Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borgen: “89,000 Children”

Illustration for article titled Borgen: “89,000 Children”

When we begin “89,000 Children,” it’s 11 months since we last saw Birgitte, Kasper, and Katrine. As one might expect after that first season finale, their circumstances have changed, but what I’m more interested in is the way that all of the characters have changed in more subtle ways. Birgitte runs her cabinet with the ease of someone who’s been doing this for almost two years, and she and Kasper have an even more simplified shorthand than they had back in season one. Katrine has made a bigger shift—going from a TV to print journalist—but she, too, seems much more comfortable pushing her bosses and subjects than she did back when the show began. It could have been so easy for this show to fall into the trap of continually doing stories about how all of these people were in over their heads. It would have increased the drama without really having to put work into it. But they’ve all grown in their jobs in believable ways, and it’s fun to watch them be hyper-competent.

It’s good to have that, because otherwise, “89,000 Children” is a bit of a placeholder for a season première. The Afghanistan drama is well-handled, and I found the conclusion suitably touching without tipping over into the maudlin (more on the show’s politics in a bit). But most of the other things felt a little too pat. Birgitte hasn’t signed her divorce papers, and she finally admits in anguish that she just doesn’t want to, as opposed to having misplaced them or any of her other excuses. (You don’t say!) Kasper is with a new girlfriend, but at a relaxed moment, he calls her “Katrine,” and she calls him on it. (Fortunately, this doesn’t devolve into a season-ending cliffhanger after he calls her Katrine at their wedding.) Katrine struggles and struggles with what to write and finally comes up with her perfect story thanks to a last second document that’s pressed into her hands. None of this is unsatisfying, but it all feels a little easy, as if the show didn’t want to dig into the messy complication that got so wonderful in the latter part of season one.

At its best, Borgen embraces the complications of politics and of real life relationships. At its worst, it reduces everything to something that feels “too TV,” for lack of a better term, where all of the complications and problems are solved readily and handily by one or two little moments. The grieving father who hands Birgitte the letter from his son, then hands that same letter to Katrine is just such a device. His grief is palpable, but because he’s not one of our regulars, we don’t really feel it where we feel Birgitte’s incredible indecision about what to do about Danish troops in Afghanistan. (She tries to defer to military brass earlier, but the man she meets with refuses to tell her what to do until she keeps pushing him.) He’s a necessary evil, a way to get from point A—everybody thinks that the war in Afghanistan is awful, and what are you gonna do?—to point B—well, we might as well commit to a few more years.

I suspect that this episode, which amounts to a tacit endorsement of Danish troops in Afghanistan here and there, carries some controversy with it, but I liked the way it acknowledged that the war itself might have some happy benefits to it, like those titular 89,000 children, who have survived where they would not have under the Taliban. There’s a whiff of the episode trying to equate the lives of those 89,000 with the lives of the eight Danish soldiers that are lost over the course of the episode, as if it’s putting its finger on the scale. But one of the things I’ve always most liked about this show is the way that it keeps backing Birgitte into corners she doesn’t really support but has to because she’s now the head of the government. Pre-prime minister Birgitte really had no interest in continuing the Afghanistan war. The Birgitte that is now the prime minister and has to consider making the troops’ mission worthwhile—to say nothing of patching up relations with important NATO allies—and has to consider that maybe there are good things to be done in Afghanistan, in addition to all the pointlessness.

Now, granted, that ending, with everybody nodding and thinking about how important it was that those 89,000 children were still alive, seemed almost as if it were trying to tip the show’s hand. I have no idea of the politics of the people behind the series, but this final section treads dangerously close to saying, “Yes! The war in Afghanistan is a good thing, at least for now, and we should give it a little more time!” (This episode first aired in 2011, to give you a sense of historical context.) Normally, I don’t have a problem with political shows stating political positions—even if I disagree with them—but Borgen has been so assiduously about how the sausage gets made, then ground up and remade over and over again, that it’s just weird to have something that seems like so forthright an endorsement of any particular position. Usually, the characters occupy various points on the political spectrum, and the show goes out of its way to not endorse a particular position (outside of Birgitte being the main character), instead showing how politics tends to grind away whatever ideals it encounters. This felt significantly different from that, and it was jarring.

On the plus side, I liked the show’s decision to make a time jump. Picking up in the immediate aftermath of last season’s finale might have been interesting, too, but with more time having passed, it’s possible to see how Birgitte has gotten more and more at ease in her job, as mentioned, as well as showing us how the relationship between Kasper and Katrine, which had been hurt by his commandeering of the TV1 editing suite, has started to thaw just enough to let them be in the same room as each other without her reading him the riot act. And while I could have done without the scene where Birgitte tells Phillip that she doesn’t want the divorce—I had more than gotten it by that point and didn’t need it spelled out—I very much liked seeing how they’re organizing the contours of their separation, with both kids caught in between them in interesting ways. The personal stuff doesn’t work as well as the political here, and there is a little too much in this episode of making sure things dovetail perfectly, but it’s nice to have these characters back in my life, even if they’ve only technically been gone a week, at least from my perspective.


Stray observations:

  • The scenes shot in Afghanistan or some other Middle Eastern country—I assume?—were all really great, and it was surprising to see this show’s often grey color palette suffused with some harsh sunlight. Even in the sunny scenes back in Denmark, there’s the feeling of intense cloud cover pervading everything.
  • Without Bent and Sanne around, I’m feeling a little at sea in the parliament scenes. I’m sure I’ll get used to that soon enough, but having both of those characters completely absent for this episode (and even possibly this season) was a nice visual reminder—without too much explicit commentary—of where the last season had ended up.
  • Good news: Katrine is working with Hanne Holm at the Express, and she’s growing more and more confident in her abilities to write a good piece, instead of just deliver a good piece. Bad news: She’s working with Laugesen (shudder).
  • With Katrine no longer at TV1, we don’t spend very much time there, but Torben and everyone else remain part of this world, at least insofar as everyone watches them on TV.
  • I’m at the Television Critics Association press tour this week and the next, and just completing this review was almost more than I could handle. The ever-great Sonia Saraiya will be stepping in for me next week, so be nice.