Before All Else, Be Armed: How Borgen Gets Everything Right (Or What Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom Could Learn From Borgen)
Machiavelli's words continue to hold power today, though in the current era, it's context is limited not to royalty but to those who hold elected office as well: the leaders of dominant world powers, the prime ministers and presidents whose decisions echo through the lives of ordinary folk. Promises are made and broken, alliances tested, enemies courted and appeased. This is felt most keenly within the stellar Danish political drama Borgen (or, literally, "The Castle"), from creator Adam Price.
Borgen wrapped up its second season run last night on U.S. cable/satellite network LinkTV following a 20-episode run that asked tough questions about policy makers, mothers, and citizens. I've been writing and tweeting almost incessantly about the show for the last few months, having fallen under its intelligent, incisive, and gut-wrenching spell. (Missed the series? No worries: LinkTV will be offering a marathon of Borgen's first two seasons beginning August 20th, both on the linear network and streaming online.)
As I've discussed in previous stories, the show revolves around Birgitte Nyborg (the incandescent Sidse Babett Knudsen), the fictional first female prime minister of Denmark, who inadvertently comes to power following a scandal involving her predecessor, Lars Hesselboe (Søren Spanning), taken down by a snafu involving his wife, a credit card statement, and a hasty decision in London. Hesselboe's fall becomes a cautionary tale, not just for Birgitte, but for the audience as well: it represents the perils of political office, the decisions to favor work over family, and the unexpected minutiae that can end a promising career. Birgitte's coalition gains majority within the government, and she's set up as a voice of moderation even as she's expected to fail at the grand game of power before her.
It's only to be expected that Birgitte, who begins the series as a wife and mother to two children, should find it difficult to juggle her new responsibilities with that of her more traditional role as mother and wife; the series masterfully fuses together concerns of both the political and domestic spheres, painting Birgitte as tough but fair, strong yet racked with guilt about how her focus has shifted away from her family. Her relationships with her husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) and her children--troubled Laura (Freja Riemann) and sunny Magnus (Emil Poulsen)--are further tested as the series goes on, as Birgitte herself transforms from political naif to steely ruler, tragically losing everyone around her in the process.
That isolation shows the viewer the true price of power: with enemies plotting your demise and a sense that no one can be trusted, even those in the inner circle--avuncular advisor Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon), guileless assistant Sanne (Iben Dorner), her once-charming husband--are pushed away, her relationships reconfigured in the wake of near-constant attacks and demands from those she believed to be allies. While Birgitte's armor may harden as the series goes on, several Season Two plots serve to remind Birgitte of why she started this job in the first place, her priorities, and her purpose.
Heartbreaking though the series may be, Knudsen's Birgitte bears her onus with grace and dignity, and more than a few mistakes along the way. They only serve to make her appear more human than less; she is as much an imperfect leader as she is a imperfect mother and wife. Even as she seeks to inspire the Danish people to strive towards being better, she too faces this struggle herself in her personal life. But where American television shows would make Birgitte either a shrewish ice queen or a weak-willed apologist, Borgen refuses both paths, instead rendering Birgitte as wholly sympathetic and under pressure, attempting to embody perfection and coming short. (It's a lesson many of us watching at home could learn from: none of us will ever be entirely perfect, but the pressure to be just that can often destroy us.)
Birgitte's struggles--to retain her power, to rule a nation, to create peace and prosperity--may be globally-minded ones but these same instincts apply at home as well, even as she faces tragedy and loss. Birgitte may be a mother, but she's also a mother to a nation, she may be a ruler, but she's also running her household. No matter where she turns, people need her. The demands of this constant need are seen in the subtle shifts within Knudsen's performance; the early ease and laughter of Birgitte, that domestic bliss glimpsed within her household, are erased as the series continues. But, as she proves, they can be found again. Happiness isn't an idealized nexus, but can be found in small doses hidden in plain sight: the smile of a child, the return of a friend, a concord between rivals.
But Borgen is about more than simply the story of Birgitte and her advisors, including her gifted and haunted spin doctor Kaspar Juul (Pilou Asbæk), whose own two-season storyline about his past is spun into revelations about identity, secrets, and childhood trauma. Where Borgen truly shines is in its seemingly effortless balancing of numerous characters and storylines. Not content to focus on the mechanics of Danish rule, the show keeps its focus on several subjects: the conflation of the public and the private, the almost child-like skirmishes between elected officials, and the role of the media.
Within Borgen, the media is represented in several ways and in several forms: there's the news department of national network TV1 overseen by Torben Friis (Forbrydelsen's Søren Malling), the tabloid newspaper Expres run by Birgitte's former rival, Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), and the omnipresence of reporters of all kinds within The Castle, the governmental offices that house the prime minister, the Danish supreme court, and Parliament. They gather in the halls seeking comment, their cameras and microphones simply a part of the surroundings; press conferences are held in the Hall of Mirrors, itself an eerie metaphor for the press coverage of governmental action.
When we first meet reporter Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), she's a TV1 presenter working for Torben who is herself romantically involved with one of Hesselboe's advisors. When her lover turns up dead (and she's pregnant with his child), she turns to Birgitte's spin doctor Kaspar--with whom she was also previously intimate--in order to bail her out of the situation. She ends up, for her part, unknowingly toppling the government in the process. Over the course of two seasons, Katrine moves from television to print, a series of incidents requiring her to take a job with Laugesen's right-wing rag, even as she is forced to swallow both her pride and her journalistic integrity in the process.
She's reunited at the paper with her one-time editor, the canny Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen), a drunk loner whose own struggles with her personal life are themselves echoed through Katrine: this is a possible future for herself, one of loneliness and despair, a figure of mockery and derision. Both women, however, are sympathetically flawed, even as they make mistakes. What keeps them from being tragic figures is their unerring sense of what makes a good story... and an insistence upon holding up the truth as something that is sacred and holy in this profession.
As Katrine and Hanne veer from one crisis to the next, one story to the next, one job to the next, the quest for truth is their eternal roadmap, their never-wavering compass. But it never feels like pandering or pedantry, something that Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom hasn't been able to pull off. Within Price's Borgen, however, the exploration of the newsroom as a living, breathing thing--a battlefield of ideas, conscience, and truth--is magnificently realized, depicting the differences of working under a crusader like Torben Friis or a conniving manipulator like Laugesen, determined to take down those he views as enemies.
In this case, ephemera such as deadlines, story angles, and technology--as well as modes of interviewing and reporting--take on new power and intrigue. There's nothing tedious about seeing Hanne and Katrine at their job, whether that's them breaking a story, sitting in front of a computer, or engaging in a bureau meeting to discuss the day's events. Rather than depict a "mission to civilize," Katrine and her colleagues go about their jobs, attempting to shed light on important news, the public interest always paramount.
This often puts the ambitious Katrine at cross-purposes with the other characters: sometimes her employers, and very often with Kasper and Birgitte. The need to serve that public interest is, after all, an issue when viewed through the lens of national security, or government policy, or a need to conceal a personal, rather than political scandal. It's strongly felt in the second season storyline involving Birgitte's daughter Laura, as paparazzi photographers and tabloid reporters explode a domestic concern into a national one.
But for all of Katrine's flaws and the mistakes that she makes along the way, the character never feels weak or secondary. Rather than be seen as less than her male colleagues, her perseverance and determination position her well above them, particularly as it's only too clear the threat she poses to the male hegemony within her workplace.
In this respect, Birgitte and Katrine are thematically linked throughout Borgen, their similar concerns of career and family, workplace success and personal loss positioning them within the sisterhood of the working woman. The second season finale, in fact, brought these very questions to the fore. With Birgitte returning to her role as statsminister after a leave of absence, her adversaries and the media force her to answer whether a woman can ever actually truly govern, and Birgitte and Katrine each weigh the demands of motherhood on professional ambitions. Can one be a good mother AND a good leader? Are the two mutually exclusive? Or is it that family can give us strength in times of adversity? To soften the sharp edges we need to employ in our professional lives?
These are both modern and eternal questions, perpetually asked and answered by the female characters within the series in ways that their male counterparts are not required to do so. The very heart of the series, in fact, is contained within these internal struggles. Can we be good parents, good spouses, and be good at our jobs? Can we have it all when our professional duties require 24-hour attention? How can one care for an ailing child when an ailing country demands your rapt focus?
One doesn't need Bigfoot or a Great White Savior whose indictment of women's concerns (reality television, gossip columns, Real Housewives, etc.) through which to view the prism of truth and reporting, the collision of the private and the public, or any of the concerns that Borgen raises. Its beating heart is the quest of two women--and those around them--to do good work (in both senses of the words), to honor the public interest that they serve, and to not apologize for the ambition that they have.
With Borgen, television has finally found its heartbreaking and intelligent political series, one that asks tough questions of its characters and its audience, and mines issues of personal, governmental, and journalistic integrity for human drama. Within its corridors of power and in its fast-paced modern newsroom, the show raises questions that relate to each of our lives. And within Borgen we find not a castle with its walls raised and guarded, but rather an opportunity to discuss, dissect, and deconstruct the institutions of power and those who work within them. It overflows with triumph and heartbreak, intrigue and wit. Long after the credits have rolled, Borgen is a show that remains firmly embedded within both heart and brain, the figurative castle's crenelations and foundations taking root within our collective imagination.
Seasons One and Two of Borgen will be repeated beginning August 20th on LinkTV and online for two weeks following the linear broadcast on LinkTV.com. Check your cable and satellite provider for channel details. Season Three of Borgen is expected to air in Spring 2013 on Danish broadcaster DR1.