Before we begin, a number of you have asked me how you can watch Borgen in the U.S. legally. And I’m happy to inform you that you can right now! If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you have two options. You can watch the episodes every Friday night at 10 p.m. (or DVR them) on the local station KCET. Or you can watch the episodes on DirecTV, Dish Network, or the LinkTV website. Everybody else in the United States can currently watch the show on DirecTV (channel 357), Dish Network (channel 9410), or LinkTV’s website. Since it’s so unusual for a foreign-language TV series to air in the U.S., if you’re at all interested in this becoming a trend, supporting Borgen is your best shot. Plus, from everything I’ve heard, it turns out to be pretty amazing. Let’s see if we agree with that consensus!
Now for a disclaimer: In many cases when I tackle a show like this, I’ll have seen at least the first few episodes to get a feel for the lay of the land. Because of when Borgen is airing and because I’m getting one screener per week, I’m essentially watching this at the same speed as all of you. And while that’s exciting, it also means I’m going to inevitably get some shit wrong. Please feel free to correct me (though nicely, I would hope—it’s what Birgitte Nyborg would want), but please also inform all of us stupid Yanks as to the complexities of Danish politics. I understand the basics of parliamentary democracy, thanks to following elections in Canada and the United Kingdom, but I can’t say that I’ve once thought about Danish politics before this point, and though I understand Borgen goes so far as to have fictitious political parties, Wikipedia also helpfully lists real-world Danish analogues (though beware spoilers). So if there are any Danes in the audience, it would be great to hear your thoughts on how this lines up with reality.
All right. Let’s do this.
At least in its first episode, Borgen resides within a well-trod area of political fiction: the story of the leader we wish we had but could never get elected in real life. Birgitte Nyborg maneuvers her way into becoming Denmark’s first female prime minister while doing surprisingly little. Compare her arc to that of the constantly scheming Frank Underwood over on the American remake of House Of Cards (or Francis Urquhart in the British original). Frank is constantly pushing several giant boulders uphill in hopes that one of them will roll downhill and kill all of his enemies while somehow missing him entirely. Birgitte doesn’t work that way. She has her “fixer,” a man named Kasper, but she fires him by the end of the hour, even though he inadvertently creates her path to power.
So what does Birgitte do exactly? She ditches the planned talking points and delivers a speech at the final debate before the election that essentially calls down a pox upon all of the other parties. This is a narrative fans of American political fiction should be well-acquainted with. The myth of false equivalency is a powerful one in fiction and journalism produced in democracies because democracies are always lurching toward some form of compromise, ideally. (If you’ve ever read a Washington Post column bemoaning the days when Congress used to get things done in time for all of the Senators to have a dinner party together, you know what I’m talking about.) Now, in a two-party system, the plea for everybody to just get along for the good of the country is one that, by necessity, involves an outside interlocutor—like in that movie where Robin Williams played Jon Stewart and somehow became president. Birgitte’s in a unique position where she’s part of a whole party that can fulfill this role of stepping into the center of the debate and ruling from that position.
Birgitte’s party is the Moderate Party, and Wikipedia confirms that it’s meant to be a bit of a center-left party, the sort of party that frequently gets pulled into coalition governments with one of the larger parties, like how Britain’s Liberal Democrats are currently in a coalition with the Conservatives. (Also: Britons? What’s up with that? That always seemed weird to me, no matter how long it’s taken the Lib Dems to return to something like power.) As the series opens, her primary role is to play power broker in the upcoming election between the current Prime Minister Hesselboe’s party, Liberal (sort of a center-right party), and opposition leader Laugesen’s party, Labour (even more center-left than the Moderates, so far as I can tell). We also get quick glimpses of the Freedom Party—far right—and Green Party—far left—but the bulk of the action involves Birgitte trying to play electoral season politics and getting schmoozed by Labour once she condemns Laugesen’s decision to say in an interview that political refugees should not be given the right to work or citizenship or… something. (To be perfectly honest, Danish people, this is the point that confused me the most, since it’s obviously based on a real-world political issue, but I’m not finding anything about it to read that I can make sense of.)
As in the best political drama, the issues are secondary to the people. Fortunately, there are issues at play here—a marked contrast with the current crop of American political dramas (like Boss)—but what we’re really seeing here is how the show’s main characters sort of feel each other out and swirl around each other. The first episode is enormously confident in its storytelling ability, laying everything out in a way so that when, say, Kasper finds a receipt in Ole Dahl’s apartment (after his ex-girlfriend calls him there to clean up the scene that no one will know she, a journalist, was sleeping with the prime minister’s right-hand man), we know exactly what that receipt is and how it could benefit Birgitte’s cause. The characters are mostly sketched in at this stage of the game—outside of Birgitte, who’s already a fascinating study in political contradiction—but they’re sketched in adequately enough to understand why everybody’s doing what they’re doing. That’s a difficult thing for a drama to do from the word go, and it’s impressive to see it play out here.
In particular, I was impressed with how the thing that seems to doom Birgitte in the opening moments (when she breaks with Labour over Laugesen’s remarks) is the thing that elevates her to prime minister: her tendency to speak her mind. Yeah, a politician who lets their mouth run and finds that making them successful almost as often as it gets them in trouble is a standard trope, but Sidse Babett Knudsen’s performance makes Birgitte feel like someone who’s being swept along by history until she opens her mouth and you realize how much she’s been calculating all along. Is Birgitte ready to lead? At the end of the episode, even she isn’t sure she is, but she’s put herself in a position where she’s going to have to. She’s a fascinating figure, and I’m eager to see more of her.
If I have an issue with this first episode, it’s that too much of the storytelling is driven by coincidence. The issue of Hesselboe’s receipt—which indicates that he bought his troubled wife an expensive bag with government funds (totally accidentally, but nobody knows that)—turns into a random plot device out of one of the lesser Shakespearean plays, with the slip turning up in all of the places that would be most convenient to drive the plot forward. Once the receipt ends up in Kasper’s hands, the plot is hurtling forward—and I’ll confess that when he found the receipt in Ole’s apartment, I was fairly thrilled. But to get there, we have to jump through the multiple hoops of journalist Katrine’s affair with Ole, former relationship with Kasper, and Ole’s unfortunate heart attack. It’s a lot to swallow in one scene, and, worse, it’s all necessary to get the plot started. Which is not to say that I held it against the episode—what the show does with those coincidences is fairly enthralling—but it did feel like a lot to lump into one scene all at once.
Still, if a first episode is meant to set up a bunch of characters and situations I’m going to want to follow going forward, then “Decency In The Middle” more than did its job. Birgitte’s already a steely heroine who only shows her cards at the last possible moment, and I’m also enamored of the gloomy Kasper, of Hesselboe’s slightly off wife, and of Katrine’s clouded ambitions. Politics is all about the game of manipulating human relationships to achieve one’s own policy ends, and Borgen sets up so many potentially interesting relationships in its first episode that I’m expecting something fairly exciting as they crumble.
- I particularly liked Birgitte’s husband, Phillip, who takes the lead on child-rearing when it comes to the couple’s son and daughter but also displays a terrific head for strategy. I always like when TV married couples are comfortable enough with each other to talk business, and I think the Nyborg-Christensens are going to provide ample opportunity for enjoyment in this arena.
- Adventures in subtitles: For a long time, I thought Hanne was Katrine and vice versa. I’m also wondering if Katrine really got Hanne fired or not. Part of me thinks that station management simply saw an opportunity to have a younger, prettier newscaster and took it.
- The Freedom Party leader, who talks at length about how little his wife’s hat cost, may be my favorite tertiary character here. I hope he returns to rail against everybody over and over again about hats.