15 November 2020

‘Borgen’ (DR, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania

In the early 2010’s, what should have been a boring uneventful final debate before the Parliamentary elections turns into a major scandal: the leader of the largest opposition party accuses his primary opponent and current prime minister of using government funds to pay for his wife’s luxury shopping – an accusation he cannot credibly deny because of receipts provided in secret by the campaign manager of the third party in the race, the Moderates. Meanwhile Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of the Moderates, delivers a rousing speech denouncing political hypocrisy. On election day the public, dismayed by the conflict between the other two leaders, vote for her party in high numbers, putting it on track to form the new government, with Birgitte as Denmark’s first women prime minister.

For House of Cards fans, the best way to describe Borgen is as anti-House of Cards. Virtually every aspect of this series is the opposite of Netflix’ breakout show: the central character is a woman instead of a man, with a happy family life, two children and a loving husband with no interest or involvement in politics. She herself was not ruthlessly chasing power and authority, but instead was propelled in the highest political office in Denmark by a series of unpredictable events. But once appointed, she is striving to abide by the ideals she passionately expressed in her speech before elections: to be fair in politics, honest with the public, to search for the best solutions for her country, and finally balance her never-ending official responsibilities with family time.

Ultimately, it is impossible to be all things to all people, and the show does a wonderful job of portraying the gradual but inexorable shift from idealistic beginnings to the harsh reality of public office. Her husband is increasingly strained by the extra family responsibilities left to him and frustrated by the absence of his wife. I cannot remember the last time I was so sad to see an on-screen couple fall apart before my eyes, because they looked very happy together in the first episodes – to use an old cliché, they completed each other.

As prime minister she must face tough choices as well: challenges to her position from coalition members, the hostility of other politicians, from the far-right to a woman she once regarded as a friend. As part of the day to day business she needs to deal with revelations about illegal surveillance activities and covert US presence in Greenland. Some of these controversial decisions are legacies of previous administrations, but nevertheless she is obliged to sort them out to the public’s satisfaction. Watching Borgen at a time when Donald Trump was President felt odd, as if I had disconnected from immediate reality, but also reassuring and inspiring, a reminder how leadership and integrity should look like.

A similar transition, where the profession is slowly taking over and drowning out personal life, is unfolding with the other main female character, the journalist Katrine Fønsmark. After her lover suddenly dies in her bed in the first episode she is devastated, and later tries to find a new love interest outside political circles. But after a while she breaks up with him and focuses exclusively on her career. Her close connection with Kasper changes many times as well: some time before the start of the series they used to be a couple, now they oscillate between close friends and professional rivals, as they race to present a different angle on current events to the public. My only minor criticism of the show is how Katrine never mentions her dead lover in the latter half of the season, as if she completely forgot him, despite how close they were, on the verge of getting married.

The third central character, Kasper Juul, is Birgitte’s ‘spin doctor’, played by an actor whom Game of Thrones fans will surely recognize from the later seasons, in one of his first roles on screen. Coincidently, the actress playing Birgitte also went on to play an important role in an HBO series, in the first season of Westworld. The opening paints him as amoral and unscrupulous, in stark contrast with Birgitte’s integrity, but over the course of the series the two grow closer and collaborate more effectively, and his portrayal grows more nuanced, revealing details about his family and traumatic past that he struggled to keep hidden throughout his life.

I enjoyed the first season of Borgen very much, and I plan to continue with the other two after finishing this review – I didn’t want to mix up my impressions with later seasons. Another instance of great content made available through Netflix that I would have never watched otherwise! Part of the appeal of European TV series for me is that sometimes I can recognize places I have previously visited. While I have been to Copenhagen in 2017, this time I have not recognized any of the places – to be fair I only stayed there for a couple of days.

My rating: 4.5

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