Why Danish Political Drama “Borgen” Is Everything

The Scandinavian drama, from creator Adam Price, is a dazzling exploration of the intersection between politics and the media that everyone should be watching. The television masterpiece returns to American screens — on KCET and LinkTV — on Oct. 4 for its third (and likely final) season. Minor spoilers ahead.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen.

I’ve been passionately shouting at the top of my lungs about Danish political drama Borgen for the last year and a half. The groundbreaking and riveting show — which returns for a third season next month in the U.S. on LinkTV (and in Los Angeles on former PBS station KCET) and online — feels as if the best parts of The West Wing and The Newsroom were put in a blender and puréed… before being transformed into a gorgeously stylized haute cuisine dish. It is a staggering work of sophisticated beauty and dazzling intelligence.

Created by Adam Price, the superlative Borgen is often grouped together with its Nordic Noir kin — Forbrydelsen, which went on to be remade by AMC into The Killing, and Broen, which was adapted by FX as The Bridge — but the show doesn’t fit into the dark, dreary, and often depressing Nordic Noir category. For one thing, Borgen represents a rare streak of optimism and hope that isn’t typically seen in Scandinavian drama, which tends to revel in its almost all-consuming nihilism and darkness.

Borgen (which is often translated as “Government,” but actually means “The Castle,” a nickname for Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Parliament, the office of the prime minister, and the Danish supreme court) is gut-wrenching in its own way. The first two seasons of the show followed the ebb and flow of Denmark’s fictional first female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She’s an unlikely leader: a political moderate who ended up elected to the highest office of the country thanks to a quirk of Danish coalition government, and who struggled to balance her professional and personal lives. Her journey — attempting to improve Denmark while fighting off opposition from the left and right — was juxtaposed against that of gifted journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), a television news anchor with whom Birgitte occasionally crossed paths. One hallmark of Nordic television is its use of realistically rendered female characters, and Birgitte and Katrine are no exception: Ambitious, flawed, and driven, they are spiritual kinsmen even while their work often puts them at cross-purposes. Ricocheting between print, online, and television media, Katrine attempted to find equilibrium in her own life, even as Birgitte’s fell apart in the wake of her national responsibilities: As Birgitte’s marriage imploded, her children’s lives became speculation for the tabloid press, embodied by the insidious presence of Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), the editor-in-chief of tawdry rag Expres and its online companion site.

 

Sidse Babett Knudsen, Søren Malling, and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen in Borgen.

The respective paths of Birgitte and Katrine offered Borgen an intriguing and emotionally resonant spine, even as the show deftly explored such relevant themes as responsibility, compromise, idealism, and ego while depicting Danish political life as less of a pit of vipers and more as a pit of, well, somewhat more civil snakes. Birgitte, in particular, was presented as a Clintonian figure, a comparison that becomes even clearer in the superlative third season of Borgen, which begins in October in the U.S. and picks up two and a half years since we last saw Birgitte.

Having left the office of prime minister, Birgitte is now a prominent and well-heeled lecturer and board member for several powerful corporations; she has a boyfriend in English architect Jeremy Welsh (Monarch of the Glen’s Alastair Mackenzie, fantastic here) and has fallen into an easy friendship with her ex-husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær). The third season initially finds Birgitte living in an expensive waterfront apartment with the children and traveling, having begun a new chapter in her life. But this is a political drama, after all, and Season 3 of Borgen finds Birgitte hoping to return to the political sphere… only to discover that her party, the Moderates, have changed in her time abroad, particularly under the aegis of Jacob Kruse (Jens Jacob Tychsen), a former ally turned rival. So Birgitte does what few in her situation would do: She starts her own political party, the New Democrats, in an effort to swing the pendulum back into the center within Danish politics. What follows is an underdog story as Birgitte strives to put together a party that shares her centrist values, operating out of a dodgy warehouse on the edge of town. It’s a far cry from the luxury of Christiansborg, but it grounds the operation in grit and realism; forcing volunteers to pay for coffee becomes yet another signal of their struggles.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Alastair Mackenzie. DR

After two seasons of seeing Birgitte and Katrine more or less in distinct yet sometimes overlapping spheres, Season 3 of Borgen brings the two women together in a meaningful yet simple way, by making Katrine Birgitte’s new spin doctor. It’s a rarefied combination that works so effectively here by uniting Katrine and Birgitte as allies in a new endeavor, one that seems potentially fraught with challenges. Those obstacles are part of Borgen’s considerable charm; while the show revels in the sense of optimism that Birgitte offers, the show doesn’t shy away from having the charismatic politico — or, indeed, anyone — fail spectacularly. While adversity is part and parcel of any drama series, Borgen uses the failings of the characters as a crucible to further test them.

And Season 3 finds both Birgitte and Katrine steeled by what they face; Birgitte especially stumbles when her political aspirations and a personal crisis collide. That she falls so hard in front of the Danish public only underscores what’s at risk. The stakes are high, higher than perhaps they have been thus far on the series’ run. Birgitte wants to make a difference, make a mark, and change Denmark. Her goals are altruistic, yet she too is often foiled by her own human emotions, particularly when backed into a corner.

Katrine, meanwhile, is raising her young son, Gustav, alone; her relationship with Birgitte’s former spin doctor, the enigmatic and damaged Kasper (Pilou Asbæk), has crumbled. While on somewhat friendly terms, there’s a sense of tension between the former lovers; Kasper, for his part, has become a television journalist on the successful TV1 news program Juul & Friis, partnering with TV1’s news director, Torben Friis (Forbrydelsen’s Søren Malling).

In the show’s first two seasons, Torben was a side character who was frequently the source of conflict for Katrine and her colleague, Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen), a jaded and acid-tongued elder reporter who was largely a cautionary tale. But in Season 3, Torben has moved front and center in a story line that investigates the narrow profit margins of news organizations and the conflict between public interest and ratings success. When the executive board at TV1 brings in former Warner Bros. executive Alexander Hjort (Christian Tafdrup) to oversee programming, he and Torben quickly clash; Alex is there to “have fun” and cares more about creating “meta-narratives” and boosting ratings than he does about upholding journalistic standards or integrity. In Alex’s hands, a political debate becomes something akin to a frenetic game show; a meeting is scheduled in a room with uncomfortable furniture designed to spur creativity. For all of his showmanship, it quickly becomes clear that Alex is not suited for the world of journalism; he’s a creatively stifled middle manager looking for double-digit improvements, someone who feels that news needs to be sexed up and turned into entertainment for the masses to understand it.

 

Søren Malling, Christian Tafdrup, and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen; Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Katrine Fønsmark.

The fictional TV1 is itself struggling, particularly in competition to its rival, the more commercially minded TV2. The central questions — how do you stay relevant? how do you remain true to your core values? — hover over everything about the third season, from Birgitte’s campaign and her romance with Jeremy (their dynamic is one of the season’s strongest elements) to the intrigues at TV1 and Katrine’s desire to transform her life. And like Birgitte and Katrine, Torben too is tested, at home and at work, both by the demands of his job and by his close relationship with sub-editor Pia (Lisbeth Wulff).

It’s through this unlikely trio that Borgen works its magic, creating a fictionalized political and media battleground that reflects the harsh realities of our own world, whether we live in Copenhagen, Los Angeles, or somewhere in between. Even within Borgen, there’s a sense that bad things can happen to good people; that particularly mercenary individuals can get away with bad behavior; but that there are also those individuals, like Birgitte, who are willing to put their values above all else, to stand above the fray, and not get caught up in personal attacks.

 

The Birgittes of the world are, sadly, few and far between. The character’s portrayer, Sidse Babett Knudsen, is a rare bird, even in the acting world: the sort of actor who can be charismatic without seeming over-written; who charms and disarms with a simple smile; who energizes the viewer with the strength of her convictions while remaining resolutely, devotedly human. Birgitte has her flaws and the show doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the character. One Season 3 scene has her throw a tantrum in the back of a taxi; but rather than infantilize Birgitte, it reveals the depth of her passion and her desire to transform the world. It’s a brief moment of darkness, one that forces Birgitte to stare into the void and pull herself out. It’s also an unexpected moment of revelation for the character, pushed beyond her breaking point and shattering, temporarily, under the pressure.

Which is what makes Season 3 of Borgen so extraordinary: The way in which it truly propels its characters to the very ends of their professional and personal ground is unlike anything else on television. It manages to be intelligent and thought-provoking without patronizing its viewers; it fuses emotion, logic, and rhetoric into something that slides so effortlessly into the audience’s imagination that it sits, waiting, for another rewatch. Ultimately, Borgen is a political drama for those who live for White House press briefings as much as it is for those who don’t know how a bill becomes a law. In the hands of Price and his talented cast, politics becomes the fabric that binds society together…and makes for a gripping drama, regardless of the language.

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