I have a theory: that Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy kicked off a trend, whetting Peak TV’s appetite for stylish period spy drama. A number of these shows — The Americans, the Deutschland series, The Game, and The Hour all leap to mind — have mined this territory, exploring late twentieth-century espionage with varying degrees of success. Czech drama The Sleepers should be added to that list, and provided you’re a patient viewer you can place it near the top. For convincing, hard-boiled recreations of Iron Curtain collapse and Cold War scheming, this one really does the trick.
Late in 1989, as the communist bloc slowly crumbles, Czechoslovakian exiles Victor (Martin Myšička) and Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová) decide to return to Prague from their new home in England. Marie, a musician, believes the political situation has stabilized enough that they can risk a return, despite communism’s stubborn resilience there. But Victor, an outspoken dissident who fled his home due to his criticism of the Soviet system, has a hidden agenda, and a mysterious motive for wanting to return at this political moment. Their reunion with friends and family spirals out of control when a shocking accident sends Marie to the hospital. When she awakens, Victor has vanished. Her efforts to find him involve her in a veritable three-dimensional chess match of scoundrels, spies, and political operatives vying to steer Czechoslovakia’s next chapter, not to mention revealing deep, dark secrets at the heart of Marie’s marriage.
The Sleepers is first-rate spy fiction, and if there’s a series that captures the visual aesthetic and twisty complexity of le Carre’s masterpiece — and, more specifically, Alfredson’s film version of it — this is it. Centered around a crucial turning point in late twentieth-century history, it captures the moment with a perfect mix of in-the-moment verisimilitude and hindsight analysis, interrogating both the ideologies driving the conflict and the hypocrisies underlying it. It does, in other words, precisely what Cold War era spy fiction does at its best, examining the thorny intersection of people and institutions, and the uncomfortable disconnect between ideals and pragmatics. With its dingy location work and stately, placid pace, it’s likely to distance many viewers, but the challenging slow-build of its mystery worked a spell on me, largely thanks to Pauhofová’s sympathetic portrayal as a resourceful amateur spy negotiating a precarious situation during a paradigm-shifting political moment. There isn’t a ton of exciting action or visual fireworks on display, but the production is rich and realistic; you can practically smell the cigarette ashes and wet pavements of Prague. And while the narrative payoff isn’t explosive, it does resolve the puzzle satisfyingly, and ultimately rings true. A classy, intelligent spy series.