Toward the end of “What Is Lost Inwardly Must Be Gained Outwardly, Part 1,” someone said something that made me bark with laughter—and not in a good way. This is too bad, because “What Is Lost” was grooving along on the nice little spurt of momentum Borgen has found here in its second season. I generally agree with Sonia that “Them And Us” is one of the series’ best episodes—and certainly its most devastating—and even if the final reveal about Kasper there was a little convenient, the acting put it all over the top for me. And though “What Is Lost” isn’t as intense as that episode, perhaps because the need to stretch the whole story over two hours means there’s more room in which to dither around, it’s filled with this magnificent mournful quality that really works for the episode, particularly in the scenes between Birgitte and Bent. The polls have turned against the Nyborg coalition, and she’s going to need a big move to win the people back.
That move turns out to be going to a fictional African country that’s torn by civil war. It’s called Kharun, and its northern half is ruled by the traditionally Muslim government, while its southern half is predominantly Christian and is seeking its own independence. I'm not wild about shows like this inventing their own fictional foreign policy conflicts that are clearly meant as stand-ins for various real-life situations, but I also realize that having Birgitte solve the crisis in Darfur or the Israeli-Palestinian situation would be a step too far. Creating a fictional conflict is a necessary evil of the storytelling, and it’s not like the show is especially egregious in this regard.
The moment that made me bark in laughter is one that got me to thinking about how we English speakers approach foreign language television. Birgitte is meeting with the leader of Southern Kharun, and she’s been warned by an advisor not to bring up anything about homosexuality, which is demonized here. The scene proceeds with Birgitte making good steps toward getting the southern leader to agree to various concessions—like shipping all of the oil from his region through the northern pipeline to appease the Chinese—and then getting to listen to him talk about how he longs for a South Kharun where everyone can have freedom and equality and all will live in peace. The subtext here—except for homosexuals—is so clear that I honestly thought the show was laying it on a bit thick until the leader actually said, “Except for homosexuals,” at which point I laughed.
To be fair, the show later made fun of the guy’s obvious ignorance—in that he genuinely seems to believe that his country would have no gay people in it—in its later scenes, if only to hang a lampshade on its own goofiness, but the damage was already done. It’s not like this single, solitary line wrecked the episode. Far from it. But it did break whatever spell the episode had weaved up until that point, and it made me feel like I was in the middle of a show that likes to tell me what to think and feel, rather than one that insinuates and lets me come to my own conclusions. But then I started wondering: How much of my assumed sophistication from the show comes from the fact that it’s actually sophisticated, and how much comes from the fact that I don’t speak Danish?
This is the old refrain some will hold against the dialogue and story structure in foreign films. They wouldn’t be so acclaimed, some say, if they were in English, because in English, we’d spend less time pulling the story apart on an intellectual level and would be able to point out the places where the subtext became text with more authority. I first encountered this idea in one of William Goldman’s books (I think), and I mostly find it bullshit. A great foreign film is great because it’s a great film, not because I’ve been snowed by not speaking the language the dialogue is in. But this little moment made me wonder if I’d somehow been missing the forest for the trees when it comes to Borgen. Maybe it’s all just an over-obvious slog! Maybe I’ve been missing subtext made text all over the place because of the Danishness!
Have I? Probably not. But this is sort of a boring episode, so my thoughts turned in that direction a time or two. The problem here is that we’re building up to what could be Birgitte’s signature foreign policy moment—brokering a peace between both sides of this war would be a huge win for her at a time when she desperately needs one—but it’s hurt by the fact that there’s been no real push toward this particular storyline whatsoever. Kharun arrives out of nowhere and will presumably go away after next week’s concluding half of this two-parter. At least with real world foreign countries, we could carry our pre-existing feelings about those conflicts into the story. Here, we’re just left with a bunch of people who drop into the episode, all to build to a rather bland cliffhanger: Birgitte has scheduled the peace talks to take place in Copenhagen. Theoretically, the moment should feel charged—this is either going to be the signature moment of her term or a boondoggle—but it just doesn’t. It feels empty.
That said, it’s not as if the episode is a complete failure, even if it’s the worst of the season so far. I liked the way that Birgitte’s efforts turned into a way to bring back so many of the characters pushed to the sidelines by the events of the season. There was Bent, back from his health scare! And there was Amir, brought in to negotiate with the North Kharun Muslim leaders, probably because he’s the show’s only fleshed out Muslim character, but also because it’s time for Birgitte to atone for some of the shitty things she’s done this season! It was nice to see everybody again, and it was particularly great when Birgitte came this close to completely breaking down while talking with Bent about how Laura’s struggling with anxiety attacks.
If nothing else, the episode also gave us lots of nice moments between Kasper and Katrine. I’ve gone back and forth on these two, but the more the show goes on, the more I think that, yeah, I’m hoping these two crazy kids can work it out. (The moment when he gave her the box at the end of last week’s episode was probably the turning point for me.) The nice thing about these interpersonal storylines is that they get to feel larger than life when the fate of an African nation is juxtaposed with them. Katrine snooping through Kasper’s things to find out that he’s lying about where his boss is would feel silly on another show, but here, given what his boss does and given what Katrine does, it feels completely natural. And when Kasper tells her where Birgitte has actually been, without knowing she already knows, it’s a surprisingly sweet little moment.
If it feels like I’m sort of writing around “What Is Lost,” that’s because I am. Plenty of stuff happens in it, but it’s all so obviously the first part of a two-parter that it’s hard to weigh the full impact of the story without having seen next week’s episode, which I haven’t yet. Yet the best thing the first part of a two-parter can do is make me ravenous to see part two. This episode didn’t really do that, so it’s a miss in that regard, but there are still so many nice interpersonal moments that it’s worth watching all the same. At this stage in its run, Borgen can afford to miss on the political stories, because the characters are so rich.
- The moment when Phillip asks Laura if she’s taken her pills and she basically puts him off might as well come complete with flashing text at the bottom of the screen that says, “THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT IN NEXT WEEK’S EPISODE, SO PAY ATTENTION.”
- Speaking of Laura, it was intriguing to me in “Them And Us” that Birgitte was so against putting her daughter on “happy pills.” For the most part, the cultural differences between the U.S. and Denmark aren’t so pronounced that I’m surprised by anything in the show, but this was interesting to me. Putting a teenager on anti-anxiety medication wouldn’t make me bat an eye. Am I a monster, Denmark?
- Another minor thought on the last episode: In addition to being a victim of his father, Kasper was also a victim of several of his father's friends? What? (This was just tossed off a little too casually for me to have the impact of the reveal of Kasper's abuse from last season. It didn't mute the impact of an exceptional episode, though.)
- I wish Birgitte had somehow found a reason that only Svend Age could save the day on her trip to Kharun. Having him bellowing racist remarks could only have helped the peace process.
- Thanks to Sonia Saraiya for showing me up again last week. If you haven’t read her piece, it’s absolutely terrific, and it makes me feel as if I’m letting you folks down.