This article contains spoilers for Occupied.
The Norwegian series Occupied starts with a bang. In the opening credits, we learn that the show takes place in an alternate future where the United States has pulled out of NATO, the Middle East is no longer a viable source of oil and gas, and Europe is facing a serious energy crisis. In this world, Norwegian Prime Minister Jesper Berg announces that he will shut down his country’s oil and gas production for environmental reasons. In response, Russia informs Berg that it will be coming to Norway to restart oil and gas production in order to keep supplies flowing to Europe, with the European Union’s support.
Occupied examines what happens as Norway’s “energy cooperation” with Russia deepens. The series follows a large cast of characters, from Berg, other politicians, and members of the Norwegian security service to a journalist named Thomas and his wife, Bente, who owns a restaurant. We also get insight into some Russian characters, namely, Russia’s ambassador to Norway, Irina Sidorova, whose diplomatic manipulation drives much of the plot.
Though Occupied is, on the surface, about an international conflict, the most interesting discussions occur between the Norwegians themselves as they struggle to come to terms with what’s happening to their country. Everyone agrees that there’s a conflict, but no one can agree on what to do about it.
Deception as a Tool of Conflict
One of the most striking aspects of Occupied is how most of the characters use deception to advance what they believe are Norway’s best interests. In an interview with Thomas just after Russia comes in, Berg vehemently denies that Norway is under occupation. It’s unclear if Berg himself believes what he’s saying, and if he does, how long that will last. Most other Norwegians are also hesitant to call Russia’s activities a flat-out occupation. Hilde Djupvik, a judge in the first season, is puzzled when she receives a call from her husband, Hans Martin, warning her that war might break out. Hans’ job in the security service has exposed him to an incident that the state is concealing from the public, but when Hilde looks out her office window, she spots nothing out of the ordinary and returns to work. Later that evening, she teases Hans for always thinking the worst.
For both Berg and Hilde, Russia’s presence in Norway doesn’t look like an occupation, so how could it be?
Deception becomes even more central to the show in subsequent episodes. Berg only becomes more deceptive as the occupation wears on, going so far as to trick a computer hacker into accessing Russia’s military systems in season two, a move that ultimately costs the hacker his life. By season three, Berg becomes so used to deceiving others that he’s nearly unrecognizable as he maneuvers to keep his position at the top of Norway’s political establishment.
Others engage in deception as well. Anita Rygh becomes Norway’s prime minister in season two and spends much of her time negotiating with Russia and hiding the details of these deals from the public, as their terms compromise Norwegian sovereignty. By the second season’s end, we learn that Rygh has been deceived herself when it’s revealed that she was only offered her position so that the rest of the government could have a scapegoat when things inevitably turn sour. Meanwhile, Ambassador Sidorova repeats lies and false promises throughout the show to keep Norway on board with the arrangement.
How Individuals Fit Into conflict
Deception and conflict go hand in hand. As Norway’s politicians assure the public that they have nothing to worry about, individuals become increasingly frustrated. Thomas, for instance, tries asking a Russian customer at Bente’s restaurant about his business in Norway. When his wife scolds him, he simply says, “We’ve been invaded, and we have the right to ask questions.” Meanwhile, a senior member of the security service begins organizing Free Norway, which stages terrorist attacks to resist Russia’s occupation. Tensions with Russia only escalate as Free Norway’s attacks grow, making a peaceful end to the occupation increasingly unlikely. Slowly, more and more Norwegians—including Berg himself—begin to see through the deception that surrounds them and realize that Russia isn’t in Norway simply to restart oil and gas production.
This isn’t the case for everyone, though. Both Hans and Hilde remain so focused on performing their duties that they fail to consider how the implications of their work have changed in the new context. Hilde is particularly interesting, as she’s committed to upholding the rule of law and believes that the nation’s courts can be kept out of its politics. However, at one point in season two, she suggests allowing Russia to select a judge in a case involving Norwegian soldiers held in Russia, effectively giving a foreign power a say in Norway’s judicial system. Bente also tries to focus on her work at the restaurant, which becomes a hub for Russians in Oslo. Profiting greatly from her Russian patrons, Bente struggles when her children start expressing sympathy with Free Norway and Thomas’s journalism becomes more dangerous. Soon she realizes that she’ll have to pick a side. She just can’t decide which one.
The central question that Occupied’s characters ask themselves is whether or not violence is necessary to end the occupation. Everyone has a different answer. Many members of the military decide almost immediately that violence is the only way to win and quickly join Free Norway. Berg slowly goes from a proponent of peaceful resolutions to a fully-fledged leader of Free Norway by the end of season one. Others, like Rygh, hold out hope for peace for so long and work so hard to prevent violence at all costs that they fail to ask themselves what those costs are. Indeed, when Rygh learns that her government wants her out and Berg back in, she frets that war will finally come. Her colleague simply nods and says, “That will be the consequence no matter what.”
When Violence Won’t Go Away
No matter what these characters think of violence personally, most of them encounter it more regularly in their daily lives as the conflict wears on. Terrorist attacks become a common occurrence and hostilities between neighbors grow as civilians disagree over what should be done. By season three, individuals have begun attacking those that profited from the war with acid. People become more willing to justify acts of violence and discrimination in the name of sovereignty, much to the disgust of characters like Hilde.
Moreover, even though Russia formally withdraws at the end of season two, its campaign for influence in Norway is hardly over. At the same time, Norwegians are unwilling to forget the occupation so easily. Instead, people grow even more ruthless. Once he’s back in office, Berg has Rygh’s government arrested for cooperating with an occupying power while Harald Vold, a senior member of Free Norway, begins using his position as head of the military for his own political advantage. Norwegian soldiers begin attacking EU peacekeepers along the Russian border, seeing any foreign troops in their land as an attack on Norwegian sovereignty.
For those outside of politics, the conflict splits the nation as characters wonder how they can build a life after everything they’ve experienced. Some want to punish those Russians still living in Norway and all those that benefited from the occupation as much as possible. Others want to keep Norway a democratic and fair nation where laws are applied equally and the rights of everyone are respected. Though Norway and Russia never formally go to war, Norway is, in a sense, at war with itself.
A Christian Perspective on Occupied
Occupied shows that conflict, deception, and violence are difficult to avoid in a world where sin exists. From a Christian perspective, violence is wrong, yet we know it’s existed ever since Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden. We also know that deception is how bad things happen; it was through deception that the serpent tempted Eve. Indeed, in the days before Christ’s return, we’re told that “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12-13). This doesn’t simply mean that we risk being deceived by others, though. As Occupied shows, we are likely to deceive ourselves (more than we’d like to admit) if we fail to stay true to our morals. Moreover, the apocalypse itself will be preceded by a war, as the armies of the world rise up to try to fight back Christ.
However, war is still—and should be—the last resort to resolving conflict. The Bible says that conflict should be addressed verbally with the perpetrator first, and if that fails to work, to bring in other people to help find a peaceful solution (Matthew 18:15-17). What Occupied highlights so well, though, is how individuals differ on when that point has been reached.
Free Norway decides almost immediately that only violence can end the conflict while Anita Rygh never stops believing that there are other options. Both groups would define their goal as the same: protecting Norway. What protecting Norway actually means to both groups, however, is radically different. Both sides grow frustrated with each other’s deceptive tools and see their opponents’ actions as evidence that they’re wrong, all the while not realizing that they themselves do similar things to advance their cause. Same conflict, same goals, opposing tactics.
Occupied highlights the challenge of trying to make good decisions in spite of the lies and deception that surround us. It’s a struggle that many of us can understand. It also outlines how easy it is to slip into conflict in an imperfect world where sin exists. In the world of Occupied, conflict doesn’t simply appear out of thin air, bringing violence along with it. Instead, it grows slowly through deception, which tricks people into not believing what they see. Violence bubbles as deception spreads, causing conflict to escalate. Occupied shows how quickly conflict can start—and how difficult it is to stop it.