Sunday, February 05, 2012

Borgen: Cracking Up

In September 2011 it was announced that with American television having already screwed up one fine Danish drama, NBC was planning on producing a US remake of the Danish political drama Borgen with a pilot being developed by David Hudgins and Jason Katims. Err ... I think you'll find Aaron Sorkin actually did that about a decade ago, guys. It was quite good as I recall. Anyway, on that example of rank stateside knobcheese glakery, we come to the final two episodes of Borgen's first series. Divide and Rule begins with Prime Minister Nyborg having one of those 'if it can go wrong, it will' weeks. We've all had them. Though Birgitte is surprised at her defence minister's choice of which new fighter jets to order (he's gone for the most expensive of the three options available), she allows him to make public the decision on the government's behalf. When a series of unpleasant surprises surface in the wake of the plane purchase, the media launch an offensive against her government. Meanwhile, Birgitte becomes more and more controlling both at work and at home, costing her dearly. Katrine senses the potential for a huge scoop but runs into problems with her boss when she acts too arbitrarily. 'Military hardware is expensive. Just like marriages,' Bent Sejrø tells Birgitte early in the episode and, in one line, you have a very neat summation of the twin prongs of the episode's drama which come together like knives in an abattoir to slice and dice everyone they touch. As Bent and Kasper Juul worry about Birgitte's increasing need to control every decision her ministers make ('what's going on with her?') Katrine Fønsmark wants to explore allegations of corruption in connection to military spending. Specifically, this military spending. 'Strike a balance between conspiracy theory and blind loyalty' Torben Friis tells her. 'Danes aren't interested in ministers' expensive habits.' Which, if true, makes them somewhat unique in Europe. The episode's opening quotation, 'You won't know what hit you before it's too late,' is also a line of dialogue in a hideously realistic arms procurement video which Birgitte watches with obvious disdain on her face. As usual, the dialogue of the episode is brilliant: 'Did you watch the news today?' Kasper asks Katrine, who replies, cheekily: 'I reported it!'
Katrine also gives the defence minister a lesson he won't forget in a hurry after he has patronisingly talked down to her following their first interview. When he's back in the studio a few days later squirming over recent revelations about about his undeclared hunting trips to Scotland, Katrine adds to the revelations and, as the interview ends she says, sneeringly, 'the "young lady" learned a bit about shotguns today.' Burn. But, the key scene of the episode involves Birgitte's discovery that a - very minor - contributor to the defence firm awarded the contract is the company that Philip has just joined. She tells her husband that he must resign the post he hasn't even had the chance to take up yet to avoid any appearance of favouritism. Needless to say, Philip is not in the mood for reasoned debate over this. 'You're sacking me because you can't sack your defence minister,' he says, not without a fair bit of justification. 'Why won't you talk to me?' Birgitte asks as she sees her marriage crumbling before her eyes. The answer is simple, emotionless and devastating: 'Because we don't talk anymore.' Only one bit of the episode jarred somewhat - Birgitte turning up at Freja's flat in the middle of the night and expecting to find her husband - and his 'cute arse' - there. Of course, she doesn't. He's banging his headhunter instead. But, it's Freja's reaction that strikes one as wrong. Because, of course, the Prime Minister knocking on your door when you're in the middle of having sex with your boyfriend is, like, just the sort of thing that we've all had happen to us, isn't it? Ultimately, much of the drama is unresolved. Birgitte (black eye from a domestic incident notwithstanding - and, anyone who thinks they noticed it change from left eye to right eye between home and the TV studio, I think you'll find that one shot was a reflection in the mirror of the make-up room!) performs brilliantly in her TV interview with Katrine who, wilfully, disobeys a direct instruction not to push the Prime Minister's home life. Watching, Philip kicks the TV screen in as he sees his wife tell the country it was his decision to leave the job rather than hers.
The season finale, The First Tuesday in October is a brilliant and yet wholly bleak conceit. It begins with Birgitte suffering in the opinion polls before a new year in parliament, while the Labour Party is picking up headway. 'How are you?' Bent asks her, concerned. 'Apart from the polls and the negative coverage?' she ask in reply. It is an episode in which Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, the uncorruptable everywoman Prime Minister who once forbade her spin doctor from smearing a rival (and sacked him when he did anyway), sees her ideals and her marriage crumble to fragments as she attempts the tricky job of clinging to power. As she ushers Philip and their children into the lift at the climax – having given Kasper's glorious speech about fighting and living for all that you love and not accepting that you have to be second best all your life – Birgitte was almost unrecognisable from the woman we saw in the opening episode. No longer the idealist we encountered clocking off for her children's party on the eve of an election that will sweep her to power. A year after taking office, the Prime Minister's approval ratings are low, her government is in open internal conflict and the future of her marriage is hanging by a thread. As she prepares for another year in parliament, what can be saved? 'What's her plan for Denmark? I'd really like to know.' The world of rampant careerism, spin and back-stabbing spirals towards it conclusion as the battle between the politics of compromise and politics of idealism produced a definitive winner ('it's easy being an idealist' Birgitte sadly notes at one point). We learn that Kasper listens to John Kennedy's inauguration speech on his iPod whilst jogging. His little explanation to Sanne about how to structure a speech whilst, simultaneously, seducing her is one of the finest scenes in the series and, again, pure Aaron Sorkin (one can easily imagine the same words, if not necessarily the tit-fondling, coming from Sam or Toby. Or, if the tit-fondling is a factor, Josh). It was hard not to love the exchange between Sanne and Kasper: 'Ask not what Nyborg can do for you...' 'Because she won't listen anyway.'
The episode is built around the idea that if a week is a long time in politics then a year can be an eternity in both politics and in a marriage. 'What do you want, beyond clinging to power?' Birgitte is asked. The answer is, of course, unattainable. So, in the end, you settle for what you can get. Having initially encouraged Kasper to 'dig out your inner cynic' when even her spin doctor starts to doubt her sudden practicality, her solution is one of minimalist pragmatism: 'We'd better tell Danes they're better than they think they are. They've forgotten that,' she tells Kasper whilst encouraging him to be ambitious in the speech he's preparing. But, as her marriage sinks into the mire, amidst the triumph of her speech to the nation (couched in glorious football metaphors surrounding the 1992 European Championship) there's her shockingly casual ditching of her political mentor, Bent. 'I did what was necessary,' she tells him, almost unable to look him in the eye. 'That's what Prime Ministers do,' he replies, understandingly.
It's lonely at the top seems to be the message not just of the episode but the entire series. Borgen has created a skillful portrait of a woman whose political ambition arguably became more important than everything else in her life: her marriage, her family, the friend who had supported her through everything, her ethics around the subject of press freedom. Even her face seemed to become harder as she became ever tougher as the season progressed. That helped to make the final two hours somewhat difficult to watch: like many viewers this blogger had rather taken to Birgitte. She appeared to be someone we'd probably quite like to vote for ourselves. We wanted her to work out her problems at home; we hoped that she'd find a balance between being Prime Minister and a life outside politics. But, this is politics after all and, in politics, compromise is everything. Possibly the bleakest moment of all came as Philip and Birgitte sat stiffly around their unusually tidy kitchen table and talked about their future, or rather lack of it. Not only had Birgitte become every inch the professional career politician that she had said she so despised before the election, but she had also brought that professionalism into the family home; attempting to cut a deal with her husband so that she could save face and have an almost happy home life. Even Philip – basically being given the freedom to sleep with whatever headhunter he chose and still keep his home life – looked appalled at the prospect and, ultimately, it was his ethics rather than his wife's that brought down the arrangement. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The desire for power corrupts to the core; it rots away like a ticking time bomb and infects all of those who come into contact with it. It's a universal constant. Borgen will return in the winter (that'll probably mean early next year) which is, of course, great news. Although, if you're really desperate, you can buy the DVD if you've got sixty quid to spare!

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