Here’s an unfair question I have about Borgen: When do the consequences kick in? As much as I’m enjoying this show and Birgitte’s machinations, I found myself slightly irritated this week when she once again found an improbable way to have her cake and eat it, too. (Yes, yes, I know: The president of the made-up country of Turgisia decides that since the North Wind deal isn’t final, he can review it. But Birgitte still gets her moment of triumph.) Drama is based around making hard choices. There are complicated, even good reasons for Birgitte to turn over the dissident to Turgisia’s president, and there are even more complicated, good reasons for her to not do so. To find yet another solution where she saves face at the last minute, even if accompanied by a “well not really” news broadcast, just seems like the show not wanting to push her all that much.
Here’s the thing: I’m enjoying Borgen. I like the characters, and I find the storytelling pleasantly knotty and complicated. I appreciate that the series doesn’t talk down to me and that it accepts that there are a lot of places in the political sphere where politicians must compromise their principles to get anything done. That’s all well and good. Yet I’m just not as engaged with the show as I’d like to be. Most weeks, I watch my screener and nod happily to myself and find myself wondering when things are going to kick in. At first, I thought this might be a certain bias toward more heavily serialized programs, but I’ve been greatly invested in the “cases of the week” on this show, and it’s not as if events don’t carry over from one episode to the next. No, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that I’m starting to get a bit bored with how every episode ends in the same way: Birgitte finds a way to outsmart her opponents and wins yet again.
This sort of gets into what I was talking about last week with the press scandals as well. Some of you suggested in comments that European politics involves this endless slog of press scandals, and I’m sure that’s the case. But in fiction, this many press scandals eventually just become a minor inconvenience, not something that seriously stands in Birgitte’s way. Every time something seems like it’s about to stop Birgitte or make her compromise her principles or just get in her way, she finds a way around it by the end of the episode. Put another way: A character like Walter White has a similar situation, but his solutions feel more creative, and the viewer constantly has the sense that he’s digging his grave even deeper. I haven’t once sensed that Birgitte has created a further erosion of her coalition or anything of the sort, outside of the times the show has tried to tell me she has.
Even more oddly, the show has been building a fairly straightforward serialized storyline about how Birgitte’s career has threatened her relationship with her children and husband. I’m not as down on this as I was a few weeks ago, because I think the show is portraying it in a more nuanced manner than we usually get with the “woman in power struggles with family life” storyline (and, let’s face it, Obama probably doesn’t have much time for Malia and Sasha either). But it’s still downright weird to have this be the most consistently recurring storyline, with every episode touching on it in one way or another. What’s more, the scene where Birgitte’s dad told her that she must continue to be in love with Philip all but underlined where this is headed: These two are probably going to have some serious roadblocks ahead of them.
This is all the more frustrating because, as mentioned (and as you can intuit from my grades), this show is really quite good on an episode-by-episode basis. In fact, I’ve been recommending it to TV fanatic friends who are looking for something different, simply because it features the kind of complex, character-based storytelling that so often makes for good TV. So in that sense, it seems churlish to complain about the show’s formulaic storytelling (at least so far), particularly since I don’t yet know how all of this is going to fit together in the end. I’ve been assiduously avoiding spoilers and doing my best not to speculate too much about where all of this is going. But after six of 10 episodes in this season, I think it’s safe to say that the show has a formula it’s very comfortable with, and it’s not yet finding ways to break that formula in ways that would surprise me or make it seem as if I couldn’t count on certain elements of the show always being included.
There’s so much good in “State Visit” that it feels petty to complain about the wearying, but that’s what we do here. Still, it’s at least worth touching on the way that the show continues to depict Birgitte being pushed to the edge of doing things she would consider utterly unacceptable, simply because the alternatives are at least plausible. I like the way this episode makes Bayanov a bit of a blank slate, letting us know that he’s almost certainly not a terrorist but giving us enough room for doubt. In some scenes, he’s the bold dissident leader Birgitte’s dad is so enamored of; in others, he’s the pretentious poet Kasper mocks to Katrine. That’s a tough mix to pull off, and yet the show handles it without really breaking a sweat.
It does similarly well with the figure of Birgitte’s father, who’s the sort of complicated man you can really see overshadowing so much of her life. I love the idea that Birgitte’s dad is proud of her accomplishments but also thinks she’s sold out something important and valuable, that his leftist demeanor means that she’ll never be quite good enough, because he demands political perfection where Birgitte understands political possibility, which necessarily involves compromising principles. The scene between the two of them after he blows up at her about Bayanov’s arrest and she wakes up, unable to sleep, is some nicely acted and written stuff, particularly as he talks about how he never really got over her mother. It’s got all that awkward maybe-foreshadowing in it, but other than that, it’s a nice bit of quiet in a storyline that could have been all thunder. (I also like that there’s little love lost between him and Philip.)
President Grozin isn’t nearly as nuanced a character, and he occasionally seems like he’s going to immediately turn into Vladimir Putin or something. (Really, I wonder if that’s why Russia keeps being brought up, as if to buy the show plausible deniability.) But I like the way that Birgitte maneuvers him into a position where he’s boxed in by the very freedom of the press he’s so terrified of, and I like the scene where he tries to suggest that, hey, maybe he’s not such a bad guy. There’s something calmly terrifying about him, and if I thought this show was the kind of show that would bring a character like Grozin back, I’d love to see Birgitte having to deal with him again as part of the OSDD.
On almost every level, “State Visit” is a neatly constructed little episode, with some good character revelations and a believable “villain” (if you can even call Grozin that). Yet it relies on a formula that’s already growing stale, and I find myself hoping for something—anything—in the political sphere to show how Birgitte’s been pushing herself into more and more dangerous waters, rather than constantly saving herself at the last minute. If Grozin re-negotiating the North Wind deal is what that is, fine. But in this episode, it just feels like too little, too late, after another improbable comeback. At a certain point, the comebacks start to feel more and more hollow, and Borgen is in danger of falling into that rut.
- I liked the scene where Birgitte and Grozin are hissing at each other, and we pull back to the TV One camera covering them and hear the anchor talking about how they’re making pleasant small talk with each other.
- I normally don’t like when shows like this just make up countries—I hated when The West Wing did it—but it might have been worth it all just to have essentially everybody in the episode speaking English to each other, if only so we could rank and rate the cast’s English skills. The best? Easily Sidse Babett Knudsen.
- I take back everything I said about wanting Kasper and Katrine to get together last week, because his behavior with her and the spinning instructor is seriously creepy. Let it go, man!