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Borgen: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”

Illustration for article titled iBorgen/i: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil”
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Well, whaddaya know? Complain about Borgen’s lack of consequences one week, and the gods of Danish television answer your prayers a week later (just three years ago; follow me on this time travel thing, guys)!

“See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” isn’t the show’s finest hour. For one thing, I didn’t feel any particular connection to Anne Sophie, so Birgitte’s sorrow over the way that she was betrayed (and that Birgitte had to go along with it) struck me as more academic than emotional. But it was definitely a storyline where Birgitte was outsmarted by someone within her own government and forced to deal with the consequences, and for that, I was very thankful. Yeah, she lays down the law to Troels at episode’s end, but it’s all too apparent that now that he’s realized what he can get away with, he’ll gleefully keep stepping over the line. What’s more, the episode continued the show’s greatest theme, which is the ways that women have to behave when in power, through no fault of their own but because society (even a relatively progressive society like Denmark’s) expects them to behave that way.


Let’s put this another way. As I stated in today’s Not Optional, I’m a big fan of John and Hank Green’s web series Crash Course, which aims to provide viewers with, well, a crash course in the subject at hand. John Green’s most recent series has been about U.S. History, and he recently did an episode all about women in 19th century America, one I thought was quite good. (The gist of it was that women, often forbidden from working or strongly socially pressured to stay out of the workplace, found their need for professional fulfillment in the many reform movements of the period, which eventually led them to realize that, hey, if America’s treatment of other groups needed reformation, then the nation’s treatment of women needed just as much.) I showed it to my wife, and she remarked that it was sad that a.) women had to have their own special episode, instead of just being woven in with everybody else, and b.) we really haven’t come all that far from the arguments presented against women in the 1800s. Sure, women have the right to vote, now, and it’s hard to see that ever being abridged. But how many people still believe a woman’s place is in the home, not in the workplace, or feel threatened by women in positions of power?

I’m not saying Borgen is about that—the fact that the troubled Kasper is our third lead certainly suggests it has designs beyond being about that—but it kind of is all the same, even if it doesn’t intend to be. In its portrayal of Birgitte and Katrine, the series carefully portrays the way that professional women still confront institutional sexism and other latent prejudices in the workplace, even if the men doling it out aren’t aware of what they’re doing. Take, for instance, Katrine trying to get TV One from reporting on the obviously bullshit story of Anne Sophie wanting to kidnap Hesselboe’s kids years and years ago. All she was doing was making an over-the-top rhetorical point about how Hesselboe should feel the pain of war visited upon his own household, and on top of everything else, she was clearly drunk. The tape also suspiciously cuts off at the most convenient point. It’s so obviously spin that Katrine doesn’t want to go with it, but TV One sees it as a better story.


Granted, some of this plays into prejudice against far left agitators as well, with the media enjoying the comfort of believing that someone like Anne Sophie is clearly crazy bananacakes, instead of having to think about her very real points about the Iraq War or whatever else she’s talking about. This is not saying that anyone has to agree with her, but it’s usually easier to just portray someone who’s saying something you don’t like as a nutjob than it is to actually engage with the premise of their argument. Anne Sophie is so blatantly character assassinated that both she and Birgitte don’t even see the bullets coming, and Birgitte was told they would be arriving by the man who shot them.

The question here is whether this would have happened if Anne Sophie were a guy. And maybe! Certainly extreme political opinions on either end of the spectrum are marginalized and mocked by the media and more moderate politicians all of the time. But it’s also hard for me to see Torben writing off Katrine’s concerns about the obviously manufactured nature of the story so easily if it was a guy cutting loose on the tape, a tape that, let’s not forget, was obtained through bugging the offices of a radical leftist publishing office that later gave way to Solidarity Party headquarters. (The bugs are found by a repairman, which you’d think somebody in Special Division would have taken care of.) All of the fault lies with Troels and his department, but he’s so good at playing out the aftermath in the media that all of the fault ends up lying with the people who have been wronged, which is a nifty little parable about the endless sustainability of power. It’s all encapsulated in that final shot of Birgitte striding down the hall one way, flanked by powerful men, only to pass Anne Sophie, shoved all the way to the side (the left, no less), all by herself, walking the opposite way.


The relevant Birgitte story, when she’s not getting screwed over by Troels, that is, involves Bent’s insistence that she can’t make any friends in Borgen, which is how she ends up so gutted by the way that she has to act as if Anne Sophie’s concerns aren’t her own. It’s a big moment for a show that has so far showed this woman basically getting what she wants with only minor compromise, but it also gives us a sense that Birgitte’s just as interested in clinging to her own power as any of the others in her government. To tie herself to Anne Sophie would be political suicide, even if it would be the ethical thing to do, so she isolates and betrays an old friend and brushes it off surprisingly quickly. She’s learning, but she’s learning just how difficult it is to keep her hands clean in this world.

As mentioned, Anne Sophie and Birgitte’s relationship wasn’t played up as quite important enough for me to really feel the weight of that betrayal (though the episode did a solid job of trying anyway), but it was the fact that the episode was trying at all that made me appreciate how well this show can do consequences when it wants to. Many of you have assured me that these final four episodes bring many of the strands this season has been building together in interesting ways, and if this is an example of what we’re heading toward, then my complaints with Borgen from the middle of its first season run will seem a very minor blip indeed.


Stray observations:

  • That said, I’m still kind of over the whole “Phillip and Birgitte are having marital problems” storyline, particularly now that there’s a comely young co-ed for her to fret over. I get that being the prime minister and having a family is tough, but the family storylines are so far behind the government and media storylines for me at this point that I have trouble getting too worked up over them.
  • Katrine’s relationship with Benjamin ends, and I love the way that it ends because he’s just not as interested in politics or government as she is. And I also like that he asks her if her work is somehow more worthy than his, or if he should start talking with her about human fitness and the like. She finally admits, in frustration, that it’s not. I, of course, as a political junkie, would side with Katrine in this particular argument, but the more that I think about it, the more that I think someone like Benjamin, who probably doesn’t have a care in the world, doesn’t have a compelling reason to get all that interested in government. (Also: More linkage between Katrine and Birgitte, as she, too, passes by Benjamin all by himself while she’s flanked by others late in the episode.)
  • I never would have picked Troels to be so sniveling and villainous, but there you have it. Lars Brygmann really does a great job of making him seem cowardly and self-interested more than outright evil, which helps, because he probably could have played it the other way if he’d wanted to. Also: He has a pretty kickass Richard Nixon impression, no?
  • Again, the series offers up useful real-life parallels for us Americans embroiled in the middle of the debate over privacy concerns from the NSA’s phone and e-mail spying programs, right down to how Special Division’s bugging of the publishing company’s offices was apparently legal, so the debate over that point (as opposed to the “accidental” bugging of Solidarity, which was illegal if intentional) is mostly about how uncomfortable it makes everybody.
  • How the hell did Kasper get into Birgitte’s garden like that? Does he have an elaborate system of tunnels beneath the city?

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