Norwegian series Occupied (2017), a unique mix of near-future speculation and political resistance narrative, improves substantially in its second season. This bleak, dark tale of a Russian soft invasion of Norway would have been a chilling vision of international aggression a few years ago. It suffers now only compared against the much larger nightmare of the real world. Even so, its entangled personal dilemmas make for effective drama.
As season two begins, ousted Norwegian Prime Minister Jesper Berg (Henrik Mestad) is in Stockholm, attempting to build a government-in-exile to challenge the Russian occupation. He’s also secretly leading the “Free Norway” resistance, communicating with his network via an online third-person shooter mmorg. Berg’s desire to liberate Norway is complicated when his lover, Anita Rygh (Janne Heltberg), becomes the new “Vichy” prime minister. By accepting this position, Rygh lands herself in the unenviable position of trying to appease both her own angry citizens and the Russian invaders, who are represented by the steely, elegant Irina Sidorova (Ingeborga Dapkunaite). This pits Berg and Rygh against one another in a series of politically charged confrontations, as Berg eludes capture for terrorism charges while also seeking legal assistance from former friends and allies in the European Union.
In the meantime, resistance activities are making life difficult for police chief Hans Djupvik (Eldar Skar), a stern law-and-order professional who has similarly wedged himself into the sticky middle ground between duty and detente. Djupvik’s investigation into an armed conflict between Norwegian soldiers and Russian dockworkers leads to further Free Norway support, a political firestorm that lures in civilians like young activist Frida (Thea Green Lundberg), hacker Leon (Henrik Eilif Borge), and conflicted hotelier Bente Norum (Ane Dahl Torp). Bente, in particular, has a rough road, her romantic relationships and financial ties to Norway’s new Russian masters making her uniquely useful to the rebels, and forcing her to make impossible decisions.
Occupied is a stark, stoic, and serious affair. Its dramatics fall flat occasionally, especially when the multilingual cast, as it frequently does, reverts to English (the language most common to its many international characters). The show’s tense political scenario, however, is skillfully executed, even if Russia’s fictional takeover of Norway can’t help but pale in comparison to its real-life takeover of the GOP. Those issues aside, Occupied is uncommonly gripping as an ensemble character study. Weirdly but deliberately, it lures you into rooting for well-meaning collaborators like Anita, Hans, and Bente. Their charismatic performances—Heltberg, in particular, is riveting—often disguise the fact that however much they may be trying to make the best of an awful situation, they’re essentially traitors. Meanwhile, more traditionally heroic figures like Jesper Berg are practically vilified, as their actions to oust the invaders lead them down ruthless, less sympathetic paths. It makes for thought-provoking commentary, to be sure, about what prolonged engagement in such a civil Cold War puts people through—a topic, sadly, that couldn’t be a more relevant in this moment of history. In light of that, Occupied can be a challenging watch, but I find it a valiant meditation on important subjects, trying to make artistic sense of senseless human conflict.