Sunday, April 13, 2014

When the Political is Personal: Borgen

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Pilou Asbaek in TV's Borgen

Note: Spoiler alerts.

“Nearly all men can withstand adversity, 
but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- Abraham Lincoln

This aphorism appears at the beginning of the final program in the superb Danish television blockbuster Borgen, which is the brainchild of Adam Price who both produced and was a major writer of the consistently intelligent scripts over three ten-program seasons. (The title refers to the Christiansborg Palace, where the Danish Parliament, Prime Minister's office and Supreme Court reside.) Every episode begins with an epigraph that ranges from Machiavelli to Churchill; a casual viewer might not realize how astute it is until he or she watches it twice, which I highly recommend. Along with The Killing and The Bridge, Borgen has been an overwhelming popular and critical success in the UK, and the trio of shows are beginning to make inroads in North America, primarily through libraries, independent video stores and specialized American channels. Since television viewers on this side of the pond seem to be put off by reading subtitles (although the actors all speak excellent English when speaking to any foreigner), the two police procedurals have been remade for North American audiences with at best mixed, and in my opinion inferior, results. Apparently, HBO is considering a remake of Borgen, but I am not certain how American audiences will respond to a series that deals with coalition politics involving eight political parties, a process likely alien to many of these viewers.

Currently, American television political dramas have largely been viewed through a satirical (Veep) or melodramatic (House of Cards) prism, both with a predominately cynical tone. Not since The West Wing, to which Borgen bears some resemblance even though the latter is more layered, has politics been regarded as a positive vocation. Even the far right leader of the xenophobic Nationalist Party is treated with a degree of respect befitting his position although his politics are regarded as abhorrent or embarrassing to even the conservative Liberal Party. Unlike the polemical The Newsroom, in which the anchor, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), is a mouthpiece for the views of its creator, Aaron Sorkin, to trash the American political right, Borgen offers a more rounded portrayal of the media from the fair-minded state television news programs to the sleazy tabloid newspapers in its reportage and analysis of Danish politics. In contrast to House of Cards, Borgen is less about the climbing of the greasy pole by a smarmy, malevolent politician who will resort to any means to achieve his goal, and more about what happens when an individual reaches the top, with the pressures of politics, policy and family continually threatening to send the Prime Minister over the edge.

In the first program, the principled leader of the small centre-left Moderate Party, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babbett Knudson is outstanding), is able to capitalize on the mishaps of the leaders of the two largest parties with a rousing, hopeful speech that catapults her into the Prime Minister’s job, as the head of a slim coalition-powered majority and the first female to hold that job in Denmark. (Currently, Denmark does have its first woman prime minister.) 

The weight of the series largely falls on Knudson, yet she is surrounded by exceptionally good actors in supporting roles. Chief among them is Kasper Juul (Pilou Asback), Birgitte’s tough-minded and fiercely loyal and skilled spin doctor, her media advisor and political fixer. Kasper might be the most interesting character because despite his gifts, he has a dark past that threatens to undermine his job effectiveness and sabotage his personal love relationship with Katrine Fonsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). She is a principled and ambitious journalist whose idealism clashes with the pragmatism of her sharp-witted editor-in-chief for TV1News, Torben Friis (Søren Malling). Katrine replaces Kasper as Birgitte’s spin doctor in the third season. The primary professional difference between Kasper and Katrine is that he will use incriminating personal material against anyone who resorts to gutter politics while Katrine will resist that tactic even if her boss is tempted to sacrifice her principle of defeating opponents on the issues rather than by stooping to a smear campaign when someone invades the privacy of her children.

Borgen illustrates the daily grind of politics because politicians cannot afford the luxury of hyper-partisan bloviating. They wear a veil of civility since they must talk to each other when negotiation and compromise is essential not only in forming and maintaining a government but also in achieving legislative success. As Birgitte learns that art, she loses some of her starry-eyed idealism and becomes savvier, more decisive and even ruthless, although we know she has the best of intentions and will put the greater good beyond her own needs. At one point, in order to secure the support of a coalition partner for whom a key ministry is the price for its endorsement of an important bill, she must dump her mentor and political confidant, the Finance Minister. We know how difficult it is for her to dismiss her friend as she places her emotions behind a steely veneer when she is in the public arena, unless she is smiling before the cameras or disarming an opponent in Parliament. She maintains a poker face when, for example, she refuses to acquiesce to the threat by the dictator of a former Soviet republic who will scuttle a huge business deal for Denmark unless she turns a dissident over to him, knowing that he will be tortured and executed. In her private moments, we see a much different Birgitte. But more about that later.

Knudsen with Mikael Birkkjaer as her husband
The second layer in Borgen is its effective exploration of the thorny issues that will resonate with viewers far beyond Danish borders: prostitution, immigration, youth crime, aboriginal rights, drawing the line between personal privacy, national security, and the public’s right to know, the war in Afghanistan and health care, to name only a few. One of the pleasures of this series is how Birgitte wrestles with the issues herself and even changes her mind when she hears compelling evidence that challenges her original position. A strong program in the first season investigates the country’s relationship with the aboriginal population in Greenland (familiar to Canadians) that mirrors Denmark’s delicate relationship with America when the CIA secretly uses a Danish base in Greenland for illegal rendition. Another one in season two tackles the issue of whether to stay or pull out of Afghanistan when Danish soldiers are killed. This thumbnail sketch might appear to be an abstract debate that would be better handled through the editorial pages or a blue-ribbon panel rather than television drama, but the framing of the issue – through the eyes of the father of a dead soldier, one who opposes the war and his son’s enlistment but must decide whether to read his son’s letter – renders it a powerful dramatic piece. This drama recalls the equally heart-rending 2004 Danish motion picture Brothers, directed by Suzanne Bier, that explores the relationship between two brothers, one of whom is prone to destructive behavioral changes when he returns from Afghanistan. Two more brief examples: the debate about reducing the age of criminal responsibility for violent acts evokes within Kasper a powerful surge of emotion, forcing him to confront his own early life; and the program that examines the issue of extending public health care has disturbing reverberations for Birgitte’s own family (see below).

This issue of health care is a touchstone for the third and more powerful layer within the series: the personal price that one pays for serving in the public arena, especially for a woman. I am reminded of a controversial magazine piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Princeton academic and foreign policy expert who quit a key position at the State Department, though she was the first woman to hold such a position, because of the effect that her prolonged absences were having on one of her sons. These themes resonate with Borgen

When the series begins, Birgitte is happily married to Philip (Mikael Birkkjaer), who has agreed to put his CEO position on hold and teach economics to college students so that he can spend more time with their teenage daughter and young son. He is generous and considerate of his wife’s responsibilities, but her penchant for talking to him as though he was one of her ministers rather than her husband and her request that he relinquish financial assets so as not to give the appearance of a conflict of interest inflict a serious strain on the marriage. When for similar reasons she asks him not to accept a CEO offer, he is so angry that he leaves home, takes up with another woman and the marriage disintegrates. When he asks for a divorce, she is devastated. We see the pain in her eyes and the struggle to carry on with her public responsibilities as season one ends.

In season two the estranged couple must deal with the acute anxiety attacks of their daughter, Laura. When the situation becomes critical, Birgitte and Philip reluctantly check Laura into an expensive clinic since the waiting time for public-funded facilities is too long. This decision occurs at the same time as Birgitte’s governing coalition is attempting to expand public health services. The tabloid press predictably accuses her of hypocrisy. Worse, its dastardly editor dispatches a paparazzi photographer to snap pictures of the troubled girl causing a major setback in her emotional health and prompting Birgitte to undertake a major shift in her life. She has already lost a husband; she will do whatever is necessary to not sacrifice her daughter.

Season three begins a few years later. Birgitte’s personal and professional circumstances have considerably altered but she is eager to embrace politics again and form a new political party. As she achieves public success, the price is her personal health as her doctor discovers the early stages of breast cancer. She undergoes radiation treatment attempting to keep it secret from her family and her colleagues with potentially damaging results for her son and an embarrassing public mishap. Again she must demonstrate flexibility and personal courage to stabilize her family and recover her political mojo, and that she does, assisted in part by the introduction of a new character, an economic advisor with a chequered past played by the talented Søren Ravn (who is a powerful presence in the first season of The Killing and in one program of Sherlock’s third season in which he is eerie and malevolent). Her turn-around efforts admittedly constitute a feel-good story that flirts with but avoids sentimentality largely because of the writing and Knudson's extraordinary performance. How the trilogy concludes may surprise some viewers, but I think it is plausible and makes sense given both her high regard for public life – at one point she looks up at the Danish parliament, and calls it her “second home” without a trace of irony or cynicism – and sobering experiences. Despite some minor blemishes that appear in the third season – the relegation of Kasper to a minor role and the messy sexual liaison within the TV news department – I found the entire series enthralling and will regard it as a benchmark for assessing future political dramas.

Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. You can find more at his website:

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