In part two of our Borgen guest feature blogger Richard Fernandez, from Cafe Thinking, gives us his top three favourite episodes from the series.
It was Borgen that inspired me to explore Scandinavian culture and, eventually, to write about it. I owe the Borgen team a huge debt of gratitude. For me, Borgen took a simple idea from The West Wing – that politics could be a place for public service – but sent it in a far more interesting direction. Where Aaron Sorkin wanted to know whether Jed Bartlet’s team were firing on all cylinders, Adam Price questioned the effect that the political environment can have on the idealism of those who enter it.
Yes, Birgitte Nyborg cycles to Parliament for the first couple of episodes, but she loses touch with her internal compass and by the end of the first series she has completely lost her way – and her marriage. Borgen deals in shades of ambiguity, and much of the show’s appeal comes from the tension between the prime minister, her adviser and the journalists who are the moral lenses through which decisions are seen.
Series 1 and 2 form a perfect story arc, multi-layered and nuanced. (By the end of series 2 Birgitte has rebalanced herself.) I wanted to explore it more, but I couldn’t find detailed English-language commentary. So I decided to write it myself. Detailed recaps of each of the episodes of those series can be found at cafethinking.com.
These three episodes, together, capture the essence of Borgen. But you should watch all the others too, if you haven’t already.
BORGEN S1, E2 – “Count to 90”
Birgitte Nyborg and her party colleagues conduct negotiations with the other parties to see whether they can form a government. One small move can make or break a pitch for power and Brigitte’s rise to power relies both on a number of coincidences but also some good advice and no little skill.
There will be constant scrutiny of Birgitte of a kind that a male prime minister wouldn’t face. In this episode there’s a great emphasis on Birgitte’s idyllic family life, and Philip is presented as a model husband. He’s comfortable with the current set up and sounds supportive – though his line, ‘I’m not going to tell my wife I don’t want her to be prime minister,’ is on the face of it affirming but actually anything but.
This and the previous episode have marked Birgitte out as a principled and authentic politician. We want her to succeed, and we’re cheering when she does.
This could have been a technical and bland episode but its charm and innocence draw the viewer in for a highly enjoyable hour.
BORGEN S1, E9 – “Divide and Rule”
This episode couldn’t be more different from Count to 90. It’s as bleak as can be. Birgitte has got herself into a real rut, professionally and personally. She seems to trust no one but her adviser Kasper, and Kasper thinks only in terms of immediate headlines. She’s micromanaging her ministers and misusing her power when she thinks Philip is having an affair. Meanwhile her marriage is on the rocks. Philip is acting like a teenager, whingeing and sulking – but he is being treated like one, ordered to resign a new job on the back of Kasper’s ill-judged advice. Everyone’s losing control in this episode, whether they’re to blame or not.
This episode is about how crucial it is to keep a sense of perspective, and to work out what’s important both strategically but also in terms of your own values. Birgitte has lost both. She’s no longer at ease with herself – and for what? To be the person who chooses the fighter planes? Is that why she went into politics? Would episode 1 Birgitte even recognise herself? We’re asked whether we’d be able to stay true to ourselves. This is electric, intelligent television. It’s hard to watch, and hugely rewarding.
BORGEN S2, E6 – “Them and Us”
This is the ‘so what’ episode, the one that shows what doing politics can really mean. It’s a riposte to the lazy argument that politicians are all the same; it presents a real and emotive case with real consequences. It shows that the differences between politicians are not always cosmetic but about incompatible views about how the world ought to be. And the question of what world we want for the next generation is as serious as it gets. This story goes right to the heart of the character of Birgitte’s adviser, Kasper, and brings together a number of storylines from this and the previous series.
Like ‘Divide and Rule’, this is not an easy hour to watch, not least because the episode considers the effects of child abuse. Indeed, there are multiple examples of parental failure. We see what can happen when the supposedly objective cuts to the heart of who we are. In particular, Pilou Asbaek’s performance as Kasper fights for his future – and, more crucially, for his past self – is outstanding.
Denmark will muddle along, doing its best to find the best way to protect its children, and it’s worth noting that we don’t see how this story really ends. In reality, there are very few clear-cut victories. Borgen is clear about the limits of democratic discourse even as it champions it. The programme shows respect for its audience: we’re trusted not to need everything spelled out for us.
Catch all episodes of Borgen on Netflix now – with the new series out on the 2nd June!