There’s this unwritten rule in politics: The kids are off-limits. What this means is that the children of a politician—particularly those who are not yet legally adults—aren’t to be written about in the media beyond the basic fact that they exist. If you’re an American like me, think about how rarely the Obama daughters turn up in the news. You might see them for an official photo op or during the lighting of the White House Christmas tree or something, but they by and large stay off to the side. It’s one of the few bits of political decorum essentially everybody—on both sides and in the media—still clings to, to the degree that if there’s ever a nasty article written about a politician’s kids, it’s not unusual to see even those who oppose that politician to condemn it. After all: They’re just kids.
“The Sanctity Of Private Life” is a really sad episode, but not in the way that last season’s penultimate hour was gut-wrenchingly depressing. Where Birgitte and Phillip’s marital crisis built up over the course of the full season and had some interesting elements to mirror throughout, Laura’s anxiety attacks have always felt a little perfunctory, as if the show tossed them in just to have some personal crisis for Birgitte to stare down this season. This isn’t on the actress, either. It’s on the fact that the kids have never felt terribly vital to this show, beyond things that Birgitte could lose if things don’t work out for her. And yet when Laura seemed like she’d have to leave the private hospital where she was finally starting to turn around, it was a deeply sad moment. It finally proved to be something Birgitte couldn’t even think about sacrificing, leading to her unprecedented decision to take a leave of absence from her role as prime minister. (Maybe she’s been watching a lot of The West Wing season four.)
“Private Life” is also fairly interesting in terms of political hypocrisy. When Birgitte sends her daughter to the private hospital, she’s thinking as a mother who just wants Laura to get better and can’t stand the thought of having to wait nearly a year for that to happen. (Some sort of tax exemption or other has gutted Denmark’s public health system, meaning that the fastest, best care is in private hospitals. Also, Birgitte is hellbent on making sure Denmark’s system doesn’t become as awful as the United States’ system. Huh. Maybe there’s another reason I found this episode so sad.) What’s great about her decision is that it’s both completely understandable and, yes, a little bit hypocritical. To be a perfectly pure politician, Birgitte should tell Laura to suck it up and wait those 50 weeks. To be a good mother, she can do nothing of the sort.
Borgen has always suggested that having a position of such power is incompatible with having a rich, fulfilling family life. When someone has a job like prime minister, a job that takes up all of their time to the degree that Kasper has to show up at the hospital where her daughter is being treated, there’s just no good way to also be a full-time mom. Something needs to go, and that means when it’s time for Birgitte to be a mom, she needs to ditch the job in order to take care of her girl. I’ve seen some complaints—in the little bit of reading I’ve been able to do about this show—that it’s suggesting that working women can’t also be effective mothers. And maybe that’s the case. I’m not sure a show about a male prime minister would conclude a major arc with him taking time off to take care of his family. (It took a kidnapping to get Bartlet to do so on West Wing.) But at the same time, I think the lessons of Borgen are more general. You can’t serve both these masters. Something has to win out, and too often, when the job is this important, it will be the job.
I also liked the little moments in this episode where we got glimpses into the world that Birgitte had lost. When Phillip is back and hanging out at her house with their kids, it’s almost like it was back in the days of the first couple episodes, except it’s also not that way. Phillip now has someone else to comfort him when he’s sad over Laura’s condition, and Birgitte has put up an even steelier exterior. The Nyborg-Christensens are not in any way like they were, but the allure of the image, of Phillip falling asleep with Magnus curled up near him, is still potent. This is all that Birgitte gave up in order to have her power. Was it worth it? Will it ever be worth it?
The other thing I like here is the way that it seems like everybody’s going to keep a lid on the media scandal that erupts when Laura’s condition is leaked (probably thanks to one of Magnus’ friends). There’s some strong scenes where Kasper—who’s been in a mental hospital before—tells Laura what she can expect and gives her some good advice, and there are moments when confident Birgitte seems like she’s giving all the right answers on TV1. Combine this with the generally enjoyable scenes of Kasper and Katrine telling people they’re dating (and meeting with mostly favorable reviews), and you have an episode that seems almost free from drama for its first half. There’s a situation, but Birgitte’s crack team deals with it, and everything is handled about as well as it can be.
But then it gets out of control. I’m not sure if I buy all of the things that happen—surely Laugesen isn’t so evil as to keep hounding away at a poor teenage girl—and there’s a distinct feeling of needing to push Birgitte to such a place that she’ll make an unprecedented decision from writer Adam Price. But I like the mournful tone the episode takes on as Birgitte and Kasper lose control of the situation, as the story comes to dominate everything else, to the degree that the successful health care reform feels almost back-burnered when it finally passes. (Notice how it seems like Anne-Sophie and Solidarity are going to be really important to the story, and then they almost never appear.) There’s a shot toward the episode’s end of the perfect green field surrounding Laura’s hospital, the photographers slowly advancing through it like zombies in a horror film, and at first, I thought it was ridiculous, but then I thought of the scene where the locusts descend in Days Of Heaven. In some ways, this becomes like a Biblical plague for Birgitte to suffer through, just another damned thing she has to cope with. Does it completely make sense? I’m not sure it does, unless the European press is a lot more into dragging politicians’ children onto the front pages. But the sense of persecution is palpable.
Again, so much of this feels manufactured. Laura’s anxiety is a thing that seems like a convenient writer’s tool, as does the media scandal that erupts. But the emotions of the piece are more or less right-on, and that keeps everything from feeling like it’s gone too far. There have been better episodes of Borgen, and the big emotional climax of season two feels preordained in a way that season one’s just didn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that when the photographers start descending from the sky, Birgitte’s whole life feels as if the bottom drops out of it. It doesn’t change the way her face contorts into a rage even she can’t control.
- Sidse Babbett Knudsen is so reliably good that I don’t really talk about her here, but the creative team gives her one or two scenes per season when her darker emotions peek through her façade, and man, those are always powerful. The scene where she’s ranting away in her office—for completely justifiable reasons—is terrific.
- I just don’t trust that Thorsen, and I wish Birgitte wasn’t handing power over to him, even though I know she has no choice. I suspect Denmark will be faced with some sort of choice between the two soon enough.
- Katrine wants kids. Kasper does not. This is one of those plots that may as well be marked “WATCH THIS SPACE,” because you know this is going to turn into A Thing next week.