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Borgen: “Plant A Tree”

Illustration for article titled iBorgen/i: “Plant A Tree”
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Oh, Birgitte. Will you ever pass your welfare package?

Around the middle of last season of Borgen, I complained about how the show seemed stuck in a constant string of standalone storylines that never quite went anywhere. Naturally enough, I made this complaint the week before the show made the shift to something closer to full-on serialization and closed out the season in fantastic, exciting form. Now as we reach a similar point in season two, I’m realizing that I sort of miss that standalone aspect in some ways. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of juicy storylines on both the standalone and serialized side of things this season. But potentially interesting things seem to be getting left off to the side. Take, for instance, last week’s big Somali pirate hijacking, which seemed to pass by very quickly, without much action on anyone in Copenhagen’s part. And now, we’re taking another crack at Birgitte’s welfare package—the one that was 86’ed by Marrot’s torpedoing two episodes ago—but I’m still not entirely sure what’s even supposed to be in it.


This isn’t always a flaw of the show, but I sort of wonder if making this the pivotal bit of season two’s political storyline hasn’t created a scenario where it would be more important to have some specifics. We find out this week that it’s meant to help out with welfare while also boosting environmental and energy concerns, and a couple of weeks ago, there was the big fight over early retirement. But the whole thing is mostly spelled out in non-specifics. Again, this might be an issue with captioning and the translation from a Danish audience—which would presumably understand most of the parallels to its own political system—and an English-speaking audience, which would not. When Birgitte attempts to go over to the Liberals to make her big compromise in “Plant A Tree,” what they’re most concerned about is “industry.” Maybe I’m being too uncharitable in wanting something a bit more than that, but that’s the nebulous concept the whole episode is ground out over, and I find myself wishing there were more of the nitty gritty here, just so long as Birgitte didn’t end up in Greenland.

Because the political fallout from all of this is fascinating stuff. Birgitte’s governing coalition is slowly but surely falling apart. By the end of the episode, she’s lost both Solidarity and the Greens in her government, leaving just her own Moderates and Labour to split up the various ministers’ seats between them. It’s apparently not the sort of thing that requires an instant election—not that I entirely understand what would, since Birgitte appears to be the one who calls an election and no one seems to be willing to try a no confidence vote against her for whatever reason—but she looks increasingly boxed in, and everybody else is starting to smell blood. What she’s counting on is that the Greens will still side with her most of the time, because they’d rather have her in power than Hesselboe. But her position is more tenuous than it was at the start of the season.


“Plant A Tree” also underlines one of the series’ structural oddities, which is that it almost never features a scene without Birgitte, Kasper, or Katrine in it. (In fact, I’m having trouble remembering one that doesn’t feature one of those three characters, outside of occasional things the characters watch on TV, which don’t really count.) This means that Katrine embarks upon a one-episode stint as Hesselboe’s new spin doctor. It’s not a bad idea for what to do with the character—though I would have missed her insight into the media’s side of things in the political process had she stayed for too long—but it very quickly becomes obvious that this is just a way to see into the meetings the Liberals have when they’re thinking about pushing for a new election to push whatever advantage they have at the moment. The problem for Katrine is quite simple: She just doesn’t think she could ever support Hesselboe for prime minister again, and certainly not if his chief ally is Svend Age, ranting away about immigrants and the like.

It would be one thing if this were definitively a Katrine storyline, but it really does seem like she’s just there because it would be sort of fun to watch her on this side of the line for a while. (Come to think of it, I’d like to see more of Kasper trying to work within the media, which season one briefly teased us with.) Once she’s there, it’s hard to come up with anything for her to do, because her reaction to most of the things Hesselboe proposes is some variation on “Are you serious?” Hesselboe knows that if he wants to regain power, he’s going to need to spice up his party’s image, at least a little bit, but he’s not yet willing to go without a coalition, and Svend is what he’s got. So long as that’s the case, Katrine’s going to have to head back to TV1, which is, I believe, her fourth job in over just 15 episodes. At least she’ll bring Hanne along with her.


The real fun in this episode comes from watching Birgitte continually struggle against her slow cooperation by the middle, even as all she wants is to be seen as a bold compromiser. (I know some of you get tired of my comparisons to American politics, but I imagine almost all American democrats are at least nodding their heads at least a little bit right now.) Birgitte found herself stuck when it came to foreign policy, unable to pull Danish troops out of Afghanistan or push back against the U.S. all that much. Now, she’s trying to make her mark on domestic policy, somewhere she can really get back to her roots. Instead, her compromise drives away the Greens, then eventually pushes away the Liberals, too. She’s got nothing anymore, back to square one and bloc voting. She wants to make history, but what we tend to forget is that for every historic legislative compromise, there are thousands that simply fell apart at one step of the way or another.

What Birgitte wants is to return to a time when she wasn’t leaking stories about gas-guzzling Cadillacs that eventually push one of her allies out of the game entirely. She re-hires Sanne(!) as a reminder of that time. But all of this power and all of this scheming has had a deleterious effect on both her professional and personal lives. Amir remarks with wonder that he worried she might be too sensitive like him when she took power, but she’s revealed herself to be just as hard as anybody else. That’s politics, she says. That’s the business they’ve chosen. But, no, not actually. That’s the business some of them have chosen, and it’s the business Birgitte has chosen to pursue. There are still idealists—one of them is one of our three main characters—and they’re still fighting for the perfect over the compromised, even if the compromised is potentially better than what’s available right now. Maybe Birgitte was one of those people once, but she no longer is, and she seems increasingly aware any chance to get back to that place will be merely cosmetic.


Stray observations:

  • The Laura storyline is fascinating to me for a number of reasons, not least of which involves Danish kids going to camp in January for some reason (I presume they take some time off from school that month). I like the notion that both Phillip and Birgitte are so busy with their respective lives that they just haven’t noticed their daughter is slipping into some sort of mental illness. These are some good stakes on the personal side of things. This stuff is still less compelling than the political stuff, but it’s sneaking up on me much earlier than it did in season one, which is a good sign. Also, it allowed for that marvelous scene where Birgitte just glared at Jytte after she told her boss that this was the prime minister’s office, not a kindergarten. I wanted Birgitte to murder her. I did.
  • Svend is still my favorite of the many sideline political party leaders on this show, if only because he’s such a hateful little man and takes such pleasure in being so.
  • Kasper takes pains to introduce Lotte to Katrine this week. Danish readers: Do you all feel the compulsive need to introduce the person you’re currently fucking to the person you used to fuck? That just seems weird to me, but we Americans are a lot more reticent when it comes to these sorts of things.
  • I suspect you’ve all heard by now, but Borgen season three will make its English-language debut in the United States on October 4. The United Kingdom has to wait until January. In your face, United Kingdom!
  • I am on vacation next week, so the delightful stylings of Sonia Saraiya will take you through the sixth episode of this season.

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