Borgen episode recap S1 E2 Count to 90

Quote: The prince knows that it is far safer to be feared than trusted – Machiavelli

Birgitte is invited by the Queen to become Royal Investigator and form a government. Nervous and excited, she and Bent conduct negotiations with the other parties. Everyone jockeys for position, and both the Liberals and Labour try to unnerve Birgitte – Labour using their internal crises to good effect.

Christiansborg tower, Copenhagen

After the first talks go badly, Birgitte receives motivational advice from both Bent and Philip. Philip recognises that Birgitte becoming PM will ‘change things’ for the family – and for their career rotation deal.

Jobless Kasper’s increasingly tetchy about whether Laugesen is going to name him as the source of the Hesselboe Mulberry receipt. He accompanies Katrine to Ole Dahl’s funeral, but the ceremony is interrupted by a new Labour crisis. More concerned about his reputation than his ex-girlfriend, Kasper abandons Katrine.

Labour elects Bjørn Marrot as its new leader. He tries to build a new coalition but the Moderates won’t play. The Liberals make overtures to the Moderates too. The Moderates discuss the offers but deputy leader Bent Sejrø realises they’re being played. He challenges Birgitte to take control.

Table manners

One small move can make or break a pitch for power and this episode is all about Birgitte’s baby steps towards the top job. On the screen there’s a lot of process, as the individual parties try to reach agreement; but the programme is more interested in its characters and the extent to which they try to influence events or are themselves influenced.

Thus Birgitte and Bent are kept waiting in the Queen’s chambers and work themselves up into a frenzy of nervousness: from making faces and cracking gags about republicanism and cigarettes to, ‘Can’t the bitch count?’

We see the main players, each watching Torben Friis’ TV1 analysis: Hesselboe in a VW Phaeton, reassured by his chauffeur; Laugesen in his office among last night’s debris, yelling at a subordinate as this is described as Labour’s worst ever defeat. Incidentally, although it is never discussed, a TV background shot shows the state of the parties as:

Greens, 17; Solidarity, 6; Labour, 35; Moderates, 31; Other centre-left, 2; Liberals, 32; Freedom Party, 29; New Right, 25; Other centre-right, 2.

The left and centre-left have 91 and the right and centre-right have 89. Apparently, two is a ‘clear majority’.

Amir from the Greens is excited and positive and wants to get Denmark ‘back on track’. He’s drafted a proposal but Birgitte wants him to wait his turn. Aicha from Solidarity is more formal, as befits a smaller player who wants to be taken seriously but her coldness causes Birgitte to make faces to Bent. And Birgitte and Bent are discussing just how hardball to play Labour, who are licking their wounds. But Birgitte wants to be fair with everyone: she has an inclusive and thorough process in mind and has prepared dossiers and everything.

The first meeting is with Svend Åge Saltum from the Freedom Party. He’s quite affable but sees the meeting as pointless: why pretend he might form part of the government? They disagree on everything. He suggests Birgitte stops messing about and behaves like a winner and, for that matter, that she takes the head of the table. Bent, under whose leadership the party possibly didn’t get to chair negotiations, stares at the table. Saltum in turn takes a pastry as a fee for his advice. The scene between Saltum and Hesselboe that follows is a nice reminder that there are other perspectives to this process, not just the Moderates’ – and that a pastry isn’t a sufficient payment to get the Freedom Party leader not to criticise you behind your back.

Talks with the Greens see Birgitte at the head of the table, but that doesn’t stop Amir from wanting too many ministries. But the two major parties begin their gamesmanship. We already know that Hesselboe is planning a TV special. Now he declines to take part in initial talks, sending instead a party hack who is so junior that even Bent doesn’t know who she is. Talks about talks can be as important as the talks themselves. Sending the minion packing, Birgitte turns to Bent with one of the best expressions in the entire series – a quizzical look as she adjusts her hair. Then it’s Labour’s turn to upset the Moderates’ plans as Laugesen leaves Copenhagen to see his constituents. This is probably a necessity for Laugesen – why would he fake such a crisis? – but his Middlefart flit unsettles his negotiating adversaries none the less. Bent has to dial down Birgitte’s voicemail of protest, which as a result ranges from bossy to friendly: ‘Ring me back! Super! Tak!’ Bent’s analysis is that the day’s battle has been lost – but there are no winners yet.

Birgitte may have had a disappointing morning but there’s time for an idyllic family afternoon. Philip gives a gender-stereotyping pep talk, telling her to take the position that she wants like a man would, and demonstrating greater authority with the kids. Once again her family life is warm, affirming and energy-giving, but it doesn’t even begin to prepare her for her meeting with Labour the following morning. Birgitte tries her previously-failed consensus approach but is eaten alive. Laugesen dominates the discussion from start to finish; he had time over night to pacify his constituents, rally his party and meet the Greens and Solidarity. He makes an offer of seven ministries in return for his becoming Statsminister, though his off-the-cuff offer of the Justice Ministry clearly unnerves one of his negotiating team. Birgitte doesn’t look like she’d make a counter-offer, even given the chance.

Bent advises Birgitte to accept the offer, and in a scene that looks as though it is lit by hollowed-out pumpkins with candles in, the wannabe Statsminister is consoled by her family. In a curiously bonkers clandestine scene (would Birgitte really not have recognised the voice of another very prominent politician? Why meet in such a public place, where anyone else going past would be a political professional?) she is offered and accepts the chance to support Troels Höxenhaven rather than Laugesen. Höx’s move is based on his family history and his (probably unfounded) fear that he’ll be snubbed for a ministry – something Bent remembers and Laugesen probably never knew.

In the other major plot strand, Katrine is still managing to remain calm – just. Kasper has sought her out to see if anyone has sussed that he was the one who stole the Mulberry receipts but it’s only when her mother comes to visit that Katrine is able to express her grief.

The two plotlines converge at Ole Dahl’s funeral. Kasper, on the one hand petrified about his reputation, and on the other furious that Katrine is so upset about a man who isn’t him, sits alongside his weeping ex. Birgitte and Bent watch as Höx pats Laugesen on the shoulders. They don’t see the creepy look Höx makes as he sits down – but everyone’s phones go off as Ole’s widow gets up to speak. The widow is speaking about the other known opponent for Ole’s affections – Borgen itself – but her mention of a love rival doesn’t do much for Katrine’s state of mind.

Does Labour elect Bjørn Marrot, an amiable but unimpressive figure, as leader to contrast against the mercurial Laugesen? The gargoyles on the palace walls aren’t pleased. The new leader calls a meeting of potential coalition partners, and has the Greens’ support – Amir goes on AGAIN about getting Denmark ‘back on track’ – but we know Marrot won’t succeed because he doesn’t take the head of the table. Sure enough, Birgitte says the Moderates can’t support him, to which he responds like a wounded puppy.

Now it’s Hesselboe’s turn to act. After the schmaltzy, fake TV interview to repair his reputation, Hesselboe uses all the tricks he knows to get back into power. He ropes in his traditional ally, Yvonne from the New Right, and uses the PM’s office to dazzle Birgitte, laying on biscuits and the offer of an international development ministry (plus other ‘soft’ cabinet posts). She’s ready to accept but Bent sees through it. Furious, he drags Birgitte out of the party meeting and shows her Copenhagen. ‘All this can be yours,’ he explains, if she really grabs the power – and he tells her to count to 90 (seats). He also warns her that she has no friends in politics, to which she asks if he can remain her friend. That’s too throwaway a line not to have some kind of repercussion later on.

Birgitte convenes a meeting with the potential centre-left coalition partners. Following scene after scene with others having the upper hand – the Queen, Saltum, Laugesen, Höx, Hesselboe, Bent – she pulls herself together and synthesises all she’s learned in the episode so far such as the use of the international development ministry as a negotiating tool to win the ultimate prize. She changes from yellow cardigan to business suit to tell Hesselboe his deal is off, and then to tell the country: Denmark has a new government.

The first family

Birgitte makes faces: at the palace, after meetings. There’s lots of domesticity and many jokes about the prime minister being in the kitchen offering sexual favours, etc. She cycles to Borgen and jokes with journalists.

The family aren’t that impressed by the visit to the Queen, and Birgitte hardly stirs them up. ‘She was polite in a royal way,’ is hardly the most vivid description. Laura wants an update on the curtsey situation, but Philip is more interested in coffee poured from a mini-Dalek.

Philip is an economics lecturer, obviously at ease with his adoring students and tolerating their good-natured flirting. He knows that the definition of G for government is on page 27 of the textbook, though the idiocy of the students’ questions isn’t really consistent with the detail on his blackboard.

Within his lecture theatre, of course, Philip is very much top dog. This expert status – plus the fact that Birgitte needs his advice means that he can live comfortably with the current set up. Like many people behind the throne, he can live vicariously through the real holder of power and of course he can joke about not being CEO of Microsoft without people asking him why, if he’s so good, he isn’t leading a company. Despite his positive words – ‘Not if, when’ – I have a sneaking suspicion that on the one hand he doesn’t really think that Birgitte might get the job, and on the other he doesn’t think through how much different it is to lead a nation rather than to lead a party. His answer to her point that things will be different is the ambiguous answer, ‘I’m not going to tell my wife I don’t want her to be Prime Minister,’ which on the face of it is a very affirming thing to say (and he’s carnally rewarded for it) and is actually anything but.

Birgitte develops a habit of throwing papers across the room.

Watching the Hesselboes, Birgitte says it went well in an ‘eerily controlled way’. Philip: ‘promise me that won’t be us’. They are very aware about the difference between appearance and reality as it applies to the Hesselboes’ marriage. We see Birgitte change her clothes to talk to Hesselboe: the first time that she wears a costume to be prime minister. How will she react to acting the role?

Katrine

Has a poster for All the Presidents’ Men to symbolise the journalism that inspires her, but doesn’t have milk.

She keeps her non-political family at arm’s length, but her mother’s question, ‘who died?’ is a nice touch and shows that there’s a world outside Borgen.

She nominates Kasper to be the ‘really good friend’ her mum says she should take to Ole’s funeral.

The positive pregnancy test suggests that the Ole storyline isn’t over; the storyline contrasts a little too sharply against the cosiness of the Nyborg-Christiansen family.

Kasper

Lies to Katrine about leaving the Moderates. He doesn’t pursue Katrine when she’s furious with him and obviously upset – we’re invited to suspect that he doesn’t actually live up to his ‘really good friend’ billing.

In the newsroom

I’m loving the portrayal of Torben Friis as the scatty, irritable and weak head at TV1. He isn’t sure whether he’s given up smoking. He wants Katrine to do the Hesselboe interview but she wants to attend the funeral: Ulrik can do it if it’s OK with Katrine. The lads in the newsroom enjoy earthy talk at the prospect of a female PM. Ulrik brings up the subject of Hanne Holm again, so either that’s confirmation that he was The Snitcher (though Hanne herself thinks differently), or he’s just obsessed. Either way, he (thankfully) does his shirt up in time for the Hesselboe interview during which he is obviously unmoved by Lisbeth’s tales of addiction and abuse.

It’s obvious that Torben’s view on what makes good TV news is different to Hanne’s. Her contemptuous dismissal of TV1’s celebrity-like coverage of the rise of Birgitte Nyborg obviously hits home with Katrine – either that or the younger woman is dazzled by Holm’s pink scarf.

It’s a great touch to show us (as the backdrop) that Bjørn Marrot has become Labour leader, a few seconds before TV1 viewers hear the news.

Other characters

Bent seems to be the only other player who matters in the Moderates. (What happened to Norgaard, Gjervig and Lindholm?) Wise dependable, trustworthy, he is no threat to Birgitte. He gives her a shoulder massage which doesn’t seem out of place and sends her home with a peck on the back of her head. Their conversation about friendship shows him as the experienced pro, her as the innocent, but Bent knows everything. He knows, for example, that Labour’s light was on all night. He’s the only real strategist or even tactician and his views are backed up with encyclopaedic knowledge of Borgen’s dead bodies. His limitations are perhaps shown by his recommendation that Birgitte accept Laugesen’s offer. He can give a history lesson, and grows hydrangeas – probably not at the same time.

It’s perhaps surprising that Hanne Holm doesn’t suspect more when Katrine cries at Ole’s funeral.

Bjørn Marrot moves from being shouted at, to being deputy leader in the largest party, to being deputy leader in the leading party, to being front runner for PM, to losing the chance, quickly and without doing a great deal. We don’t see exactly how he wins the Labour leadership but it’s likely that it’s simply because he’s a nice chap and the party wants a nice chap having had 72 hours of embarrassment. The events that changed his status were caused, respectively, by Laugesen, Laugesen, Höx and Birgitte. You can be deputy without the killer instinct and, sadly, Marrot probably didn’t even have time to realise that as leader he needed that instinct, let alone develop it.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

West Wing has loads of midnight assignations, though they usually involve Josh rather than Bartlet himself. There are also occasions where they play Democrats and Republicans off against each other to build coalitions. The Democratic convention that selects Santos as Presidential candidate, 2162 votes, is all about the numbers.

It’s worth remembering that Birgitte’s rise to power relied on a number of coincidences. If Laugesen hadn’t split the coalition, Hesselboe had remembered his wallet, if Ole Dahl had died on a different day, if Katrine’s best friend had kept his hands to himself, if Kasper hadn’t handed the evidence to the leader of a party other than the one he was working for, if Laugesen had not made the revelation in a way that was equally damaging to his own party, if Laugesen had not unnerved Höx, if Labour had not chosen the anti-Laugesen – if any of these things had happened, then the likelihood is a Labour Statsminister (and no TV series). It reminds me of a scene in Undecideds, when Toby and Josh are debating whether Santos has (the very American qualities?) what it takes to be president:

Josh: He stepped up. When presented with the opportunity…

Toby: (interrupting) A man in that job shouldn’t have to be presented with anything. It’s for someone who grabs it and holds onto it. For someone who thinks the gods have conspired to bring him to this place. That destiny demands of him this service. If you don’t have that kind of drive, that hubris, how in the hell are you gonna make the kind of decisions that stump every other person in the country?

What do you think? Leave a comment below, and check out the rest of our Borgen coverage here.

2 comments

    • I think that the conventional wisdom is that both Solidarity and the Freedom Party would never enter government (series 3 challenges that) but kind of cancel each other out. Wikipedia gives the Government 83 seats ‘supported by’ 8 others including 6 from Solidarity, so – 91. Maybe they have agreed to support on what we in the UK would call a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement

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