Borgen is a Danish political TV drama full of characters with letters in their names you didn’t know existed, and plotlines centring on things like how to finance a welfare reform package. I was as dubious about its entertainment value as the next person before actually sitting down to watch it, but now I’m hooked. And simply because I only have one other person in my life to share my love of Borgen with (namely, my mother, and even she doesn’t like it as much as I do), I thought I’d write a quick list to share just what makes the programme so excellent.
1. The quality of the acting.
The acting is so strong I feel it almost transcends the language barrier. After a while, you forget that it’s all in Danish to focus on the myriad strong performances. Sidse Babette Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg is especially excellent, and she has the added challenge of acting a character who is herself often acting. She is as convincing as Birgitte Nyborg whilst chairing a Cabinet meeting as when dealing with her failing marriage. Every single lead character is superbly acted and cast, but in my opinion the stand out actors are Knudsen and Pilou Asbaek, who plays the troubled-yet-highly-efficient spin doctor Kasper Juul.
2. Strong female leads
I can’t describe how refreshing and wonderful it is to watch a political drama full of complex, competent and intelligent women whose lives don’t necessarily centre on relationships. The toll that her job takes on Birgitte’s family life is one of the richest parts of the drama, and the way her personal and political lives interweave is stunningly well-plotted. However, seeing a woman with a high-profile job feeling guilty at not spending enough time with her children does not feel like ground-breaking subject matter. Seeing a female Prime Minister outwit another head of state over the capture of a political dissident, defending democracy and a free press in the process, does.
Even the minor female characters of Lotte and Cecelie, who are partners to Kasper and (in series 2) Phillip respectively, are well-rounded and sympathetic. Unlike in most Hollywood drama, the women in Borgen are not either good or bad. They’re allowed to be conflicted, self-interested and sometimes rude, and even at times failing as partners and as parents. Birgitte’s failings as a mother are not used to suggest that she’s a bad person, or that she’d be better off out of politics. This leads on to my second point…
3. The emotional and moral complexity of the characters.
Although Borgen is superbly plotted, the action always arises from the characters’ motivations. Each character has believable motivations, beliefs and personal history, and those elements interact and sometimes conflict with each other to create compelling political drama. Without wanting to give too much away, a debate on lowering the age of criminal responsibility seems to be personally affecting one of the characters in a way that makes total sense when you find out more about his backstory at the end of the episode. With the exception of former-Labour-leader-turned-tabloid-editor Laugesen, who has no moral compass whatsoever, no one is entirely good or entirely bad. Birgitte goes into politics from a sincere desire to do good, and with a vision of transcending bloc politics in the national interest. Power changes her, and she finds herself making more and more compromises. The great question at the heart of Borgen is whether Birgitte sells out her ideals in order to cling onto power, or simply learns to be more pragmatic in order to get things done. In terms of her marriage, does it fail because she starts treating her husband like a member of her Cabinet, or does it fail because Phillip can’t cope with his wife’s success? Other questions this series throws up, in a sustained and serious way, include: Should a leader who voted against an unwinnable foreign war pull the troops out when she’s in power? Does loving someone mean telling them all your secrets, no matter how painful? Is it possible to be a good parent and a good politician? Is it even possible to be a good politician? Borgen’s great strength is that it has more interest in asking questions than answering them.
4. Svend Age Saltum
Speaking of moral ambivalence, Svend Age is one of the best characters, despite the fact he is basically a Danish Nigel Farage crossed with a hobgoblin. I mean seriously, look at him.
He is the leader of the populist Freedom Party, which is a minority party with “several MPs you can’t always be proud of” and no Cabinet posts. Svend Age, in terms of political persona, is something of a rustic Boris Johnson – he plays shamelessly on his role as a political underdog despite frequently coming out with toxic lines about Muslims, immigrants and “intellectual elites”. And yet he is not entirely unsympathetic, which is part of his danger.
In one of the best scenes of the entire series, the liberal, left-wing Prime Minister Birgitte finds herself stuck in his office. Their ensuing conversation-turned-argument sees Birgitte attacking him for his political tactics and his constant tendency towards martyrdom, telling him that just provoking people until they attack, and then using it to score political points is “not constructive”. His response is simply that he shares the views of a large minority of Danish people, and thus he should be in Parliament representing them, which is hard to argue with. Without wanting to give too much away, the story arc of the series gives this scene so much more depth than a simple political argument, as both characters are personally affected by the debates on juvenile criminality. Ernest Hemingway once said that every sentence in a book should be “doing two things at once” – every scene and line of dialogue in Borgen does several things at once, making it an eminently satisfying dramatic experience as you learn more about the backstory and motivations of the characters.
5. Kasper Juul
Oh, Kasper. He’s Birgitte’s spin doctor, and whether or not he performs the job from any sympathy or even interest in her political convictions is the series’ great unanswered question. His traumatic upbringing has given him the ability to both read and manipulate people to his advantage, a skill he also uses when seducing any number of the young women working in Borgen. His character brings to light the relationship between politics and the media in Denmark, which is similar to that of the UK. Viewers of The Thick of It won’t learn anything new, but Kasper’s attempts to do what he sees as presenting the Government in a good light, and what his ex-girlfriend Katrine calls “interfering with the free press” force the viewer to question the role of the media in reporting on political developments. Does a news station or a newspaper have a greater duty than giving its viewers and readers what they want to hear? Should it shelve a populist summer story about sales of buttermilk soup (I have no idea, either, but it must be popular in Denmark) to report on the details of a Minister’s uncomfortably close links with the defence industry? As ever, Borgen asks these questions of its viewers without answering them.
6. What it teaches the average Brit about Denmark
Part of the appeal of watching Borgen for me is the foreign-ness of it. I like learning new things about a country I don’t know much about. I had no idea about the relationship between Denmark and Greenland before watching this series (basically it’s the world’s biggest island, populated by 57,000 Inuits and possibly about to discover massive oil resources. It has the world’s highest suicide rate and receives an annual bloc grant from Denmark. It’s politically tricky, to say the least). I didn’t know what the proxy debates (which are really about immigration) were in Denmark. In Britain, this centres on the EU, but without a strong Eurosceptic streak in Danish politics, the racism seems more explicitly Islamophobic. It was clear in the latest episode that “lowering the age of criminal responsibility” is Danish political dogwhistling for drawing attention to young offenders from immigrant backgrounds.
7. What it teaches the average Brit about coalition politics in a system that is actually designed for coalitions
Birgitte’s party, the Moderates, win a tiny majority in the first series, and she goes into Coalition with the Greens and the Labour party. Painstaking compromise is needed to create policy which all three parties will accept, and unlike in Britain, it’s not considered some kind of scandalous tension when not all parties agree. Danish voters seem to vote to get someone in power who will push for their views without necessarily being able to enact every policy on their manifesto, and it all just seems like a much more mature way of doing politics. Having said that, the leader of the Greens, Amir, resigns from Government in protest at the compromises his party keeps having to make. The difference between his and Birgitte’s visions of politics is the tension at the heart of Borgen. As an aside, while racial and sexual politics play a big part in Borgen, it’s wonderful to see women and ethnic minority characters representing ideas that have nothing specifically to do with their race or gender.
8. The way the sex scenes always feel like an integral part of the story.
It wasn’t until I watched Borgen that I realised most sex scenes I have seen on film or television seem put there more for the benefit of the viewer’s titillation than to tell the story. Or, there’ll be a sex scene to indicate when a couple first get together, or to let the viewer know when one character is being unfaithful. But sex is treated more straightforwardly in this series, with the scenes between Bridget and Phillip used as a barometer for the state of their failing marriage. The same is true for Kasper, who as time goes on reveals something of a sexual compulsion, and it fits in both with his backstory and his current behaviour.
10. All the Danish it teaches you
It’s funny how much you pick up after listening to four hours straight of Danish in one evening. From what little I can see, Danish appears to be spelt very different from how it sounds (Svend Age Saltum is pronounced more like Svern Erde Serl, and Magnus is Mow-nus). Children is “bearn” which is wonderful, and I think a nursery is a “bearnhaven”. With a small knowledge of German, and if you listen carefully, you can pick out a few words in every scene. I can proudly say I know now the Danish for Prime Minister, Justice Minister, Climate Minister, Afghan War and Labour Party. Luckily all Danish people seem to speak English, because I don’t think that will get me very far if I ever do go to Copenhagen.
In summary –
Watch Borgen. Now. The first series is on youtube, or you could treat yourself to the DVD. You won’t regret it.