Last fall, Norway’s TV2 released Occupied (originally, Okkupert), the country’s most-expensive series ever. The first episode broke the channel’s rating records as more than 50% of viewers aged 20 to 49 watched, and now the show is on Netflix with English subtitles. Providence readers would likely enjoy this window into a European perspective.
The premise is intriguing. Sometime in the near future, civil wars prevent Middle Eastern countries from exporting enough oil to meet global demand. Energy independent due to shale gas, an isolationist United States no longer sees a need to have a global presence and pulls out of NATO. Meanwhile, global warming has become so rampant that a hurricane hits Norway and kills over 600 people. In response, Norwegians elect environmentalists who halt all oil production to help stop climate change. Without Norway’s oil, the European Union falls into a crippling recession. Because the Norwegian Prime Minister refuses to budge, the EU asks Russia to practically occupy Norway and restart oil production.
Parts of this premise are implausible. First, even if the US is energy independent, high oil prices would still hurt American consumers because oil is traded globally. Second, because the waters around Norway are so frigid, hurricanes would have a difficult time making landfall in Norway in the near future, even with rampant global warming. However, Occupied is not about climate change or oil production. Instead, those plot devices bring viewers to the main story, how the Norwegians respond to a Russian occupation.
Their response brings up fascinating questions. Would it be better for a Prime Minister to offer no resistance because a war with Russia would be too devastating? How many Norwegians would see their leader as spineless and thus take the resistance into their own hands and maybe go too far? How many would see the benefit of Russian occupation since it helps business? In what ways would the media, the politicians, the military, and the regular government employees work with or against each other? How could the Russian occupiers co-opt the Norwegians for their cause? These and other questions make Occupied captivating and binge-worthy.
Americans and many Europeans may watch the series while thinking about Crimea, which would be understandable. However, Jo Nesbø, a crime novelist well-known in Norway, first developed the idea years before Russia invaded Crimea through hybrid warfare. When he first pitched the story, people told him the idea was far-fetched. Interestingly, the real-world Russian invasion happened on the day the show started shooting, so the already-developed season could not have been heavily influenced by events in Crimea.
But the Crimea invasion did dramatically impact Norway-Russia relations. Even though not part of the EU, Norway has worked with the EU and placed sanctions on Russia, and the Norwegian Defense Minister has spoken firmly against Russia’s behavior. Meanwhile, 89% of Norwegians disapprove of Russia’s leadership, Russia’s highest disapproval rating in the Gallup study.
Given the post-Crimea tensions, it is not surprising that the Russian government is not pleased with Occupied. Last fall before the show aired, the Russian ambassador in Oslo complained that the show frightens “the Norwegian audience with a non-existing threat from the east.”
In spite of the Russian government’s objections, the show does not clearly paint the characters, Russian or Norwegian, in a blatant black-and-white, goodie-vs-badie fashion. There are multiple layers of gray. Or, as perhaps a Christian would say, the characters are sinful yet not beyond grace.
For instance, Irina Sidorova, the Russian ambassador played by Ingeborga Dapkunaite, is a complex character thrust into a dangerous situation but still working towards peace. With or without her, Russia would have occupied Norway. Moscow would not hesitate to send another ambassador, perhaps one more hostile to Norway, if the Kremlin lost confidence in her. Certainly a Russian first, Sidorova serves her government well, but there are subtle signs of friction between her and the other Russians. Given all these circumstances, she walks the tightrope while hoping to prevent a devastating war.
The Norwegian Hans Martin, played by Eldar Skar, first appears to be an archetypal hero who should use his position in security and intelligence to help save democracy. And viewers have many opportunities to cheer for him. However, there are other moments when his actions are morally ambiguous. Perhaps watching Occupied again may change my opinion about him, but for now he is definitely a “gray character”.
Even though not intended to be a commentary about Crimea, Occupied does help viewers see what Norwegians, at least those who created Occupied, value and fear, whether consciously or subconsciously. Democracy is a key value that becomes a rallying cry for the resistance, and without a strong NATO these characters struggle to preserve their freedoms and democracy. Norway spends more on its military today than it did at the end of the Cold War (adjusted for inflation), but other NATO countries provide equipment and personnel necessary for Norway’s defense. It is easy to understand why Norwegians may fear a world without the alliance.
Occupied partially demonstrates hard power’s limits. True, a strong military can occupy a territory, but the operation will likely cost more than blood and treasure. Russia has annexed Crimea, but the move has cost Moscow dearly on other priorities. Ukrainians are more opposed to Russia now. NATO has rediscovered its mission. A meaningful, Russian-backed Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) is now less likely. Opposition against Russia in Europe is more widespread. Then this show enters the fray. Without the Crimea annexation, Occupied would seem silly and irrelevant, but now the series’ apparent timeliness made the Russian ambassador feel obliged to complain. Occupied has reminded European audiences what Russia has already done, which works against Russia’s interests.
Perhaps the only downside to Occupied is that there is only one season on Netflix. But there is good news. Erik Skjoldbjærg, who helped write and direct the series, told Vogue there are plans for a second season.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Occupied by TV2