“The age of petroleum is over,” proclaims Jesper Berg, the fictional prime minister of Norway in “Occupied,” a political thriller first aired on Norwegian television and now streaming on Netflix. Not so fast, say the Russians, who act in collusion with the European Union to seize Norway’s oil and natural gas installations, inaugurating a “soft occupation” of the country.
And so, prime minister and nation are forced into a nightmare of contradiction and compromise, sacrificing their principles in trying to manage an impossible situation.
Berg, swept into office on a wave of radical eco-conservatism, has to abandon his political platform and restart oil production on the orders of the new “Russian Energy Administration.” The occupation is supposed to be limited in time and scope. The Russians will leave in a few months, they say, and only want to control energy policy. But the date of departure slips, and the insidious tentacles of the occupiers wrap themselves around the Norwegian security services, the courts, the press and the personal lives of the show’s characters.
Berg embodies the tortured choices that follow. From one point of view he’s a new Quisling, forbidding his armed forces from resisting the Russians and smoothing over the tensions of occupation as best he can. Yet from another standpoint he is a hero: Faced with this anachronistic manifestation of raw military power, he vows that not one Norwegian life will be lost.
Henrik Mestad, who plays Berg, skillfully portrays this ambiguity. Tall and charismatic, with an endearingly open face but a permanently startled look in his eyes, Mestad’s Berg is simultaneously strong and utterly crushed, morally upright and fatally compromised. Manic with hope midway through the occupation, he tells his cabinet they will win the general election after the Russians leave. “We’ve been highly praised in the New York Times!” he says to his skeptical colleagues, confirming a million conservative clichés about feckless lefties.
The series will inevitably be compared to “Borgen,” an earlier Scandinavian export that remains the best television show about politics ever. If “Occupied” falls slightly short of that high mark in terms of depicting pure political intrigue, that’s because it’s aiming to tell a broader story. The Norwegian show is about nationalism, shame and the persistence of international power politics in this supposedly more enlightened age.
“No one answers when states dial 911,” writes political scientist John Mearsheimer, neatly encapsulating the self-help principles at the core of realist international relations thinking. Institutions do, liberals retort. In the modern age, force won’t be tolerated internationally and is ruinous in economic terms, they say. “Occupied” weighs in heavily on the realist side of the argument. In the show’s fictional near-future, NATO is a useless shell, crippled by the U.S. decision to leave in order to avoid conflict with an assertive Russia. The liberal E.U. is, if anything, worse than the power-politics driven Russians. They at least are clear in their threats, Berg finds, while the E.U. is all public assurances and private betrayals, epitomized by their sending squadrons of fighter planes to help Norway, but quietly withholding the support staff and supplies necessary for the planes to fly.
Shown in Norway last year, the show provoked protests from the Russian government, President Vladimir Putin perhaps thinking that there was rather more truth than fiction in the depiction of his government’s international behavior. But he needn’t have worried about being personally impugned: One of the scarier aspects of the occupation is that Moscow refuses to talk directly with the Norwegian government, their only communications coming from the sleek and sinister Ambassador Sidorova.
People don’t like to read their television, we are told, and this explains the continued lack of attention to premium international (hence, subtitled) political fictions like “Borgen” and, now, “Occupied.” That’s a shame. Even if the cerebral themes are not your thing, watch for the alluring aesthetic: Lots of well-groomed people wearing nicely tailored clothes, dealing with 21st century dilemmas from behind stylish desks in architecturally striking office and apartment buildings (also, the opening theme is awesome).
“Occupied” is hiding in your recommended queue on Netflix; stop what you are doing and go binge-watch it right now.
Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science and the director of Humanities House at the University of Connecticut.