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Borgen: “Count To 90”

Illustration for article titled iBorgen/i: “Count To 90”
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(Want to watch this episode? Are you a U.S. citizen? You can check it—and prior episodes—out on LinkTV.)

A couple of development seasons ago, NBC commissioned an American remake of Borgen from Jason Katims. Now, Katims is one of my favorite TV producers, and I would love an intricately drawn American political drama, but “Count To 90” essentially proves how impossible it would be to remake this show in the United States—even setting aside the fact that the first scene of the episode involves Birgitte waiting to meet with the queen. Borgen is so fundamentally tied to the formation of a parliamentary coalition government that it’s difficult to imagine it being ported over to our country, particularly when one considers that American networks are often terrified of saying which political party a character belongs to, for fear of alienating half the country. (By necessity, an American version of Borgen would almost have to be about a female Speaker of the House, and she would almost have to be a Democrat, presiding over that party’s fractious caucus. But it would still be a pale imitation.)


All of which is to say that “Count To 90,” despite a storytelling technique I hope the show drops very soon, is a very exciting and enthralling episode of television, with some great twists and turns. Because I’d read the first paragraph of the show’s Wikipedia summary, I knew this was a show about Denmark’s first female prime minister, so Birgitte’s ultimate position at the end of the episode was never all that in doubt to me. And, hell, just going by the rules of story and conflict, it’s much more interesting to have a story about a woman who occupies the highest seat in the land than just some random cabinet minister, particularly when you consider that Birgitte isn’t an inveterate schemer, hellbent on attaining power. Instead, she’s someone who’s a little uncomfortable around power, who’s having to teach herself how to be a leader tentatively. It’s an interesting character dynamic.

It also leads to what I’d perceive as the episode’s biggest flaw. Birgitte is surrounded by people who want to give her advice on how to wield what power she has. Unfortunately, they’re all men. In isolation, this wouldn’t be such a big deal. It makes sense that Birgitte would talk things over with her husband or with Bent, her older, most trusted advisor. But taken together with the episode’s somewhat problematic “Men do things like this, while women do things like this” scenes, “Count To 90” unintentionally advances the idea that Birgitte can only succeed because she takes advice from men and starts acting more male-like, by stepping to the head of the table and basically demanding power. There are intriguing hints here and there that Birgitte is going to use more traditionally feminine characteristics—like her ability to read subtle emotional cues, as when she notices the way Troels is wringing his hands during the meeting with Labour—to advance, but little comes of them. Birgitte is playing in a man’s world, and she has to be taught by the men around her how to succeed within that world.

Now, I don’t actually think anyone involved in the show believes that to be the case. It’s pretty clear that we’re meant to think Birgitte is the number one, most awesome potential Prime Minister in all of Denmark, someone who could represent a real break with the past (though if I’m reading this show’s cynicism correctly, that will prove to be incredibly difficult—this does, after all, seem like a parable of the Obama era, at least to these American eyes). The moment in the last five minutes when she says that, no thanks, power runs through her now is terrific, and when she finally takes center stage at the head of the new cabinet, it’s a long time in coming. But so much of the hour is about how men just take the power they think they’re owed, and Birgitte needs to be more like that that it becomes a little disconcerting. All of which is to say that, yes, Birgitte needs to be more assertive (and learns to be), but attaching gender norms to those traits specifically makes everything just a little harder to take.

That said, the episode is so delightful on so many levels that I just ended up not caring all that much about the more problematic issues. It’s fascinating to watch Birgitte make her early attempts to assemble a cabinet, then see how Labour’s Laugesen just doesn’t take her seriously in the slightest. I also love that all of the jockeying for power takes place after the election. It’s something I intellectually knew about parliamentary democracy, but it was something I’d never seen portrayed like this, and Birgitte’s meetings with the various parties nicely laid out who’s who in the show’s political landscape. Every time I’ve talked about this show with someone, they’ve seethed about Laugesen, and his blatant power grab here makes me realize how despicable he is. But what I like about him is that he isn’t a simple villain. He’s merely taking what he believes he is owed, while Birgitte, as a less assertive person in a party that’s never been in power, is only too happy to stand down and let him do so.


I also liked how Birgitte was at the center of the maelstrom here, how she’s already learned from last week’s receipt scandal. When Troels brings her the e-mails with the incriminating evidence against Laugesen (leading me to believe that all politics in Denmark are carried out via scandalous documents), it only takes her a little while—and a quick history lesson from Bent—to figure out that, yeah, this is a power play she can get behind. She may still want to be prime minister, but she’d be much happier serving as a cabinet member with Troels as P.M. than with Laugesen in that seat. Watching Birgitte play power broker is more fun than watching her frown while others act. It gets at the show’s central fantasy of the politician who says what we’re all thinking and doesn’t worry about what happens to her.

And it’s likely a good sign that I’m as attached to Birgitte at this point as I am. When Laugesen takes her chance at being prime minister away—before he immolates with Troels and Birgitte’s help—I felt a sinking sensation in my gut, a good suggestion that I’m coming to really like this woman as a protagonist for a TV show. There’s less time spent with the other two protagonists—Kasper is barely in this episode, as it turns out, while Katrine continues to feel vaguely unnecessary to the proceedings—but with Birgitte at the show’s center, I’m more than ready to see where this thing goes. As it turns out, she’s the only one who can count to 90. She just needed to realize that.


Stray observations:

  • Ole Dahl’s funeral is a terrific setpiece, particularly as it involves both Laugesen and Kasper leaving, as well as so many cell phones going off. This is the kind of blackly comic bit that suggests the show has a firm handle of its own tone, even this early into the run.
  • We’re introduced to yet another new party, the Solidarity party, about which I can tell almost nothing (except for the obvious fact that they would be Laugesen’s natural opposition on the banning of head scarves issue). It’s really a treat to watch this and try to puzzle out some of the political issues that are important in Denmark—to say nothing of important three years ago when this was made.
  • Much as I don’t entirely understand why Katrine is a character in this show, her breakdown over Ole’s death into Hanne’s arms was a good moment. It also suggests that Hanne might find some things about her rival if she did a little digging, which is interesting.

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