Watching the Norwegian Series “Occupied”

I just finished watching the first season of the Norwegian series “Occupied,” which recently became available on Netflix (you can watch the trailer here). It is one of those moments when I find something very disturbing, but recommend highly to others. Here is a brief summary of the plot that doesn’t contain any spoilers:

In a not-so-distant future, Norway has elected a radical branch of the Green Party, and its charismatic new prime minister shuts down the country’s supply of oil and gas to continental Europe. Despite an impending climate crisis, the EU is none too pleased with this overnight weaning from petrol, and invites Russia to offer Norway “technical assistance” in restoring its fossil fuel production. Russian gunships descend on Norway’s oil platforms. America, having withdrawn from NATO, is nowhere to be found. And so begins a slow, doublespeak-laden, Putin-style escalation into occupation.

Anyone who is paying attention these days knows that climate change is very likely to raise tensions all over the globe. Given that one of our presidential front-runners recently talked about pulling out of NATO, that part of the plot isn’t entirely inconceivable. Norwegians who were involved in this production point out that – just as they started filming – Russia began it’s incursion into the Ukraine. So perhaps you can see why this series brings together a lot of worst case scenarios that are not terribly far-fetched.

My over-riding sense as I watched this unfold was how terribly vulnerable individual countries around the globe could be without the kind of collaboration and partnership that comes from organizations like NATO and the EU. While we’ve never really felt that to any great degree in the United States, I was reminded that we take a lot of the solidarity that developed after WWII for granted. After more than 60 years on this earth, I’ve never known anything else. But it behooves us to remember that it hasn’t always been this way.

Beyond the global politics, the series is fascinating on a personal level as well.

In a dramatic style characteristic of Scandinavian film and television, the characters, which are drawn from every faction of the political situation and include the prime minister, a Norwegian double agent, a newspaper reporter, his restaurateur wife, and even the de facto Russian governor of Norway, are all portrayed sympathetically. And as a viewer, it’s impossible to take sides, or even to see through the fog of war to what a good outcome might be.

Having been spoon-fed the kind of drama we are used to watching in this country, I found myself constantly trying to figure out who were the heroes and who were the villains in this story. It never happened. Here is how one of the writers – Erik Skjoldbjaerb – described it:

The really interesting conflicts are ones where you can understand both sides. It’s just a matter of what you emphasize. I don’t believe in evil, and I don’t find evil characters that interesting. In this show, everyone is trying to do their best, trying to do good in whatever situation they’re in. It boils down to their perspective and what they view as their task. And I think that’s part of why the world, why a lot of conflicts in the world, don’t have easy answers. But unfortunately we have to deal with them.

I recognize that it probably isn’t practical to hope that conservatives will ever be able to grasp what Skjoldbjaerb has described. He’s done a pretty amazing job of capturing how the world really tends to work. Our constant need to identify good/evil in every situation is more a product of the fantasies we’ve been fed than a reflection of reality. Unless we are confronted with groups like ISIS, whose sole purpose seems to be killing innocent people, a much more complicated and nuanced view of the world is what is required if we are to do as President Obama suggests…expand our moral imagination.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.