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. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.
Borgen has impossibly large shoes to fill, coming as it does from the same Danish broadcaster as Forbydelsen and even sharing several supporting cast members, as well as being slotted into the same Saturday night double bill slot on BBC4 that the break-out crime drama previously occupied. It would have been a miracle if this show could achieve the soaring levels set by its precursor; so while it ultimately doesn’t deliver any acts of God, Borgen is still an impressive, high quality drama nonetheless.
It’s impossible to avoid using the term ‘Danish West Wing‘ when talking about Borgen – which is not to say that it has anything like the glossy veneer of its American cousin, or the show-off floating directorial style or Aaron Sorkin’s trademark way with rapid-fire razor-sharp dialogue. Borgen is far more realistic and down to earth in all it does (although not as earthy as ‘gritty’ British drama always seems grimly determined to be.) But it does share with The West Wing the same sense that politics is an important, grown-up activity for thoughtful and committed adults, and that a great many of them are sincere about trying to make the world around them a better place, even if they disagree on the exact means to do so. It also shares more than a touch of leftwing wish-fulfilment in its politics, too.
In Borgen’s case the idealistic central character (equivalent to the mighty President Jed Bartlet) is Moderate party leader Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, played exceptionally well by Sidse Babett Knudsen, who becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. But this is also an ensemble show, with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as journalist Katrine and Johan Philip Asbæk as spin doctor Kasper equally important. In fact the show gets better as it grows its universe of recurring secondary characters week-on-week, from Birgitte’s loyal closest ally Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) to her comically out-of-her-depth PA Sanne (Iben Dorner), from bitter hard-hitting reporter Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen) with all the best lines to the seemingly weak-willed TV1 boss Torben Friis (Forbrydelsen’s Søren Malling), and from the glib, plotting ex-Prime Minister Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning) to the outrageously odious far-right Freedom Party leader Svend Åge Saltum (Ole Thestrup). I also hope we see a bigger role for the PM’s chief civil servant Neils Erik Lund (Morten Kirkskov), who despite his superficially pleasant and helpful manner definitely seems to have a lot of secrets sitting right behind his eyes.
Episode 1 (“Decency in the Middle”) can hardly fail to succeed, set in the rich dramatic events of the final days of a knife-edge election battle suddenly hit by a series of scandals and revelations – and even a dead body, although alas Sarah Lund isn’t called in to investigate. You almost think that the show must surely be downhill from here, but if anything episode 2, “Count to 90”, is even more fascinating as it shows the details of intricate and fraught post-election negotiations to form a coalition government – a process still thoroughly alien to us in the UK despite our recent one-off brush with it in 2010. These two episodes are excellent, and for a minute you think that maybe, yes – this series could actually equal or even better Forbrydelsen.
But episode 3 (“The Art of the Possible”) struggles to maintain the momentum: there’s another political crisis, this time the passing of the Budget. Effectively a vote of confidence in Nyborg’s fledgling government, it is held to ransom by a couple of independents requiring a whole new round of political bartering and even blackmail: but by now, Borgen is starting to feel a little familiar and even a little formulaic, which is not a good sign so early in a show’s run. A potential problem with the show appears to be that it’s a one-note premise – all about the delicate processes of governing though interminable tense meetings in offices and conference rooms – and lacks the mix of different stories outside of those meetings to give it variety and sustain interest over the long haul, as Forbydelsen so expertly achieved with its pitch-perfect mix of crime, politics, thriller and human tragedy.
The fourth episode (“One Hundred Days”) initially seems to offer just the change of gear we need, with the promise of a political conspiracy thriller over US extraordinary rendition activities in the region. But as Nyborg is dispatched off on a goodwill trip to Greenland, the episode wanders off from this thread and becomes a trite story about Denmark’s relationship with the US and the place of press freedom – both things done many times before in other films and shows, and rather more subtle and nuanced than this Cliffs Notes version. That makes episode 4 end up feeling like a disconnected bottle show cut adrift from what has gone before it, whereas the first three episodes had been tightly written and felt like one through-story to introduce and establish the characters. Instead, the end of episode 3 saw all the ongoing sub-plots that have been built up come to an abrupt end. Promising stories involving Katrine and Kasper are dropped and there’s a general disappointing sense of a baseline reset. This sensation is not helped by the ‘double-bill’ nature of the BBC4 scheduling – they really should try just one episode a week rather than packing these things in, because the jarring shift from episode 3 to 4 is more painfully apparent chiefly because of the lack of a week’s break between them.
There’s also been some odd oversights in the creative department: when Kasper returns to work for Nyborg after having been fired three months previously, there is not a word exchanged about it between them. I’m all for subtext and things left unsaid, but to have no mention at all of the events that caused them to fall out so spectacularly on the eve of the election seems not only unnatural but positive dereliction of managerial responsibility. Then there is the aforementioned sudden death in episode 1, which despite involving a public figure and a ham-fisted and blatant panicked cover-up attempt over who was present at the time, seems to have no police aftermath to it all. It’s a shame that such fruitful dramatic possibilities aren’t properly explored.
Instead, what we end up with in episode 4 is Nyborg’s visit to Greenland. From a factual point of view this is really quite fascinating – I knew nothing of Denmark’s colonial history with Greenland, or much about Greenland itself come to that, and it was genuinely engrossing to find out so much more about it. (By total coincidence, I happen to be reading a thriller set in the Arctic Circle: on the very day I saw this episode of Borgen, the book included a passage about a visit to Greenland and even a namecheck of its own for Thule Air Base pivotal to events in the episode.) But from a dramatic point of view, this sequence slows the episode down to a dead stop, and is exactly what Nyborg’s political opponents in the show accuse her administration of being: painfully and earnestly politically correct. A montage of Nyborg going around talking to everyday Greenlanders on the snowy streets could almost be a schmaltzy party political broadcast for the fictitious Moderates in its own right. The episode showed that Borgen doesn’t yet have that West Wing’s hallmark capacity to seamlessly blend serious political issues and education with popular drama and entertainment without crunching gears and stalling.
But the fact that it’s not perfect and that I have criticisms shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this is still an intelligent, quality drama with much going for it – especially Sidse Babett Knudsen’s lead performance. She plays both an inspiring leader and a real human being, with her family scenes very warmly and genuinely depicted (her husband Philip is played by Forbrydelsen’s Mikael Birkkjær – Lund’s partner Strange in series 2 – and they have a real chemistry in their scenes.) At the same time Nyborg isn’t presented as some sort of omnipotent superwoman: she has doubts, worries about her weight, comes close to despair over the negotiations and to giving up, and needs an occasional kick up the backside from those around her just like we all so sometimes. She’s a very real person, not as grab-you-by-the-throat as Sarah Lund is perhaps, but almost as equally impressive in other ways.
Other characters are still to prove to have similar depths, realism and originality. Kasper looked all set to be the clichéd prince of darkness, until episode 3 made him more interesting by including a sequence of flashbacks (very West Wing!) to his old relationship with Katrine that seemingly show that he is pathologically incapable of telling the truth. Is there a reason for this as I suspect/hope there is, or is it just the writers’ lazy way of implying “well, what do you expect from a spin doctor”? We shall see. In a similar way, after three episodes of a compelling pregnancy sub-plot, Katrine was shaping up to be a potentially fascinating character too: but episode 4 then converted her back down into typical campaigning journalist seeking to expose the truth (the “All The President’s Men” poster on her door was always a bit unsubtle.)
Hopefully Borgen will do better now that it’s bedded in, got its premise and characters established, and can start rolling up its sleeves and getting to work. It certainly has the foundations to be very good indeed – even, possibly, comparable to Forbydelsen if it gets it right – and is far closer to a serious grown-up political drama than the UK has managed to produce in the last 20 years. But it also still has much to prove before it can start taking anything like the same shoe-size as its stable mate.
[Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Borgen is Danish for “castle” or “fortress”, which is the local nickname for the Christiansborg Palace that is the home of Denmark’s government. It’s a relief that this time we don’t have to put up with the same inaccurate translated title that we did for Forbrydelsen or for Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “Män som hatar kvinnor” and can just go with the Danish original without explanations.]
Currently showing on BBC4 at 9pm on Saturday nights, and available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD is available from February 6, 2012.