Nobel, a television drama about Norwegian special operators in Afghanistan and back home, went largely unremarked in America upon its release in 2016. Sometime since then, Netflix saw fit to slip the eight-part series into my “Recommended for Peter” queue, one more entry in the endless stream of diamonds and lumps-of-coal the video-streaming Goliath can’t stop sending my way. Fortunately and thankfully, this time Netflix is way more hit-than-miss, for Nobel is excellent.
The central story line concerns Lieutenant Erlang Riiser, a stoical and very competent man-of-war who, upon return to Norway after an eventful deployment in northern Afghanistan, receives a mysterious text telling him that a wealthy Afghan land-owner suspected of being a Taliban sympathizer has also arrived in Norway. The Taliban-friendly Afghan is in pursuit of his wife Washima, whom the Norwegians have granted refugee status out of fear for her safety, and he is also chasing a business opportunity brokered by high-placed Norwegian officials and businessmen. Riiser receives the text while attending an official function with his wife Johanne, who works as a deputy to the Norwegian minister of defense—one of said high-placed Norwegian officials. Riiser’s Ranger-danger spidey-sense tingling, he abandons his wife to chase down the anonymous lead. Finding Washima being pummeled by her husband, Riiser kills the husband and one of his henchmen and whisks Washima off to a hide-spot.
That all occurs in the first fifteen minutes of episode one. The rest of the hour and the subsequent seven episodes of Nobel spin out the aftermath and upshot of the fateful event, along with lots of back-story scene-setting in Afghanistan, as Riiser tries to discover the source of the text, deal with its consequences, smooth things out with his wife, and contend with a number of other issues, including a heroin-addicted father, a disabled teammate, the grieving mother of second teammate killed-in-action, a pesky muckraking journalist, and a troubled son coming to terms with the idea that his father is caught in a harrowing game of kill-or-be-killed. All the action is for big stakes: not only are oil-drilling rights in Afghanistan on the table, for which the Norwegians are trying to broker a deal in collaboration with a Chinese consortium, but also hanging in the balance is a Nobel Peace Prize, which, in case you don’t remember (I didn’t), is awarded by Norway, not Sweden.
That’s a lot, but the wide-ranging plot is Nobel’s strength. Its creators have crafted a complex but plausible story, one whose reach spans high and low, close and far, backwards and forwards, and they’ve imbued it with intelligence, drive, and capability of surprise. A couple of scenes strain credulity and it is paced a mite more slowly than you might think a war movie should be, but overall Nobel is dramatic without being melodramatic, exciting without being sensational, and neither reductive nor pandering in its presentation of war’s dangers and complexities. Also good are the production values. The “Afghanistan” scenes (filmed in Morocco) recoup well-trodden scenes from film and fiction—FOB life, soldierly banter and camaraderie, vehicle movement ops, IEDs, suicide bombers, the death of a buddy, shoot-or-don’t-shoot scenarios, tea-drinking schmoozefests with Afghans—with attention to detail and fresh accents, while also throwing in a few new ones—sex in the hootches, green-on-blue killing, and a buzkashi game, to name three.
Aksel Hennie is solid as Lieutenant Riiser. Neither Chris Kyle nor Jason Bourne, Riiser’s a mature man; his BMW station-wagon becomes him, while his Under Armour ballcap makes him look not youthful but slightly foolish, as if his suspect American fashion sense corresponded with suspect American ideas about things, such as the thought that joining the military and going to fight in Afghanistan was a good one. Watchful, thoughtful, and somewhat bug-eyed, he is slow to talk, leaving long pauses in the conversational flow as if he knew a little bit more or a little bit less than everyone else in the room. Only impulsive when the situation demands, Riiser is not addicted to thrill, or perhaps he keeps his addiction dampened down. Asked to deal with a lot, from international intrigue to tense combat to a shaky home life, he’s almost too stoical and practical in his responses for the other people in his life, especially his wife and kid, who practically beg him to be more there for them. His silent competence is both a virtue and a liability as the dramatic focus of the show: we understand that he represents a certain type of admirable-but-also-problematic military mindset, but the series could still do better to open him up emotionally and psychologically.
While Riiser is somewhat one-dimensional, Tuva Novotny, as Riiser’s wife Johanne, better carries off a bifurcated personality: her tightly pulled-back hair and pursed lips signal all business up-top, while her armband tattoo and leather pants below speak to something more bad-ass. Miffed by her husband’s remoteness, perhaps she also senses that she’s not getting her due as a very pretty woman, and she finds herself susceptible to the flirtation of a raffish international entrepreneur. This subplot plays out in did-she-or-did-she-not-succumb? fashion, which is interesting, but the tension between the Riisers is even more interesting, if not as erotic. Johanne’s desperate to prove her competence in her own realm as the equal of her husband’s in his, and the series finale brings both members of the Riiser power-couple to Afghanistan, where their marital competiveness—mixed, to be sure, with love and care, however strained—crests on a wave of competing professional interests.
Much reference in Nobel is made to “the Norwegian way” of war-fighting and international business and politics. The mostly-unstated contrast to the Norwegian way is “the American way,” but a cheap-shot delivered early on drives the point home: one of the special operators proclaims if “we were Americans” a possible target “would already be dead.” On the political-business side, “the Norwegian way” speaks to some sort of rational deal-making centered on mutual interest and cultural sensitivity, as opposed, I’m guessing, to American shock, awe, and “kill ’em all” bum-fuckery. To be fair, when first American special operators and then an American Secretary of Defense appear in Nobel, they’re not portrayed as idiots with blood dripping from their teeth, but rather as shrewd practitioners of war’s complexity. Those cameos point to a grander theme. By the end of Nobel, the idea of a superior Norwegian way lies in tatters as events at both the national and individual levels humble the Norwegians. A thematic and visual motif of the series is explosions; they are featured not only in the background of the title sequence, but three characteristic Afghanistan explosions—an anti-personnel land mine, an IED, and a suicide bomb—punctuate the narrative. By the series end, Norway’s effort to escape the worst mistakes and moral quagmires of American folly have been blown to bits, and the men and women whose lives have been ruined by Afghanistan and in Afghanistan can blame neither Afghans nor Americans, but only themselves.
Nobel is directed by Per-Olav Sorensen and written by Mette Marit Bastad and Stephen Uhlander.