Borgen Redux: An Interim Report

If Borgen, the television/streaming drama about Danish politics were a corporation, I would have readily bought shares in it. I invested time and intellectual energy in it, using it in my graduate seminar in political science, posting a long blog about it, and discussing it in my forthcoming book about narrative and politics.

When I learned of Borgen’s fourth season being released on Netflix in May 2022, after a nine-year hiatus, I was eager to watch. But Lisa Abend’s review in The New York Times, entitled “The Geopolitics are Dark and Cold” made me question whether early summer was the best time of year to spend hours sitting at my screen watching dark and cold geopolitics. The re-election of the Ford Government on June 2 – an outcome I worked hard to prevent – spoiled my taste for more politics. During the summer I wrote about my art collection and during the fall about a variety of urgent topics.

A Toronto winter that isn’t quite as cold as, but a lot darker than, usual seems like the ideal time to turn to Borgen. I’ve now binged four of the eight episodes. Despite Netflix’s plethora of linguistic choices, I prefer the original Danish with English subtitles. The original language fits best with the force of the characters’ self-expression and body language.

I decided to post half-way through the series to convey my reactions and questions now and set them against my conclusions after completing it.

I am finding Borgen’s fourth season a fast-paced and intelligent drama set in a political system I am not intimately familiar with, but which bears some similarities with those I know best (Canada, the US, and the UK). I’ve enjoyed the first four episodes and look forward to the rest.

The Starchitect Vanishes

The third season ended with Birgitte Nyborg, the main protagonist (or focalizer in narrative-speak), leading a new centrist party holding the balance of power in Borgen, the Danish parliament. Nyborg decides to support the centre-right incumbent – a man she defeated in the first season – in exchange for some policy concessions and the position of foreign minister. We see Nyborg sitting smugly in a big black Benz – her government car – feeling she has come home to where she ought to be. On the personal front – always an important part of the story – she is successfully treated for breast cancer, and has a new partner, a British starchitect. All the stars have aligned in her firmament.

When season four begins, a considerable time has passed, marked by Birgitte’s perimenopausal state, depicted by her frequent trips to the bathroom and wardrobe changes. Both the centre-right prime minister and the British starchitect have inexplicably disappeared. The centre-right male prime minister has been replaced by a fortyish woman. The starchitect hasn’t been replaced; instead Birgitte has become a proud workaholic. The big black Benz and the Foreign Ministry remain, though it is not clear whether, given the ever-shifting alliances of Denmark’s multiparty proportional representation, she has kept the job for what appears to be the better part of a decade.

Adam Price, Meet David Simon

The first three seasons of Borgen reflect the Danish public broadcaster DR’s “dual mandate” of combining socially relevant policy issues with compelling dramatic storytelling. Airtime was split roughly equally between explorations of key Danish policy issues and governmental processes with soap opera about the lives and loves of ministers, public servants, and media personalities.

In season 4 showrunner Adam Price has given us something very different. Borgen feels much more like David Simon’s The Wire or his political docudrama Show Me a Hero. Scenes are much shorter than in the first three seasons, so the pace is much faster. Politicians no longer give speeches, as they often did in the first three seasons. Reflective of the growing influence of social media over the last decade, they post tweets.

There is little storytelling about the characters’ personal lives. Birgitte is a workaholic, happily without much of a personal life. Her young adult son is present, to be sure. But he is a radical environmental activist, and their relationship is essentially about political conflict. In the first four episodes, the new prime minister is presented without any personal or political backstory and no personal relationships.

Climate Traitor …

The first three seasons dealt with a host of Danish political issues such as environmental policy, immigration policy, military procurement, military engagement in Afghanistan, policy towards the Inuit of Greenland, regulation of agriculture, and legalization of prostitution. Season 4 deals with one multifaceted issue. A major oil field has been discovered in Greenland, and the question is whether or not to develop it, which has ramifications in terms of climate change, Inuit self-government, and big-power (US, Russia, China) involvement.

Birgitte, a strong environmentalist in the first three seasons, starts out as a firm opponent of drilling but, when her position as Foreign Minister appears to be at risk unless she supports development, she does a U-turn, and her son now calls her a climate traitor.

… Or Force of Nature

Despite Birgitte’s trepidations about her position, she is presented as a political force of nature. Though the new Prime Minister is more adeptness with a Tweet, she soon discovers that Nyborg is more ruthless, more charismatic, and more popular, and hence essential to the government. And Birgitte has all the answers when questioned by the media and by her own party about her U-turn. When she sits down to negotiate with the leaders of the Greenland Inuit government about oil revenues, she demolishes their arguments so vigorously that their only recourse is to walk out. The political neophyte of the first two seasons has now become Thatcher-like: quicker-witted, better-briefed, and more forceful than her opponents, capable of arguing them into submission or silence.

The Essential Question

The key question with which the first four episodes end is whether Nyborg will be able to pull off her U-turn. The question has two sides: even if she is capable of overcoming the opposition, which appears likely is it consistent with her value, assuming she has values other than retaining the perks and challenges of power?

After I’ve binged the next four episodes, I will be discussing whether the resolution of the plot is convincing, whether the season has something interesting to say about the essential tradeoff of our time between the environment and the economy, and whether it enlightens us about gender politics in a world where all political roles are now as likely to be occupied by women as by men.

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