Borgen episode recap and review S2 E2 In Brussels, no one hears you scream

Quote: Hold your friends close to you, but your enemies closer – Sun Tzu

Denmark needs to nominate a European Commissioner. The post could go to a Moderate (the two front runners are Bent and 1950s throwback Jacob Kruse) or to Labour. The post is considered a prize and whichever party gets it will have to cede cabinet turf. The media are on the hunt to name the nominee. 

Birgitte’s relationship with Bent has collapsed and she is grooming Kruse as a protégé. Both Bent and Kruse are the Moderate contenders for the Commissioner post. Katrine and Hanne are on the story, though each is distracted by personal family and matters. Birgitte offers the post first to Bent, then to Kruse, but both turn it down: Bent thinks he’s being bought off and Kruse says he wants to remain European minister during Denmark’s upcoming EU presidency. Birgitte dismisses Kasper’s suspicions about Kruse’s real intentions, but offers the post to Labour.

Hanne Holm behaves erratically at a press conference: she is estranged from her daughter who is having a birthday. Birgitte offers the post to Labour, but is visited by Kirsten, Bent’s wife, who says Bent needs to retire. Later, though, Bent visits Birgitte and accepts the position. In turn, Birgitte offers Kruse the Moderates’ deputy leadership.

A drink-filled Hanne collapses just before the press conference to unveil Bent – but Bent collapses himself, from a cerebral embolism, shortly after it. Ekspres runs a story saying that it isn’t his first, and that Birgitte knew about this when choosing him for Commissioner. Distraught and furious, she visits Bent ‘s hospital, where she finds out who really knew about the illness. With Bent now unable to take up the position, what does this mean for Denmark’s Commissionership?

Bent over backwards

Borgen has never been simply about the machinations of government: more about combining ambition, loyalty, family and friendship. The political ‘problem’ for Birgitte to solve relates to the EU but it’s primarily a domestic affair and is, as such, a welcome return home after the big budget season opener. We see different kinds of loyalty and integrity, within families and between colleagues: Bent, still mourning the loss of his influence in Birgitte’s inner circle, but prepared to accept the Commissioner role only for the right reasons; Birgitte, struggling with residual guilt at her patricide while attempting to calculate the maximum benefit for the Moderates; Bent’s wife, who was prepared to accept an open marriage as the price for her husband’s career but who now battles on behalf of his health; Jacob Kruse. Hanne and Katrine, struggling with different family pressures but sticking together, with complementary scarves, the accusations of the first series long forgotten. Thankfully, the two journalists’ family issues are presented carefully and not under a massive sign inviting us to COMPARE AND CONTRAST against the first family. This programme is all about the trade-offs between public and private success but it knows that it doesn’t need to ram that down our throats all the time.

We’re about a quarter into the episode before we see any of the first family: Magnus comes to Borgen and we see things have moved on since the first series. Birgitte flaunts Magnus’ attendance to Niels Erik, cheekily challenging him to record it in his ‘black book’; Niels Erik’s look of disgust makes us believe that he might actually do just that. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine Jytte, a PA of whom Niels Erik can really approve, saying, as Sanne did to Kasper, ‘Magnus and I are really busy’. Of course, Magnus’ illness is a device through which Bent can try to reach out, with muchos pathos, to Birgitte. He presents a list of possible candidates to Birgitte but her heart remains stony – but who  could remain unmoved by a gift of priceless Donald Duck comics? 

Birgitte is troubled by Bent’s visit and it isn’t clear whether she finally plumps to offer him the job based on guilt, as a final reward or just to stop him coming round and filling her house with old Disney merchandise. Certainly, Bent reckons it’s the first of these. Birgitte’s argument, that she wants a great commissioner immediately raises the question why, if he’s so good, he isn’t in the cabinet. Although Birgitte’s frustration is palpable, as her dramatic swivel makes clear, it is ambiguous whether her annoyance is due to a concern for the Moderates or arises from her guilt. It’s probably both, and it’s nicely portrayed. The immense muddle is again obvious in the next scene, when Kruse says you don’t say no to a job like that, and then does; but no one ostensibly notices because Birgitte is smitten by his obvious display of integrity, and Kasper was too busy being distracted by a blonde assistant walking past.

We get a few insights into the way the Danes see others: the Finns are obsessed with climate, the British with foreign affairs and the French want prestige or to ‘corner the game’. More to the point, we are reminded that, contrary to the views of certain British newspapers/politicians, the UK isn’t the only country with citizens who feel ambivalently towards Europe. Laugesen (of course) shoots down Katrine and Hanne’s suggestions of educating Ekspres’s readers in the ways of Euro-democracy, pointing out that the inner workings of Brussels is, frankly, boring and only of interest if it involves scandal. He rolls his eyes magnificently as Hanne refers to ‘Denmark’s voice in Europe’ and perks up only when they promise a scoop on naming the potential Commissioner.

Brigitte is now happy to lie to the press (or have Kasper do it) but Niels Erik’s idea that she use the commissioner job to get rid of someone seems to genuinely surprise both Birgitte and Kasper. Kasper has what seems at first glance a romantic view of the Commission: it represents power so why wouldn’t you want to deliver the most prestigious position for Denmark?

Kasper sees Niels Erik as having ‘an agenda’ – and is quick to see through the machinations of the ’50s throwback. The clues about the latter are there from the off, though: the way Kruse chews his gum is oddly reminiscent of a Bond villain stroking a cat – and his strange insistence that Bent is on the inside (thus making Kruse less of a threat) is so off-the-mark as to draw attention to its clumsiness. Kruse is, on the other hand, relatively tall, and his finest moment comes later in the episode where he towers above Birgitte while chewing maliciously and remarking that Bent could have done a great job ‘down there’. (Clearly this isn’t meant to be smutty.) Later, he visits Birgitte ostensibly to congratulate her on getting Bent to agree. His segue to the real reason for his visit – to become Moderate deputy leader (what? No election for the post?) is done so clumsily as to be ridiculous.

Birgitte tells Kasper that she has to believe in Kruse’s good intentions, but it isn’t clear why, unless it’s merely because he’s in the same party. Certainly, she has little regard for her coalition colleagues – Marrot wasn’t PM material, Hox isn’t to be trusted and HC can’t buy a plane without landing the government in trouble. And it transpires that the Moderates aren’t blessed with strength in depth – they have no suitable candidates other than Bent and Kruse. What happened to the people round the table in episode 2, when Birgitte was still learning to count to 90?

The viewer needs to be at least a couple of steps in front of Birgitte, and though I didn’t pick up on it during first viewing, Kasper’s remark about the commissioner for multilingualism or neighbourhood is quite obvious foreshadowing in a way that’s in keeping with the show’s style.

We’ve seen Katrine become a formidable journalist but here’s the first time that she and Hanne are shown as clear equals (even if not in terms of Ekspres hierarchy): there’s no way Hanne would now deliver a speech accusing Katrine of being no more than a newsreader. Katrine’s question about Denmark being fobbed off with a rubbish portfolio is one we would previously have expected Hanne to ask.

So far this series has been mercifully free of Pernille Madsen and it could have remained that way if only Birgitte had gone along with her request to be considered for the role. Though you could equally argue that the EU has not been so unpleasant to Denmark as to deserve that. Madsen’s willingness to be considered shows her on one level to be more nakedly ambitious than Bent, less cunning than Kruse. She hasn’t thought through the implications for her domestic career. But Marrot’s face, almost coquettish if that were possible, when Labour is offered the position, makes you suspect that he has been dreaming of this opportunity to banish his odious colleague. So once again it’s Bent vs Madsen, mirroring episode 10.

By the time Bent arrives to accept the job there’s a real awkwardness between the two former political allies and friends. If Birgitte’s offer of the post was borne of the guilt living in her residual affection for her mentor, his previous rejection and now acceptance of the post smashes that previous relationship to smithereens. The following day, Birgitte tells Bent the tributes she’ll pay to him – words she would once have meant wholeheartedly and which they both now know to be hollow: a scene as sad in its way, as they each realise what they’ve lost, as some of those in the break-up of Birgitte and Philip.

The literal fall of both Hanne and Bent could be interpreted as showing that there are more barriers to having it all than we’ve previously explored. Hanne’s apart from her daughter because she didn’t put the hours in when her daughter was a child; for Bent, a health problem becomes critical only once he is betrayed by a colleague.

But the silence over Bent’s embolism isn’t the full extent of Kruse’s scheming. He squirms and pleads as Birgitte calmly reveals to us/reminds him that it is he who has told a pack of lies to Ekspres. He has the guts to suggest that a telling-off will suffice, or perhaps a smaller ministry, while Birgitte reminds him of his line about the Commissionership not being something to turn down. (Hooray! Someone remembered!) Luckily, his skill earlier on in the episode at knowing great multilingualism when he sees it will stand him in great stead for his new job. And for Bent and Birgitte there may also be a new beginning.

Kasper, Katrine and Lotte

The British press loved to refer to the former European Commission President as Herman Rumpy Pumpy but despite this being an EU-centric  episode there isn’t very much Van Rompuy going on. Lotte is still offering domesticity in the form of a key, a sign for the front door and a cupboard in the bathroom; Kasper seems not to be listening as she maps out a dinner party, but is able to quote the detail. The light of Lotte’s flat contrasts with Katrine’s ‘student flat’, in relative darkness as she pecks at her keyboard. Hanne turns up wearing a spectacular Princess Leia-like get-up and challenges Katrine to an espresso-making exercise. Katrine, who earlier signalled that the machine was pretty much unused, flunks the test and fails as a Lotte-style domestic goddess.

It’s always incredibly sunny outside Lotte’s apartment block. It’s a good job that she has her friends coming over as otherwise it might have been kind-of appropriate for her to be invited to Katrine’s birthday dinner. As it is, Hanne will join them, and her remark that Katrine won’t let her be alone as though it is Christmas Eve reminds us of the scene from the previous Christmas, when Kasper spent Christmas alone in a snooker hall while Katrine visited her family. Then she reminds Kasper something that he already knows but would prefer to forget: that he still loves Katrine. He returns to Lotte’s apartment and watches her sleeping in a scene full of foreboding – and then texts Katrine (who’s returned home from her birthday revels to tap away on her iMac) an exclusive.

Danish delights

Kirsten may have a great scarf, but her coat is too similar to Birgitte’s jacket with its piping. Kirsten’s is faded, compared with Birgitte’s.

What an amazing coat hanger chez Lotte.

Do the Borgen

Some nice choreographed touches – such as Birgitte and Kasper with their coffee mugs and – look! – a lamp just behind Kasper’s left shoulder. Later, as she comes off the phone with Betancourt, she segues from French to Danish while pointing – Kasper also points in his reply, and then giggles behind Kruse’s back as the foreign minister obsequiously praises the boss’s stellar  multilingualism.

There are some awesome swivels: Bent, as he stalks off at one too many mentions of Jacob Kruse; Birgitte as Bent turns down the Commissioner job. 

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

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