Sunday, January 06, 2013

Borgen: The Eighteenth Pale Descendent Of Some Old Queen Or Other

The Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg is in Afghanistan for a, hopefully, morale-boosting meeting with some of her country's troops. That's the theory, but the murderous realities of war with the Taliban harshly intrude leaving Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) pondering the first in a new set of curiously Borgen-style dilemmas – should she withdraw her forces forthwith (which she'd like to do) or give them more arms to do the job they've been sent to do in the first place (which she opposed)? The former is what her heart tells her, the latter - eventually - is where her head is at. A neat, almost symmetrical, Borgen conundrum told with a minimum of fuss. Exactly what you'd expect from the best television drama in the world (that doesn't have the words 'Doctor' or 'Who' in the title, anyway). Birgitte is - as usual - at the eye of the hurricane as her advisers pull her hither and thither and the press – particularly in the form of Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), now with a new job at the Express working for the loathsome Michel Laugensen – watches her every move. In 89,000 Children, the opening episode of Borgen's second season, we get a story of a war on two fronts (literal and emotional), a return to a recurring theme of the first series, a withering look at the loneliness of leadership ('happy marriages are uncommon here') and a pointed little essay on practicality, in all its various forms ('sometimes, we have to do the things we don't want to do'). Like the opening episode of the first season, it starts with a quote from Machiavelli ('war is just when it is necessary') and includes some startlingly mature and grown-up observations on the chaos and the purpose of conflict ('we like to think we're in charge.' And: 'This isn't come Clint Eastwood movie, we've been there for ten years!') In making Denmark's place in the Afghan war something of a metaphor for Birgitte's declining relationships with Phillip and, especially, Bent ('when in the last two thousand years has the situation in Afghanistan been stable?') the episode cleverly plays on audiences expectations and then, cunningly, subverts them. Something Borgen has always been good at and seems to be getting better at by this day. The episode's finest scene is actually one featuring a relatively minor character; in this the army colonel, Hald - a sympathetic, if rather taciturn, man who keeps his views to himself until forced to reveal them by orders from above - has a quiet word with Katrine and asks her what 'angle' she intends to take when writing her story about his dead men. What could, in lesser hands, have been a piece of drama about military interference with press freedom suddenly turns, magnificently, into one about human decency as he tells her to write whatever she likes but not to portray with dead soldiers as helpless victims caught up in a war they don't understand. 'They were volunteers to be here,' he says. 'They knew the risks.' And in the episode's closing scene as a father reads the final letter home from his dead son, we realise that - even if in the most simplistic of terms - any war can be sold as having a purpose, you just have to find a context (the eighty nine thousand children of the episode's title). A central questions to the episode is to wonder whether Birgitte really did have her mind changed on Afghanistan by first the articulate and well-spoken Afghan woman from the NGO and then by Colonel Hald? Or, rather, was she manoeuvred into an about-turn by the cunning Hesselboe who, though his public declarations, left her with little obvious wriggle room? Or, indeed, was it a mixture of both? Bent (Lars Knutzon is superb in both of these episodes) certainly believes that she's been dragged to the right by dark forces. It's nearly a year since we saw Birgitte elected Statsminister and her marriage to Phillip (Mikael Birkkjær) is about to end at his own agonised request. Yet Birgitte can't quite bring herself to sign the divorce papers, finding (literally) any excuse she can to avoid doing so. This could become a thudding great message about how it's lonely at the top, particularly for a woman, but Borgen, of course, is far too clever and too real for something so obvious. And so is Birgitte herself, the ultimate pragmatist, as she proves in the second episode of a double bill when she has to choose an EU commissioner.

If the first episode raised just a smattering of fears that Borgen's makers might have been thinking of sacrificing subtlety for sensation, the second - with some ease - set the mind at rest the moment it declared its sublimely mundane subject matter: the appointment of Denmark's new European commissioner. This was an emphatic return to the terrain on which Borgen worked best last year – finding drama in the essentially undramatic, and exposing the personal turmoil beneath even the slickest politician's façade. In what quickly becomes a story detailing the murky world of broken friendships (and with a side order concerning the sometimes awkward relationships between mothers and daughters), In Brussels, No One Can Hear You Scream (excellent title!) might just be this blogger's favourite episode of Borgen so far. If only because it manages to find drama (as The West Wing used to, regularly) is conceits so far from dramatic on paper that they threaten to induce sleep in the insomnia-laden. It was a typical episode of thrusts and reversals and showed how Borgen best sparks in the friction between duty and heart, pragmatism and loyalty. At its most efficient there is an emotional core to be found in the deeply, woundingly, personal. The Prime Minister is, as noted, looking to appoint a new EU commissioner and her old mentor and friend Bent Sejrø would seem to be the obvious candidate - he's respected across Europe and will give both the government and the Moderate Party a powerful voice in Brussels. Plus, ever since she - pragmatically, but heartlessly - sacked him as Finance Minister as an act of political desperation at the end of last season ('it's what Prime Ministers do') the relationship between the two has spiralled down to the level of a pair of bickering siblings. Birgitte, therefore, sees an ideal opportunity to get one of her most persistent, and articulate, and annoyingly close-to-home, critics out of the game. Something which even her spin-doctor Kasper, God help us, finds to be somewhat morally questionable ('you want us to use an important post to exile an undesirable?!') As in the later episodes last year, you know you've entered Topsy-turvy-land when it's Kasper being the Prime Minister's consequence instead of Birgitte herself. The only trouble to this cunning plan is, Bent himself doesn't want the job. For reasons he won't disclose. The quote at the beginning of the episode is that old standby 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer' which, as the episode progresses, becomes a very useful touchstone for Birgitte. As she tells Kasper at one point: 'I don't need a crown price, I'm not some old queen!' Meanwhile, Kasper ((the fabulously nuanced Johan Philip Asbaek) prepares to move into a designer apartment with his new girlfriend, the perky Lotte, it's clear than he still harbours strong feelings for his ex, Katrine and, shockingly, ends the episode with not one but two shows of being a gentlemen. Just proves that he can do it when he puts his mind to it. Meanwhile, Katrine and Hanne Holm have become good friends at the Express, after realising they are united in their journalistic principles (and, other things). Our faith in Birgitte is also, ultimately, somewhat restored although quite how she didn't realise that the vile and odious Jacob Kruse was not the loyal and unambitious protégé he pretended to be, is another matter entirely. The audience certainly did. He was, in fact, so slimy and disgraceful that he almost came with a flashing neon sign above his head saying 'bad guy.' Will we see him again? Probably - he's too good a character to waste on a one-off - though, as Birgitte notes early in the episode 'lots of Danish politicians have gone to Brussels and never been heard of again.'

The good news, then? Borgen - manifestly - has still got it: the writing remains sharp and witty, the acting is warm and believable and the moral dilemmas arrive thick and fast and with not always easy or likeable outcomes for all concerned. Those West Wing comparisons remain entirely - beautifully - apt. Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Nyborg as a convincing blend of noble ambition, best intentions, inevitable compromise and human frailty. A real woman, in other words. Part of the brilliance of the first series of Borgen was that it started of all buoyant and optimistic about a better future and slowly it turned sour, and sad, and dark, investigating the premise that it is impossible to have it all. That power doesn't always, necessarily, corrupt, but it can make even the most principled of individuals develop a sometimes wilful selective blindness. But, while this series has started at a tough place, the second episode shows more Knudsen sparkle, and the scriptwriters allow a little more wit and gentle humour to shine through. Bent's pleading question to Birgitte: 'When did we stop being friends?' and the pair's almost Moonlighting-style shouting match ('Is the job mine?' 'Yes! Congratulations!') were genuinely heart-stopping moments of drama. We often see the end of romantic relationships played out on screen; struggling friendships dissolving into rank bad temper and sour and bitter recriminations are depicted far less often. This was surprising, thought-provoking and quite brilliant stuff, not least because the script seemed happy to lay much of the blame for the situation squarely with our heroine's slender shoulders. The question 'who will water the garden now?' seems especially anguished when aimed in Birgitte's direction. Borgen, dear blog reader, is back. And it's back as its best. Tak!