Quote: Denying the existence of a ghost will only make it grow bigger – Greenlandic proverb
Katrine receives a phone call from a prospective and secretive source who has photographic evidence that CIA hostages have been illegally run through Thule Air Base, which is in Greenland. The government, through the secret police and the military, does its best to close the story down. Matters are complicated not least because the episode brings into question the relationship between Denmark and Greenland. The Copenhagen establishment has a poor view of the Greenlanders’ ability to run their own affairs, but Birgitte visits Greenland and is surprised at what she finds. There are ramifications, too, for Danish-US relations. On the domestic front, things are looking better for Birgitte and Philip.
An ambitious – if slightly flawed – unashamedly liberal episode that looks at power and pecking orders, Denmark’s place in the world, its relationship with Greenland, vested interests and the ability of politicians, journalists and others to challenge the status quo. (Phew!)
Other than the Nyborg/Höxenhaven midnight meeting in episode 2, Borgen hasn’t so far given us tense moments and it’s a little scared to do so at first: the opening scene, as Katrine searches among the shipping containers, is punctured by her colleague Simon crouching next to a car and making none-too-subtle stage whispers. But by the time TV1 runs the story given to Katrine by Carsten Ockels, her mysterious source, it’s clear that this is no laughing matter.
At times it seems as though only Birgitte and Ockels are standing up for Denmark against the US – and Birgitte is also on her own looking out for Greenland. Niels Erik is quick to brief against the former colony, and to ensure that Birgitte takes the ‘correct’ approach to Greenland prime minister Jens Enok – treating him mean because his government is allegedly incompetent and the society he leads rotten.
Enok keeps his dignity: he knows how the game is played – and, indeed, outlines the pecking order: USA then Denmark then Greenland. Only Kasper (who regards it as the natural order of things) is similarly prepared to actually admit the facts of life, but all Birgitte’s ministers are paralysed by their unwillingness to upset the Americans. Thus Höx says Denmark has no right to check US planes while Thorsen wants to play down the importance of the matter and the two Labourites bicker about whose department is responsible for the leak and who should go on TV to defend the government. Thorsen gets the TV1 gig, but is let off the hook by Ulrik’s soft interviewing skills, much to the disgust of Katrine (who bellows her disapproval at the hapless anchor) and the relief of Bjørn Marrot (who bellows his approval at an unamused Statsminister). Bjørn has been fobbed off by the Americans who said that details were only provided on a ‘need to know’ basis: Bjørn, it seems, didn’t need to know.
Birgitte is openly frustrated. It probably doesn’t help that the three department ministers concerned (Bjørn, Höx and H C Thorsen) are all from Labour and she doesn’t really have a handle on Niels Erik. She is concerned information is being withheld – ‘don’t play your secret gentlemen’s club games with me’ – and doesn’t understand why they won’t point out to the US that Denmark has been and is an ally. They seem paralysed and intimidated (not least by Birgitte, or ‘Mummy’ as Thorsen describes her). Birgitte tells Marrot that she’ll handle the foreign affairs committee herself – to his simultaneous relief and shame. Frustrated by the lack of leadership among her team, she returns home for a romantic interlude with Philip, after which they agree to more regular, scheduled sex.
If the ministers are paralysed, the secret service is not, though it is arguable that they are potentially working against Denmark’s interests as newly defined by the Statsminister. Luckily their attempts to intimidate Katrine have no effect. She’s quick to challenge the plain-clothes detectives the following day, chasing them down the stairs while trying to film them. The indictment notice makes the journalists scoff, but it’s an effective gag until Hanne Holm makes it redundant. There is a moment of genuine tension when Katrine and Kasper discover that Katrine’s flat has been broken into. The audience sees – though the characters do not – that the agent is still in the flat and although a sound on the stairs raises the alarm, our spin doctor is easily outrun by the spook.
Which raises the time-honoured question: who guards the guards? And whose purpose are they serving? Birgitte is unhappy with the status quo; she has the perhaps naive expectation that she can easily wind back agreements made between Hesselboe and George W Bush. Thorsen points out that it isn’t that easy to do, but it isn’t at all certain whether he’s tried at all. Niels Erik seems to have a reasonable idea about what is going on: he served in Hesselboe’s government and the one before that, so he’d be happy with the idea of continuity. He tells Kasper that the flight landed at Thule for emergency safety reasons. Kasper thinks this changes everything and looks triumphant, but Niels Erik looks shifty, knowing full well that every arrival at Thule is classed as an emergency. His behaviour is consistent with that of Sir Humphrey in the Yes Minister episode The Right to Know (which is all about whether ministers should be given the full facts about particular issues). Humphrey manages to save the minister’s face by cooking up an entirely false set of circumstances.
Niels Erik also has full intelligence on the pursuit of Ockels, and assures Birgitte that it’s all being taken care of – he does this just as she is leaving so that she can’t probe further. It’s clear from this and from the briefings he gives on Greenland that he sees his role here as managing Birgitte rather than trying to reflect her wishes.
Torben would probably not mind if Niels Erik came to TV1 to manage Katrine, who is hot-blooded in pursuit of the story and of the airtime in which to tell it. (Fair enough, given what she’s been going through to get the story.) Torben has been presented as a man who wants a quiet life first, decent ratings second (even if driven by populist wallpaper news like Birgitte taking off for Greenland) and hard-hitting news third – the opposite of what we assume are Katrine’s priorities. So we are perhaps a little surprised when he agrees to run the story, less so when he agrees not to. He probably heard Katrine tell Hanne Holm that it’s his fault that the story has been canned, and his offer to Katrine at the end of the episode is quite a smart move – he knows that she will reject the offer but will, he imagines, start thinking of the wider issues that he has to carry.
Smoking in this programme has consequences. Torben has taken up the habit once more and is accosted by Katrine; Kasper’s gasper relies on Svend Åge, who makes much the same comments on the Greenlanders as did Niels Erik: they are corrupt, alcoholic perverts. He offers the Freedom Party’s support in shafting the Greenlanders. It is the prospect of collaboration with the far right, as much as Höx’s proposal to indict TV1, that finally pushes Birgitte to confront the appalling reality. It’s too late to stop the indictment, but did we hear H C mutter something about the Americans, Greenlanders and the Thule lease renewal?
The indictment is too late, however. Not because TV1 defies it – though even Ulrik seems game – but because they had previously booked – and now have to stand down – the mighty Hanne Holm who now swings into action with consequences we discover shortly. In the meantime, Birgitte is forced to play the emergency landing card in the interview. She knows that’s not the full picture and decides to go to Greenland to talk things through with them. That can be the ‘Birgitte Nyborg’s 100 days in office special’ story that Kasper has been bugging her about.
Following the break-in, Katrine steps up security at her flat by installing a chair under the door handle. Hanne Holm seems to be still assuming Katrine got her sacked from TV1, and now Katrine isn’t bothering to deny it (I still think it unlikely.) But Hanne is now showing Katrine how to be a proper investigative journalist rather than a newsreader. And she has got all Danish papers to make a massive show of solidarity by each running the story, thus protecting TV1 and making the indictment pointless. She persuades Katrine to get her source to speak out live (via the ‘snow’ codeword), and he arrives at TV1 saying he’ll do just that, in time to stop Torben spiking the story.
By the time Birgitte is ready to leave for Denmark, Niels Erik must think his job is done. She has been given her dossier of negative facts about Greenland, and they are tracking down the mole. Sanne has won the secretaries’ raffle to be on the trip, which handily saves the writers the trouble of introducing another character. And the US President has announced his intention to visit Denmark, which Birgitte knows is payoff for the Danes’ not ‘fussing over Greenland’. Kasper doesn’t care about that – he’s overjoyed at the news.
At this point the show opens its lens wider and narrower. We’ve seen it interlink themes before but on this occasion it’s a little jarring. First, in Greenland, Birgitte hopes to charm Jens Enok but he’s less amenable on his home turf and isn’t too impressed when she recites the Niels Erik dossier. He challenges her to stay longer to find out what’s happening for herself, and she accepts. In a largely dialogue-free sequence we see her immerse herself in Greenland. We don’t know what conclusions she is reaching – and as she admits to Philip later, nor does she. We just know that something profound is going on as one character tries to get to grips with a difficult theoretical, practical and historical problem. It still smacks a little of government-by-tourism. Perhaps Niels Erik does have a point when he says that it’s easy to be seduced by Greenland’s beauty; but Enok gets the chance to lay out to Birgitte – and to us – the scale of the social problems facing Greenland, and in particular the rate of suicide that devastates the community. Enok argues that his people need their self-respect back – which would be assisted by their involvement in big decisions concerning their country. On the flight home, Birgitte looks thoughtful and tells Kasper that things will need to change.
Birgitte has forgotten to buy souvenirs but Sanne has it covered: a polar bear tooth for Magnus and a tupilak for Laura (‘Tupilak! Tak!’). Philip makes a bit of flirty noise about cancelled sex appointments, but also asks about Greenland. It was magnificent, depressing, hideous, the most beautiful place, says Birgitte, and Denmark did Greenland no favours in discovering it. Philip looks serious and thoughtful. Who does he think he is? Don Draper from Mad Men?
The narrow lens focuses on Carsten Ockels, who doesn’t show for his interview. He’s had pressure put on him by top brass, and his reputation and that of his family would have been trashed if he’d gone ahead. He puts on his full uniform in his apartment. The following morning, Torben tells Katrine that Ockels committed suicide. And, pretty much just like that, the government is off the hook. It’s a victory for the status quo, we think.
Kasper bought Katrine a hat ‘made of baby seal’. She notices an ad, in memoriam, placed for Carsten Ockels. Katrine worries that his revelations have had no consequence. Kasper disagrees, even though he thinks the consequences were negative: a TV1 report tells us that negotiations about US facilities in Thule are taking place in Greenland for the first time, while rather inevitably, the US president has cancelled his trip.
Ockels’ death is a bit of a cop out from the ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’ school of storytelling, but it does raise the question about how much one person – whether a whistleblower or a journalist – can change things. As Enok might put it, does a new government mean much more than the commissioning of new art? But the episode steers just the right side of schmaltz or preachiness. Hanne Holm’s ‘primitive men’ point isn’t explored but hangs there none the less. And the death of Carsten Ockels and the role of the state in his suicide mean that the conclusion is more ambiguous.
A final vignette. Night time. TV1. Phone rings. Katrine doesn’t intend to answer it, but she is Denmark’s Most Investigative Journalist (and, curiously, the newsroom is closed during the evening so there is no one else there) so she does. A nice bridge to whatever story is coming next.
The first family
Birgitte still smiles at staff as she arrives in the office.
The code for marital relations in the Nyborg/Christensen household is ‘rearranging the furniture’ and is a time of general jubilee as the kids can have crisps. Birgitte and Philip aren’t that satisfied with their interior decoration, however, and agree that the furniture needs to be rearranged more frequently than of late, on Tuesday and Saturday.
Does Laura have the entire first floor of the house to herself?
Still pursuing Katrine, feeding her exclusives but also thwarting her stories. When asked whether he had anything to do with the break-in, he protests but doesn’t actually deny it. And he admits that he knew about the indictment but not that he argued hard against it. You feel that either it’s actually hard for him to simply tell the truth, or that he can’t be bothered to present a positive case when it’s about himself.
The cautious, technocratic, conservative, humourless Niels Erik has been permanent secretary for eight years (slightly predating the Hesselboe administration) and knows how to answer a question by not answering it. What does he know of the flights? He can’t remember any meetings where they were mentioned: a beautiful non-answer. It’s slightly implied that he is in cahoots with the Defence Minister in order to preserve the status quo. He doesn’t look convinced by his own ‘emergency landings’ argument. He’s still trying to sack scatty Sanne, who comes through on the gifts and is generally likeable but who continues to curtsey: obviously there’s a lot more mileage to come on the Niels Erik versus Sanne storyline.
Hanne Holm gets the best lines. ‘I had no idea,’ she tells Torben, ‘they made your kind without any balls.’ She identifies herself to Katrine as ‘the woman you got sacked for drinking’, and later, discussing Ockels’ ideas of Danish national pride, remarks that, ‘Men are so primitive’. She obviously commands huge sway among Danish journalists and it’s perhaps a little surprising that she remains slightly marooned at Ekspres. Journalists aren’t renowned for teetotalism so just how bad was her drinking?
Torben wants good plane takeoff shots as Birgitte goes to Greenland. He knows he’s being manipulated but doesn’t care.
When Birgitte met Bartlet
The Americans are, of course, the bad guys in this episode, which is ironic because you can imagine Martin Sheen feeling right at home. The obvious parallels are with episodes that look at the status of African-Americans and Native Americans (such as The Indians in the Lobby). There are plenty of times when the Bartlet White House tries to do the right thing, as they see it, in terms of foreign policy.
What do you think? Leave a comment and check out our other Borgen coverage.