In the 1950s, the Cold War’s hottest spot wasn’t Washington or Moscow. In the wake of World War II, the tiny Nordic nation of Finland found itself on the front lines of the world’s latest conflict.
Bordering Sweden, NATO member Norway and the then Soviet Union, it was sandwiched between East and West in a strategic location that made it vitally important to both sides. If the country was to survive, it had to chart a course between two superpowers, both willing to stop at nothing, including all-out war, to take control.
Welcome to the world of Shadow Lines.
Created by the mother-and-daughter writing team of Kirsti and Katri Manninen, Shadow Lines is based on the real-life struggle between the KGB and CIA for control of Finland in the run-up to the country’s 1955 election. The top secret Finnish task force known as The Fist is charged with protecting the country’s neutrality, but when they break into the US embassy to steal top secret documents, things don’t go as planned, and a CIA agent is killed, alongside one of their own.
Half a world away, Helena (Emmi Parviainen) is studying in the US. Attacked by a mysterious assailant, she successfully defends herself (there’s a reason why the first episode is titled ‘Bloody Fists’), but her godfather Yrjö (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) remains concerned. He’s not just a worried friend: he’s the Deputy Chief of the Finnish Security Police, so when he sends glamorous socialite (and real-life figure) Tabe Slioor (Jessica Grabowsky) to make sure she’s okay, there’s more going on than just a simple check-up.
When Tabe decides to bring Helena back to Helsinki with her, she opens a door that will lead Helena on a journey both into the mysteries of her own past and the dangers of Cold War espionage. Haunted by flashbacks to a childhood she doesn’t recall, she turns to Yrjö for answers – and when she doesn’t like the ones she gets, she decides the only way to find out the truth is to join The Fist, which is run by her godfather.
Fact and fiction mix over the season’s 10 episodes as Helena and The Fist mingle with real-life characters, including Finnish President Paasikivi and Prime Minister Kekkonen. The CIA investigate the murder of one of their own, the KGB jockey for influence and The Fist struggle to keep either side from gaining an advantage.
The real-life lead-up to the Finnish election is given a spy drama spin too, as actual events – the US’s financial support of opposition candidate Fagerholm and Kekkonen’s cosying up to Moscow – are woven into the plot.
It’s a rarely seen take on the Cold War, where for once the two sides are evenly matched and struggling to make their influence felt. They’re also a close-knit group despite being on opposite sides. Helsinki wasn’t a big place in the fifties. Pretty much everyone knows everyone else – which makes getting any serious spying done a tricky matter.
Tabe Slioor was an internationally known model (and reporter, and photographer, and racing car driver), while many of both sides’ attempts to sway the Finnish election came down to throwing money around. The result is a mix of fifties glamour and dirty tricks, as the serious business of the Cold War takes place behind fancy dinners and stylish homes.
There’s a brutal side to the world of Shadow Lines as well. The series begins with spies ending up dead, and there’s no shortage of break-ins, close shaves, violence and people looking to sell out to one side or the other. Helena’s journey through this hidden world is an increasingly treacherous one, and unlike the series’ numerous real-life characters, there’s no guarantee that she’s going to survive.
In the real world, the 1955 election saw the rise of Kekkonen to the Presidency, and there he would lead Finland for the next 24 years. His policy of “active neutrality” – trading one side off against the other – was dismissively known as “Finlandisation”, but enabled the country to develop a market economy and keep pace with Western Europe while maintaining good relations with the neighbouring Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War.
Things worked out in the end for Finland; not all the cast of Shadow Lines will be so lucky.
Shadow Lines is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Follow the author here: @morrbeat
We don't know what to do with ourselves when the best picture actually wins the Best Picture Oscar. It's bold new territory for Fiona and Ben as they regroup after an historic 92nd Academy Awards telecast. Join them as they discuss the winners, losers, and importantly, how much of the outcome they predicted.