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In the TV thriller ‘Occupied,’ Russia has Western democracy on the run

- March 19, 2018
A campaign flag depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin on an apartment building in Moscow last month. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

“Occupied,” the Netflix thriller about a Russian “soft invasion” of Norway, is back with new episodes.

When the first season dropped in October 2015, this near-future tale of a resurgent Russia subverting a rich and stable Western democracy, while a divided European Union and an isolationist United States turn a blind eye, seemed like a dystopian fantasy.

As the second season hits after Brexit and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and amid the “America First” foreign policy, some will wonder whether it is closer to prophecy.

Picking up eight months after the events of the first season, these new episodes show Jesper Berg, the deposed Norwegian prime minister, on the run. At first, he tries to form a government-in-exile in Sweden, but he is betrayed and seeks sanctuary with Ukrainian freedom fighters and, later, French lawyers.

Last season, Berg was a compromised figure, caught between his desire to fight the Russians and his acceptance that it would be suicidal to do so. Now he is the heroic leader of the Norwegian resistance, with whom he secretly communicates via an online video game, his cowboy-hatted avatar directing bombings and political maneuvers. When he sails back to Norway on a commandeered freighter it’s not quite Lenin on the sealed train, but it’s an effective bit of drama nonetheless.

Berg’s successor is Anita Rygg, at 38 the youngest prime minister in Norway’s history. To the resistance, she is little more than a quisling, allowing the Russians to loot the country’s natural resources and destroy its last functioning institutions. “Anita Rygg has acted in the interests of a foreign power,” cry the Liberation Party. “Parliament should begin impeachment!”

But Rygg is Berg’s successor not just as prime minister, but as a conflicted patriot. She exemplifies the dilemma of the weak facing the strong: to fight and lose one’s life or negotiate and lose one’s purity. She is prime minister because no other Norwegian politician will take the job. And, like Berg before her, she finds no comfort in the arms of the United States or the European Union. “If you do not give in [to the Russians],” an E.U. Commissioner tells her, “I cannot help you.” The Americans are totally absent; in this fictional world they abandoned NATO some time ago.

“Occupied” succeeds handsomely on two levels. The first is the premise: that even consolidated democracies are vulnerable and must be defended. The wars of the future, “Occupied” shows us, will be hybrid conflicts relying on the subversion of institutions as much as brute force. It might have seemed fantastical when the writers thought it up, but they have certainly captured the zeitgeist.

The second success is the characters. “Occupied” gives a compelling panorama of human reactions to foreign domination, a scenario mostly beyond the experience of modern Westerners. Berg and Rygg carry the burden of leadership, but it’s the reaction of citizens that fascinates. Some become insurgents, and this is the only option for those parts of the Norwegian armed forces that cannot take Russian orders. Others become active collaborators. But most people just get on with their lives. Indeed, the economy booms as Norway is turned away from a debt-ridden European Union and toward a strutting Russia.

It is the smartphone generation that puts up the most effective fight, from the hackers who penetrate Russian military computers, to the activists who coordinate waves of protest via social media. Hope lies in the millennials, as Orwell might have said.

Political fiction can show us an idealized version of politics — think “The West Wing” or “Occupied’s” sunnier Scandinavian cousin “Borgen.” Or they can mirror and even magnify the anxieties of society, like “House of Cards” or “Scandal.” These are anxious days, and “Occupied” is the unsettling, dystopian thriller that fits them.

Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science and director of Humanities House at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of “Otherworldly Politics” and is completing a book on televised political fictions.