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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borgen: “100 Days”

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It’s fascinating to watch this episode of Borgen during the week news of the NSA phone spying scandal first broke wide. (In actuality, this has been reported on since 2005; it’s the whole reason The Guardian knew enough to attempt to get records of it in the first place.) The idea most of us in democracies have is that if we vote a party we dislike out of power, the new party will turn things around and do things that are more to our liking. Though intellectually we know that it’s not as if the party of our choice gets to start with a clean slate on day one, completely ignoring all administrations before it, emotionally, it feels like it should be that way.

On the domestic level, that can sometimes be the case! But particularly when it comes to foreign policy, it’s much harder for a new administration to remove programs started by previous ones, because the foreign policy apparatus will always suck up whatever power it can, simply because “national security” is such a pressing—and nebulous—concern. Which is how you wind up with a man elected as a direct repudiation of the Bush years continuing and even expanding some of Bush’s worst civil liberties excesses, to the dismay of many of his supporters. Foreign policy entities within a government can become a “state within a state,” as one of Birgitte’s advisors names the CIA in this episode, and because the wrath of the public tends to turn on the current administration whenever these programs are exposed, it paradoxically ends up behooving future administrations to more or less continue covering up the actions of previous administrations, even ones an administration loudly disagrees with internally. Again, put in American terms, the only two presidents since the first Roosevelt to willingly decrease the amount of power their office held were Eisenhower and Carter, and look what happened to those guys! (Well, Eisenhower was wildly popular, so ignore that point.)

All of this is more or less what happens to Birgitte in “100 Days.” She has no particular interest in continuing to allow the CIA to use Greenland as an “emergency landing” pad for when it’s transporting prisoners it is keeping illegally (Afghanis who have never been convicted of any crime and have simply disappeared), but she’s also deeply aware that this is the sort of scandal that could topple a government as young as hers is, particularly in a shaky parliamentary setup, where a “no confidence” vote always lurks. Yes, by the end of the episode, Birgitte has found a way to circumvent the problem—it involves letting Greenland itself handle more of the dealings with the U.S., which I didn’t totally understand, perhaps because I’m not terribly cognizant of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark—but she also has to go on TV and lie through a smile. The hidden thread of Borgen seems to be getting what you want via compromising most of your principles, and that’s in full evidence here.

There’s so much of interest in “100 Days” that it’s just a touch disappointing that it’s ultimately as lumpy as it is. The first 45 minutes or so are so good that when the whole thing takes a turn toward the weird and maudlin in the final 15 that it becomes all the more disappointing. Again, I suspect some of this is just my own lack of understanding of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark, which seems at least somewhat similar to the relationships between the U.S. and Canada and each nation’s respective native peoples, but it’s also different, because Greenland is a colonized island many miles away from its home country. Yet the episode drops in enough information about that relationship that I felt more or less qualified to judge it. And the bit where Birgitte goes to Greenland and learns about the lives of the people who live there via musical montage is just… weird, particularly when one considers that up until that point, the episode has more or less been a journalism thriller.

The best thing about “100 Days” is that it pits Katrine versus Birgitte in a way that really makes the viewer want to see Katrine succeed, even if that success could topple the administration headed by the ostensible protagonist of the show. The show runs a rough parallel between Birgitte learning to be a better politician and Katrine learning how to be a better journalist, and it sends the two paths on a collision course here. Katrine receives the photos of the CIA prisoners from a secret source, then spends the episode finding ways around walls the government throws up in her general direction, up to and including threatening arrest for all journalists involved if they don’t immediately cease pursuing the story. The episode attempts to keep Birgitte more or less blameless in this by having her constantly say, “Do we have to do this?” but at every juncture, she eventually sides with the hard-liners. She knows what this could mean for her administration, too.

It’s fun to watch Katrine (with the help of Hanne and some of the other Danish journalists) figure out her way through this minefield, particularly once her source—a military guy named Carsten—actually makes himself known to her. It turns into an elaborate game of cat and mouse, played out in the press, with Birgitte finding just enough room to evade scandal without lying (using the “emergency landing” thing as a blanket cover, even if she knows there’s something not quite right with it) and Katrine looking for the loophole that will bring the whole story to light. And all the while, Birgitte needs something to celebrate in the press as an accomplishment of the first 100 days of her administration, something better than relations with Greenland, which isn’t very “sexy,” as per Kasper. There’s also some good business about how work gets in the way of Birgitte’s relationship with her husband and what looks like the rekindling of something between Katrine and Kasper. The structure is a little too neat, but at the same time, the notion of the show abruptly becoming a political thriller is interesting enough to carry the day.


Then, however, the episode comes into its final quarter, and it simply runs out of room. One of the things I like about Borgen is that it’s a serialized story told in episodic fashion. The events continue to exist after they’re over, and the characters’ relationships grow and change, but each episode presents a new problem for the characters to chip away at. Yet by the time that Carsten is admitting that he has a tiny bit of a rape charge (eventually dismissed but obviously something that he was actually involved in) in his past and subsequently killing himself, the episode is losing something. This is to say nothing of the final scene, which is supposed to prove, I think, that Katrine will always be a journalist, eager to get the story, even if she loses herself sometimes, but I didn’t really feel enough of a connection between her and Carsten to get all that worked up about his death.

In short, it feels like the episode starts out as one thing—the intractability of power and how it drags all sorts of people toward positions they otherwise wouldn’t hold—and ends up somewhere else entirely, somewhere that’s more relationship based. Yes, politics is all about human relations playing out on a grand scale, but it feels like a step or two is missing here. (Or I’m just missing it because I don’t understand the subtleties of the Denmark-Greenland relationship.) This is too bad, because the first bit of this episode was unusually timely (or, rather, its airing was unusually timely) and seemed like it might be the best episode of the show yet. For that, the episode’s worth watching, but it would have been nice to have an ending that felt earned, instead of one that felt pushed on us by the writers.


Stray observations:

  • Svend Age (I’m not going to try to figure out how to make the special e on my keyboard, so just go with it) is happy to inform Kasper of all of the things he thinks about Greenlanders. It’s always nice for a TV character to just let us all know what he thinks at the drop of a hat.
  • That shot of Katrine and Kasper looking around her bedroom as the man who broke into her apartment silently sneaks out behind them is really well-done and legitimately unnerving.
  • This episode had a severe Bent shortage. We need more Bent! Bjorn simply will not do! (Okay, he’ll do in a pinch, but consider yourself warned, Borgen.)