When I watched the first episode of the Danish political drama Borgen, I wondered to myself if it would end up like Breaking Bad. Not in the drug lord kind of way, but in the audience’s changing perception of the main character.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan famously described the show as an exercise in turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. Walter White started the series as a sympathetic man and ended it as a monster. (Well, not all viewers’ eyes.)
Borgen opens with the events that lead idealistic female politician Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of the Moderate Party, to become Prime Minister of Denmark. In the opening episode, I admired Birgitte, but I feared that I would hate her by series’ end – that Borgen would illustrate how power could corrupt a good person.
Borgen, Power, and Politics
My fears may have been wrong, but Borgen nevertheless centers on power. Political power and personal power. Power in the workplace and power at home. It paints power not necessarily as a corrupting influence but as an agent of change. Season 1 sees Birgitte becoming accustomed to her power. Season 2 sees Biritte confident at the height of her power. And S3 shows Birgitte learning to be comfortable with her relationship to power. Birgitte revels in power, but she is not power hungry.
Much of the series shows Birgitte’s political trials and victories, but equally important are the moments that show Birgitte not in power of the circumstances surrounding her. Birgitte cannot control the media when they pry into her children’s lives, and what she does with her power in this situation is not what one would expect, and it precipitates her reassessment of her relationship to power.
Spinning the Story: The Power of Media
In the first episode of the series, Birgitte’s rise to political power leaps forward through her speech during the party leader debate before the election that makes her PM. In the speech, Birgitte outlines her ideals, and she fights to stick to them through the course of the series. If you want to know who Birgitte Nyborg is, look no further than the speech itself.
As the above clip shows, the media is as important to Borgen as the politics are. The scene employs multiple points of view and shows what happens behind the scenes. We see Birgitte giving her speech, we see the news team orchestrating how it looks on television, and we see what people at home see on their television screens.
Borgen explores questions of the overlap between media and politics – or how television and print news mediate our understanding of politics. Borgen asks, “Who really has the power in this system?”
Supporting Birgitte to explore this side of the story are a pair of characters who form two sides of the same coin: mysterious spin doctor Kasper Juul and intrepid rising journalist Katrine Fønsmark. They operate in a world of secrets and lies, truths and half truths, and stories waiting to be exposed and those needing to be contained.
Power and Personal Sacrifice
The intertwining of the sides – one with Birgitte and the other with Katrine at the head – make Borgen a show with not just one but two complex female protagonists. Both are rising stars in their respective fields, but Borgen also explores the travails of their lives. Birgitte watches the idealized home life she leads in the first few episodes of the series slowly unravel, and Katrine can hardly keep a stable personal life. Neither lives a “normal” life, but neither seems to be able to envision any other one.
This aspect of Borgen came to mind when I read comments about the upcoming CBS drama Madam Secretary that indicated that this program would avoid the trope of having the powerful woman’s home life crumbling. Even if this is a trope, Borgen handles it so deftly that it appears honest and true to the story of these two very driven women.
Although the third season is often considered the weakest (due to the extraordinarily high bar the first two set), one of the chief pleasures of watching it is the increased interaction between Birgitte and Katrine. In its final year, Borgen becomes a show in which two powerful women are calling the shots while also wrestling with profound personal problems.
For Birgitte Nyborg, Katrine Fønsmark, Kasper Juul, and all the other characters, politics and power are part of life. As Birgitte says in the final episode of the series while driving by Christiansborg Palace, site of the Danish parliament and PM’s office, “It’s my second home.” Birgitte cannot imagine another life. Watch Borgen to see why.
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