England. With a ragtag team of MI5’s least talented men – who somehow save the day no matter what – “Slow Horses” (on Apple TV+) is more about brains than brawn.

However, this season the series turns into a non-stop show of violence. I was so surprised.

Were the first two seasons filled with scenes of endless gunfire and bloodshed? Not according to my memory. This series has always stood out some. But creator Will Smith (not to be confused with the American actor of the same name) chose his replacement.

By contrast, his latest effort has fewer moments of cerebral playfulness. The ratio of violence to everything is higher. Much higher. (Previews for Season 4 show more of the same.) It’s as if someone in the corner office issued a maxim: Less talk, more action.

This might be fine for viewers looking for something high-octane with countless extras cut for effect. But the appeal of a show like “Slow Horses” — at least so far — has been that it’s on a very human scale and depicts all the dirty tricks that have everyone chasing their tails.

Based on Mick Herron’s novels (Season 3 is based on the book “Real Tigers”), the strengths of the series remain, if somewhat underrated. Gary Oldman is the walking embodiment of body odor and mental acuity as Jackson Lamb, who oversees these expendables of Britain’s intelligence service. Why didn’t the agency fire them at the first sign of incompetence? Because the group comes in handy when things get messy and you need disposable manpower. Better put the slow horses to work instead of your best performers.

Early on, we see Lamb sitting at the sink in his office, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and taking a birdbath for himself. It’s more hygienic than you’d expect from the guy. Even so, it doesn’t look like soap was used in this exercise. If nothing else, Oldman’s performance is dedicated to revealing just how disgusting the human body is without basic care. But Lamb also has a knack for seeing things two or three steps ahead of everyone else, and his scruffy appearance never fails as a cover of sorts; people underestimate him at their peril. It just occurred to me that his dirty sartorial tastes, raincoat and all, have a lot in common with Peter Falk’s “Columbo,” which makes perfect sense; There is a similarity in the way the two work when it comes to personal appearance.

At the beginning of the season, Lamb’s minions are tasked with sorting the files and moving them to a safe location. River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), the brashest and most restless of the slow horses, can’t believe he’s stuck in such an unskilled job.

How long can the series endure the man treading water like this? What’s River’s latest game, by the way? Does he really believe he can restore MI5’s reputation? If not, then what? No one in power seems particularly interested in its future. One of the higher-ups sighs unhappily: “You are the bane of my career.” “When you appear, frogs start falling from the sky and blood flows from the taps.”

All said paperwork is moved to an old bomb shelter, where it is categorized using a Beatles-worthy system: The higher-level files – the Paul and John files – remain at MI5 headquarters. Everything down there – the George and Ringo files – is buried in that decommissioned bunker, where a nerdy young clerk says: “I find the naming a bit harsh – big George Harrison fan!”

Sophie Okonedo stars as the head of MI5 in Season 3 of “Slow Horses.”

Guess who doesn’t care? MI5’s cold second-in-command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) meets her challenger with scheming and cool detachment, with the addition of Sophie Okonedo as her boss Ingrid Tearney. They share perfect short haircuts and a taste for sabotage. They are mirror images and therefore natural enemies; They seize power very gracefully, while their slow horses run ragged.

It turned out that some of these files contained some evidence of illegal activities. It could be embarrassing for Diana or Ingrid, or even the end of their job. Some want to reveal these secrets. Lamb’s secretary, Catherine Standish (Saskia Reeves), the oldest of the slow horses and least concerned about his professional distraction, is kidnapped in an attempt to force MI5’s hand. The file is ransom. Turn it over and it releases. I wish it were that simple.

The other slow horses are too underdeveloped to really build the world of the show in unexpectedly compelling ways, more or less reduced to their own vices (drug addiction and gambling among them). Smith, the creator of the series, spoke It’s pretty much at the beginning of the first book where author Mick Herron “follows all the characters into their homes and gives you a glimpse into their personal lives. I’ve never seen that in a thriller before and it was as engaging as the action and the plot.” But still, that’s not what he’s doing here. It’s an interesting choice.

By design, the show becomes most entertaining when Lamb is in the frame. One of the most devious moments of the season involves him breaking into a fancy restaurant to needle the home secretary and completely ruin his lunch. Lamb is a bull in a china shop – which is the great comedy of the piece – and his stench, combined with his abrasive personality, is a huge insult to the status-driven bureaucrats and power brokers who think he’s their inferior. What they never realized was that Lamb could probably bury them all if he was motivated enough. Moreover HE Please.

The dark humor of “Slow Horses” lies in its attention to the petty grievances and office politics that exist in every profession, even the intelligence service. But it’s also disturbing to think about how close to reality this might be. MI5 is where cover-ups are born and thrive, where those responsible take blame forever and destroy lives in the process. Still, the slow horses can’t wait to get back in the game. It’s time for the show to start asking why. Perhaps the choice to inject more violence and action is a way to delay this for a while longer.

“Slow Horses” Season 3 — 2 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: AppleTV+

Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) takes an ice cream break in Season 3 of “Slow Horses.”

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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