A Finnish, Cold War Spy Drama: ‘Shadow Lines’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

The Soviet Union had the KGB, America had the CIA, and Finland had FIST. Otherwise known as the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, Shadow Lines is about their efforts during the Cold War and is a Finnish series with English subtitles. The first season revolves around an upcoming election and what will happen to Porkkala Naval Base. While one of Finland’s presidential candidates, Fagerholm, is believed to favor the West, Kekkonen (Janne Reinikainen) is believed to favor the East, and the whole debate around Porkkala is whether or not the Soviet Union should return the base over to Finland.

Both sides hope to use the base to swing the election their way and, while there’s been plenty of talk about voter fraud this year, Shadow Lines is what a crooked election looks like. There’s also a secret plot to create a nuclear bomb, double agents, and some extremely impressive fight choreography. Unlike The Americans, which dealt with family issues conflicting with professional ones, Shadow Lines stays pretty job focused. Even when a FIST agent has a personal problem it’s always feels like an afterthought or an obligation, like the show going through the motions to give them a life outside of work.

If none of the characters are as complex as the Jennings in The Americans, the show does keep FIST down to six core members, so there’s time to give each of them some shading. Helena (Emmi Parviainen) is the newest member of the team, and the one who seems to disrupt the group’s professionalism the most. Her godfather, Yrjö Ylitalo (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), is the Deputy Chief of FIST, but it’s Helena who insists on being recruited, inserting herself into a mission without permission.

That’s the thing about Helena, though. While she seems like the type of character who would act as an audience surrogate, Helena basically joins FIST without any training, and nobody blinks an eye when she’s a natural in the field. It’s not like being a spy is hereditary but, even if it was, Helena has some doubts about her lineage that have been pestering her lately.

If Shadow Lines doesn’t hand hold viewers when it comes to explaining everyone’s motives, they’re already clearer by the second episode. It just takes putting up with not understanding everything right away to get there. Besides the fight choreography, the main reason to watch Shadow Lines is for the espionage. To anyone whose ideal spy show is Maxwell Smart on a shoe phone, Shadow Lines isn’t a comedy, but it does feature some classic, spy techniques, like using chewing gum to hide a key on the back of a draw. These days there’s always a high-tech solution for every problem a spy might encounter in the movies but it’s so much more satisfying when a spy can use chewing gum to get themselves out of a scrap.

Shadow Lines is available on DVD and streaming on Sundance Now.

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