Bingeing on Borgen

I’ve now started working on a new book about public sector narrative, a successor to my 2011 book Governing Fables that will look at more recent narrative texts from the US and UK, as well as those from a number of other countries. This and subsequent blog posts are intended as initial reactions after watching or reading a text. They will serve as first drafts of sections of the book. And, because a text’s plot is an important aspect of my analysis, the posts will necessarily contain spoilers. I’m an analyst rather than a film critic, so spoilers come with my territory.

One of the non-English language texts that has been frequently praised over the last few years is the Danish television series Borgen. Borgen (with the G not pronounced) means Parliament and refers to Christianborg Palace in Copenhagen, the seat of the Danish Parliament and Prime Minister’s Office. Borgen ran for three seasons (2010 – 2013) with a total of 30 one-hour episodes and is now available as a boxed set with English subtitles.

I assigned it in my graduate seminar on narrative and politics last spring, and we concentrated on the first season. In the last two weeks I’ve binged on the second and third seasons. So what did I like about it? Borgen is a fascinating mix of the political and the personal. On the political side, I learned about the challenges of holding together a multi-party coalition government in a proportional representation system. These alliances are unstable, and parties in the coalition are always jockeying for power (more important ministries) and threatening to defect to the opposition. The thirty episodes covered a wide range of hot political topics in Denmark that are also hot political topics in Canada, including environment policy, immigration policy, military procurement, military engagement in Afghanistan, policy towards indigenous citizens (in Borgen, the Inuit of Greenland), and the legalization of prostitution.

But Borgen does not treat its characters as mere office-holders. They are people, with complicated and messy lives that the pressures of political life make more complicated and messier. The series delves into the personal lives of its characters, rapidly switching between the personal and the political.

Borgen is ambitious in attempting to portray the Danish political and media landscapes, including eight political parties covering the full ideological spectrum as well as two major media operations – the political desk at the major public broadcaster and a high profile tabloid. Borgen is fast-paced, with a lot going in the board room, the bedroom, the living room, the television studio, and the floor of Parliament. It held my attention, with the “what happens next” question constantly on my lips. The question was answered in different ways in different time frames, with political issues generally being resolved in the episode in which they were introduced, but the fate of the government and the course of personal relationships playing out over many episodes.

The key character in Borgen is Birgitte Nyborg, the initially idealistic and somewhat naïve Moderate Party leader who becomes Prime Minister at the beginning of the first season and does not relinquish the post until the end of the second season. She attempts to make a comeback in the third season by founding a new centrist party. The best way to understand her is in terms of Max Weber’s famous essay “Politics as a Vocation.” She has a set of beliefs about what type of society Denmark should be (Weber’s “politics of conviction”) and beliefs about the appropriate use of political power to achieve those ends (Weber’s “ethics of moral responsibility”) and must balance the two. And she must also balance among competing goals for Denmark and between her political life and her personal life.

She believes that Denmark should be a tolerant society in which Danes care for one another through a strong welfare state and in which they are welcoming to outsiders. Though Borgen did not mention the historical reference, this is the Denmark that refused to hand over its Jewish citizens to the Nazis. She is also committed to an environmentally sustainable Denmark. Finally, she believes Denmark has international responsibilities as participant in alliances, aid donor, and peacemaker.

In terms of the politics of responsibility, though she is an effective negotiator and player of coalition politics, she attempts to avoid the seamier side of politics, such as leaking damaging personal information about opponents. But her attitude changes from abhorrence at the outset to an acceptance of leaks as a necessary tool by the end.

Finally, Birgitte sees her responsibilities in terms of her commitments to other people, both the people of Denmark and her immediate family, and thus does not reflect the cynical self-interested public choice ideology of such series as Yes Minister and, more recently, House of Cards.

Birgitte’s political commitments wreak havoc with her personal life. In the first series she and her husband divorce and in the second, her teenage daughter has a nervous breakdown. Borgen thus asks whether it is possible for a forty-something woman with a young family to discharge the burdens of the highest office in the land and be a nurturing mother.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Birgitte, is superb at depicting a woman who resolutely makes tough decisions, who exudes charisma in her media and public appearances, yet who is emotionally on the edge in attempting to deal with her family’s turmoil.

Now for the spoiler. As readers of this blog will know, I have a typology for analyzing public sector fables based initially on their plot dynamics. While the plot dynamics of 30 hours of moving image narration can be complicated, Birgitte Nyborg’s experience readily fits within the heroic fable, defined in terms of both political and personal outcomes. Holding political office, she grows in stature and delivers some solid achievements in environmental, health, and welfare policy. She overcomes political adversity – an election defeat as leader of the Moderates – to found a new party that, in the subsequent election – ends up holding the balance of power. On the personal level, she moves from divorce to a new relationship, she is successfully treated for breast cancer, and her daughter recovers her emotional stability.

The last episode deals with the party leaders’ machinations to form a new government immediately after the second election. Birgitte’s new centrist party holds the balance of power between the larger left and right coalitions and it appears that she could emerge as Prime Minister. Instead, she decides to throw her lot in with the center-right incumbent in exchange for some policy concessions and the position of foreign minister. Given the ongoing demands of her personal life, it is the better choice.

The final perspective of this post concerns the Danish audience for which Borgen was first intended. I understand that it had an audience of one million in a country of five million and that it was influential in stimulating debate about some policy issues, in particular the regulation of the agricultural sector, a key pillar of the Danish economy. It was self-reflective, in the sense that the Danish public broadcaster funded a series in which a key organization was the Danish public broadcaster. I am curious about what kind of discussion that depiction stimulated. Borgen had a large cast that included many of the best-known members of the reasonably small world of Danish theatre, some portraying roles in type and others against type. And in the small world of Danish politics, I can’t imagine that it wasn’t perceived as a roman a clef, with certain characters modelled on actual Danish politicians. All told, I wonder about the nature of the dialogue among Danes about so significant a cultural product.

For me, the achievement of Borgen is that a small country with a small media market invested what was necessary to produce so significant a cultural product. In the English-speaking world, the space for narrative texts about politics and government seems to be totally taken by the two cultural powerhouses of the UK and US. While Borgen told a compelling story about Danish politics to Danes in their own language, the fact that it has been sub-titled and syndicated in some thirty other countries is powerful evidence of its global relevance and appeal.

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