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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borgen: “An Extraordinary Remark”

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“An Extraordinary Remark” closes out the second season of Borgen in fitfully excellent fashion by making all of the feminist subtext into blatant text, then tossing in a cliffhanger ending for good measure. It’s an appropriately weird and disjointed ending to a season that came close to brilliance many times but never quite managed a stretch of episodes as good as the ones that closed out season one. The season was fairly solid on the episode-by-episode level, particularly when it focused on the nitty gritty of getting this or that bill passed. But every time it tried to do a larger storyline or fit something into an arc, it ended up feeling strained, as if the characters were dancing to Adam Price’s cruel machinations, rather than determining the plot themselves. Better shows have had worse examples of this, but Borgen made me feel this most acutely in these last two episodes, precisely where it likely didn’t want to.

A month has passed since “The Sanctity Of Private Life,” and Laura’s time at Liseholm has resulted in her getting quite a bit better (in a way that sort of beggars belief, but I guess that’s the way these things to). Meanwhile, the media is speculating about who the real prime minister is: Birgitte or Thorsen? This is exactly what the media would do in such a situation, but there’s a nasty bit of gender politics tossed in here as well, particularly when Laugesen and then Hesselboe question whether Birgitte can truly lead the country while still trying to be a good mother. Kasper and Katrine’s relationship has progressed to the point that they’re looking at expensive apartments together, but the idea of kids has come up again. Kasper’s not into it, because he doesn’t want to pass on any of his father’s DNA, while Katrine is 31 and starting to think it’s time to have a moppet or two. It seems one of those intractable conflicts that will split them apart, but you know these crazy kids by this point.

The central question of “Extraordinary Remark,” then, is if Birgitte will be able to overcome everything standing between her and the continuation of her power. The remark of the title is her calling for an election herself—rather than waiting for Hesselboe to throw down the gauntlet first—and it’s a solid play on her part, even if it backfires and results in her no longer being prime minister. (I presume she would still win her riding. Do they even call them ridings in Denmark?) It’s also a typically Birgitte way to play things, finding a way to take her enemies’ strengths and turn them into her own strengths. Her move gives the impression that she’s on offense, now, and even if that’s not true, it makes for a nice break in the storyline from the questions of whether she’s fit to rule because she’s too worried about taking care of her family or whatever.

The problem comes any time you step back and look at the season on anything other than the episode-by-episode level—or even the scene-by-scene level. Sonia Saraiya will have a review of the entirety of the third season coming up next week where she makes some of the same points, but dealing with Borgen on the larger arc level can result in sort of a muddled mess, where character motivations are rarely easy to explain, outside of the central three. This is fine when you have a figure like Hesselboe, who exists primarily to provide opposition to the main character, but it stops being so easy when you look at someone like Laura, whose anxiety existed solely to give Birgitte an impossible choice and started to recede as soon as the story needed it to, or Phillip, whose relationship with Cecilie feels like one of the season’s least nourished threads. To be sure, the show almost never leaves the point-of-view of Birgitte, Kasper, or Katrine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t give us a better sense of why some of the most important supporting characters do what they do. (One supporting character trait that remained amusingly consistent all season long: Torben’s lack of patience for pregnancies.)

This becomes even odder when you consider some of the ways the show uses plot threads that actually relate to the main characters. For instance, Birgitte seducing her driver, then having to dismiss him, seemed like the sort of thing that would go off in the media at the least opportune time, only to fizzle out. Katrine’s job arc this season makes essentially no sense and exists solely to get her in a bunch of places where the audience needs to see particular machinations. And while Kasper’s childhood abuse continues to be an important thread of his character, the way it came up here and there was often just weird, particularly as it resurfaced at exactly the most convenient time for a bill that paralleled his life. (That was still a powerhouse episode, though.) There’s a scene in tonight’s episode where Bent pulls Birgitte aside to point out to her all that she’s accomplished and another where Kasper calls her the best prime minister Denmark’s ever had. But there’s been little sense of her political accomplishments throughout the series, beyond how they reflect on her personal problems and life.

Is this necessarily a huge problem? Not really. Borgen is still a show that lives and dies by its episodic storylines, and those continued to be crackerjack in season two. And even an episode like “Extraordinary Remark,” which tries so very hard to tie the season up with a bright, red bow and doesn’t really accomplish the task, the vast majority of the scenes are terrific little pieces of drama. This is an episode that includes such wonderful little bits as Kasper going to visit his mother to seek some sort of okay to have children or Birgitte raging at Phillip because he’s really the only person she can rage at in that moment. And the season has sneakily built in the sense that Birgitte is coming toward a sort of reckoning, an election that will make or break her legacy. The episode ends with that legacy on the line, setting up a nice thrust for season three.


But “Extraordinary Remark” ultimately overcomes its flaws, as well as the flaws of the series, because it taps deeply into one of the stories that has run throughout the series, just beneath the surface. Birgitte has been sometimes judged unduly harshly, simply because of who she is: a woman in a traditionally male sphere. No matter how many female politicians break through, the world is more or less acclimated to men being in power, and a female prime minister will be seen by too many as a curiosity. “Extraordinary Remark” is the fullest examination in the whole run of the series of just who Birgitte is when it comes to the relationship between her gender and her power. In one remarkable scene, she talks with Laura’s psychiatrist about how sometimes, she’d just rather not deal with her family, because she’d rather be at work. But where Birgitte’s opponents insist on gendering her responses, Birgitte and the psychiatrist realize how complicated the situation is, how anyone in power or with a powerful job will find themselves chasing after twin impulses. Birgitte will never be able to be both a great politician and a great mother. Yet all she wants is to have both halves of that equation, and that is where she will always fall down, no matter what else she is able to accomplish.

Stray observations:

  • The apartment Kasper and Katrine look at really is huge and gaudy, and it seems like the realtor has been placed there solely to make them argue about having kids. But the moment when Kasper stops her from taking her birth control pill is one of the episode’s better ones.
  • Torben’s weariness over pregnancies could feel like a plot point, but it instead becomes weirdly hilarious. I like how he seems on the verge of swearing profusely over the whole thing.
  • We start up season three next week, and we can expect comments and pageviews to plummet as those of you who have yet to see that season leave just us Americans, who will have access to it, as always, via LinkTV.