This week Simon and Jane attempt to discuss the Danish political drama Borgen.
Jane: Simon, I’m thrilled that you recommended this incredible show to me. I devoured the first two seasons in a week and a half. That being said I was skeptical about my response to a show about Danish politics. Borgen is about so much more than that though (although the politics are fascinating). How would you describe what is at work in the series?
Simon: Hi Jane! I’m thrilled you love Borgen as much as I do. Your first question alludes to what has intrigued me so much about the show… how it works, and why it works. I’ll start simply with what Borgen definitely isn’t, namely a capital P Political Drama. Writers are almost always exclusively interested in politics for the dramatic “Decision Making Process”, the long negotiations into the night with fists pounding on tables and ticking clocks. Hence we’re treated to an infinite number of shows, miniseries and movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, D-Day, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. that insist I care because of it’s inherent importance. Borgen does have ticking clocks, dysfunctional cabinet meetings and impassioned speeches to parliament, but that’s not where most of the drama comes from. Borgen is essentially about two women : Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of a small left of centre party that through a hung election result forms a coalition government and becomes Prime Minister; and Katrine Fonsmark, an investigative journalist for TV1, the public Danish broadcaster. Both women throw themselves entirely into their respective democratic institutions, and essentially give their lives away in service. The drama comes from the interplay of these two institutions, and the relentless dedication of their champions, whose personal lives crumble before them.
In season 2 when Katrine and co. stumble upon an incredible true story that could derail the peace negotiations Brigitte is monitoring between two warring nations, Brigitte pleads with them not to run the story as it will certainly result in a war. A compelling argument, and yet still, everyone is right. This is a perfect example of Borgen’s drama… we watch competing democratic values negotiate and compromise with each other. Sensational? No. But gripping because it has direct relation to our own wishes for the health and maintenance of our democratic states, which any intelligence audience with even a passing interest in politics would find relevant.
Finally, I should mention the third counterpoint, between the two women – of both worlds and yet of none – is Kaspar, Birgitte’s spin doctor and Katrine’s on-again-off-again lover. Kaspar has equal zeal and ambition to the other two women, though it is unclear just what Kaspar has given his life to. At times amoral, he is a disturbed chronic lier that comes from nothing, a beautiful loser, made more terrifying by my certainty that the show’s concluding challenge will fall on him.
Jane: Kasper is the character that I latched onto right away. He might be one of the most fascinating characters on television. From his opening scene, the gloominess poking through his stone cold features is utterly captivating. He is frighteningly good at his job but underneath his tough skin he is all hurt. In my all-time favorite episode of Borgen S02 E06 “Them and Us” Kasper’s past pain finally spills over and takes hold of him. This takeover has been building for two seasons but it only takes a few hours for Kasper to destroy his personal life and seriously threaten his career. It begins when he returns to his childhood home to sell it and its contents and forever exterminate all memories of the abuse he suffered from his father. He cannot rid himself of his past and the secret of his childhood memories begin to takeover. The final scene of the episode beautifully illuminates one of Borgen’s most important themes; change is possible. Kasper goes to Katrine with a box of press clippings and video tapes of old news broadcasts about the trial and conviction of his father. Keeping his past a secret had destroyed their relationship and now he offers everything up to her in the medium she understands the most; the media. This act of trust is a giant step for Kasper and is ultimately the act that will begin the healing process for him. This episode could have been a melodramatic mess but the writers of Borgen offer up an unexpected cathartic pay off.
Simon Yes, Kaspar is a brilliant creation. It’s an odd feeling, to admire a character’s talents but also dread every time they open their mouth (particularly in the early episodes). Indeed, I agree with you that Borgen avoids melodrama like the plague, though I admit to feeling at first let down when Kaspar’s origin was revealed. I didn’t need to know anything about his past… I felt his lies came from a laziness in combination with a superiority over others, and would have been happier if this came from an internal struggle rather then born out of a single, solitary event traced through childhood. That said, I felt like the writers used that development wisely throughout the series, and redeemed themselves.
Borgen took a risk (so far as conventional TV wisdom goes), in assuming it would find an intelligent audience, one that would be patient enough to deal with what is at times, the “boring” side of politics (there are whole episodes revolving around, among others, early retirement age, industrial greenhouse gas emissions, private health care, etc.) Last week, Kerri wrote beautifully about television’s tonal shifts through the medium’s luxury of time. Borgen does not have a tonal shift, but it does twist the knife by playing with the audience expectations… On the above listed issues explored in the episodes, Borgen takes a decidedly left of centre stance; it assumes not only an intelligent audience, but a liberal one as well. Which makes sense, given it’s Danish viewership and their history of social democracy. Borgen puts this assumption to good use.
The clearest example I can give takes place in season 2. Labour, Brigitte’s coalition partner, is gaining in the polls. Their new leader and the minister for Foreign Affairs, Hoexenhoeven, makes it clear in no uncertain terms to Birgitte after undermining her leadership many times, that he wants a change in the coalition and for him to become Prime Minister. Simultaneously, Katherine and her wiley, older, sidekick Hanna are forced by their editor to write a front page cover about Hoexenhoeven’s tryst with a young man, and expose his closeted homosexuality. Events from the get go of the episode leave the audience in little doubt that the only way to save the government is if Hoexenhoeven is exposed in a scandal not worthy of this century… who is a liberal audience to cheer for? I’d felt as though I’ve never lost my footing so completely while watching a TV show, and I wanted no one to win. I was watching an impending car crash, hoping for some last minute rescue that could somehow satisfy both our hero Birgitte and save the antagonist Hoexenhoeven… it was thrilling.
Jane That episode was gut wrenching! The way that Birgitt’s face immediately softens when Hoexenhoeven slinks into her office, trying to keep his own face from crumbling says so much about her. She is able to read people and therefore the situation at hand instantly and perfectly. Before Hoexenhoeven hands in his resignation she is taken over with compassion for her former adversary.
Borgen is brimming with wonderful details like this that bring its world to life, often without words.
Early in Season 1 Katrine’s cycling instructor boyfriend storms out after she tells him that his job is less important than hers. Instead of following him out the door, the camera stays on Katrine who pours the remainder of his wine glass into hers. Silently signalling the end of their relationship.
At Phillips goodbye party (the only event that hasn’t centred on Birgitte) Birgitte gets a phone call that pulls her away from her husbands reception. The pleading look from her daughter as she attempts to tug her mother back to the family and the tension that Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte is able to conjure on her face had me on the edge of my seat. Both situations demanded her immediate attention and her paralysis was palpable.
The way Philip (Birgitte’s now ex husband) tenderly moves his hands over his coffee cup during his temporary move back home, let’s us know instantly how much he wishes he were back with his family and that things could go back to the way they were. The moment is hopeful and deeply sad all at once.
My very favorite of these moments is in the final episode. Birgett’s son Magnus has been tortured by worry about her health crisis. Because of the impending election he has no idea that Birgett has been given a clean bill of health. After the positive prognosis, the family gather at Borgen to wait out the results of the election. After searching his mother’s face, Magnus releases a single orange balloon in the air. Not only is it a beautiful image but we can see, with this act that he is also releasing all the torment and worry he’s been clinging to. We don’t need a drawn out scene where it is revealed that his mother’s health is no longer at risk. He can read his mother and the situation instantly, he’s had the perfect teacher. That silent moment tells us everything we need to know and more.
Simon I love these, so I’ll share mine. My favourite moment is the final few seconds of season 1, when Birgitte fires her secretary. Since the second episode of the series, we’ve known that Sanne is incompetent – Birgitte’s chief of staff tells her she has to stay on only because of union difficulties, in what must be a nod to Denmark’s legal red tape. Throughout the season, everyone talks about how they can’t wait for Sanne to go, and yet we intentionally shown throughout the series that Sanne is a real asset: kind, well meaning, sensitive (too sensitive to Kaspar’s charm), and in many scenes is shown playing with Magnus and Laura, Birgitte’s children. In other words, she is the kind of person we know Birgitte wants around, because having her as her secretary makes as important a statement about her prime ministership as it does about what kind of art hangs in her office (“something more modern less traditional” she tells her staff.) Birgitte has heart, like Sanne – but more importantly will work for the best with what she has. In the final episode, when Birgitte is much changed from her 1 year as Prime Minister, she takes a more direct, efficient approach. More then the dissolution of her marriage, more then the firing of her mentor Bent or the brilliant speech to parliament, signing off on Sanne’s dismissal shows us how far Brigitte has changed. “I did what was necessary” she says to Brent after the speech. “That’s what a Prime Minister does,” he replies. It’s a very quick moment when Birgitte is handed the papers for Sanne’s termination. It’s not so much a hesitation as it is a waiting for her hand to rise up to the paper and deliver the sharpest signature ever seen on TV. In that two seconds we see Birgitte consider what Sanne is, and discard it. It’s a devastating moment where writing, editing and the actor come together and deliver a powerful performance.
Jane I had forgotten how powerful that moment was. I loved Sanne and missed her in Season 3. I know you haven’t seen it so I don’t want to give too much away, but I feel that season 3 was the shows weakest. There were some strange narrative shifts that didn’t jive as well with me as the rest of the series had. It seemed to be reaching for melodrama where restraint had worked so much better in the first two seasons; but maybe that’s a whole other roundtable.
Thank you so, so much for chatting with me about this very special show!
Any final shout outs?
Simon Shout out to Sidse Babette Knudsen. I’ve alluded to her skill as an actor already, but I can’t stress enough how remarkable I think she is in the role. I feel the show would be much less without her. Thanks Jane for bringing me on board for this!
Jane: I would like to give a shout out to Kasper’s hair in Season 3. Because actor Pilou Abaek was busy filming other projects, his locks run the gambit from a silky mop of curls to crew cut to messy bed head to shaven right off; all while sporting various degrees of beard. It’s amazing!