This week I was on BBC iPlayer watching the first three episodes of Borgen, series 2, currently aired on BBC4, this having missed the first series, despite an urgent recommendation from a friend to watch it. Now I see why. The personal points of identification are so strong. Well, no, I never got to be prime minister, but otherwise the scenes of a single mother of two juggling work and domesticity, made all the more complicated by the behind-the-scenes politicking of male colleagues, makes for compelling viewing as far as I’m concerned. Curiously, I found myself somewhat obsessing over whether Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) was in danger of jeopardising her position by not working long enough hours: with time and emotion frequently spent on home matters (including the distress of divorcing the husband she still loves and wants to be with), where does she find enough time to run the country? Or maybe I’m just jealous of a single mum’s working week that allows for leaving the office early, getting home to light candles and doing a bit of home cooking (though hand-on-heart, home cooking wouldn’t be on my list even with time – a glance round my kitchen scattered with academic books and papers, rather than recipe books, says it all.)
I do though very much appreciate the way in which the episodes I’ve watched thus far don’t depict Birgitte in an emotional meltdown that threatens her professional life, as per the concern Gerry aired in her blog on female detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) in The Killing series. (An aside: an additional viewing pleasure between these series is noting the crossovers between the Danish casts – such excellent performers it’s a delight to see them (re)-appearing in different roles.) Indeed, the first episode of Borgen, ‘89,000 children’, is exemplary in its handling of keeping emotions in check, both with regard to Birgitte’s personal life and the larger, political picture of war, as Denmark’s governing body, that has pledged to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, revises that position in the light of the need to maintain a military presence in the interests of furthering civil order and human rights. Battling her way to that resolution on the home front in Denmark, Birgitte has to manage the call for withdrawal after casualties to Danish troops, versus the dawning recognition that to do so would cause further chaos and atrocities in Afghanistan. There’s a beautiful scene in which a female representative from an NGO puts the Afghanistan case to Birgitte. Speaking woman-to-woman, opening Birgitte’s wallet and taking out the cards it contains, the Afghan woman picks these up, one by one, to remark on their signification of democratic freedoms – a bank card to access funds, or a licence to drive. These serve as a reminder of the rights she gained as a woman in Afghanistan prior to the atrocities, in contrast to the women’s and children’s lives now at risk. This, along with a storyline involving the death of a young soldier and his grieving father’s response to the ‘senseless’ war, is difficult to negotiate without a descent into pure sentimentality, and all due credit to writer (Adam Price) and director (Jannik Johansen) for getting this just about right.
Equally, Birgitte’s political struggle to do what’s right is paralleled by young, reporter Katrine’s (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) attempts to stand-up to her tabloid boss, resisting his demands for primeministerial mud-raking. In contrast to the ways in which Borgen depicts power-hungry, male politicos backstabbing colleagues in the interests of self-promotion, Katrine comes out in female solidarity, not just with Birgitte, but also her older colleague Hanna Holme (Benedikte Hansen), helping to keep private Hanna’s emotional, alcohol-fuelled breakdown in episode 2.
Ultimately, there are significant feminist viewing pleasures to be had in the story-line strands of cross-generational female solidarity, the attachment of the women characters to questions of social and political justice, and, it has to be said, the delight in seeing the boys’ Machiavellian politicking thwarted. As episode 3 ends with Katrine getting back into bed with her former lover, Kasper Juul (Birgitte’s spin doctor), and episode 4 headlines Birgitte’s struggle on the domestic front threatening to impact on her professional life, I may be in for a letdown. But as things currently stand, I’m hooked, and definitely going back to series 1.