I didn’t have high hopes for this episode, what with it following up what might have been the weakest episode of Borgen to date, but tonight’s hour closes out the “What Is Lost Inwardly Must Be Gained Outwardly” diptych in style. There are no “except for homosexuals” type moments, and there’s that solid sense of tension that develops in a good episode of Borgen, when the political sphere and the media sphere are working at cross purposes, and the audience is just waiting for one to explode the other. There are a lot of great thoughts in this episode about the greater good and about what it takes to give up something that might be the right thing to do for something that might be even more of the right thing to do. But there’s also something here that could never succeed in any American or British remake of the program, no matter how often they’re suggested, that might have kept the show from being remade like many of its Danish drama compatriots have been.
Namely, that something is the fact that Denmark just isn’t a very powerful player on the world stage. When Birgitte asks favors of the Americans or Chinese, she has no real reason to expect them to do what she wants, outside of hoping they’ll feel sympathy and be nice to her. There’s a moment midway through the episode where Birgitte’s entire strategy requires asking the Chinese to back down from selling North Kharun a bunch of attack helicopters that will win the war for the North Kharunese in a matter of weeks. With the helicopters on their way, the negotiators from North Kharun are unlikely to seriously negotiate for peace. Why trade away some of what you want when you could have all of it by the end of the month? That also puts Birgitte in a place where her entire plan and possibly her entire legacy rest on her being able to convince China to leave money on the table.
The look on her face when this happens—in the most dramatic fashion possible, of course—is pure bliss. The Chinese ambassador has already told her it’s too late. She doesn’t have much hope, and she’s waiting for both sides in the negotiations to depart Copenhagen. But then, the Chinese ship turns around on live TV—Birgitte’s team leaked news of the helicopters to the media, in hopes of shaming China into not selling them to North Kharun—and the look on her face is one of being sort of shocked she was even able to do this. It’s like the end of an underdog sports movie, smack in the middle of an episode that’s otherwise about other things entirely.
This is what would be lost in a remake of the show. There are plenty of parallels between American and Danish politics—I’ve exhausted you all by pointing some of them out (and I briefly thought about doing it again in this episode before thinking better of it)—but there’s really no correlation between how Denmark is a relatively small player on the world stage, while the United States is the biggest bruiser out there. “What Is Lost, Part II” works because it interlaces the overarching narrative with these little moments of triumph, when Birgitte manages to get the whole world to pay attention to what’s going on in Denmark. One of the big moments of the climax, for instance, is when the story of Denmark facilitating the Kharunese peace process gets a 30-second mention on CNN (which is hilarious, apt commentary on American 24-hour news networks, so good job—unless that was meant to be CNN International).
The other thing I thought worked beautifully about this episode was the stuff about Hanne and Katrine tracking down the story about Neils Mikkelson, a ruthless businessman who made friends with war criminals and men who slaughtered entire villages in the name of the North Kharunese cause. Mikkelson just wanted to keep the money from the oil coffers flowing, and that led him to making some awful friends. But when Hanne and Katrine back him into a corner by telling him they’re going to make a documentary called Merchant Of Death (Katrine’s one-sided phone call about this is one of the funniest things Borgen has ever done), he coughs up an even bigger story: North Kharun has been taking South Kharun’s oil money to the tune of billions of dollars, skimmed off the top and never seen by those it belongs to.
This in and of itself is interesting stuff, because it raises the question of if Hanne and Birgitte will give up on pursuing Mikkelson in favor of this new story (in short: yes), but it becomes even more interesting when Katrine, wanting to keep her renewed relationship with Kasper rolling along smoothly, goes to tell him what she and Hanne have learned. He attempts to convince her by taking her into the situation room where bits and pieces of the negotiations are being crossed off of a big whiteboard, telling her that lives are on the line. And he’s right. If Katrine and Hanne’s story goes forward, the peace talks will fall apart, and those helicopters will rain death down on South Kharun.
Borgen occasionally has a bad habit of unfairly demonizing the media, even if the ultra-idealistic Katrine is our primary window into that world. But this isn’t one of those cases, because it sets up a scenario where both sides are “right.” Yes, if the story isn’t reported, then peace has a chance, and fewer people might die. But, also, it’s true that the people of South Kharun have been cheated out of billions that might improve their way of life. What’s more, this is the kind of story journalists often get only once or twice in their lives, the sort of thing that might legitimately change the world. And Kasper and Birgitte want Hanne and Katrine to just sit on it? There’s a great, tense meeting between the staff at Borgen and the TV1 team, but the writing’s on the wall. The story would be reported. If Katrine—the closest thing the show has to a conscience—doesn’t want it reported, then it won’t be.
And that’s what’s really interesting here. Much of Borgen is about interpersonal wars, about characters who set themselves in conflict with each other to advance their own agendas. But this little two-parter is less about interpersonal conflict and more about Birgitte confronting something that should defeat her, then wrestling it to the ground. It’s got that Aaron Sorkin thing where every single character is won over by the righteousness of her cause, even people who have good reason to hate her, like Amir, and its ultimate argument is that the reason to work in the government or practice politics is to make life better for other people, even if those people live in some far-off African nation. It makes for a powerful ending, and when Birgitte gives a too-heavy-handed victory speech to her troops, it still feels earned, perhaps because it’s taken us two episodes to get here.
Meanwhile, what time isn’t spent on Kharun is spent on Birgitte’s kids, who continue to be one of the least interesting things about the show. If I have a complaint about the season so far, it’s that I’m never entirely sure why people are doing things. Laura’s anxiety attacks feel particularly egregious in this regard. We’ve spent so little time with her that we don’t have a good sense of why this is happening, outside of a vague idea that her mother somehow caused it by being busy. Obviously, mental illness doesn’t need a “cause,” but when the doctor at the end says Laura probably stopped taking her pills to gain a sense of control, it feels like too little, too late, an explanation tossed on top of a story point that’s mostly there to undermine the highpoint of Birgitte’s political career so far. I suspect Laura’s condition will be very important to the last two episodes of the season, so let’s see how this all shakes out, but I’m not yet terribly confident in the show’s ability to stick this particular landing.
Two-parter grade: B+
- For as little as I liked the Laura stuff in this episode, I did really like the scene where Magnus came upon her in the kitchen in the middle of the night, unplugging appliances. It was nice and eerie, even if, again, I had no idea why she was doing it, outside of it being generic behavior a person with a mental illness might perform.
- Of all of the people on this show, I think I love Bent’s English language voice the best. And, also, it’s always fun when Jakob calls him “Uncle.” (I like the subtle ways that the negotiations underline the sexist attitudes both have toward Birgitte, like how Jakob is uninterested in speaking with Birgitte when she’s offering advice but does want Bent’s advice.)
- When you pull back into a long view, Katrine’s arc for the season doesn’t make much sense, does it? Oh well. She and Kasper as a couple are surprisingly cute. This can only end poorly.