Contains spoilers for the two aired episodes.
And so Borgen is back to keep up our quotient of Danish drama on a Saturday night. Having sat through too many minutes of ITV’s earlier output Splash! which had me anticipating the end of the world and the coming Armageddon with its lazy simplistic concept and amateurish execution, it was a relief to find something on TV with a brain and a heart in roughly the right places.
Series 2 of Borgen (the title comes from the familiar name of the building that houses the Danish government offices in Copenhagen) starts off pretty much where season 1 left off despite the note on screen that this was some ten months after the events of last season. In fact, the new series continues seamlessly from the first and the only reason for the stated elapsed time is to move on a few of the dangling story threads from where we had left them: Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her husband Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær) have gone from early separation to the final stages of divorce; it’s clear that once-closest ally Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) hasn’t got over Birgitte’s need to fire him from his top Cabinet post and their relationship has deteriorated badly; and Birgitte herself is now much more confident and in charge about ruling her administration.
Otherwise, business as usual in Borgen-land, with BBC4 once again showing the series two episodes back-to-back per week. Which I still think is not the best way to see this show, since it’s mainly episodic and the two shows rarely have a linking theme between them so there is no ‘flow’ like there is in an ongoing storyline such as The Killing or The Bridge. Unfortunately TV schedulers dictate these things and we just have to bear with it, even if all too often the two episodes end up tripping over the others’ feet.
Episode 1 was “89,000 Born”, with the political plot being Denmark’s involvement in Afghanistan and the personal plot being Birgitte and Philip’s divorce. Clearly the Afghan scenes were intended as a big impact start to the new series and it was very well done, with helicopters coming in overhead and the Prime Minister bundled on the first private jet out once the bullets started flying. But the real drama was back in Copenhagen as Birgitte has to decide whether to stick with her line about pulling Danish troops out as soon as possible, or do a U-turn that will alienate her own party.
These are familiar issues to a British audience, and indeed I suspect that many viewers will have sighed and found this sort of hand-wringing rather old hat. I agree that there was little ‘new’ here, and it even omitted certain aspects of the conflict that I felt would have been more distinctive and interesting to discuss (such as how a small nation like Denmark, which is not so implicated in the original decision to invade Afghanistan, is now expected to stand firm anyway as a part of a loyal but token international peacekeeping force.) However, it’s been a long time since the issues have been explored in a sober, sensible setting away from politicians trying to score cheap points off each other for electoral gain, and for that at least the episode was refreshing.
It was even very emotional, as it followed journalist Katrine Fønsmark’s (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) efforts to get the father of one of the latest Danish casualties to open up about his feelings about his dead son and the “completely senseless” war that he’d died in. It helped immensely that the father was played by Olaf Johannessen who we have just finished watching as the Prime Minister in The Killing III – he put in another fantastic performance here even if it was a touch weird watching a scene between Johannessen and Sidse Babett Knudsen and trying to remember at any given moment which one of them was the PM this week.
Given that the prevailing theme of this first episode was that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to, the story did have to finally decide which side of the fence to come down on. It’s interesting to see online comments decry this as a left-wing socialist hand-wringing outcome, when in fact the decision to increase numbers and equipment at the request of the military and start talking about another five or more years of occupation should in most estimations be a right-wing military hawk’s decision. It leaves the series open to accusations of pro-war, pro-establishment leanings, but then no decision was going to satisfy all viewers any more than the equivalent decision in the real world has a nice pat answer either. At least this time some of the issues that really matter had been discussed in a calm and reasonable matter whether or not you came to the same conclusions as the Prime Minister.
Even so, “89,000 Born” struggled to avoid coming over like one of those ‘issue of the week’ TV movies. The show’s closest counterpart, The West Wing, could also come over as rather issue-obsessed at times not to mention was consistently a left-wing liberal’s wet dream in its outcomes, but by and large Aaron Sorkin’s show did a better job of blending the serious stuff with more fun and raw drama than Borgen did on this occasion. Despite that potential shortcoming, I personally still found this episode to be a strong and compelling one in reminding me about the core questions about the ongoing Afghan occupation and in engaging my emotions in a way that no mountain of political debate shows or documentaries ever can.
But if you want fun and drama, then look instead to the second episode “In Brussels, No One Can Hear You Scream,” which takes as its central political story the appointment of a new EU Commissioner – a decision seemingly awaited with keen interest by the Danish media in Borgen in a startling contrast for British readers who would be surprised if the story made page 20 in their daily paper of choice in the UK.
There were too great laugh-out-loud moments in the episode: one in the pre-credits sequence when Birgitte and her spin doctor Kasper Juul (Johan Philip Asbæk) discuss the various reasons for sending someone to Brussels which concludes with the Prime Minister aptly saying the episode title out loud, and then the two of them engaging in a precisely synchronised drinking of coffee that delightfully underpins the surreal nature of the conversation; and later, when Birgitte formally appoints old ally Bent to the role, the two are so at odds that they are screaming at each other with unrestrained fury despite the convivial nature of the words themselves: “Is the job mine?” “Yes. Congratulations,” they yell.
There’s also great emotional sadness to this episode, with Bent suffering a devastating personal blow right at the moment of his official celebrations that is really quite hauntingly played. There’s also an earlier quiet moment between Birgitte and her son Magnus that will pierce the heart of any hard-working parent, as well as a sub-plot involving bitter hard-hitting reporter Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen) who it’s great to see getting more screen time so far in series 2 than she did in the first.
Unlike the opening episode, “In Brussels, No One Can Hear You Scream” contains little in the way of ‘issue of the week’ discussion and instead requires the audience to be both familiar and fully engaged with the broader ensemble of characters. It won’t therefore win over or convert many new fans to the show, but it will be a standout episode for those that already are. The EU element is not really delved into (perhaps the Danes are not so different from the Brits in their Euro-indifference after all) and is really used only to stir-up political tensions and machinations at home, which conclude with possibly Birgitte’s best and most rewarding moment as Prime Minister to date as she slams down and spits out an unscrupulous rival who has been busy conspiring against her from behind a willing smile and flowery words of flattery.
All in all, the double-header was a very satisfying return to British TV screens for Borgen, a show that won’t be to everyone’s liking but is still a high quality drama. The most difficult question it raises in the mind of the viewer must surely be: why can’t British TV produce a show that tackles politics in all its aspects this intelligently?
I’m aware that not everyone is as enamoured as I am with this show, and it’s interesting to see significantly more niggling already going in online forums. Some people are not liking it because it’s not The Killing and goes have any exciting chases or murders, which seems an odd complaint rather like people trying to compare Coronation Street with The Lord of the Rings and concluding that the former doesn’t have nearly enough elves. Others object to the number of familiar faces from other Danish series (mainly The Killing) are showing up in Borgen, like that doesn’t happen in every single British production (indeed – Ian McKellan in both Coronation Street and The Lord of the Rings now I think of it!) without everyone griping about it.
The problem seems to be that we’re getting a very compressed look at Danish TV’s recent highlights, but also that they’re getting lumped together on the same time slot on British TV and under the same generic label, ‘Nordic Noir’. That is simply inaccurate in the case of Borgen. It is what it is: a drama series combining the publicly political with the personal ambitions and emotions. If that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t watch it just because it’s Danish and might turn into a serial killer drama – it won’t. And most of us would be seriously unhappy if it did!
Currently showing on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday nights, and available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD of season 2is available from February 4, 2013.