Contains spoilers for the final two episodes.
Well, any concerns that I had that the show was giving Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) an unfeasibly easy ride of it early in the season have been comprehensively dismissed by the frankly bleak and nihilistic end of series 1. The government still stands and Nyborg remains Prime Minister with her political convictions actually reasonably intact, but in order to make that happen she’s ended up jettisoning pretty much everyone and everything else that she once deemed important to her.
It’s hard to know what message we should be taking away from Borgen. It started off as a “decent people can be in politics too, and can make a genuine and positive difference” affair analogous to The West Wing; Now the moral seems to be a return to Lord Acton’s timeless “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” as we see the devastating impact the office of Prime Minister has had on Nyborg. She has started to become everything that she came into the series railing against. All that we admired about her in the early episodes – her compassion and empathy, her determination to do the right thing, her devotion to her husband and family – is now gone, submerged to what she perceives as being the greater good which involves first and foremost prioritising staying in power.
When Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) tells her he wants a divorce, she’s so removed from it that she doesn’t even say a word in protest: instead, you can see the wheels immediately start turning on “how do I manage this from a PR point of view?” She doesn’t flinch from firing her closest ally Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) from the Cabinet. And when the jovial, dead-eyed permanent secretary Niels Erik Lund (Morten Kirkskov) cheerfully tells her that he’s finally removed Birgitte’s PA Sanne from the office – just hours after Sanne was personally entrusted with babysitting Birgitte’s son Magnus – Birgitte doesn’t even respond: she’s emotionally dead, having spent the episode in a cynical and deceitful attempt to manipulate the media over just the sort of “happy families” interview that she decried her predecessor for trying with his own wife only a few episodes earlier.
Is the series intended as an explanation of why politicians are like they are? That the process and reality of power inexorably results in exactly the sort of politicians we detest and that it’s not their fault, they started off well-meaning? If so it’s a very sad, downbeat and hope-less summary of politics. Who, after watching this show, would want to risk their home lives, friends and family, morals and even sanity in the endeavour of trying to “do good?” Only those who seek power for its own glory would want to follow Nyborg down the path she’s taken.
Are we even, at this point, supposed to still be on Nyborg’s side and view her as the hero? Or is our support for her supposed to have ebbed away in just the way that her poll ratings in the show have done? It’s been interesting watching the comments of fans on social media and columnists in the mainstream press, where the predominantly female commentators are still firmly in Birgitte’s corner and decry the selfish actions of husband Philip. And yet I can’t help but wonder that if the genders weren’t reversed, wouldn’t a male Prime Minister acting like this be widely seen as the villain of the piece and the female spouse seen as valiantly standing up for the family, the kids, and the right thing to do (even with the presence of an extramarital affair)? Borgen challenges us to think deeper about such issues than we’re used to or comfortable with.
The penultimate story, “Divide and Rule”, did another interesting thing that caught me by surprise: the writing and cutting of the early part of the episode explicitly made obvious the intended parallels between Nyborg and the young TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), making it clear that both were committed professionals who couldn’t help themselves but be immersed in the detail of an issue, driven by the certainty that they would spot things that others wouldn’t and that only they could do the job right. During the series, Katrine has also sacrificed her chance of a family (with an early abortion, then breaking up with her fitness instructor boyfriend, and now finally washing her hands of Kasper) in the pursuit of her work, because like Birgitte she believes in it absolutely. But while Birgitte is now a long way down the path of throwing everyone and everything overboard in order to be able to continue in office, Katrine sticks to her principals and ethics and chooses instead to resign rather than to tolerate a gross abuse of journalistic principals by her station boss.
I think we’re meant to admire Katrine’s determination and sense of character more than Birgitte’s at this point. How odd to have a show dare to suggest that a journalist can be a hero in this day and age! The press room scenes have become increasingly strong and important, with scalpel-sharp economical exchanges on the issue of the day allowing us to see how the government’s well meaning policies instantly appear cynical and underhanded to the media and to the public. But it’s not as clear cut: Katrine is young and only has herself and her career to think about, while Birgitte has the sense of the weight of the whole country bearing down on her. She can’t allow herself to walk away; she is trapped by her own sense of obligation and purpose, the knowledge that if she leaves then things for everyone will be so much worse for everyone in Denmark. She has become a tragic prisoner of the office that she inhabits, while Katrine still has her freedom.
All in all, the final two episodes were very strong indeed and didn’t flinch from the implosion of Birgitte’s world. “Divide and Rule” was even more startling in the way that it seemed ripped from this very week’s UK newspaper headlines: massive defence overspends, shambolic procurement, allegations of ministerial corruption, bribes and conflicts of interest; and Birgitte’s new tendency to micromanage and be unable to leave her ministers to get on with things because she knows that if and when it blows up it will all be blamed on her is right out of the Thatcher/Blair playbook of government. I can’t remember a British TV series that so accurately skewered the current British political scene so well, so to have it come instead from a Danish domestic drama is almost surreal.
The final episode, “The First Tuesday in October”, was the one that really presented us with the break between the reality (broken marriages, a government nominally in power but actually under siege and drifting) and the artifice (the attempted “happy family” TV interview and the soaring, inspiring “state of the union” speech Nyborg has to give to the opening of parliament.) That speech proves so good that even Birgitte’s predecessor Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning) appears to have a genuine tear in the eye during it and compliments her on it afterwards – only to turn to reporters and in the same breath decry the empty rhetoric they’d all heard before.
Something else is also made explicitly clear by the sub-plot of the writing of that speech by spin doctor/communications chief Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk). My very first review of Borgen a month ago couldn’t avoid using the description ‘Danish West Wing’ somewhat guiltily and somewhat lazy, but in the season finale Kasper couldn’t be more overtly cast in the Sam Seaborn role as he works on finding the right tone for the speech. He seeks inspiration by listening to old Kennedy inauguration speeches on his iPod: but we all know that what he’s really been doing is going home and cracking open the DVD boxset of the President Bartlet administration.
The Borgen/West Wing comparison once felt rather patronising and trite; but at the end of season 1 of Borgen I’d say the comparison has actually been impressively earned and now speaks volumes of the strengths of both series.
Series 1 is now available on DVD. Season 2 will be shown on BBC 4 “in the winter”, either at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013.