Sunday, January 27, 2013

Borgen: The Politics Of Necessity

'Danes are doubters because Denmark's history is the story of the downfall of a strong tribe.' And, on that bombshell from yer actual Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, apparently (Jensen, 1873-1950, was a Nobel prize-winning Danish author, often considered to be the first great Danish writer of the Twentieth Century. Isn't Wikepedia a truly wonderful thing?) we're off on Borgen's first ever two-parter. Which, as it happens, is a virtual remake of a The West Wing two-parter (NSF Thurmont and The Birnam Wood). In that case it was Bartlet trying to sort out the Middle East as part of his Presidential legacy (much against Leo's advice), here Birgitte has her eyes set on a somewhat smaller target, a peace process for a small African nation in the middle of an extremely brutal civil war. Kharum - no, me neither ... presumably it's somewhere near The West Wing's own Kundu? - is, we are told, something of a nothing country apart from the fact that it exports seven per cent of China's entire oil supply. So, not really a nothing in any way, shape or form. Whilst, therefore, it's easy to see why some countries in the world might not consider stabilising Kharum as one of their top priorities, one would have at least expected the Chinese themselves to be eager to sort out the internal conflict on such a major supplier of so necessary a commodity. Which, as it turns out, they are - by supplying forty really hard attack helicopters to the forces in the North, and their (alleged) war-criminal leader. Birgitte, getting spanked on just about every front at home, sees a more peaceful solution as something which is in everybody's interests. Not least, hers. 'Christ, we need a victory soon,' says Kasper early in the episode as the war at home starts to get overly personal. On several levels.

Tonight's two episodes clearly had a huge ambition and scope to them. Also, some pretty pointed things to say about the whole sorry mess that is international politics. And, about Denmark's place in the world - both in terms of perception and actuality. We saw Birgitte do something for her conscience, rather than for specific political advantage (although it had a bit of that as well, it must be said), which was something of a relief to viewers after several recent bleak and compromised weeks in the Danish hot seat. It's true that, in concentrating on Birgitte's first major foray onto the international stage, some family developments became rather sidelined (notably Laura's increasingly bizarre and manic behaviour), but when it came to the negotiations themselves and the depictions of Africa within these episodes, it was all handled with considerable aplomb. 'I'm asking you to go with me into a burning house,' Birgitte tells Amir, one of two returning characters who help deliver the peace process.
'My first impression of you was as a visionary woman. What changed?' In other news, give three mighty cheers because Bent is back! The marvellous Lars Knutzon returns, aided by a walking stick, to join Birgitte's Team Africa and remind us how much we've missed his wise counsel and home-spun common sense. Apart from getting some of the best lines in the two episodes (particularly the savagely mocking 'there are no homosexuals in South Kharun!') it was simply nice to see him back where he belongs, by Birgitte's side, making her smile but, also, getting here to talk, for the first time, about Laura's illness. Hopefully he will be able to stick around and, perhaps, guide Birgitte back towards being a politician concerned with doing the right thing, even if it isn't, always, the easy thing, rather than having a one track vision of, simply, staying in power whatever the cost. To be fair, she does rather seem to have seen the light in this regard herself, persuaded to step in here not by simply for the glory but also by a consideration of duty to lead an apparently doomed venture. Because, it's a dirty job but someone has to do it. Like the man said, 'you're either part of the solution or part of the problem. So, quit being part of the problem.' Birgitte even manages to repair some of the damage she had done to Amir in the previous episode and gets him on board because he is, quite literally, the only available Muslim with both the gravitas and the international appeal to help bring the sides together.
'Play down the fact that the President is wanted in The Hague for war crimes.' All of the issues which Birgitte encountered upon arrival in Kharun could appear - if one is looking to nit-pick - rather contrive and solved via off-screen outside help. The fighting in Kharum itself, the Chinese sale of their big, nasty, shooty helicopters, the sudden discovery of the truth about North Kharum stealing profits from the South - all of them occurred not because of anything Birgitte and her negotiating team did. The negotiations, themselves, also largely happened off-screen. Viewers did however, get to see Nyborg play proper hard-ball in the early stages of the opening episode of What Is Lost Inwardly Must Be Won Outwardly and, in the second episode, close the final deal from the comfort of her sofa, as she has done many times previously. Convivial and polite, yet steely determined and tough as old boots when she needs to be, the triumphant bit when she played her trump card and manoeuvred al-Jahawar into a corner from which he couldn't escape was a, literal, punch-the-air moment.
Away from parliament, whilst Kasper and Katrine use the cover of regular meetings between Denmark's best known TV reporter and the Prime Minister's spin doctor for clandestine - and vastly inappropriate - snogging sessions, Birgitte's family life continues to be difficult borderline impossible, with Laura clearly reacting to her mother's absence, and failing to come to terms with her anxiety attacks and what her doctor assures her is the best way of controlling them. There were some very nice performances from the Nyborg children this week – the scenes between Magnus and Laura as she made him promise not to tell their mother that she wasn't taking her pills and he told her she is always 'doing this weird stuff' these days were very clever and well played.

There was, also, what appears to be a - possibly significant - shift in focus from Birgitte blaming herself for Laura's condition, and an acknowledgement that both parents have a responsibility for, and impact upon, their kids' health and well-being. We are, perhaps, beginning to see Birgitte and Phillip will learn how to parent now that they're no longer a couple. Bent's return also means that we got a glimpse of how Birgitte is dealing with Laura's problems: her helplessness and abject despair for her daughter.
Birgitte's beautiful English was showcased once more, but Bent also got to bust out his foreign-language skills (including the almost-but-not-quite 'if you leave now, all hope is out'). There were references to ethnic cleansing within Kharun and some gorgeous dialogue for any of the cast. 'The two Presidents are meeting face-to-face for the first time in two years,' Kasper tells Katrine. 'The people who once fought each other with machetes are now negotiating in the finest democratic tradition.' The TV1 newsroom got more focus this week than usual (albeit, with 'breaking news' interjections from both BBC News and CNN at various points). Katrine and Hanne - a double-act to content with at the best of times - continued to shine and managed to piece together quite a lot of highly improbable source material in an astonishingly short space of time to fashion what could, with time, have been an explosive, career-defining story – the consultant for a major Danish oil company being implicated in African civil war massacres to clear land for oil exploitation – only to trade it for a story which was, in many ways, less impact-driven, at least in terms of the domestic Danish market. And, one which is, ultimately, far less usable once the Statsminister appeals to their sense of decency. Unlike the majority of the pair's activities, born out of months of painstaking research, rather than a nasty impression when you interview someone, a night hitting the phones and a - suspiciously - lucky break while flicking through some pictures, it all seemed just a shade contrived. For once (and, let's hope it was simply a one-off), it was hard not to sympathise with put-upon Torben and his line about a good story needing three weeks of research.

Also some of the ethics involved in the episodes didn't quite work: A documentary may well have come up with the necessary proof against the loathsome Niels Mikkelsen -or, whatever his name really is - and exposed ethnic cleansing for Danish (and, presumably, other people's) oil. Would Hanne have allowed Birgitte to sign away an opportunity of publishing that story? Would such a contract have be even been enforceable anyway? Nevertheless, it seemed obvious from the outset that publishing the story would not be worth the lives it could, potentially, have cost. On the plus side, however, Hanne's alcoholism now seems to be under control. Katrine and Hanne brought a much needed dose of feminism (and some biting humour) to the newsroom (only to be called 'bra burners' for God's sake). Torben admitted to Hanne that she was (and remains) a great journalist. The best scene in the second episode, by a miles, however was Birgitte's conversation with Kasper and Bent shortly before seeing the Chinese Ambassador: Upon being told not to 'be angry' with him she replied, pithily: 'Denmark can't afford to be angry [with China]. There are six million of us and 1.3 billion of them!'

Another real bonus for the 'shippers among us was seeing Katrine and Kasper madly in lust with each other. Although, fairly obviously, Katrine needs to stop going through Kasper's bag in search of stories pronto – as Hanne made very clear in one of the wisest and most beautifully nuanced conversations between the pair. She really knows what she's talking about, that lady and, significantly, it's her, not her boss Torben, or Katrine, who bows to Birgitte's request to hold the story about the North screwing the South over oil profits because, well, because it's the right thing to do. Even if it isn't the easy thing to do. Lesson, the first: In life, sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reason and sometimes we do the wrong thing for the right reason but right and wrong are always involved.
Admittedly, there were quite a few points which were raised during the two episodes only to be quickly forgotten about later – not least al-Jahawar being wanted as a geet nasty war criminal by The Hague. (Can you just, simply, get an international warrant lifted that easily?) And what was all that about Neils Mikkelsen's double identity in the Netherlands. Non-sequitar alert. But, all in all, these two episodes show Borgen striking out into vastly alien territory with confidence and some considerable style. A bit like Denmark's sudden appearance at the big table on the international stage; no mere lap dog of the Americans (unlike, it is heavily implied, Great Britain ... which sounds about right, frankly). No 'not my problem, mate. Pass the wine and slip on a Carla Bruni LP' merchants (like the French). No toothless, knackerless institution hell bent on total compromise (like, it is said, the UN). 'This is, without doubt, a great victory for Birgitte Nyborg,' Torben tells the nation. And he's right. How ironic that, on a personal level, it comes at such a cost.