Borgen episode recap and review S2 E1 89,000 Children

Quote: War is just when it is necessary – Machiavelli

Birgitte and the team visit soldiers in Afghanistan. The Danish forces come under sustained attack, which puts a strain on the government’s plans to withdraw troops. Katrine is now working for Ekspres, and tries to interview the father of a dead young soldier: the grieving father describes the war as senseless. Birgitte is under pressure: the US and Labour are in favour of keeping operations going but the Greens and a sizeable part of her own Moderates still want to pull out, while Hesselboe is conducting his own manoeuvres. She is lobbied by Afghani NGOs, too, but her own army generals are reluctant to provide strategic advice.

On the home front, Kasper is dating communications expert Lotte, but Philip is pushing a reluctant Birgitte towards a divorce. Will she win either her ‘war at the office’ or her ‘war at home’? And what is winning, anyway?

Who guards the Hedegärds?

It’s 11 months on and we start the new season not in Copenhagen, nor even in Kansas, but Afghanistan.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the first episode of the second series would feature foreign policy. The rhythm is of course very different – less cosy domesticity, a wider context to interpret – and one which is often painted only in the most general terms. For the TV producer, it’s always tempting to start with a bang, and given all the jokes about how dull Danish politics must be, a war is as exciting as it gets. For a foreign audience…well, we just have to work harder to forget our own perspective on Afghanistan and learn how the topic may have played in Denmark at the time the episode was written (or aired).

Setting the first scenes away from Borgen helps, too, with exposition. Last time we saw Birgitte she had – as we saw it – sacrificed her marriage and sacked Bent and Sanne to cling on to power. Eleven months later she is standing alongside H C Thorsen as he purses his lips smugly at the Afghan wastelands and giving photo opportunities to cheeky young Army imps. We learn about what is happening in Copenhagen before we see it and that partly enables us to dismiss what we might otherwise see as continuity oddities – like that the personality of Sanne’s replacement is being discussed as though she were new – she is to us but surely not to Kasper? And we have probably doomed Lotte in our minds before she even appears (just as we, surely, doomed Hedegärd as he went off into action).

What is the alternative? The other ‘classic’ way for a series opener is to begin a few moments after the previous season ended…but the specific circumstances behind the opening of Parliament wouldn’t have been compelling enough once stretched into further episodes.

So instead we greet characters who have moved on but not completely – Birgitte no longer a neophyte as PM, Kasper more of an adviser to Birgitte nor Bent has gone, Katrine the moral foil but to Laugesen rather than Torben (surely a stronger challenge?)

On a personal level there’s the continued development of Birgitte, melodramatically fighting a war on two fronts, still wanting in some way to be reconciled with Philip, still, nine months on, having been unsuccessful in working out a way to do that. Or is she some way along the grieving process, with the occasional relapse? She seems to take a blow every time she returns to an empty house.

And the episode also looks at this war, from several angles. What is the principled, political thing to do? Birgitte gets out-manoeuvred by Hesselboe but who is doing the right thing by the Danish army – or more generally? Yet again Brigitte shows that Kasper’s cautiousness has its limits: her meeting with the NGOs gives her a different perspective (that, in real life, would not have been new to her). And Katrine’s efforts to give a voice to Andreas Hedegärd show an angle almost always ignored. Yet the programme is careful, even though it shows Birgitte and Katrine moved by the first-person tales of the NGO and Hedegärd’s grief, for these characters not to take over – they are here for a purpose and to help our lead characters make decisions and do things, just as they would be in real life politics. 

Sadly, this episode is less than the sum of its ambitious parts. The ‘war on two fronts’ is unsubtle. (And Amir’s repetition of Philip’s line is particularly disastrous.) At times the portrayal of the debate around the war seems equally unsubtle: this avowedly liberal show openly argues the humanitarian case for Danish involvement. The counter-argument is seriously given (though Amir’s Clint Eastwood reference was fun) only by Bent, who is depicted as out-of-touch. Worse, although a positive reading of Birgitte’s resolution of the matter suggests a pragmatic leader listening to experts and taking account of new information, such a reading ignores that the advice that Thorsen gave and which was so summarily dismissed was presumably based on the same army expertise.

More interesting is the exploration of the way in which politics, the media and the war coincide. In the UK, there is a convention that matters of war are above party politics. The major parties fall over themselves to be statesmanlike. Hesselboe, by contrast, shows real opposition, though it is slightly more nuanced. His smile at Birgitte’s annoyance shows a man who’s enjoying a victory. But Kasper’s comment that Hesselboe has had Birgitte change her policy, only to withdraw, seems overblown. When did Birgitte ask for his support in the first place, or discuss with him what might be necessary to gain it? On the other hand, Hesselboe’s gossip-like remarks to the families were out of order.

Elsewhere in the media, Torben’s analysis concentrates on political procedure, so it is down to Katrine to get to the ‘truth’ about the war. Laugesen, after all, wants to stick the boot into his political enemy. It’s clear that the story that Katrine files at the end of the episode is consistent with the ‘truth’ as we’ve seen it unveiled: that the struggle in Afghanistan is tragic but noble. But it’s worth remembering that Katrine is (reluctantly) following Laugesen’s line when Kasper calls her on it, then she pretty much gives up on the story in the middle of the episode and only a drubbing by Laugesen and a pep talk from Hanne Holm get her back on track. Meanwhile Hanne Holm, whom we have always respected as standing for the highest journalistic standards, proves herself to be slightly more pragmatic and provides the story Laugesen is asking for.

The scenes between Katrine and Hedegärd are beautiful and utterly awkward. Katrine doesn’t want to intrude and yet she is driven both by her need to deliver and by her pledge to tell the soldiers’ stories. The lighting is amazing with Hedegärd lit but the activity of the showroom around him in darkness, to show that he is oblivious to it.

A viewer coming fresh to the pre-title ‘previously…’ sequence would note that Birgitte is principled but troubled domestically and by the challenges of office – her experience as Bent exonerates her for her patricide is complex: attempting hardness, she shows instead shock and guilt – Katrine is principled, and Kasper is troubled and unprincipled. So we are perhaps unprepared to see Birgitte Nyborg, war leader – though Kasper loves it.

For all I’ve said about the unsubtlety of the presentation of the war as just, it’s an entirely reasonable position to hold and many of the scenes are deftly written, beautifully framed and shot and well-acted. But what we will remember is the contrast with last season’s opener. There we saw a woman who was encouraged from the rock of her home life to push for professional glory. Now Birgitte pushes through change against the will of some of her coalition partners, but her home life has crumbled around her.

The first family

Birgitte has a fat wallet – and there’s a picture of Philip and the kids. But she returns to a cold, empty house. She’s greeted by a ‘welcome home, Mum’ card and a pillow with the scent of her children. Even when Philip returns with Magnus, Magnus’ warmth is contrasted with Philip’s stubble and business and did you sign the divorce papers. He’s presented unsympathetically as unsympathetic.

I liked the take-away vignette, with Magnus opting for the exotic no. 7 on the menu rather than the less-appetising-sounding no. 5.

Katrine and Kasper

In the first episodes of the first series, Kasper was sacked for his amorality, while Bent was the proud party elder. Now Kasper is asked for the advice that Bent once gave. If Bent was stuck in the past, is Kasper the face of the modern Moderates? Or, with his ‘Be precise, serious, sharp’ advice, is he in the running to be a professor of rhetoric?

Kasper and Katrine haven’t seen each other for months, and Kasper appears to have found romance. Katrine has changed her hair and looks younger: this together with her always-dark student-like apartment contrasts strongly against Kasper’s new squeeze who lives in a sophisticated new-build with sunlight and views and oyster knives and free-flowing wine. Lotte works in the ‘safe’ side of communications so she can discuss professional matters with Kasper without ever spilling into areas of conflict. There’s a high standard of living and conspicuous consumption if Kasper wants it. But there is no indication that Lotte could ever fill Katrine’s role of Kasper’s soulmate. Kasper’s matter-of-fact message – ‘attacked, safe, seeya’ – tells us all we need to know, and when we find that he’s still spinning the same story about storage in the south of France we know poor Lotte is on borrowed time. ‘What a crazy story!’ she says at one point and we wonder whether she has busted Kasper’s tall tales. But even when he blurts out Katrine’s name she is quick to explain it away.

Minor characters

In series 1, we saw a little of Laugesen at work – especially as Labour leader where he dominated events and made things happen but ultimately failed in his quest for power. Since then, he’s been presented as a panto villain. Now (jazz hands – when he’s talking about the “sob story” that Katrine wants to write – notwithstanding) he fills the editor role previously taken by Torben. He’s certainly more dynamic than Torben (as we could have predicted) but although his instinct is to play hard and dirty against the government, he’s not immune to a good human interest story. Katrine plays him differently – she still sticks up for what she wants, but less aggressively than she did with Torben. 

And Hanne Holm’s back, acting as a (slightly more pragmatic) mentor to Katrine.

Jytte is the new secretary, and a kind of a-Sanne, if you will. She’s competent but humourless and likes to speak to Birgitte in the third person.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

Bartlet is a defence hawk right from the start – having to be talked out of bringing vengeance upon the Syrians in A Proportionate Response.

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

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