The Sleepers, a Czech series on HBO, is set in 1989, at the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Viktor Skála (Martin Mysicka), an exiled political dissident, and his wife Marie (Tatiana Pauhofová), the concert violinist daughter of a famous political dissident, return home from London ostensibly to see Marie’s grandniece. They have been gone for 12 years, after fleeing the communist regime, and they are unsure how safe it is to return, even though they are traveling on British passports. On their first night back, the couple gets hit by a car while walking by a road. When Marie wakes up in the hospital a few days later, Viktor is nowhere to be found. As Marie searches for her husband, she unravels layers of unsettling secrets about him.

First, A History Lesson

As I was not totally familiar with Czech history, I looked up “Velvet Revolution”, and it helped me understand the events in The Sleepers. After World War 2, the communist party, backed by Russia, seized control in Czechoslovakia, and ruled with an iron fist. The StB, or secret police, persecuted those who publicly challenged the regime, most notably Charter 77 and Civic Forum members, who held secret meetings and distributed homemade periodicals. Anyone suspected of opposing the party had their homes bugged, and were surveilled by the StB. Known dissidents were blacklisted, then either jailed, exiled, or placed in a mental institution. As the Soviet Union under Gorbachev eased their policies on blacklisting, the Czech people saw an opening. In November of 1989, protestors filled the streets of Prague, peacefully demonstrating with flowers and candles. The crackdown was brutal, but there was no going back. After a month of strikes and demonstrations, communism fell.  

It Pays to Pay Attention

Viktor is a professor in London, and secretly a leader among the subversives.  When he receives a mysterious letter, he agrees to go back to Prague to see family. They arrive in November of 1989.  After the accident, Marie goes to the British embassy for help. Icy attaché Susanne (Hattie Morahan) takes Marie’s passport and tells her to return to the hospital. Fortunately, a friend from London, Gerald (David Nykl) works at the embassy and he offers to help Marie. After returning her passport, he tells her to go back to London and let him find Viktor. Obviously, she doesn’t do that. Meanwhile, at the StB, the Skalá’s file lands on the desk of legendary Colonel Václav Vlach (Jan Vlasák). Vlach tells his subordinate Jan Berg (Martin Hofmann) to close the case, but Berg sees something fishy and keeps investigating. From here, the plot gets positively byzantine. Marie stumbles from lead to lead, looking for Viktor, but she is not the only one searching; the British, the StB, and the Russians all want to find him too. Her quest is set against the backdrop of revolution, which increases the stakes for those losing power and those seeking it. I can’t say more, because The Sleepers is about secrets, and I don’t want to spoil any for you.

Our Take on The Sleepers

The Sleepers weaves together personal drama and political drama expertly. The creators really captured the look and feel of the era, with its dreary, communist architecture and distinctive Rhodes piano score. This isn’t the Prague of today with its gorgeous architecture; it’s parking garages and politburo office buildings. The pacing is more of a slow burn, which allows for rich character development. Colonel Vlach is particularly complex. We feel his despair at watching his wife die of cancer, yet he is StB through and through.  Although it’s only 6 episodes, it feels longer, in a good way. I love a dense Iron Curtain secret police drama, like The Lives of Others, and The Sleepers is right up there.

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