Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borgen: "With Law Shall Nation Be Built"

Illustration for article titled Borgen: "With Law Shall Nation Be Built"
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

Listen, Borgen. When I was talking about Birgitte forming a Danish analogue to the Tea Party, I was only joking. How was I to know that she would go on TV1 and attempt to rile people up, Rick Santelli style, then appeal to a bunch of embittered politicians with axes to grind! Now I just look like some sort of genius savant, or, better, someone who reads spoilers.

Nah, that’s not really true. Birgitte’s efforts in starting the New Democrats couldn’t be further from the right-wing populist howl of the Tea Party if they tried, even if some of the superficial similarities are amusing enough. The third season of Borgen is going where an American remake couldn’t even begin to tread in the formation of a new party, and what’s fascinating about it isn’t that that party is forming via a schism but that Birgitte is trying to start a party that appears to have no natural constituency. Yeah, it’s technically a Moderates side project, but it’s not starting because she’s gotten a bunch of Moderates on board with her. On the contrary, she wants to start a party for a section of the Danish population she feels is underrepresented, without any polling data or anything to back her up. She’s just doing it because she believes in it, which is cool.

That idealism is what makes Birgitte such a compelling heroine, but it also makes her very much a fantasy figure. What makes this whole improbable scenario work is that everybody sort of says that to her, assuming that she’s just doing it to get back at Kruse or telling her that she’s betraying decades of history and friendship by turning her back on her party. (When Bent says all of this, you tend to take him seriously.) Borgen has always been a show about political wish fulfillment, but what keeps it from being a romance or a fantasy is that it’s willing to acknowledge there are darker undercurrents to everything these characters do. Birgitte, in some ways, is being selfish, no matter how altruistic her ultimate aims. That’s a fun dynamic to exploit, and this episode does a solid job of it.

This episode also makes far more clear that the bill that’s causing Birgitte and her fellow New Democrats to leave behind their old parties isn’t just some usual kerfuffle. The stakes here are very real: Immigrants could be deported for mere misdemeanors, the tightest restriction on immigration that Denmark has seen yet. (In this respect, at least, my constant attempts to find commonality between Danish and American politics have some basis in reality.) It’s also the kind of bill that ends up making strange bedfellows, as Birgitte and her fellow disgruntled Moderates are joined by a fellow from the New Right whose Ethiopian wife is threatened, at least in theory, by the new law. (I was unclear on whether that law threatens immigrants who’ve attained citizenship—like his wife—or just people who have yet to attain citizenship.)

At the same time, the way that everything here is proceeding as a long series of over-dramatic reversals is kind of dumb. Bent feeling betrayed by Birgitte is a big moment because the show has spent so much time building this relationship, but Erikson having a moment of crisis when he can’t text the New Right’s leader to say he’s resigning, then dramatically entering the press conference at just the right moment, is a little too silly and heightened for this show. There’s also a bit too much of the romantic melodrama, with Katrine sleeping with Alex (the guy who’s trying to get Torben to make TV1 brighter and happier and probably full of rabbits) and the ongoing relationship between Birgitte and Jeremy, which continues to feel like an afterthought simply designed to keep reminding us it’s two-and-a-half years later, even though nobody really looks any older, even the kids.

These aren’t huge problems just yet. Borgen has always been realistic-ish, in that it’s fond of last minute miracles that save the day. There’s nothing wrong with that as a storytelling device, but at a certain point, and particularly when it involves characters I don’t really care about, the strings show a little bit more than they have in the past. This is probably exacerbated by the Torben storyline, which has yet to really stand out in any way, and by the fact that both Kruse and Alex, while characters who are understandable on, like, a policy level sometimes seem like mustache-twirling villains. (In particular, Alex constantly rubbing in to Torben how he was “getting along” with Katrine felt very silly.) The show has had its share of mustache twirlers in the past—Laugesen, for instance—but they were, again, characters that had traveled with the show from episode one. That lessened the impact when they made their turns toward villainy. While Kruse has been around for longer than just this season, he’s been considerably stepped up, and he’s just not a strong enough character to handle that kind of promotion.


The semi-reboot of season three—necessitated by any number of factors but mostly by the fact that DR, the Danish channel that produces the show, didn’t order a third season until fairly late in the process (and after international acclaim for the show had started to leak in—has hurt the show in these small ways, but if you’re willing to go with it, there’s still plenty that’s rewarding here. Refocusing so much of the show on the Birgitte and Bent relationship is a smart call, and I’m enjoying when characters like Phillip or Kasper drop in for a few minutes as their schedules allow. And I’m digging the scenes where Birgitte and Katrine just shoot the shit, because I enjoy these actresses’ performances so much. Katrine’s indoctrination in the other side of the Danish political system is also fun, particularly when she screws things up and then has to fret about whether she’s damaged them irreparably.

But Borgen has rarely had too much trouble with its political half. It’s the personal stuff where the show has always struggled, and season three is off to a weaker start in that arena than usual, particularly with Katrine and her mother’s earnest discussions of what it is to be a working mother, which might as well come with a blinking sign that reads “MAJOR THEMATIC CONCERNS OF THE SEASON.” Jeremy has yet to become an entity, Katrine’s motherhood feels less like an organic development (as it probably should!) and more like a chance to once again root around in the question of whether anyone can have it all, and about the only thing I’m getting out of this is an excuse to hear Sidse Babbett Knudsen speak English more often (which, don’t get me wrong, is totally fine). I hate to sound down on an episode that I more or less enjoyed, but the directions it points in are ones that still have me a little unnerved.


Stray observations:

  • The moment when Bent comes back and tells Birgitte that, okay, he’ll become a New Democrat, too, is so telegraphed but so satisfying. The show can do just about anything to these two, and their friendship still stands as a touchstone.
  • Nete marvels at the way that the warehouse Birgitte bought looks like the one where they filmed that Coldplay video. Birgitte smiles indulgently, and Nete says, “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall,” and I am very happy.
  • Though I’m mostly uninterested in the Katrine is a mom plot so far, I liked the recurring use of the squeaky duck toy to suggest the responsibilities to her son that were always present, even when she was pursuing other opportunities.
  • Speaking of Katrine, the moment when she tilts her beer bottle toward Kasper when he doesn’t betray the new party on Juul And Friis was a nice reminder of how good these two are together.
  • Phillip donates new office furniture to the New Democrats. Everlasting devotion!