Boris Fishman

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The Soapy Subtlety of Norway’s “Occupied”

It was when one character told another that Russian operatives had implanted a poison ampoule in her lover’s body, set to implode should she prove disloyal, that I began to feel like Occupied, the Norwegian political thriller whose third season has just started streaming on Netflix, had made the full turn to soap opera.

Occupied had a brilliant premise, at once brazen and plausible: In the near future, in response to environmental crisis, Norway suspends oil and gas production, prompting a soft invasion by Russia with the EU’s blessing. Russia wants to get the fuel going again – and, as always, to see what else it can plunder.

One of the show’s brave insights, offered on the margins of a typical thriller’s cooked-up cliffhangers but much harder to imagine in American television, was that even in virtuous Norway, quite a few are not above the profiteering, economic and otherwise, that comes with collaboration. Of course, Norway is only progressive today. (One of the show’s pleasures is that it makes no occasion of the identities of its Somali- and Eritrean-Norwegian characters, inconceivable in other parts of Europe; nor of the wheelchair a prime minister’s spin doctor uses, inconceivable in America, where he would have to be the focus of the show.) Eighty years ago this April, Vidkun Quisling gave his name to an eternal synonym for dishonor and treason. But Occupied doesn’t feel like only a meditation on the country’s earlier sins.

In part, it’s a modern take on a segmentation that’s turning the wealthy into their own nation-state: globalization as the trans-national pursuit of money and power literally regardless of national sovereignty. In the show, these forces are opposed by “Free Norway” nationalists, but Occupied is also clear-eyed about the way patriotic impulse quickly becomes lack of scruple. The collaborators are full human beings as well, though the Norwegian media covers them as irredeemable villains, a buried commentary on the fourth estate. This reading depends on cultural context: In Norway, leaders who may be tolerating collaboration because they want to save Norwegian (and Russian) lives come across as complex figures doing their best. In an American (and Russian) living room, they seem like sell-outs.

Even the Russians are treated with fairness. As a political entity, the show’s Russia is unscrupulous, merciless, and gains what it has by forcible parasitism. But the greatest sin of most of the show’s individual Russians is that they want to make money in a new market, where life happens to be nicer and more secure than in their country. They dress nicely, speak softly, and discuss majority and minority stakes with all the ruthlessness of Warren Buffett. Even the invasion plays out subtly. It’s not about territory but power and is, as Jamie Kirchick noted astutely in Politico, “visible only to those who care to notice.” (Who expected so many Americans to apparently have so little problem with infiltration by a foreign power?)

What’s remarkable about Occupied, which was created by Jo Nesbø, the mega-selling Norwegian crime writer, is that the show’s intrigue-to-the-point-of-absurdity co-exists with nuance in a way that makes it a very rare expression of the idea that “genre” and “literary” qualities can add up to something better than either. Even as factions maneuver against each other, their fortunes and alliances shifting two or three times an episode, we receive a nuanced portrait of a political spectrum in which today’s radicals are tomorrow’s moderates because they’ve passed from opposition to power, and power restrains absolutely (in Norway, at least). Perhaps there’s nothing more to this than Scandinavia’s greater tolerance for intellectual density in art, but it sets one longing for its writer’s rooms, anyway.

At the same time, as the Russians finally withdraw, Occupied shows unblinkingly what remains: A poison ampoule left in Norway’s heart by the unwanted guest from the east. The interests created by the invasion continue to tear at each other – both in the name of Norwegian honor, of course. As some of us fail to appreciate sufficiently in the United States, this is the ultimate goal of Russia’s asymmetric warfare: To show the West how skin-deep its commitment to humanism is and how ready we all are to destroy each other for the right reason; to turn complexity into sides.

Vladimir Putin sincerely can’t imagine that we really believe this democracy crap, that imperfections don’t mean we’re secret authoritarians. (Who can forget his assumption that George W. Bush had Dan Rather fired after Rather questioned Bush’s military service in a CBS News report?) As Putin sincerely believes Russia does nothing wrong. When the Kremlin, through its embassy in Oslo, criticized Occupied, it presented itself as the victim. Remind you of anyone?

In this sense, Occupied doubles as a reflection on the United States, now eviscerating itself as Russia happily watches. Occupied’s America is isolationist – having achieved energy independence, it refuses to get involved. The show hardly mentions the U.S., perhaps because it has ceased to exist as a guarantor, power broker, and international force. Maybe Occupied is saying that this is what happens in a world without American leadership: Russian expansionism and base realpolitik from the EU.

But Occupied’s Norway is a lot more concerned with Russia than America. Its creators understand that Norway and America – carriers though they are of the bacillus of self-destruction that exists in us all – are merely the symptoms. The final insistence of the show’s third season, amid the usual plot insanity, is something that even Barack Obama failed to understand, let alone Donald Trump. One can hope that Russia stops being so demographically and economically weak that its power comes from dragging others down to its level. One can hope that happens before Quisling stops being a synonym for something bad. Or one can paraphrase another Vladimir (Lenin): Russia is a bayonet. When it feels mush, it pushes. When it feels steel, it stops.

Published
February 7, 2020