#Reviewing Occupied

Occupied is Norway’s kinder, gentler, more frightening Red Dawn

Occupied [TV Series]. Karriann Lund, Jo Nesbø, Erik Skjoldbjærg (Creators). Norway: TV2 Norge and Yellow Bird Productions.

Climate change caused by human activity is settled science. Implications for the future of public health, the economy, and the global order of states are recognized as a real concern around the world. The European Union is strong, but NATO is not. Mid-East turmoil has compromised oil production there. The United States global hegemony is over. Complete energy independence from the rest of the world has resulted in an isolationist stance wherein the US has withdrawn from NATO as well as her other international obligations. The US remains a seeming world power with respectable military and diplomatic influence, but only grudgingly and apparently by force of reputational versus relational power. This is the scene, but not the story, and the focus is not America.

This is the world of Okkupert, a Norwegian television drama conceived by crime novelist Jo Nesbø, recently presented in its first season to the US by Netflix as Occupied.  In the pilot, the world stage is set by describing an unfamiliar yet easily acceptable premise: In a Norway reeling from the devastation of a massive hurricane, a newly elected far-left Green Party has taken power and Prime Minister Jesper Berg, played by Henrik Mestad, has leveraged his party’s electoral mandate and the popular attention on combatting climate change by announcing his intention to shut off all carbon fuel exports. In the world of Occupied, and ours, Norwegian gas accounts for about a quarter of consumption in the EU. A previously known element –– “Thorium” –– abundant in Norway, holds the promise of clean energy thanks to newly developed nuclear technology. This advancement, and the harsh reality of climate change claiming the zeitgeist, has allowed Berg to make a radical decision for Norway as well as the rest of the EU.

All of which is instructive towards envisioning our own responses to the way climate change may drive future conflict and foreign policy considerations. US Pacific Command has made policy changes as a result of environmental impacts to allies and potential allies. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was believed to have distracted the Philippine government and allowed China to make moves in the South China Sea that were not anticipated. Military training exercises between the Maldives and the US scheduled prior to 2012 were delayed due to a refocus of the military of the sinking island-nation on saltwater encroachment.  Succinctly stated by Brigadier General Mark McLeod, former head of PACOM’s Logistics, Engineering, and Security Cooperation directorate: “Call it climate change, call it the big blue rabbit, I don’t give a hoot what you call it — the military has to respond to those kinds of things.”

Following his energy plan announcement to cut Europe off cold turkey from a preponderant source of oil, the prime minister is kidnapped in his own helicopter by Russian-speaking commandos and given an ultimatum via Skype by a European Union minister that: he will rescind his energy plan, turn Norwegian pipelines over to the Russians for management and monitoring, and accept a presence of Russian forces in the country to ensure the deal remains in place. The prime minister is then dropped off, alive but traumatized, in the middle of a logging road where he is picked up by our other primary character, Hans Martin Djupvik, played by Eldar Skar, a state security services agent who had ignored the odd instructions from headquarters to cease his ground pursuit of the helicopter, thus establishing his character’s dedication to duty and an ability to question authority.  It also sets him up as one of the few individuals to know that the kidnapping even took place. The event is quickly covered up to avoid creating a panic, and we’re off on a bracing, tightly produced 10-episode ride of political intrigue, paramilitary maneuvers, and a fledgling resistance movement.

The series is far from US-centric, which makes it all the more intriguing for an alternate history and worldview not typically seen on American screens.  The European Union is the primary seat of power for the world shown in Occupied, but we rarely see representatives except through video conferences as vehicles to reiterate why Norway is so isolated and at the mercy of Russia’s “soft” invasion to capture and control their oil fields. Throughout the season, the show works to keep the viewer’s loyalties wavering. We sympathize for a nation whose liberty and self-actualization is insidiously taken from them for the purpose of a shared resource, but the economic and functional rationale behind the Russian actions, along with a fully complicit Europe, are not portrayed as inherently evil as they would be in a Hollywood production. Thanks to the deft characterization of the primary Russian antagonist, the EU comes off even worse.

The political intrigue is drawn with attention to how Norwegian parliamentary government works, but is easy to relate to for viewers in the United States. While Norway is a monarchy, it is a constitutional one divided into the Storting (Legislature), the Government (Executive), and the Courts. There is little play from the king in the first season, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in the next season where the monarch would not be leveraged by either the Russians, the resistance, or both. 

Throughout the first season, the primary focus is on the prime minister, the appointed Russian governor in Ambassador Irina Sidorova, played by Ingeborga Dapkunaite, the security agent Djupvik, and the relationship each has to widening crisis while working to maintain peace in their own ways. Each have their own motives, there are no good and evil characters, and each legitimately believe they are doing the right thing for their respective nations while doing what is necessary to keep the situation from erupting into outright war.

Local residents of South Ossetia celebrating the independence of the republic recognized by Russia on August 25, 2008. (Photo: Reuters)

Russia’s chess moves in this game are all from a position of strength, yet militarily, little has been seen in Season One, which encompasses just under a year.  Aside from an armed takeover of the offshore oil rigs and heavy vehicle tracks detected on the Northern border implying an infiltration of personnel, the “action” in Norway is handled through diplomatic channels and to a growing extent, by Russian Foreign Ministry security services. Military force is held in reserve, as a threat, keeping Norwegian Defense forces in check and its political leadership pliant in their desire to avoid escalation. Even as discontent amongst the population slowly grows, a resistance movement blossoms, and outrage builds not quite to a boiling, but definitely simmering. Prime Minister Berg knows the Norwegian armed forces at his disposal are no recourse to the coiled might of the Russian military. There are echoes in Occupied of recent actions by Russian forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 but in a much less overt and far more insidious manner. While the premise was written by Jo Nesbo earlier in 2008, the show began filming on the day of the more recent Russian invasion of Crimea and producers have taken pains to declare the show was not based on those events.

The drama and political maneuvering within the Norwegian government revolves around the hawks who are encouraging active and overt military resistance against the moderation and acquiescence borne by the prime minister. As calls for his resignation grow, it’s easy for the viewer to think of Prime Minister Berg as feckless and appeasing the Russians at every turn. However, the show does a good job of balancing those impulses by reminding us of the trauma of his kidnapping, the collaboration of his European allies in service of keeping the oil flowing, and Russia’s overwhelming military strength. While some viewers may see reflections of Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi puppet government in Norway during World War II, Occupied does a fine job of showing the perspective of a leader who recognizes and tries to avoid the bloodshed and decimation that would come from a head-to-head confrontation between the capable but miniscule Norwegian military and the relative Russian behemoth.

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside an Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol March 9, 2014. (Reuters Photo: Thomas Peter)

There is little exploration regarding how the geopolitical stage that differs much from our own sets the Russian Federation up as a major power aside from a weak show of force from EU aircraft at one point “exercising” towards the Norwegian border without any weapons loads. Signals are communicated and received both implied and explicit, that no help for Norway is forthcoming, even if armed conflict broke out within its borders. The hawks in the Norwegian camp believe those implications are diplomatic posturing by the EU to preserve the tenuous peace and if the Norwegians fought back, igniting the tinder that would force the international community at large to take sides. Direct Skype threats that only Berg, the Russians, and the viewer are privy to make it clear that in Europe, sides have already been chosen and oil cursed Norway is the odd man out.

In the United States, shown only from the perspective of its Ambassador in Oslo, played by Canadian Nigel Whitmey, the reticence to take a side is strong. We see only towards the end of the season when Prime Minister Berg takes refuge in the Embassy and Ambassador’s Residence that the Americans have not outwardly chosen to sit out the dispute but are particularly fearful of being drawn in against their will. There have been vague allusions to a recent history of international entanglements that have persuaded the US to suspend mutual aid and defense treaties.

Aside from a pre-World War II style isolationism predicated on energy independence, it’s difficult to discern where the origins of the US intransigence lie, but is instructive for strategists by forcing a “what if?” in drawing distinctions of what is or is not worth expending international political capital when projecting an isolationist worldview. The US of Occupied is no longer bound by Eurocentric treaties or alliances, in part because of vague allusions to the recent history of a “near future” United States similar to our own in which a period of seemingly ceaseless conflict has finally let up, allowing a reassessment of their place in the world and what responsibilities in it that can be sloughed off. Likewise, the US does not seem bound by a sense of upholding the international order in which other states do not simply claim the resources of another. Russia takes advantage of both, through moves that are not only tolerated but sanctioned by the EU, doing what they must to retain their own economic requirements. Russia finds itself as the biggest dog on the European block, with no American interest in bucking their hegemonic desires nor a regional player or international organization capable or motivated to do so. The representative institution, the EU, sees in the Russian occupation its own inherent benefits –– resumption of the flow of Norwegian oil.

In our current political climate and after over a decade and a half of war, if given the chance to ascribe to a similar worldview, how appealing would it be? Not wanting to start World War III over the oil or freedom of a former ally is not overtly discussed in the interactions between Prime Minister Berg and the US Ambassador, but easy to infer. Particularly as the season develops and the lengths that the Americans are willing to go to stay uninvolved become disturbing. Berg attempts to force the hand of the US Government and the reaction is profoundly dissonant to those of us who have served and fought alongside our traditional NATO allies. There are parallels in our own world that emerge where the weight of our national interests are weighed against involvement and the effect on international political capital and goodwill. It’s particularly relevant following the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s late aggressiveness in Europe and Asia. The scenario of Occupied –– much more insidious than real in Ukraine, Abkhazia or South Ossetia –– makes it hard for US viewers who are honest with themselves to say with any certainty that “We would never stand by.”

Meanwhile, an insurgency is building in the form of the ‘Free Norway’ (‘Fritt Norge’) movement. A small band of nationalists initially manifest in the form of a low-ranking Norwegian corporal who attempts to assassinate the Russian governor but is stopped by Agent Djupvik –– sanctioning him with Russian Security Services and establishing him with opportunity to develop as a collaborator or a double agent.  Free Norway’s tactics grow from intimidation through fire bombing, the killing of a senior military officer in front of the Russian Embassy, to kidnapping and threatened executions of both Russians and collaborators by the end of the season. The slow growth of the nascent insurgency is infuriating for those of us who would like to imagine freedom loving residents of a liberal democracy “invaded” by an occupying force taking action against their oppressors. Simultaneously, the cause is controlled in a way disturbing enough for those of us who have also been in the position of occupiers to lament the levels of escalating brutality undertaken by the fledgling freedom fighters. Both angles are handled in ways which are relatable, understandable, and familiar.

A recent essay in Foreign Policy by Stephen Walt touches on the theme of occupation where he says: “Nationalism and other forms of local identity remain powerful features in today’s world, and most people dislike following orders from well-armed foreign occupiers.” Occupied illustrates that some people dislike following orders from foreign occupiers, armed or otherwise.

We often errantly subscribe to a nationalist theory of resistance eschewed in Hollywood films like Red Dawn, where the populace is so incensed by the idea of the loss of liberty and freedom that they rise up and crush the occupiers. In reality, of the 163 instances of foreign occupation between 1900 and 2010, the majority saw little resistance. According to research by Simon Collard-Wexler of Columbia University in 2013, the conditions of occupation are more determinant of resistance than the nationalism of the occupied. One of the largest indicators is something Collard-Wexler calls “political dislocation,” in which occupier policies hasten resistance due to reducing the relative domestic power of a particular group within the country being occupied –– a recent example we are all familiar with involves Iraq and rhymes with “Sunni.” Other factors determining resistance, according to Collard-Wexler, include benign treatment, stability of the political order (or status quo), and trust that the occupation will end swiftly. The Russian occupation, thus far, has held to such policy prescriptions by implementing little changes that would affect the Norwegian populace in general, allowed the government to remain intact, and despite extensions of withdrawal deadlines, promises an end to the occupation.

One of the show’s primary writers and director for the first two episodes, Erik Skjoldbjærg (Prozac Nation), in an interview to Vogue, surmised what I think many military members outwardly deny but know deep in their heart –– particularly after 15 years of performing our own occupations: the majority of the populace would not resist. “I think, statistically, that is proven in both World Wars and in other conflicts with occupations… Most people would focus on their family, their jobs, their economy, their social status. These things are even more important than freedom of speech and other rights, at least for a awhile.”  He also referenced Kris Kristofferson’s [and Janis Joplin’s] song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” by quoting “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  To Skjoldbjaerg, “it felt like a tagline for the whole series.”

Occupied is a well-written and produced alternative-reality fictional series with high production values –– the most expensive in Norwegian television history –– and a solid grounding in the realpolitik of international relations. The climate and the minor quibble of an undeveloped plot point in the element “Thorium” are vehicles which serve to get us to the main topic of contemplation raised by series director Sklodbjaerg through “Me and Bobby McGee,” where “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” If nothing else, it’s worth viewing to see what so concerned the Russian government that they released a statement invoking Soviet liberation of Norway in World War II and the Cold War while condemning the show for “scaring Norwegian viewers” with “Russia, unfortunately” in the “role of the aggressor.”

Occupied is currently available on Netflix and Amazon Video.

Marc Milligan is a U.S. Air Force officer and pilot. He holds an MSIR and has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and multiple worldwide deployments as a combat aviation advisor and mission commander. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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