Borgen episode recap S1 E5 Men who love Women

Quote: Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed – Machiavelli

The coalition is introducing a new law that requires Danish organisations to have equal gender representation on their boards. The initiative has caused some angst in the cabinet – not everyone agrees with the policy and even those who do are jockeying for position. But it’s the reaction of Denmark’s biggest conglomerate that’s the problem: it threatens to move its operations from the country if the move goes ahead. Simultaneously, the Ekspres runs a smear campaign against the business minister, Henriette Klitgaard, and the government’s attempts to rescue her reputation backfire. Birgitte has to decide whether to proceed with the new law, and once again the cabinet and civil service provide conflicting advice. Finally she decides to gamble all at a high stakes meeting.

Stairs at Christiansborg, Copenhagen


The Greenland storyline in the previous episode wasn’t scared to present an argument: the Greenlanders are up against it and Denmark should spend more time supporting them than in sucking up to the Americans. This episode is different. Birgitte is shown learning to play, and win at, poker: bluffing and negotiating with serious players. It’s perhaps a little surprising that she’s new to this: we might have assumed that coalition politics – indeed, simply leading a party – requires very good skills in this area, but we’ll put that to one side.

We aren’t seriously presented with any real arguments about equality per se: the coalition agrees (more or less) that the initiative should be pursued and the assumption is that it’s a good thing. Instead, we are presented with vignettes: the frat boy atmosphere at TV1, Laugesen’s leering behaviour, Kasper’s inability to behave, hints of Philip’s jealousy. And we see the collateral damage. The women win, but the sisterhood implodes. That is the paradox of the first series of Borgen: two of the three leaders are women, women are in powerful positions, but the programme is very matter-of-fact about it and offers unreconstructed lads in the TV1 newsroom to provide some sort of ‘balance’.

Viewers outside Denmark have been interested in calling this programme ‘feminist’ and point to the strong characters or Katrine’s abortion (a topic that would not be covered on an equivalent show produced in the United States). Personally, I am not sure that Borgen is especially feminist or has a feminist agenda. It reflects the society in which it is made. If women have fewer rights or less power in the communities in which ‘foreign’ viewers reside, that is a different matter entirely.

If I were Amir I’d begin to get a little alarmed by the regularity with which Birgitte shores up her positions offering compromises on environmental issues. There are reasonable arguments for a phased approach to the new boardroom equality law, so why be, er, macho about that but give away the parliament’s right to decide on the environment.

British viewers of Borgen have a comparative unfamiliarity with coalitions. The need to manage multiple stakeholders means that politics is rather more 3D than the more binary system we’re used to and therefore seems more difficult as a result. So Pernille Madsen argues that she should go on TV to talk about her fall-out with Henriette because Labour expect it, while Henriette is more concerned about whether Birgitte is going to abandon the bill, and fails to follow the instructions that Kasper has given her. Following the last episode’s occasional bickering about whose ministry was responsible for the leak, we have a real turf war, with both the business and equalities ministers claiming the issue for their ministries.

Henriette’s downfall raises the question (if you agree, that is, with her premise that she was doing only what incompetent men have always done) of whether you have to behave like a man to get ahead in a man’s world. What if Pernille Madsen had actually introduced the bill? Henriette is credible with business, but is torpedoed by her looks – both in the way in which the media cover her, and in the career choices she was able to make when a student, which now come back to haunt her. Yet Kasper behaves appallingly throughout the episode and gets off scot-free.

In fact, one of the ways that this episode chooses to look at gender equality is to have both genders behave to their stereotypes. At TV1, the boys all lust openly after Henriette while the women jealously agree that she probably can’t cook. Henriette duly makes mincemeat of Ulrik who had been all talk earlier in the day. ‘[Women are] nothing to be scared of, Ulrik,’ she flirts, as he grins sheepishly while Katrine yells at him from the control room to give the minister hell. And there’s our answer as to whether or not a man or a woman should do the interview on equality.

Pernille’s approach is to try to stab Henriette in the back, dripping with fake sympathy and sisterhood. When it doesn’t work she criticises what she calls Birgitte’s ‘masculine’ approach – though if what we saw from her was the unmasculine approach then she pretty much destroyed the case for it on her own.

Talking of stereotypes, Niels Erik is typically Niels Erik in this episode, standing up for vested interests. Philip explains that this is because he’s one of Crohne’s cronies. Either way, the civil servant gets the industrialist in front of the PM. Crohne plays hard at the meeting, exuding power, explaining that women are incompetent. Good things come to those who wait, he growls. It’s a rubbish argument because it assumes that the people who are affected by the delay will be the same ones to benefit when change occurs. Also, he hasn’t explained how change could occur. But when Birgitte calls her top team together later, they all reiterate their positions nervously:

Niels Erik: we should comply; Henriette: he’s being unreasonable; Bent: told you so; Pernille: it’s the other woman’s fault; Kasper: ‘Christ!’ Luckily Kasper has Henriette’s ankle tattoo to keep him distracted. I wonder if Philip ever saw Henriette’s tattoo, back then.

We see rather a lot of Birgitte’s home in this episode. Unfortunately, it’s often while Philip is sleeping or attempting to. When he’s awake, he’s very busy remembering Henriette’s credentials (woman, 38, 3 kids, MBA, PhD) in a very familiar way, or giving Birgitte poker advice. She’s upset that Laura and Magnus aren’t too bothered about her appearance at dinner; he’s upset when she has to leave for her meeting with Crohne. He isn’t best pleased, either, when she brings a laptop and biscuits to bed, and then when she finally returns home, triumphant and ready to celebrate, he’s distinctly uninterested in rearranging any furniture. The camera pulls back to show Birgitte in her power suit and Philip in the duvet, cosy and domestic. The following day, they discuss quite happily around the breakfast table Philip’s fling with Henriette when she was an intern (though that doesn’t stop Birgitte making a bitchy remark aimed at Henriette later at work). Is it naïve that he didn’t mention his romantic interlude before now?

If Kasper knew that Philip had slept with the woman he’s lusting about (or, rather, one of the women), who knows what would happen? That breakfast with Katrine seems to set Kasper up into a flirting frenzy. He’s flirting with ‘hot minister’ Henriette, making really rather odious remarks about the really rather odious Pernille, flirting even with Birgitte, checking out Sanne (even commenting on her attributes to Birgitte) and gazing at Henriette’s aide. A highlight is the ‘you’re a flirt’, ‘no I’m not’ exchange with Birgitte, during which Birgitte makes flirty faces at the gorgeous coffee pot, and which ends with Kasper asking Sanne (who has just entered the room), ‘Am I flirting?’ Confused Sanne responds, ‘Not with me.’ It’s probably just a matter of time.

Henriette’s so unimpressed by Kasper’s knowledge of shoes that he looks like he’ll burst into tears. Then he insists that he, and not Henriette’s regular PR adviser (who, in fairness, seems not to know anything about the media), will handle the crisis communications arising from the Ekspres articles, so that he can boast to her about being ‘well connected’. Finally, he can’t handle their proximity to each other in their debate run through: first raging at her and then trying to kiss her. It doesn’t help that Katrine refused to respect the confidential information he’d given her about the Henriette/Pernille bust up, and that things went from bad to worse when he went to confront her.

For by that point Katrine has reacted rudely and then more positively to Benjamin. The gym instructor’s comment that Ulrik is a better anchor because he gives people a chance just got him a date. Perhaps she should thank Ulrik? But when he sees his ex and the trainer together, Kasper’s first response is to be jealous and aggressive. He should note that ‘Spin off’ is something that can be said to both spin instructor and spin doctor.

On the other hand, Kasper does help research on Crohne. And Kasper is the one who clocks the meaning of the arrival of the note about Henriette’s CV. At least Henriette’s resignation sets her free from his clutches. And he seems less interested in the new business minister. Whether it’s habit or jealousy, he decides to pursue Katrine again, and sits with a coffee on her jogging route when he sees her kissing Benjamin. Rejected again, he slopes away, this man who loves women.

The first family

Philip was ‘no match for (Magnus’) pester power’.

And there’s another warm scene between Birgitte and Philip: I’ve never asked for a man’s approval, how do I look? There’s also a scene where Birgitte laughingly asks, ‘Do we need a divorce?’ Philip responds (a little bitterly) that he isn’t a CEO, he just teaches. The camera pulls back – emphasising how he’s alone – but he gathers himself enough to flirt with Birgitte as she leaves.

Things are beginning to change slightly at Nyborg/Christiansen Towers. Philip is bored and would rather be the one bluffing things out with Crohne. We’re still at the stage where Birgitte is less experienced than the men around her giving her advice (the women around her are less experienced still) – but she is the one who is in a position to act or disregard their advice.


The way to seduce Katrine Fønsmark is not to offer health advice. It’s to say you prefer Ulrik as an anchor. That piques her interest enough for you to get your foot in the door, while she delivers some really rather marvellous face pulling.

Ambitious women are often presented as aggressive and unpleasant: there are times where Katrine is clearly just standing up for a good story, but when she refuses to take any criticism for her poor handling of the Laugesen/Klitgaard debate she crosses the line. It’s a story device to push her towards Benjamin, but her relationship with Torben is such that it’s quite believable. Speaking of Benjamin, his offer to improve her diet is quite an aggressive chat up line.


Told by Birgitte to ‘get a life’, he spends much of the episode chasing ‘hot minister’ Henriette. And there’s a nice scene where he tells Birgitte he must worship only her, and she offers him a mint. Birgitte is now very relaxed with Kasper and seems to tolerate him as though you would tolerate a precocious child or naughty younger brother, though it isn’t certain why some of his comments deserve tolerance.

Kasper is ‘self-centred’ according to Katrine – who knew? It’s taken over four episodes for someone to point it out.

Kasper is clearly in heat throughout this episode – we had Christmas in the previous episode so maybe it’s to do with the changing of the seasons – just after his remarks about Sanne, he’s clocking another colleague (who seems amused).

It’s the first time we’ve seen Kasper fail to put his feelings for a woman second to his work.

Other characters

There is some bickering and actual debate in the pressroom about who should interview Henriette and the role of gender in reporting about gender.

Sanne’s scattiness isn’t really convincing – it is used to set up another exchange for Birgitte and Kasper, where Kasper can show his boorish side. Sanne is incompetent but does metaphors about bombs.

Laugesen is more and more outrageous each week. This character was a serious candidate to be prime minister only three months previously, and his conduct is inconsistent with that.

Danish delights

A few words of English: charmingly, ‘anyway’ and more intriguingly, ‘girl power’.

Denmark my native land includes a line about how England used to be under Danish control.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

Another massive shout out to the West Wing. In the episode Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics, Bartlet is haggling with a right wing senator. They trade good-natured insults and the senator asks what’s in it for him. ‘The thanks of a grateful president,’ says Bartlet, which persuades the patriotic man opposite him. But all that’s tactics. The feel of the episode is very different from the West Wing, where – especially under Aaron Sorkin – the rights of women would have been fought for (by men) and probably won (by men), and then we’d have had a final minute or so set in the Oval Office as searing strings made us remember that we all have the capacity to be better people. Borgen treats this issue with more nuance.

What do you think? Leave a comment and check out our other Borgen coverage.

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