What’s astonishing about “Them And Us” is just how many pieces of story come together in its conclusion, a tumult of personal revelation and political victory that puts all of our main characters through the wringer. We’ve seen Katrine struggle with Kaspar’s stubborn secrecy and Birgitte going through the process of discovering her daughter’s anxiety problems while trying to manage a rebellious government, and they continue on their particular journeys as the episode plays out. But “Them And Us” is an emotionally wrenching hour of television for what it does with Kaspar, the world’s most lovable spin doctor, and it ends in a cascading, cathartic payoff that is like a piano jangle, hitting every note it’s got on the way down.
When I think of Kaspar, my mind always goes to his brief shot in the title sequence of Borgen. Katrine and Birgitte are both shown happy, engaged, and professional as their actors’ names are flashed underneath—a new viewer sees Katrine as a competent journalist and Birgitte as a fulfilled politician. We’re introduced to Kaspar, though, as someone who is making a mistake. A piece of paper slips out of his hand, and he looks after it, frustrated and terrified. It’s a moment of vulnerability—and that is the most important character detail about Kaspar, ultimately. He’s very good at his job, but underneath is this wound that has not healed.
That vulnerability gradually takes over Kaspar completely in “Them And Us,” reducing him to a manipulative, argumentative employee and a lying, cheating boyfriend. Kaspar falls apart in staggering fashion, destroying his career and his relationship in a matter of hours through several increasingly bad judgment calls that alienate both Lotte and Birgitte. The trauma that has never been addressed before—around how his father sexually abused him for years—is now taking over his life. In “Them And Us” we learn that it was not just his father who sexually abused him. His father’s “poker friends” also took part in the abuse. We learn that information through his own memory, as he stands in his childhood home, trying to sell it so he can get rid of the memories of this place. It won’t work perfectly, of course, but Kaspar sees closure as a possibility for the first time in his life, standing there looking into his childhood bedroom. It’s that last brush with a haunted house that seems to send Kaspar over the deep end.
We have watched Kaspar be a high-functioning wreck for several episodes now, in the lifespan of Borgen. But we have never seen him fall apart before. He’s always been almost pathologically good at his job, even in the face of crushing personal defeat. This tailspin he runs through is an epic unraveling. He transforms from a controlled, easygoing, urbane politico to a drunk and irate belligerent. He yells at Svend Age, and then gets up in Katrine’s face, accusing her of not questioning him enough. He rants at Birgitte, more than once. There’s an all-consuming rage in him that keeps lashing out—indiscriminately. It has almost nothing to do with what’s happening in the present. In the present, the political drama of the welfare bill continues. And in that drama, two things are haunting our characters: recidivism and the children. (Bear with me.)
At first I didn’t think I was going to enjoy “Them And Us” because there’s a strange sense of deja-vu throughout the entire episode. Kaspar is back in his childhood home, reliving the tragedy we discovered the last time he was there. Katrine is back to her old ways at TV1, pushing for journalistic ethics over what her bosses want. Birgitte is back on the brink of her government falling apart. Even Sanne is back in reception.
But partway through the episode I began to see that the circular nature of progress is actively spooking the characters, even as they’re stuck in its cycle. Ulrik keeps needling Torben: Are Hanne and Katrine back for good? Birgitte and Phillip want to know: Is Laura going to have another panic attack? Kaspar tells Lotte he doesn’t want to have kids—he’s afraid of becoming a monster like his father. Katrine and Kaspar take hesitant steps towards each other again, only for both to repeat the same refrains. The questions we have are recursive, too: Is Hanne going to fall back into alcoholism? Is the government going to get restuck, after being unstuck for so long?
And then there’s Svend Age, the most charming conservative politician alive, asking for 12-year-olds to be culpable for their crimes. Birgitte tries to point him to evidence that children who enter the system early are more likely to become hardened criminals. It’s not a line of progress, it’s a cycle they get stuck in. A life of crime. Recidivism.
As terribly icy as Birgitte can be when she’s being a ruthless politician, she has her eye on the broadest of all goals—progress. And these little loops and eddies of repeating history aren’t progress, they’re a frustrating lack thereof. The beginning of the episode feels like deja-vu because it deliberately is. We’re being shown just how little our characters have learned from their mistakes.
But this time around the block, the stakes are higher. And that’s when this nebulous idea of “the children” comes in. Policy takes so long to be enacted that the world politics intends to shape is not the world of today, but the world of tomorrow. The essential political question in “Them And Us” is: What is the world we want for our children? The answer is not easy. You can see traces of this idea of legacy even in the actions of Katrine, who is not a mother but feels responsible for the world she lives in. Kaspar is so haunted by the demons of his past that he cannot even imagine the idea of having his own children. And Birgitte is so tormented by guilt for what she’s putting her daughter through that she breaks down in the bathroom, sobbing over the reality that her daughter requires antidepressants. Svend Age, of course, is also concerned for the children. His idea, rooted as it is in xenophobia, is ultimately that these children require discipline to be properly socialized. Literally, that they need the love of a punishing hand. These are all people concerned for the future.
One of the many contradictions to Kaspar’s character is that although he feels or is one thing, he manifests the exact opposite. To cope with his trauma, he appears blasé; to show his love, he appears indifferent. With politics, he seems to have found a way to engage in something he loves by being absolutely coldblooded about it. But a man who yells at a politician—at his boss!—over a government policy is a man who is passionate about politics, not one who doesn’t care about it. This is the Kaspar that Katrine has always suspected exists, the Kaspar who might feel so strongly about certain issues that he would dedicate his life to a cause.
As Kaspar is sorting through the possessions of his past he comes across a box of knives, and throughout the episode he holds onto them, and seemingly them alone, as he tries to cope with what he’s been through. They’re long knives, maybe more like daggers, or short swords. The knives were each a gift from his father for not telling his mother about the ongoing abuse. Kaspar, we learn, was 8 when the abuse started, and he managed to end it, at 12, by stabbing his father. They’re each a symbol of a time when his power was taken from him, and equally a symbol of a time when he took it back. They’re the physical manifestation of painful, traumatic memories. And essentially, they are all he has left of his past. I keep finding more significance in this box—this symbolic and literal baggage of his childhood, a box of double-edged swords.
For a wild moment at the end, when Kaspar wordlessly hands Katrine that package at her door, I thought he had given her his box of knives. The symbolism would be achingly perfect. Katrine is the only person he’s ever allowed himself to feel vulnerable with, so she’s the only person who could truly ever receive those charged, heavy objects. But it’s better—oh, so much better—that he didn’t give her the knives, that he instead decides to finally tell her the terrible secret. It’s such an awful revelation. Borgen manages to ride the horror of Kaspar’s story by showing it to us through Katrine’s eyes, rather than through his own words. He’s collected all of the stories in a scrapbook, and taped the news reports, and saved some terrible souvenirs. But now it’s not just his to carry.
Borgen’s epigraph tonight is not from Mao or Machiavelli, as is often the case, but instead the Bible—Matthew 5:44, which reads, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It’s surprising to see scripture coming from Borgen, but by the end of the episode, it’s very clear why Christian forgiveness comes at the beginning. There’s an idea in Buddhism, too, that compassion is a sword—a searing and honest emotional response that cuts to the heart of a person. Compassion can be quite painful to both give and receive—an emotional act that requires a great deal of courage and sacrifice. This episode is Kaspar’s dark night of the soul, and “Them And Us” points strongly to forgiveness and empathy as the only way out of the hole. No “them.” Just “us.”
What saves the day is one of Birgitte’s deft, quicksilver moves of political savvy that mark her as truly a woman born to rule. Birgitte is not quite as moved to compassion for her enemy, though she and Svend Age do end up having a bitter cup of coffee and try to convince each other they’re wrong. But she does choose to have sympathy for his point of view instead of going purely on the defensive—breaking, perhaps, a dynamic that has gotten her government in a lot of trouble in the last few episodes.
She crosses out the spin that Kaspar and Labor had agreed on and instead insists they need to make a commission about this issue, because it’s too important to ignore. And she borrows the repeated line from Kaspar’s tirade at her and makes it her improvised ending. We musn’t rob young people of their childhood. There’s this powerful humanity in that statement—the love and forgiveness from the epigraph that is not a weakness but a steely virtue. This episode of Borgen is not just about politics or the characters. It’s much more universal and human than that. It’s sorting through what it means to be a person with a sense of responsibility for the community you live in; the general civic duty of a person who obeys traffic laws and sorts their trash for recycling. The type of person who cares when bad things happen and wants things to get better for the next generation. It’s about what it means to care about progress. Pushing for progress is an act of enormous faith in the world, putting hope in the idea that things can get better. It’s not easy. Kaspar has the hardest time having faith, but when Katrine comes out to see him, and they embrace in the dark, I hope he feels that it’s there, the faith. That progress is possible.
- Thanks to Todd VanDerWerff for letting me have at another wonderful episode of Borgen. He’ll be back from vacation next week.
- Nice to see Anne Marie make an appearance after that wonderful season one episode she was in.
- Good lord; what happens to all of our characters now?!
- There were a lot of echoes of The West Wing for me in this episode: Birgitte’s weary cynicism reminded me of Bartlet, and Kaspar’s brokenness reminded me of Josh in “Noel.”