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Borgen: “The First Tuesday In October”

Illustration for article titled iBorgen/i: “The First Tuesday In October”
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The fascinating thing about Borgen is that we don’t really know a thing about Birgitte Nyborg. Sure, we know her occupation, and we know her personal life details, and we get little dribs and drabs about her past and what got her into politics. But for the most part, she’s a bit of a cipher. Toward the end of tonight’s episode, when she was seeing away her husband and children, after she had forced Bent to step down, after Sanne had been fired (no!), I realized that for as much as I was feeling sympathy for her situation, I had next to no idea who this woman was or how much of a sacrifice it was for her. The trick of the show is that Sidse Babbett Knudson places all of her emotions behind a steely veneer, and then we wait for them to come out. But sometimes they never do.

It’s an interesting approach to character building. It takes a great deal from the male antiheroes who have dominated American dramas of the past decade, but the character is ostensibly one who is trying her very best to do what’s best for the country. But she’s in a position where she wields so much power, and emotion can be construed as weakness. Birgitte succeeds because her poker face is impeccable, and she succeeds because she excels in the moments when she needs to stand up in front of her people and sell them on her and her vision (sound familiar, Americans?). But the more I watch the show, the more I realize that its political details are essentially generic, the brand names filed off. On a lot of shows, this would be a detriment. Specificity, after all, is often a virtue. But on Borgen, the show makes that generic nature into its own virtue. Because we understand very little of just what Birgitte is trying to do, it makes everything she sacrifices for her agenda all the more tragic. She is throwing things away because she wants to maintain power for its own end, not necessarily because she plans to do much with it.


At its most basic level, Borgen is about the gulf that exists between that which is needed and that which is possible. There’s a scene in tonight’s episode where Torben is arguing with Katrine, and he says that idealism is easy. And he’s right! Clinging to an ideal and believing that to be the only way that the world can keep spinning on its axis risks very little because you’ll so rarely succeed (and even then, it’s easy enough to move the goalposts). Torben is arguing that only pragmatists and realists get anything done. But all the same, the world is nothing without the idealists to keep said pragmatists honest. Torben might have gotten the big, important interview with Birgitte and Philip by trading away his principles, but he looks rather the fool when Kasper kills the interview after Philip asks Birgitte for a divorce. And Katrine is right: What Torben did should never have happened, not when other reporters fight and bleed and die for a free press.

That idea of the comfort of Western democracy, the way that having a lot of stuff makes us sloppy about the ideals of our system, makes us selfish and more likely to betray some mythic community-oriented past none of us is old enough to have lived through, is something that runs throughout this finale. Birgitte wants to remind the Danish people that they can come together to be more than the sum of each individual part. They can rise up out of their comfortable stupor and move past all their nice things and be a great people again. That’s an inspiring enough thing to hear, and it’s a worthy goal to build toward. Yet as Birgitte says all of this, she’s just lived through a week that’s seen her lose her husband, push away her strongest supporter in Parliament, and slowly isolate herself from everyone. And Hesselboe is right when he says the speech is empty rhetoric. Some of this is because it’s a speech made in a TV show, sure, but Birgitte makes no policy proposals, nor does she argue for anything more than people coming together for the greater good. It’s an easy answer, a panacea.


Borgen has really hit its stride in this last bunch of episodes, turning from a series of standalone stories about how Birgitte compromised her (intentionally poorly explained) values to get ahead in the cutthroat world of Danish parliament. This slow build could be frustrating at times—particularly on a week-by-week basis—but it was necessary to make the events of the final four episodes of the season as devastating and emotional as they have been. This episode is a bit of a step down from last week’s—the season’s pinnacle—and I found the way the Bent storyline was shoehorned in there a little strange. (It seems to almost be in there just so Birgitte has to suffer in her professional and personal lives, a weird dichotomy that has hurt the show more than it’s helped it this season.) But for the most part, this is a beautifully subdued and sorrowful episode of television, marked by that ending where Birgitte, all alone, signs her name, proving her staying power in the job but also everything she’s had to give away to get that job.

The show’s best element has been the way it uses Birgitte and Katrine as a kind of internal point-counterpoint on every single storyline, and where Birgitte has gradually compromised away everything she holds dear in order to maintain power, Katrine quits her job after Torben signs away editing rights on that piece to the Prime Minister’s office. (The scene where Ulrik happens upon Kasper casually hanging out in the editing bay is stomach-churning.) That’s the thing, though: If Katrine holds onto her ideals and quits, nothing much happens, in terms of the country. Sure, the press is a little poorer for not having her, but there are other good reporters. And yet if you’re a member of Birgitte’s party, if you believe that she and her coalition have the best chance of leading Denmark forward, her losing power would be a travesty. Hesselboe would probably end up back in power again, and what a jerk that guy is!


One of the points of Borgen is that this becomes an inescapable cycle: An idealistic Prime Minister wants to keep holding onto power to advance her agenda, so she compromises somewhere else. And then somewhere else. And then somewhere else. And pretty soon, everything is compromised away, and her marriage is falling apart, and she’s a disappointment to those who once believed in her, as well as herself. Kasper spends most of the hour listening to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address—the one you probably know better as “Ask not what your country can do for you…”—and it gives the whole episode an ironic twist. Birgitte has done everything for her country, and she’s gotten some of what she wanted here and there. But in another way, she’s lost almost everything, because she’s been chasing after something ineffable that keeps slipping through her fingers.

Stray observations:

  • We’re going to be moving on to season two next week, as LinkTV does as well. And good news, if you’re a U.S. citizen: KCET’s website will have the entire first season of Borgen available for streaming starting next week, and it will stay on their site for the next two weeks. It’s a good time to get caught up!
  • I liked Kasper talking Sanne (no!) through the three stage rocket that is Kennedy’s repeated use of the words “Ask not.” The rhythm, see, makes you feel something in your body. A good speech doesn’t just appeal to the head. It appeals to the gut and the heart, too. Commence feeling up and making out.
  • Bent is my favorite character because he takes everything in such unflappable good spirits. Asked to resign? Sure, he’ll be sore about it, but he’s also going to spend more time with his hydrangeas. And I liked when he seemed genuinely impressed by Birgitte’s speech and she gave him a little speech about how she did what was necessary, like a villain in a James Bond movie (which, incidentally, Knudsen could knock out of the park).
  • The woman Phillip is having an affair with is Sasha, who was the headhunter who got him that sweet job he had to give away. You can see why he reacted as he did.
  • I do like how some of the things that have the most effect on Birgitte’s agenda and administration occur almost entirely offscreen. Apparently, his long-ago affair with Yvonne is what costs Bent his ministership, but it’s something we barely hear about, other than being told it’s a big deal once or twice.
  • When Birgitte tells Laura that Phillip is out at a meeting (in the middle of the night, no less), I really wanted Laura to ask, “A sex meeting?” Unfortunately, this did not happen.
  • Thanks for reading along, everyone! I may be sitting next week’s edition out, thanks to the TCA press tour, but someone will be here for you.

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