Borgen S3 E1-2 “A child of Denmark”/”The land is built on law” (BBC4)

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Contains spoilers for the first two episodes of season 3

The good news: Borgen is back! The bad news: the third series will be its last. The good news again: it’s better than ever.

There had been a few uneven patches in its first two series but overall I think it turned out rather tremendously. Tritely pigeon-holed as the “Danish West Wing” when it started, Adam Price’s Borgen stood out chiefly thanks to the lead performance of Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg who at the beginning of the first season became the first female Prime Minister of Denmark and thereafter held together a precarious coalition government over the course of the next two years. This meant that Borgen had a particularly topical appeal to British audiences in 2010 and 2011 as the UK happened to find itself under its first proper coalition government since 1945: seeing how Nyborg keeps the factions together and achieves things in the precarious situation became almost a how-to manual for Britons in understanding our own new political reality.

In 2013, Borgen continues to remain scarily relevant and sharply responsive to what’s going on in the real world. Moving on two years from season 2, we now find that Nyborg lost the last election and subsequently resigned as party leader to become a famous and highly paid international public speaker (shades of Tony Blair?) and a member of many important company boards. Her children seem happy, she’s on good terms with ex-husband Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær), and she has a new architect boyfriend from Britain (played by Monarch of the Glen star Alastair Mackenzie.) Being out of politics agrees with her: even her gorgeous new penthouse apartment is a world away from the older, cramped family home she shared with Philip and the children as Prime Minister. In fact the whole show looks glossier, more modern, more confidently stylish and creative all round.

But in Nyborg’s absence from the political scene, her party has lurched to the right in order to keep ‘in’ with the new Conservative government, just as the UK’s Liberal Democrats are perceived to have done in the same period. Their latest immigration reforms come close to breaching Denmark’s constitution if not international human rights – again, much as the UK’s coalition government has been accused of in recent times. It’s too much for Nyborg to stomach and so she seeks to reenter politics, only to be given the cold shoulder by the odious and conniving new party leader Jacob Kruse who harbours an old grudge against her. Nyborg stands against Kruse for the leadership and loses, dodging what would otherwise have been a rather unbelievable and too-easy avenue for the series to go down: but now with no where left to go, it seems she’s made the shortest-lived political comeback in Danish history.

In essence, episode 1 is mere scene-setting for what’s to follow, catching up on what’s been happening since we last met the cast of characters. Journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is now hugely successful and the face of TV1 News but also a single-mother spending too little time with her baby son Gustav. Meanwhile TV1 is under new management personified by the achingly odious ‘hip’ Alexander Hjort (Christian Tafdrup) who is thoroughly dismissive of TV1’s principled devotion to current affairs since it’s both costly and also losing the ratings war with their rivals; that means Hjort is leaning on the head of news Torben Friis (Søren Malling) to make changes. Friis meanwhile has become on-screen talent himself in a This Week-style magazine show co-hosted with Nyborg’s former political spindoctor Kasper Juul (sadly, it appears that former series star Pilou Asbæk is too much in demand these days and so he takes a significantly downsized role in season 3.)

So with everything set up, episode 2 gets on with the meat of season 3: Nyborg rents some office space and a whiteboard and gets to work, doing the unthinkable and going all Social Democratic Party on us. She’s intent on setting up a brand new breakaway political party by attracting likeminded MPs from other parties who are similarly unhappy with the way things are going. At first it seems doomed – the people she approaches are far too cagey or nervous to commit to such a far-out idea – but it’s the return of the consensus-building political master operator as Nyborg slowly wins them around. One, however, seems beyond reach: it’s a heart-breaking moment when her former deputy Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) is so aghast by her defection from and betrayal of the Moderate party that he ends their life-long friendship. The subsequent scene where this is resolved is given perhaps too little time and is arguably too underplayed for the emotional weight that the audience now has invested in this relationship, which has become such a large and centrally important part of the show.

The key moment of the episode comes toward the end, when Nyborg lays out her nascent party’s manifesto. Just as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing was often described as a left-wing liberal’s wet dream of how things would be in a perfect world, so Nyborg’s speech here about restoring democracy and people’s faith and hope in the political process is the kind of thing so many of us today wish that some politician of any hue or other would say and moreover remain true to, rather than (as seems to have been the case around the world so often in the past decade) simply utilise as empty rhetoric until the first opportunity arises to cast it aside and do what they wanted to all along. Frankly I’d vote for Nyborg on the spot on this showing, which does indeed make it rather too good to be true – but then, this is a drama and there have to be good guys we can root for. However, there is a risk that the show will now either become too much of a fairytale glossing over the hard graft of setting up a new party (the funding, the organisation, recruiting and managing thousands of members and activists) or else might go to the other end of the spectrum and become dragged down by too much such administrivia. It will take some careful navigating to get the balance just right.

The show isn’t about to make things easy for Nyborg – it’s hardly going to be a case of ‘with one bound, she’s back as Prime Minister’. This series will be about building something totally different, one that may or may not end up in vindication (or possibly repudiation) in an election in episode 10 – I obviously have no idea at this stage. But certainly the show has found a new direction and a new purpose for its third series, and in many ways one that’s far more intriguing and promising than simply following Nyborg through more adventures as Prime Minister. Here she’s going to be the underdog, manoeuvring from a position of weakness rather than strength, frustrated by not being able to directly influence the important national events – yet, at least.

I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how this plays out from here. In its premise, at least, this has all the elements to be the best series yet of the show; and the first two weren’t half bad either.

Borgen S3 is currently airing on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday evenings with two episodes being shown back-to-back. Series 3 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on December 16. The previous seasons are already available to buy, individually and as a boxset.

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