Sunday, January 20, 2013

Borgen: The Politics Of Compromise

When the once wholly idealistic Danish Statsminister, Birgitte Nyborg, tells a disenchanted colleague: 'Politics is about finding the right compromise,' many viewers will have felt something fall on its side in the pit of their stomachs. A woman who was swept to power as a, literal, breath of fresh air in the jaded and cynical world of The Politics Of Necessity finding out that all of the things she once believed in are, ultimately, expendable in the pursuit of maintaining her position. It's a truly shocking moment because it is done so casually and with so little immediate comeback. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year and a half is, it would seem, a lifetime. Not only that but the politicians who make up Nyborg's inner circle seem to be having a run of luck equivalent to that of the wives of Henry VIII. So far this season among ministers and former ministers - both good and bad - we've had one media-related suicide, a cerebral embolism and at least a couple of vicious stabs in the back, leaving just Climate and Energy Minister and Green party leader Amir Diwan (Dar Salim), who previously seemed to be the least principled of Brigitte's cabinet coalition, untainted and unharmed. No prizes then, dear blog reader, for guessing which political figure is going to come under fire in Plant A Tree, the opening episode of this week's double bill. It begins with a quote from Bertrand Russell which is key to the text that follows: 'Much that passes as idealism is [a] disguised love of power.' Oh, Birgitte, and we thought you were going to be so different.

For the possibly first time it's Borgen's flawed heroine herself, rather than the media, rival ministers or political mandarins, who launches an attack on a cabinet colleague. Birgitte wants cross-party support to implement her designs for a new, better Denmark, which in this case means forging a temporary broad consensus alliance with the opposition – specifically slimy ex-Liberal premier Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning) and his cronies in big business and agriculture. But, along with Hessselboe comes his own political partners, from the right, including Svend Åge Saltum - the outrageously odious (yet strangely sage-like) far-right Freedom Party leader. Amir, is suddenly a man of apparent principle, and refuses to get in bed with the pesticide junkies and shadowy men in smoky rooms of Denmark’s dark satanic meadows. But just as Troels Höxenhaven (see the last episode) had his own dark secrets so, as it happens, does Amir. He quietly satisfies a little known, if rather unlikely, predilection for vintage cars - odd behaviour for the leader of an environmental party like the Greens you might think. I couldn't possibly comment. Birgitte sees this bit of relatively minor hypocrisy as the perfect way to cow the upstart Green leader: expose Denmark's 'media darling' to the public as a hypocrite whose attitude to the environment is so flexible that he probably clubs to death baby seals for fun at weekends. So, she has Kasper create Cadillac-gate. Amir ('a fit, well-educated Muslim' says Kasper explaining the politician's sudden popularity) is, it would seem not as principled as he would have us believe. 'A polluter and a big fat liar!' opines the loathsome tabloid boss Michel Laugesen. Even Kasper (the always excellent Pilou Asbæk) seems taken aback by the ruthlessness of Birgitte's political machinations. This is probably the most directly Machiavellian we've seen the Statsminister since she forced her unfaithful husband to play happy families in front of the press and ditched her best friend and political mentor to save her own skin during last season's finale. Her position on the home front hasn't improved much since then. Daughter Laura (Freja Riemann) has clear anxiety and body issue problems that, in one of Borgen's beloved hastily ticking timebomb plotlines, Birgitte dismisses as mere typical adolescent hormones.

In a plot worthy of The West Wing at its grimmest, we get a politician's worst nightmare. A media plant that spins out of control. Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true as they used to say in Buffy on a weekly basis. A short, sharp Thatcherite-like shock designed to bring Amir smartly back into line very quickly catches fire like throwing a lit match into a box of fireworks, leaving the environment minister at the mercy of the scummier end of the press. (he reveals at one point that he young daughter came home from school with a note having been slipped into her bag saying 'Pakis go home.' Vile, but sadly believable. Although, in theory, it was a story which could have erupted at any time: what, you have to ask, was he thinking running such a gas-guzzler while campaigning for stronger Green taxes? It's a bit like finding out John Kennedy was a womaniser rather than a devoted family man. Oh, wait ... It's, perhaps, difficult for the viewer not to find the 'stand by your principles' versus 'politics is all about compromise and pragmatism' divide a shade over-simplified here, but it was hard not to enjoy the ambivalence around Birgitte's determination to secure broad cross-party support. If you've got a majority, even a majority of one, let the other side worry about what comes next. Were her attempts to ensure her bill prevailed with cross-party support, even after a potential change of government, for the sake of her own vanity in the shape of that most dreadful of political words 'legacy', or was she thinking about who would benefit from her welfare reforms? It's certainly a question worth asking. As is often the case, one is genuinely unsure as to whether Birgitte's ultimate motivation is power and maintenance of it, or a heartfelt determination to represent all voters, and avoid entrenched partisan politics. Or, could it be both at the same time? Is it possible, as The West Wing asked week after week throughout the early years of this Century, to be an idealist and a pragmatist at the same time in such a divisive, ugly world as the political arena? Does, as Lord Acton once suggested, power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely? This ambiguity is one of Borgen's greatest strengths – it appears to be unafraid of asking harsh, dangerous questions of its heroine; to remind the viewers that she did not become - and stay - Statsminister by accident, and that her ambition, drive, determination and ability to boss other ministers around – and there was lots of that again this week – makes her a pretty formidable political proposition. From the gentle lady who took an afternoon off campaigning to pick up her kids from school in the opening episode, we've come a long way.

We've constantly been seeing less of the softer, at home side of Birgitte of late, but this week's episodes saw much more of a focus on her family than usual, with Laura's panic attacks and psychological problems forcing Birgitte, Philip and his new girlfriend Cecilie (a nicely drawn character played by Mille Dinesen) into sitting round a table and actually making decisions together. At least Birgitte wasn't having sex with random (young enough to be her son) staff members this week. Also: the hapless, but brilliant Sanne was back, a replacement for sour-faced and over-efficient Jytte and her 'very bitter coffee' (and very bitter tongue, come to that). Neils Erik seemed more than a bit cross about all the effort involved in Sanne's transfer at the end of last season going to waste, but that's by the by. The episode ends with a fantastic line as Sanne asks Birgitte why she asked for her back and Birgitte says that she wanted to be reminded of how things were when she first took the job. That was, obviously, occasioned by Amir's - not unkindly meant - parting shot. 'We're not the same people as we started out, Birgitte.'

'It seems I can't get anything right these days!' It was interesting to see Birgitte in parliamentary action during this week's two episodes. Usually she seems to spend most of her time watching the chamber on live television, rather than actually attending it. Perks of the job, one imagines. Also on the political front, it's hard not to really be impressed by the way that Svend Age Saltum is written with enough charm to make you understand why people might actually think about voting for him. A - admittedly self-proclaimed - champion of the old and the underprivileged as well as a vile and despicable racist ('a political parasite' as Kasper angrily calls him) Saltum is, non-the-less charismatic and cunning, playing the martyr card at every opportunity and yet, confusingly, refusing to trade on one piece of personal tragedy in his life that, one suspects, could make people actually feel sorry for him (his daughter's death by drowning). He's a complicated character with a populist touch - part Dennis Skinner, part Oswald Mosley - and yet, ironically, he is often the one character in the drama to inject a note of, often unwanted, underclass reality into the occasionally highfalutin' middle-class world of Borgen. That was something which goes right the way back to the early episodes of the first season, including his most memorable scene when he told Birgitte to act like a Prime Minister when taking meetings with political opponents. There's a curiously down-to-Earth wisdom in much of what he says between eye-bulging bouts of hate-speak. Even he seems to realise that his Freedom Party is something of a standing joke in Danish politics - good for an occasional protest but no one in their right mind would trust it in government. Saltum even says at one point that (like, it is alleged, the odious Nick Griffin of the BNP) he's in the process of weeding out the 'loonies' from his party because he wants them to be electable. Worryingly, one wonders whether he'd really be seen as such an embarrassment to the right-wing in somewhere like Britain or America. And, in France, or Italy, he'd probably be Prime Minister. When, for instance, Sanne reveals that her mother might be voting for Saltum, not because she likes his policies but, because she does see him as the martyr that Birgitte accuses him of wanting to be, Birgitte asks Kasper wearily 'can I take away Sanne's mother's right to vote?' It's the equivalent of that memorable scene in an early episode of The West Wing where Bartlet, incapacitated for a few days, described to Toby his experience of watching some dreadful afternoon chat show (almost certainly The Jerry Springer Show) and asks, with seemingly genuine, disquiet: 'Tell me, Toby, these people don't vote, do they?' By contrast to the, at least principled Saltum, Labour's new bright young thing Pernille, is surely the least sympathetic character that Borgen's writers have ever created (and, when you've got competition from the likes of Laugesen, that really is saying something significant!) Is there anyone in the Danish politics world more sour and more nastily ambitious?

Alas, poor Lotte. Although one is, constantly, amazed that she stuck with Kasper for as long as she did. Let's face it, he's a workaholic, emotionally scarred (and, not - until the very end of this episode - willing to share his burden with anyone significant to him), still madly (and, not entirely unrequitedly) in love with his ex, constantly trying to shag everyone female that comes within twenty feet of him (this mysterious Stine woman of the nasty phone call to Lotte remains a total enigma) and he's forever forgetting dinner dates. And then even when Lotte finally manages to get him ready for sex, that was - seemingly - rubbish as well. Kasper's behaviour went from confused to downright unsettling this week during screaming sessions with Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), Lotte and (less surprisingly) Saltum which suggests the spin doctor isn't entirely in a stable mind for much of the time. Of course, when we find out why we - and, especially Katrine - just want to hug him. There's always been a bit of the emotionally manipulative, habitual liar in Kasper, for the most part explained by the abject horrors of his childhood, but here he was starting to edge close to dangerous territory. It's not as if Katrine herself is in good shape to bear her ex-boyfriend's troubles as well as her own. Blacklisted in the aftermath of her departure from the Express she finds herself doomed either to host what sounds like the Danish equivalent of Splash! or get cosy with slimy Lars Hesselboe and his comically illiberal party. It seems to be the end of the days of virtue – but hang on, isn't that former TV1 editor Torben Friis (Søren Malling) and his team, finally breaking out from their role this season as Borgen's glorified Greek chorus? Katrine, ultimately, gets a job offer. Or two. 'See, you're influencing Danish politics already,' Hanne tells her, sarcastically. The idea of Katrine and Kasper as rival spin doctors, pitched against each other in the fight for their opposing parties was almost too good to give up. But, give up on it the series did after a splendid sequence in which she proves she's not quite the timid mouse we sometimes think she might be. 'I'm not cut out to make you Prime Minister,' she tells Hesselboe just a few hours into her first day on the job and after a particularly nasty meeting with Saltum and the woman from the new-right who resembles a cross between Anne Coulter and Herman Goering. 'Why not?' he asks, innocently. 'Because I don't think you should be,' she replies, brilliantly whilst the audience sheers their approval and asks for an encore. Still, the thought of her and Kasper facing off against each other like a pair of enraged Alistair Campbells week-after-week is too tempting to dismiss so easily: a clash from which the Danish parliament might never have recovered. Sadly, such a delicious set-up was cruelly snatched from the viewers' hands just when it was starting to get interesting. Not least because of the idea that Katrine, a journalist so principled that she spends the majority of her time resigning from one job after another over ethical issues, would have ever even considered becoming a spin doctor – let alone for a party she didn't support. Think what Kasper was doing as Katrine was admiring her new shiny business cards: viciously smearing Amir in such a way that the poor chap ended up not only leaving the government, but also politics altogether. No wonder Hanne looked sceptical when Katrine told her what she had in mind for career opportunities.

Yet this was still largely a set of episodes about Kasper and Katrine, who might finally stand a chance of getting their act together by the climax now that he's decided to start telling her all of the things he never wanted to in the past. Although, of course, this only occurs after Kasper has shagged every attractive woman who crossed his path. His big hairy bum should've had its own line on the end credits this week. His slice of hot umbongo sex action in the second episode - Them and Us - being with perky Labour PR girl Lisa who might as well have had a big neon sign flashing above her head saying 'available and gagging for it' so flirtatious was her dialogue. One found Kasper on the verge of a nervous breakdown perhaps a little rushed in story terms and also heavily underlined ('I don't need a media advisor that's out of control'), his past rather suddenly brought out centre stage once more. But the construction of these episodes was very clever, with Kasper's mental state mirroring not only Laura's health problems, but also seeing Birgitte, close to both, not really engaging properly with either situation. Them and Us is another episode touching on just why Kasper is the driven, often uncaring, individual that he is. It's all daddy's fault. The revelations about Kasper's childhood – his age at the time of stabbing his father suddenly becoming extremely relevant thanks to the political debate over lowering the age of criminal responsibility – were also told well; the vintage news reports (on videotape, no less - has Denmark not progressed to DVD yet?) were, perhaps, a bit of a cop-out in terms of dramatic storytelling, but this blogger certainly believed that they were the only way Kasper could actually articulate to Katrine what had happened to him as a child. In an abstract, second-hand and, most importantly, a valid journalistic way. That he had to wait for the house he grew up in to be finally sold and stripped of its appalling memories made perfect sense too.

After a great deal of round-the-houses, Katrine finally finds herself back working with Friis and the TV1 team. It was quite a relief to find such an idealistic reporter back in the television studio, with the team effectively reunited thanks to Katrine's insistence that Hanne should also be reinstated, albeit part-time: 'It's your responsibility to keep her sober,' says an exasperated Torben. You do hope that particular issue doesn't come back to bite Katrine in the bottom in the future, but it was impressive that she fought so hard for her former editor and friend, unpredictable as she might be when she;s had a few and is out walking the dogs. Hanne and Katrine as a double act have been, easily, one of the best things about this second series of Borgen. Watching Katrine disobey orders when it came to interviewing Svend Åge, much to the annoyance of everyone at the station - and playing into his hands as a consequence - reminded us of how much the newspaper office was a bland and sterile place by comparison. This blogger is also beyond glad that we're hopefully over Katrine having to try out a new job every week – although oddly, it would have been interested to see just how bad her reality show, Thicker Than Water, would have been. Other (presumably fictional) Danish TV shows mentioned included Dance, Dance, Dance, which must surely be Denmark's version of Strictly. Maybe Katrine could do the Christmas special just like Natasha Kaplinksy did.

So, another two outstanding episodes of the best TV drama in the world (that doesn't have the words 'Doctor' and 'Who' in the title. Will Kasper return to his job next week? Tune in to BBC4 to find out.