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Borgen: “The Art Of The Possible”

Illustration for article titled iBorgen/i: “The Art Of The Possible”
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(Want to watch this episode? Are you a legal U.S. citizen—or appear to be one via your IP address? You can watch it on LinkTV here.)

To succeed, all politicians need to learn to become cockroaches. In the American system, this can mean becoming so indispensable to their party’s base that they can never be tossed aside, but in the Danish system as depicted on Borgen, particularly for the new prime minister, this means finding little cracks in otherwise solid walls and scuttling around in those cracks until they widen into giant gulfs. I’ll probably get tired of Borgen if every episode turns into, “This is a crisis that could end your career as prime minister!” but there’s necessarily a bit of learning how to do the job this early on. It’s fun to watch as Birgitte discovers her highly unlikely last second victory, then amazing to watch her carry it out. Her ability to seize on weaknesses in her opponents and exploit them for all they’re worth shouldn’t be a surprise to me by now, but just how effective she is at doing so always makes me marvel. She’s ingenious at knowing just how to split the New Right from the Liberals, and it makes for a highly effective climax.


Along the way there, though, we have a few lumpy bits about the perils of being a woman in power, namely how that can also make it difficult for you to be a good mother, and those are a bit less effective. Let’s start with Katrine, who is finally becoming a character I’m intrigued by in this week’s episode. Having learned last week that she’s pregnant with Ole Dahl’s baby, she now has to decide whether to abort or keep the child. The former would deprive her of the last bit of Ole she has left—and I’m surprised at how good the show is at suggesting she was deeply in love with him when we saw them together for maybe five minutes. The latter could prove devastating to her career, since Ole’s wife has now seen her face and since she’s having to dart off-camera during breaks in filming to throw up in a trash can. (Also: At some point, someone says this is two-and-a-half months since Birgitte assumed the prime minister’s seat, which would place the pregnancy at three months along or so. That seems a bit much, but maybe I know less about pregnancy than I think I do.)

All of this is interspersed with scenes from Katrine’s relationship with Kasper, who’s more of a presence in this episode than he was in the last one. It turns out that Kasper was keeping fairly significant information from his ex-girlfriend—like the identity of his family, for one—and that, naturally enough, led to the end of his relationship. (Katrine, like a good journalist, starts poking at the edges of his story and finding that it doesn’t add up. Like a good television character who wants to preserve a central mystery for the audience, she doesn’t go any further than that.) Now, he’s one of the few people she can turn to in the wake of discovering her pregnancy, and I love how this story plays out with him constantly trying to get on the same page as her—since it’s clear he still carries a torch for her—and her veering in the other direction, unintentionally, just as he seems to have landed there. Their final conversation, she lying in her hospital bed after having the abortion and he asking her if she heard the secret message he slipped to her in the New Year’s Day address, is surprisingly moving, as is Kasper’s face when he realizes how little he understands her anymore.

Our other “women in power will have difficulty being mothers” storyline involves Birgitte struggling to find time to go Christmas shopping with her children. In and of itself, this storyline isn’t a big deal—people in power frequently lament about how little time they get to spend with their families—but its implications seem to be pointing toward a storyline I just hate: A woman in power ultimately lets down her family, and even though she’s good at her job, she’s ultimately a failure because she’s not a good mother. This is complete rubbish, especially since you almost never see this particular storyline applied to men. (There are plenty of stories about men learning to be better fathers, but they almost always get to keep their careers. Now, they just know What Matters. Women are usually punished in fiction if they’re seen to be ineffective mothers.) There are plenty of people who manage to be both effective in their professions and effective parents, and even if being effective at one makes someone ineffective at the other, that’s not necessarily the end of the world. Even weirder: Birgitte’s kids are probably old enough to at least understand why their mom can’t be around as much, but the show seems to almost treat them as 3-year-olds.

Now, I don’t think Borgen has crossed any unforgivable lines just yet. It’s pretty clear that while Birgitte is stung by the fact that she’s let down her kids and husband—leaving them to deal with a tabloid crisis on Christmas Day, no less!—she’s not going to let it give her so much as a moment of pause. She still pushes relentlessly forward in trying to find a budget deal, and she’s fully capable when it comes time to split the opposition. When she manages to drive that wedge between the New Right and the Liberals, her skill is once again in evidence, and it’s all the more impressive because she’s the only one who realizes that she has an option other than letting the so-called “Workers” condemn her to an early end to her prime minister career. Her ploy, driven by Kasper, to discover that they don’t really want a motorway is smart stuff, and her ultimate triumph and New Year’s Day speech are great. I just wish the show wasn’t seeming to signal toward a storyline that will try to undercut her abilities by saying she’s not a good enough mother. (Those kids already have their father around whenever they could want. How much parenting do they need?)


I ultimately liked “The Art Of The Possible,” but I rather think it’s the weakest episode so far, as well. There are some great sequences that seem to be building to something, then go nowhere, like Katrine heading to the farm she grew up on for the holidays, and if Kasper was going to leave Birgitte’s employ, I wish we had learned a bit more about him as a character before he inevitably returned to the status quo as shown in the pilot. Yet Borgen has a way of spending its first half or first two-thirds seeming to head absolutely nowhere, then tightening things up in a way I find surprising as it nears the end. There are also some indelible sequences here, like Birgitte watching her spin doctor debate Laugesen on TV (though nothing really seems to come of this, huh?) or Katrine meeting Ole’s wife and kids at the cemetery. Borgen best succeeds when it points less at bland generalities about women in power and more at how these two women, specifically, struggle when in power. They’re both rattling cages in systems not particularly built for them, and that becomes more interesting the more specific it is.

Stray observations:

  • Just what mad juju does Laugesen have that he’s apparently able to just do whatever the fuck he wants at all times? He takes over the editorship of the Express after his political career has ended, then spends all his time smugly smiling and beating up on Birgitte. I’d say this is wildly implausible, but then I look at all the failed American Republican politicians who end up on Fox News and wonder. (Also: Does anyone else think the actor kind of looks like Hugh Grant?)
  • Add the so-called “Workers” (actually a division of Labour, which makes sense) and the New Right to the head-spinning list of parties Birgitte has to deal with in Parliament. Though the Workers have largely been dealt with by the end of this episode, so maybe they’re no longer going to be important to the story going forward.
  • Some of you complained about my Obama parallels last week, since Birgitte is very obviously a woman in a very different situation. But this week is also replete with them, right down to Birgitte deciding to go to the right wing to get what she wants, despite her advisers (and presumably others in her coalition) not wanting her to do so. Of course, Birgitte is effective, where Obama just keeps becoming a Republican punching bag, so maybe you guys are right. (Note: I am not saying that the writers of this series intend it as an Obama commentary, just that as an American, I’m amazed at how often Borgen speaks to my own specific political culture without intending to.)
  • It’s kind of weird how everybody assumes that Birgitte just chose her spin doctor because he was physically attractive, then how the press is so easily able to stir up suspicion about that. And then when he debates Laugesen, he turns out to be a complete incompetent, driving Birgitte back to Kasper. Doesn’t anybody do any vetting in Copenhagen?
  • Speaking of Copenhagen, this show is doing a great job of making me want to take a vacation there. Anybody been? Is it worth it?

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