Contains spoilers for the two aired episodes.
I really don’t intend to do a detailed week-by-week review of the entire season of Borgen, but this week’s instalment of episodes seems to require it.
Put simply, I thought this was possibly the best and strongest two episodes of Borgen to date. Sometimes the show can be a little uneven and its parts disconnected, but “The Last Worker” and “Battle Ready” were as strong and well-written as anything the show has done to date, managing to tell effective and gripping stories in which the personal and emotional strands wove into the political and dramatic storylines and back again in the most perfectly integrated way. And having grumbled about BBC4 showing the series in double-headers when episodes are generally stand-alone instalments, here we have two stories that flowed seamlessly from one to another giving the whole evening the sweeping sense of a well-thought-out two- hour motion picture rather than a TV show.
“The Last Worker” featured Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) trying to get a new social welfare policy agreed with her coalition partners (this coming spookily within days of Britain’s real PM David Cameron unveiling something like the same thing for the UK – talk about relevance!) but the process being undermined by her coalition partners in the Labour Party having trouble with their union backers over the question of early retirement leading to the ousting of the sweet, honorable but in truth rather shambolic and effective party leader Bjørn Marrot (Flemming Sørensen).
If you wrote a serious drama about the British Labour Party, and its identity crisis between its past (as a movement for the workers) and its present (dominated by white collar career-professional politicians) then you couldn’t have hit it any more on the nose than this Danish production managed. The moment when Marrot realised that his time as Labour leader was over after a ruthless palace coup by his own loathsome gang of deputies in the Cabinet was not only full of pathos as a character piece, it also made some spot-on points about how he was “the last worker in the party” and how with his passing it was the end of an era for Labour that left them diminished. And all because he didn’t wear the right tie and misspoke while on a foreign trip – how many real-life politicians have we taken delight in seeing brought down by similar ‘offences’? I think I’ll take a little less joy in such political theatre after this, which dramatised us the human cost of such ruthless machinations.
“Battle Ready” pretty much continued the story on directly, with Marrot’s successor and coup ring leader Troels Höxenhaven (Lars Brygmann) riding high on hubris effectively demanding that Nyborg stand down as Prime Minister now that the largest party in the coalition, Labour, had an effective leader capable of leading the country. The stakes had never been higher in the series so far: a direct threat and from a man seemingly capable of toppling Nyborg with ease.
That’s when the more personal/emotional stories started to come into play. Birgitte was still reeling from the split with her ex-husband (and now having to deal with his having a ‘perfect’ new woman in his life) and from the loss of her loyal political mentor and ally in the previous episodes, and now found that harmless and dependable Marrot was also gone and replaced by a vicious snake in the grass. Lonely and abandoned on all sides, Birgitte had a moment of weakness that would come back to bite her at the end.
Meanwhile, the story of Katrine’s (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Kasper’s (Pilou Asbæk) on-off doomed love affair dovetailed into the story of Katrine and Hanne’s (Benedikte Hansen) investigation into the source of an explosive story about the new Labour leader that threatened to topple Höxenhaven even quicker than he had ascended. It was a challenging and difficult strand to the story, for me at east – absolutely not because it wasn’t very well done, but because I didn’t quite know where I stood on the issues being raised and really had to think about my own feelings and assumptions.
On the one hand, newspaper-engineered honey-traps and publishing compromising salacious paparazzi photos is simply everyday tabloid activity in the UK (or used to be, before Leveson and the closure of the News of the World) and not nearly as morally and ethically dubious as it appears to be in Denmark. I think that speaks highly of the Danes and poorly of us Brits, and left me thinking “Should I be as outraged about this story as Katrine and Hanne clearly are, or are they being perfectionist prima donnas and goody two-shoes?” The question was further complicated by the fact that even if we decided to be righteous and come down on the ‘good’ side of the argument, in dramatic terms we needed the newspaper’s kiss-and-tell story to run because otherwise there was no chance of Nyborg retaining her post as PM. Talk about conflict of interest and loyalties.
There was, I have to say, a false note near the end of the episode that slightly undermined the excellence of the two hours that had preceded it. Höxenhaven goes to admit all to Nyborg, and despite the fact that he’s recently declared total war against her and made no bones about wanting her to out, Nyborg’s reaction is to say: “I’ll stand by you and publicly support you on this.” This, from the woman who was quick to distance herself from Höxenhaven’s predecessor Marrot on far more spurious grounds? I don’t think so. The most charitable reaction from Nyborg on the circumstances would have been to remain cordial, not to immediately dance on the table, and maybe – at a stretch – a promise not to jump on the media storm bandwagon when it broke out. But to try and get Höxenhaven to stay and moreover to support him? No, even a saint would have trouble there.
But her admirable words were necessary in order that Nyborg wasn’t implicated in any way in what followed. She had to remain spotless in the tragedy that ensued. And I have to admit, the fact that Höxenhaven felt he had to take the action he did is a surprise to a Brit who sees Denmark as a tolerant and open-minded paragon of liberal values in an increasingly mean world. Would his transgression really bring about such unfaceable shame that Höxenhaven felt he had no alternative? That in itself is a disturbing sign that all is not as well under the surface in Scandinavia as we’d hoped.
It certainly made for a powerful end to a gripping and high-quality two hours of drama. Once again I was left marvelling at how Danish drama seems to say as much if not more about British society, politics and attitudes than most of the UK TV output these days, and for me the big question left hanging heavy over the end credits was: “Serious, why can’t Britain make a programme as good as this dealing with real personal and political issues that matter any more?”
Currently showing on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday nights, and available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD of season 2 is available from February 4, 2013.