Borgen is the best political series on television. It’s not an area television drama dabbles in that often. There’s the original House of Cards and the Netflix version which now feels sullied, The West Wing (don’t ask me my opinion of Sorkin) and Sky’s OTT drama COBRA. Borgen is a political drama that puts politics front and centre but also uses it to tell wider stories about how the decisions made by those in power affect large numbers of people. Its superpower was its ability to look at things from both sides. It never felt as if it had an agenda it was trying to push or as if it was trying to persuade you to think the same way as the politicians or those in the newsroom. At a time when we were being treated the best in Scandi Noir, Borgen offered a different take on Denmark and was instantly engaging.
The first three followed Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she balanced her flourishing political career with her family life. It also took us inside the newsrooms of TV1 where ambitious reporter Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) admired what Birgitte was doing but also wasn’t afraid to hold her feet to the fire in interviews. The two women were front and centre and by the end of the original run would be working together in their own independent party.
Political dramas aren’t usually for me. The UK’s take always feels stuffy and The West Wing feels like a fairytale. An idealistic look at the American system which feels like a relic especially when viewed under the knowledge of what Trump and his Republican cohorts have done to the country. Borgen was different. Outside of the political aspect, the show was at its best when it functioned as an investigation of its heroine’s approach to her career and her home life. It presented an all-too-familiar double standard, one that asks women to sacrifice their personal desires and careers for their families in a way men in their positions never have to.
The announcement of a fourth season came as a pleasant surprise. Nothing is ever really finished on television nowadays. Anything can be revived. The idea of Borgen returning felt more organic. It’s easy to believe Birgitte has continued to work as a respected politician in the 9 years and that Katrine has continued to work in TV news.
The new episodes—which pick up several years after the end of series 3 with the New Democrats winning 13 seats in Parliament and Birgitte becoming the minister for foreign affairs—continue to pull on these familiar threads now that Birgitte is 53, has an empty nest, and is going through perimenopause. Birgitte is working under a new female Prime Minister who she is privately dismissive of. She’s been hired because Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt) feels she’s a good face for the party.
Birgitte is thrust into the spotlight when a sizeable oil deposit is discovered in Greenland, it presents an opportunity for the large island nation and its majority Indigenous population to finally gain independence from Denmark. This naturally doesn’t sit well with Signe and the Danish government. The narrative puts the current climate crisis under a microscope in a way that’s impossible to ignore, and it forces Birgitte to reconcile her own principles and the position of the New Democrats with the knowledge of what this new discovery could mean for Denmark as both a country and as a political player in international relations. Creator Adam Price uses his eight episodes to look at the climate issue from all angles cleverly weaving in the conflict in Ukraine, Russian involvement and American interest in the oil in a way that makes the whole series feel as if it were ripped from the headlines.
Also in play are Birgitte’s personal ambitions and desire for power under a young female prime minister who is in tune with the online world and who benefits from the very fact that Birgitte broke several barriers during her time in power. But Signe’s presence also forces everyone in the audience and within the show’s narrative to ask: Who is Birgitte Nyborg now, and what will her legacy be? After initially coming out against drilling for oil in Greenland because of her green platform, she is forced to walk back her remarks in light of how much money the oil is worth. This sudden change threatens not just her ability to stay in power, but her reputation as well. The Birgitte we knew in the previous series was in control, composed, well-liked, a good decision maker and a passionate person with morals and someone who would live and die by the things she believed in. The discovery of the oil finds Birgitte at her most conflicted.
She’s struggling with her empty house. Her husband has moved on and is expecting a baby with his new wife. Her career is all she has. She’s fighting to remain relevant in a political landscape that requires politicians to be public figures on social media and can also feel she’s seen as out of touch and a relic by some within her own party. The series is as much about looking at Birgitte’s desire for power as it as looking at what that search for power has cost her. However much she achieves she’ll always want more and for the first time she’s willing to use untoward methods to achieve what she wants. When she employs spin doctor Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind) she’s forced to use more unscrupulous methods that threaten to undermine any goodwill she built up as Prime Minister and draw a wedge between those she has always held close. The show never paints Birgitte as vindictive or evil, more shrewd and power-hungry. It’s a side of her personality that’s never really been seen before and as she becomes more extreme and moves further away from the beliefs she once stood for it also serves as a commentary on how divisive and dangerous politics is in 2022.
Whilst the whole series looks at how Birgitte and the government navigate the discovery of the oil it also looks at the people of Greenland and its relationship with Denmark. It’s a difficult one with Denmark often coming across as superior to Greenland. The oil presents Greenlanders with its first bit of power. It can use the oil as a bargaining chip with Denmark and also show itself on the global stage. It’s possibly the most interesting aspect of the series. When Birgitte sends a reluctant Asger Holm Kirkegaard (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) as a representative to oversee all of the negotiations in Greenland he finds himself siding more and more with the locals and rallying against the government and Birgitte who is constantly changing her position on what Denmark want from them.
Although the eight episodes only cover the one-story Price and his team have a lot of balls in the air. There’s Birgitte’s son Magnus (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen) whose stance on animal welfare and views on oil and global dependence on it leads to one of the series’ best and most distressing arguments. There’s Asger’s relationship with a woman in Greenland who is working to help him smooth over negotiations in Greenland as well as the death of a native boy – a twist which feels as if it has been ripped from The Killing.
And there’s Katrine. The series has always been about two powerful women. Though we last saw them working together Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) is now The Head of News at TV1.
Her former employer has become stale and people are distrustful of the news media. Why would they watch an outdated news outlet when they get news that speaks to them through social media? Katrine was always every bit as ambitious as Birgitte and she vows to make the network an important voice in Denmark again. The way TV1 is viewed by the Danish public mirrors the way the world’s relationship with news has changed since Borgen last aired. We live in an age where we don’t need to watch the news. We can exist in our own news bubble only willing to listen to the sources that push the views we believe in and ignore the wider picture.
It’s interesting that the series shows both of its main female characters at new phases of their lives and both struggling to exert power and control. Katrine’s intentions are good and stem from a desire to break news and uncover corruption in politics. She frequently butts heads with one of her reporters, as she is unwilling to give up any sort of editorial control to her anchors.
Though they worked so well together, Katrine presents an interesting alternative to Birgitte. While she’s always been successful in her professional life, she’s sometimes struggled to find long-term happiness. Since we last saw her, though, she’s maintained a loving and lasting relationship with Søren Ravn (Lars Mikkelsen), to whom she is now married and raising two children. And while she, like Birgitte, is in a unique position of power, she’s struggling to maintain a grasp on it. She too has to come to terms with the ever-present nature of social media, something that was a pipe dream when Katrine first worked at TV1. Though she stays behind the scenes, on social media she’s always in the spotlight. As a woman in power in the media, her every move is talked about, mocked and questioned. In a lot of ways, her life begins to mirror Birgitte’s. The stress of her job and the pressures she feels from outside sources makes her snappy with her family and uncertain of her ability to make rational decisions. While the political aspects of the show are what people remember, the newsroom side of things always felt just as interesting to me. It’s a place filled with lively debate, full of morals and a palpable air of excitement.
Katrine’s disagreements with young anchor Narciza (Özlem Saglanmak) see her feeling as out of touch and as out of control as Birgitte. Again, she struggles to find the right way of handling things and finds her old ways are outdated and not going to work in 2022. The toll the pressure takes on Katrine is often difficult to watch. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen humanises Katrine at every turn. She’s trying occasionally too hard to be the boss and her approach isn’t welcome.
The show is at its best when it puts these two formidable women under unrelenting pressure and for the first time, it feels like they might crack.
When they first announced plans to bring the show back, the cynic in me thought it was because the team wanted to use the show to talk about every important issue that had happened since the series ended. In reality, it took hold of many issues in such a nuanced way turned the spotlight back onto modern society and asked if we’d actually improved in the 10 years since Birgitte was last on-screen. It’s remarkable how much the world has changed. How social media has shaped our view of things. The ending appears to suggest we’ve seen the last of these characters but it’s an incredibly rich world and in a TV landscape where nothing ever really ends I’m hoping Borgen returns in another 10 years. I can’t imagine what the political landscape will look like then.
Borgen is available on Netflix