On the occasion of Borgen’s first season finale, I made the observation that I didn’t really understand what Birgitte even stood for, that her political positions were obscured by the storytelling. I said at the time that this was something that I usually don’t like in political dramas, but I didn’t much mind in Borgen, because the character storytelling was so good. A number of you pointed out that, actually, if you paid attention and knew a little bit about major European political issues, Birgitte’s positions were perfectly easy to comprehend, and I take that point. It’s true that we can sketch out a pretty solid idea of where Birgitte stood during her campaign and where she stands after a couple of years as Prime Minister, and that’s more than a lot of political dramas give viewers. What “The Last Worker” made me realize was that the character drama on the show is so good that it was willfully distracting me from the political drama.
The political positions of everyone in this episode are well-established. Birgitte is trying to pass some sort of welfare reform bill, but to get the money for it, she needs to wind down an early retirement program that benefits the unions, who are primarily represented by the Labour party. Fighting against the winding down of early retirement is Marrot, who’s been the Labour leader and a reasonably steadfast ally to Birgitte so far. On this, however, he feels that things are going too far. The formation of the early retirement program was a resounding victory for the Labour Party back in the day. To roll it back would be to reverse one of his party’s signature achievements. So the political dimensions of the story are nicely established very early on. Birgitte needs this to establish a legacy. Marrot needs to preserve the history of his party.
Very quickly, though, this gets subsumed by the show’s character drama, which makes things that much more interesting. Somebody’s leaking unflattering stories about Marrot to the press, most of which boil down to him being old and out of touch. There’s not really any substance to them. They’re just an excuse to pick on the middle-aged fat guy for a while, like that one that’s all about how he misunderstood an invitation and wore a literal black tie to a black-tie dinner. It doesn’t mean he’s any less of a politician, but it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Marrot is a character the show has mostly used as any one of a number of “other” figures within Parliament, people Birgitte can have quiet moments with or spar against. It’s impressive to see how thoroughly this episode turns him into a tragic figure.
If there’s a “problem” with all of this (and there isn’t one, not really, but bear with me), it’s that this story has very little bearing on Birgitte outside of the political. Yes, her welfare deal is tanked because of the battle going on within Labour, and yes, there’s no love lost between her and Troels. But until the episode’s end, when Labour makes a veiled threat against her in a television interview, I didn’t really grasp the potential here. Marrot was always a useful figure in that he was someone his party could unite behind who, nonetheless, managed to keep one of the major parties united behind someone who would almost certainly never be Prime Minister. Troels, however, is the sort of wily figure who could very well find himself in power if he plays his cards right.
It’s here that the series’ long game becomes that much more impressive. Remember that Birgitte used Troels to consolidate her power way back in episode two, but he’s been a thorn in her side ever since, the figure who tries her patience and keeps finding ways to survive by throwing other victims overboard. And now he’s announced himself as a direct threat to her Prime Ministership, which is increasingly the only thing she has left. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and it speaks to the way the characters on this show are always inadvertently creating their own problems, in ways that are both hard to swallow—Kasper saying “Katrine” instead of his girlfriend’s name in the season première—and incredibly diabolical—this whole Troels situation. Of course, Troels turns out to be secretly gay, and there just so happens to be someone snapping pictures of his assignation with Katrine’s new photographer, so I suspect Troels isn’t quite the threat to Birgitte’s power he imagines himself to be.
(Sidebar: Just how obvious is it that Laugesen is behind essentially all of this? I’ll be very impressed if the show is playing me and doing something else, but I’m fairly convinced at this point that Laugesen is arranging his own return to the head of the party he was booted from in the first episode. First, he uses what connections he has to drive a wedge between Marrot and Thorsen. Then, he stays out of things and lets the party hang Marrot out to dry. Then, all he has to do is set up a certain photographer showing up at the welfare seminar to seduce Troels, have someone taking photos of the encounter, and step into whatever power vacuum remains once things are said and done. It’s too easy, really!)
“The Last Worker” continues the nice little roll the show got on last week with its Bent-centric second episode, and the series already seems more confident in its ability to handle stories with longer arcs than it did at a similar point in the first season. Some of this is a little bit more earnestly melodramatic—that photographer snapping away or Kasper coming to Katrine’s room to kiss her—but that’s the sort of thing a show that’s spent this much time building up its characters can use as payoff. What’s best about these episodes is the way the show portrays the painful transition from the generations that once held all the power to new generations who don’t yet know quite how to use it. The relationship between Bent and Birgitte has been very nuanced in this regard, and now we see the same thing happen to Marrot, who was one of Labour’s last remaining links to its past as a workers’ party. The scene where he and Birgitte talk while overlooking the sea and he shows her his tattoo is a new favorite of mine, as is the moment when he erupts with fury at the seminar table, then realizes he’s gone too far.
These behind the scenes power grabs happen all the time in politics and in shows about politics, but Borgen succeeds most when it makes them less about people making grabs for power for the sake of having power and more about the people grabbing for the brass ring. Ultimately, Borgen concludes, power is its own end, and it’s not going to do you very much good when it comes time to get anything you actually want, all of which will need further compromise and careful negotiation. But people want power anyway. They want to be in the top seat, and they might view whoever’s sitting in it as just another obstacle in their way, even as they treat her kindly to her face. There’s plenty of good, political storytelling in Borgen, but it’s always in the backseat to the character storylines. As it should be.
- My thanks to Sonia Saraiya for covering a really great episode of the show in typically astute fashion last week. I’ll be on vacation later in the month, so you can look for her return.
- I’m enjoying the story of Birgitte and Phillip’s divorce much more than everything on the way there. In particular, the way that she simply couldn’t bear to meet Cecilie once she heard her voice on the phone was poignant. I presume the two will be forced to share a room sooner, rather than later.
- Weird adventures in translation: The captions on my screeners this season seem very odd, compared to last season’s captions. There are times when someone will say something, and it’s not translated. And there are times when the characters say things in the captions that seem as if they simply wouldn’t exist in Danish. For instance, this episode featured characters saying, “See you later, alligator” and “palsy-walsy,” both of which strike me as…stretches, considering they’re based on rhymes that exist in English and not (presumably) in Danish. Not to mention I have no idea what the Danish word for “walsy” would be.