Borgen – S1 E5+6

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This is a follow-up to last week’s longer review of first four episodes of the series; if you haven’t already, do check out the end of that post for two excellent comment contributions from k dw from the perspective of UK coalitions in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, a dimension I’d totally overlooked in my original post and which are really fascinating to read more about the parallels involved.

So, to this week’s instalments, beginning with E5 entitled “Men Who Love Women” (itself an arch reference to the original Swedish title of Steig Larsson’s hit novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was “Men Who Hate Women.”) This episode rang alarm bells early on when it appeared to be an “issue” episode about the moral rights and political inadvisability of enforcing gender equality in the business world via legal statute: while probably an inevitable issue to cover in a series predicated on the first female Prime Minister of the country, it nonetheless threatened to be a worthy-but-dull politically correct wish-fulfilment exercise.

Fortunately they managed to mix up the pot with enough additional ingredients to make the whole thing work much better than initially feared. The parallel strand of the rise and fall of the Minister of Business Affairs both illustrated the central issues of discrimination faced by high-flying career women, while also allowing for some of the counter-arguments to be introduced as well. Added to that was the terrifically politically incorrect spin doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) leering at every good looking female in the room and making some appallingly ill-advised advances that were quickly spurned, which was both funny and dreadful at the same time.

The second episode of the week, “State Visit”, was rather more serious and more conventionally dramatic even though it could also be seen as something of an “issue” episode: one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, and how far a state can allow itself to go to appease its diplomatic allies and possible trading partners at the cost of its own conscience. The tension of whether or not Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) would roll over to international demands or stand firm, and whether the (rather too-likeable) dissident would be turned over to a former Soviet republic and likely permanent ‘disappearance,’ was gripping right to the end. And there were some great scenes at public receptions including a visit to the ballet that allowed everyone to be dressed up in unfamiliar formal attire, smiling for the cameras while simultaneously hissing veiled threats into one another’s ears – which is always great drama.

The best thing about both episodes was the resurgence in ongoing subplots for the main regular characters: Kasper was dealing (badly) with his on-off journalist girlfriend Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) starting a relationship with a fitness instructor, while Nyborg’s job as Prime Minister was finally taking its toll on her seemingly perfect marriage: in one rather shocking scene, she grows exasperated with her husband Philip’s (Mikael Birkkjær) concerns and simply tells him to “just get on with it” as though brusquely ordering about a recalcitrant junior civil servant – a bad omen for marital longevity.

But Borgen is increasingly showing its Achilles Heel: the ultimate infallibility of St Birgitte. She might waiver and make mistakes during the course of an episode, but the show has not yet been able to resist her making the right call by the end and coming up trumps. In episode 5 she’s able to pull a rabbit out of the hat with a key compromise deal from out of nowhere (literally, never hinted at once during the episode up to then); in episode 6 she sticks to her principles and yet still manages to keep a key business deal in place (there’s a question mark left hanging over it, but at least there’s no immediate damaging PR fallout) and even manages to instantly repair her marriage by tactfully moving her visiting father out of the house so that all is well again there, too.

Our Birgitte can do no wrong – and while this may be emotionally satisfying for viewers at least for a while, this sort of inevitable “she’ll be okay by the final scene” is a real problem dramatically and in the long-term. Compare this with Aaron Sorkin, who was himself the very model of left-wing wet dream wish fulfilment with The West Wing but who nonetheless knew that sometimes good people are forced into making bad decisions, that mistakes happen, people are sometimes weak, some battles have to be lost in pursuit of winning the war, and sometimes our idols have feel of clay. At the very least, making the morally “right” decision usually has some major downside costs involved either personally, politically or economically. But thus far Prime Minister Nyborg has been able to both have her cake and eat it at the end of the episode – and without having to pay the bill. Ironically the lack of consequence only lessons the sense of Nyborg’s courage and strength of character.

Most of all, it’s not reality: it’s a TV cheat and a fairy tale that doesn’t do justice to the aspirations of this classy show or its intelligent audience. I really hope the show’s writers and producers will be able to get to grips with their romantic sentimentalism for the Prime Minister sooner rather than later, and give the show the dramatic sting that it needs.

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