Sunday, January 13, 2013

Borgen: Sexual Politics

'I miss the way it used to be, Kasper.'

There's something exceptionally heartfelt (not to mention funny) in the way that Kasper Juul reacts to the appearance of a spelling mistake in a draft government press release with a resigned joke that's worthy of Toby Ziegler at his most world-weary. 'S-E-M-I-N-A-R,' he spells slowly, talking to someone on the telephone. 'Believe it or not, the Government isn't into anything seminal!' Borgen this week was even more West Wing than usual, and that really is saying something. This is especially evident in the opening scene of the first episode of Saturday night's two-parter as Kasper coaches Birgitte for a forthcoming policy statement on the welfare package. It's beautifully Toby-and-Bartlet in any number of ways from the delicious language to the nuanced nature of what's being said. But rebellion is brewing, rumour and denial abound as strange alliances are formed and a coup is planned. Typical West Wing in other words.

In The Last Worker, Birgitte's government prepares to present a much anticipated and hard-bargained new welfare reform package called A Common Future, which is to be polished at a forthcoming political seminar. Not a forthcoming political seminal. Honest. But there is unrest and shady doings in her Labour Party coalition partners when their leader, the Foreign Minister Bjørn Marrot, comes under a series of bitter and downright nasty personal attacks in the media. Birgitte senses a rebellion brewing, and she's right to. Meanwhile, the pressure grows on the home front when her ex-husband, Phillip, announces that he has a perky new girlfriend. Katrine covers the seminar for the Express, whose editor, the loathsome Laugesen has, as we know, his own spectacularly spiteful agenda. And, this isn't good news for Kasper who's trying (not very successfully) to put his relationship with Katrine behind him.
'We need the press to write about education and welfare, not gossip.'

So, it's a situation many of us have seen before. The Labour Party trying to reinvent itself, rediscovering its popularity and ambition, and then coming unstuck through back-stabbing, dodgy deals and just a bit of gay sex. Well, not so much the last part but the lengthy discussions on the soul of a party formed to represent the interests of a people who - broadly speaking - no longer exist, was fascinating not only for a Danish audience, but for a British one as well. In Marrot, we have a kind of Neil Kinnock figure - a man of no little dignity, honesty and passion (and a decent amount of charisma, too) but who will never be a right fit for the modern world of slick media presentation and spin. The quote at the start of the episode (and alluded to within it), is key to the reading of this text. 'Ours is a hollow victory' was, famously, spoken by Thomas Nielsen, a former leader of the Danish TUC. It was part of a speech in which Nielsen noted that having fought, successfully, to improve the lives, wages, working conditions and welfare benefits of their members, unions had effectively cut their own throats by making the need for their own existence somewhat moribund in a world in which no one lives with an outside lavatory any more. It's a little like the moment in an episode of The 70s in which the historian Dominic Sandbrook unearthed a 1970 clip of Arthur Scargill being interviewed and talking, in quasi-Thatcherite terms, about the aspirations of the miners. Problem is, if you get exactly what you want, what do you do then?
'It's not the first Regicide in Denmark's history,' Kasper says at one point as the coup against Marrot from within his own ranks has brought down a principled man. 'I'll bet it's not going to be the last, either.' In the episode we see Marrot, the self-styled last worker (a welder, turned union leader, turned politician), is determined to stand by tradition, but is hideously outmanoeuvred by a new generation of slick suits who want to overhaul the party: to distance themselves from the unions, to scale back the welfare state and, one senses, most importantly to return to power. Whatever that takes. But, while the slippery executioner Troels Höxenhaven is over-ambitious in victory, Marrot's final speech to Birgitte is both dignified and genuinely moving. It is another example of Nyborg's diatribe against 'professional politicians' from the opening episode – which now seems like a most extraordinary thing for the Prime Minister (particularly this Prime Minister, the most professional of the lot) to have said, given her determined grip on power and attempts to keep an unruly coalition in line. 'You have to be tough with Labour,' Kasper notes at one point. 'I'm bloody well going to be,' she replies, channelling the kind of politician she once claimed to despise. Note, for instance, how she smoothly distanced herself from Marrot over the ridiculous media-created 'shoot the parrot' incident, and how strongly she later came back at Höxenhaven. Only Michel Laugesen ever seemed to have her properly scared these days.
We're back to The West Wing, it would seem. In an episode about the politics of compromise versus the politics of idealism and how, in an imperfect world, the former doesn't always crush the latter but, these days, it seems to be happening more and more, there's a duality at work here which is, at once, thrilling and just a bit dangerous. And, it's a very West Wing-style ending - Josh and Donna 'shipper-type variety, in this case - with Kasper and Katrine ending the episode getting, ahem, interactive, despite knowing that they really shouldn't. Whilst, just down the corridor, wheels are being set in motion that will bring Höxenhaven to his knees. Which is ironic, considering he's standing whilst the actual deed is done.

And, so to the second episode. In Battle Ready, when pirates hijack a Danish ship off the coast of Somalia, Birgitte's coalition partner newly anointed Labour leader and political bête noire Höxenhaven (Lars Brygmann) is taking on Prime Ministerial airs and graces and diverts attention from Birgette's leadership at a time when she badly needs a success story. When compromising photos of Höxenhaven turn up at the Express, the newspaper's editor, Laugesen wants to use them against Höxenhaven, but Katrine is sceptical and highly suspicious as to where they come from. Whilst all this is going on, Brigitte's private life is in tatters and she makes a mistake which threatens her career. Phillip's new girlfriend, Cecilie (Mille Dinesen), seems to be a perfectly nice woman who, by one means or another, is positioning herself as a potential stepmother to the Prime Minister's children. Kasper, meanwhile, proves that whilst he's terrific at handing out political wisdom he possibly isn't the best person to be giving tips of how to mend a broken marriage: 'I'm not big on personal advice and stuff like that,' he warns, before telling Birgitte that it's not like her to give up without a fight. Nevertheless, without Bent (who is mentioned in both episodes but not seen) Kasper seems to have become not only Birgitte's closest political advisor but, also, the voice of her conscience, too.

Kasper and Katrine's off-on-off-again romance is re-sparked and then re-extinguished by two bouts of hot, sweaty boinking across the two episodes (the second, a hilarious David-and-Maddie-in-Moonlighting-style reaction to a furious row). Actually, there's lots of illicit, passionate snogging going on this week: Not only do Katrine and Kasper getting all jiggy wid it after Kasper tries - twice - to resurrect their affair ('Are you punishing me for having sex with you?') but the Prime Minister's also at it. 'But why the driver?' asks an anguished Kasper. 'It seemed like a good idea last night,' Birgitte replies, seemingly without any obvious irony.

Birgitte, generally, is all over the place, emotionally and rationally, in the second episode. That heartbreaking scene with Phillip, the tense meeting with Cecilie – poor woman, imagine finding out that your boyfriend's ex is only the ruddy Prime Minister – and then the ill-advised night of sex with Kim, her (admittedly pretty boy) driver. Despite being signposted practically from the international space station, this aspect of the episode was extremely well done. The determined 'no' followed, a beat later, by the drunken lunge, then a cut to the next morning and the desperate call to Kasper - seemingly, the only person Birgitte can actually trust these days. He tells her he can't pick her up because he has a meeting in fifteen minutes. He'll send Kim over. She replies by telling him why that's, probably, not a good idea. 'I'll be there in five' Kasper says, leaping up from his desk. But it was surprising that the spin doctor (of all people) didn't realise that it was going to take more than a nice chat to keep a disgruntled employee demoted by the boss's right hand man from making an, if you will, head-line to the tabloids. This has the horrible consequence of bringing Birgitte down to the murky levels of delusion where Kasper normally resides. And, as we all know, strange emotional truths lurk at such unfathomable depths. These are confusing times for the Prime Minister but, what with Kasper’s own shifting moods and Katrine's subterfuge, which at least - finally and properly - vindicates the All the President’s Men poster hanging in her apartment, Borgen's personal dramas were notably wild and dangerous in Battle Lines. Certainly the Danish seamen held hostage (off-screen) by Somali pirates had less of a tough time in competition to the goings on in Government. And, it all ended with what should have been Birgitte's triumphant coup over the vile Laugesen succeeding only as ending in a somewhat tame goalless draw.

Speaking of which, one has to admire the way in which Laugesen is drawn as kind of minor Bond villain, with a louchely wicked demeanour and some fantastic lines. of dialogue 'I have to go, I have two angry blondes in my office' being not least amongst them. 'Consider this an act of friendship,' he tells Höxenhaven, with only the evil 'mwah-ha-ha-ha' and moustache-twirling missing. When Katrine argues about how to cover the Höxenhaven/rent boy story, Laugesen in incandescent and pithy all at the same time. Asked what sort of angle they should take, he replies 'the angle is our new Foreign Minister gets a blow job!' One wouldn't like to be in Birgitte's shoes now (presumably Laugesen will try to pressure her over various policies although they both have damaging evidence about each other) or, for that matter, Katrine's. Laugesen must know that his former reporter is responsible for exposing to Birgitte (via Kasper) his attempts to set up Höxenhaven. Given his very dubious ethics, both of them should probably watch out.
Which only leaves us with the best line of both episodes, Hanne, to a drunken Katrine: 'Should have thought twice before you started drinking with an alcoholic!' Borgen, like another of Denmark's most famous exports, once again reaches the parts that other political dramas can't.