Borgen episode recap and review S2 E6 Them and Us

Quote: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you – Matthew 5:44

Kasper’s parents’ house has been sold, which for the spin doctor brings back memories of the abuse he suffered not just from his father but from his father’s friends too. The Freedom Party propose a Bill to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 14 to 12, and the bill receives some support from within Labour. Birgitte’s attempts to keep the coalition together receive several setbacks: Svend Åge Saltum is assaulted in the street, and she isn’t helped by Kasper’s erratic behaviour which climaxes in one 24-hour period in which he destroys the tentative consensus Birgitte has built, loses his job and crashes his relationship. And Birgitte can’t run child welfare policy in her own home either – she can’t get agreement for her preferred position on Laura’s treatment. The whole thing is out of control, but can an out-of-control Kasper help Birgitte win a crucial vote? 

Why we fight

Every now and again, a TV series presents us with an episode which seeks to answer the ‘so what’ question: yes, we’ve seen you (in this case) come to power, Birgitte, and you have outlasted three Labour leaders and been nicer to Greenland, and? So, for example, the mini-series Band of Brothers, which centred on the experiences of a crack team of US paratroopers after D-Day, included the episode Why we fight, in which the men of Easy Company liberate a concentration camp and the series producers present the moral case against the Nazis. The Borgenepisode Them and us is a riposte to the lazy argument that politicians are all the same by presenting a real case with real consequences – and by showing that the differences between politicians are not cosmetic but about incompatible views about how the world ought to be. And the question of what world we want for the next generation is as serious as it gets. We have dealt with complex issues before in Borgen – not least the war in Afghanistan, but, let’s be honest, the issues did not personally affect the main characters, so we engaged more from a distance. This story, in contrast, goes right to the heart of the character of Kasper, and brings together a number of storylines from this and the previous series: if the flawed, damaged, brilliant, brittle spin doctor has, over the previous 15 episodes, come to mean anything to us at all we will be on the edge of our seats.

Christiansborg looming at sunrise

Of course, we were presented with some of the horrors of Kasper’s childhood in The silly season, and so when we return to the flat colours of Kenneth Juul’s home we think we know what is in store for us. In a clever piece of story-telling, we are already used to the idea of Kenneth’s abuse (to the extent that anyone can be ‘used’ to such a thing): this means that the episode can consider the effects of the abuse rather than the abuse itself. What’s also clever is that we’re used to Kasper’s short fuse and we’re aware that there’s something going on in his private life: we don’t immediately associate the parliamentary business with Kasper’s back story. And there’s a little bit of a scattering of red herring: Svend Åge Saltum’s argument is partly racist in intent – ‘they come here from far away…’ – and the abuse he’s talking about is almost the opposite of that which Kasper experienced. The close up on Kasper shows the proposal sits badly with him, but not why. It sits equally badly with Birgitte: she expects to share a chuckle with H C Thorsen about the appalling Freedom Party only to find the Labour leader fending off the new justice minister who is from the hard line wing of his own party. 

So we are all surprised when Kasper lets rip at Svend Åge and his MP sidekick. In front of an openly amused Sanne – she is so not Jytte – Birgitte tells him off and demands that he apologise. She doesn’t need an out-of-control aide for her meeting with H C Thorsen and Justice Minister Brodersen. Shame, for he misses some five-star smirking from the Labour leader. H C’s idea of controlling his party colleagues is to nod and smile in a condescending way whenever they say something outrageous. He almost bounces at Brodersen and then back at Birgitte. We saw a non-smirking Thorsen previously but he’s back to form. Brodersen isn’t convincing but is at least vaguely interested in the policy. But for those of us who are used to British politics, the idea of a centre-left party agreeing with a party which is so far outside the mould as to be excluded from the centre-right coalition is confusing.

Svend Åge Saltum has an authentic, which is to say messy, office. He has built a cave out of reports and other papers, to belie his reputation as a rabble-rouser with policies based on emotion rather than fact. He keeps his feet up on Kasper’s entry (or anyone’s, since he didn’t know his visitor would be Kasper). He knows Kasper has been sent and why and by whom and Kasper’s fury makes him laugh. But his lighting is cold, like Kasper’s family’s home. Svend Åge Saltum’s lair is not a place of warmth and empathy. As Kasper departs, Svend Åge’s cackles echoing in his ears, he is at least able to flirt a little first with Lisa and with Katrine – though Katrine’s question about his argument with Svend Åge sets him off again.

Over at Birgitte’s, Philip seems more awkward than concerned: he is really uncomfortable to be there with Cecilie. Birgitte is not happy with Cecilie’s suggestion of anti-depressants and points out that Cecilie is not a psychiatrist whereas she, Birgitte, has a ‘policy’ position so that’s presumably OK. Birgitte acts like a politician first and foremost in this scene, taking an abstract position and marking her territory far more aggressively than we see in the office. Or is she simply scared and rattled by finding herself in the minority position with regard to her own child – and arguing against Philip with whom she would once have had a united front? It is after all a little aggressive of Philip and Cecilie to suggest antidepressants before Laura sees the psychiatrist (who would almost certainly prescribe them anyway). But the pills are also symbolic of a failure in parenting. Birgitte is literally fighting, if probably subconsciously, for her daughter. But, in a later scene, to tell Philip that he’s incapable of taking his child to the doctor and that his supposed disloyalty has made him untrustworthy, is pretty patronising stuff. Perhaps it is just the first time that she realises that they no longer see eye to eye on a key issue: a big stage in any split and exacerbated by her professional stress. If she can’t determine childcare policy in her own home, how can she take on the Freedom Party? But we know that it is not hatred of the Freedom Party, but self-loathing and disgust and a sense of failure as she spits at her reflection in the mirror, and weeps.

As the Freedom Party’s luck – and coincidence – would have it, Svend Åge Saltum is assaulted by a 13 year-old immigrant. As Kasper predicts, the victim milks the scene for all it is worth.  An initial surge of support for Saltum is tempered by rumours that his injury is faked: a proposition that Katrine calamitously puts to the Freedom leader. 

WAHEY! Hanne is back, wading straight into the discussion in the TV1 newsroom, much to the discomfort of Ulrik. While the Moderates must respond to Svend Åge at face value, the role of the broadcaster is to question the political class. Katrine has tried – and failed – to follow this angle. Anne Sophie Lindenkrone has a go herself – in as hamfisted a manner as Katrine.

But Kasper is beginning to become unhinged. He barely keeps it together when conducting a role-play interview with Birgitte – a scene which is notable for introducing the key notions both of recurrence or recidivism, and of ‘primitive revenge’ which works on so many levels but is almost lost as our attention is grabbed by Kasper’s anger. The spin doctor also avoids going home, or, to put it another way, to Lotte’s flat and Lotte, preferring to remain in the office with Scotch and a book which sets him up for a shag with Lisa. Poor Lisa. Poor Lotte. Poor Kasper.

And poor Stine, who isn’t too pleased that Kasper has been ignoring her, and who has had had a chinwag with Lotte about it. Kasper has to leave Lotte’s apartment, but the mix of a bloodied lip and his father’s knife rip away another of the layers of insulation that have (not very well) covered his shame and his rage. And now we see the ad campaign which he instigated, and which has backfired such that Labour won’t support the proposed government bill.

The debate proceeds…until Birgitte inadvertently insults and upsets Svend Åge Saltum. She says he isn’t fit to look after children, not knowing (shouldn’t she have done?) that he tried and failed to save his daughter from drowning – the hat-trick for this episode in parental failure. Birgitte goes to apologise and is forced to stay as Borgen is in lockdown. [Torben wants an interview about it – check out Hanne Holm’s yawn.]

It isn’t clear whether Birgitte is more upset about being in Svend Åge’s company, or in the sturdy design of his flask and floral coffee cup. The two party leaders have a stand up argument, in which each side lands blows.

It’s a fantastic scene because while Kasper’s meltdown shows the personal effects of legislation and how a life could be affected by legislation, we need to see the real differences between the politicians. Yet Birgitte accuses Saltum of ignoring the points that she is making, not recognising that she is guilty at this point of doing exactly the same. She criticises his position as being straight out of the 1950s, which it may be, but she is offended by his populist tricks and won’t try to work out whether they mask an argument – or a group in society – that warrants greater attention. Saltum would argue that his ‘little families with their plastic-wrapped furniture and TV dinners’ are the authentic Denmark, but even if the Freedom Party offers those people nothing but the opportunity to feel resentful, it isn’t clear that Brigitte is doing enough to talk with and listen to this group, and she sails close here to condescension. We all know how that ends.

Indeed, we’ve earlier seen the consequences of Birgitte’s assumption that Saltum’s motives are based in a wish to break up the new Moderate/Labour government (why would he particularly care?), and she has dismissed Brodersen’s arguments about a ‘public sense of justice’. She has not at this point realised that the answer will only be found by reframing the argument and engaging with the issue.

Birgitte has already made the point that the 12-year-olds are children. But then Kasper makes an emotional plea – not for his job, but for all children not to be robbed of their childhood. By this point, Birgitte’s had enough of Kasper and it isn’t clear whether his words have hit home, setting up a nice piece of dramatic tension. But we see from Kasper’s expression a sense that a certain weight has been lifted.

Birgitte’s offer in the debate seems generous – an all-party committee could recommend the lowering of the age of criminality – but by emphasising Kasper’s words and arguing for the protection of childhood she has made that conclusion less likely. H C Thorsen is visibly impressed. He purses his lips at Brodersen to indicate that Brodersen should vote for the bill, and then purses his lips at Birgitte to congratulate her. Even so, the government scrapes home by one vote. Denmark will muddle along, doing its utmost to find the best way to protect its children. We should note that we don’t see how this story really ends. For all the argument, the debates on TV, the adverts in the press and the whizzy (at least to British eyes) electronic scoreboard, the benefit of a Moderate government is that a knee-jerk and damaging policy shift is delayed and possibly thwarted. The ‘urgent action’ to which Birgitte refers is left up to us to imagine. Birgitte’s real achievement is to bring Brodersen and his friends along with her, but we never hear how they will argue when the policy lands in committee.

Despite the victory, Kasper decides he’s out, but as he packs Katrine arrives to ask for an interview with Birgitte. It gives him the chance to tell her he loves her, and for her to challenge him to bare his secrets.

In a beautifully shot scene, Kasper gets the news that his parents’ house is empty: the place where he was abused is no more. (Watch Svend Åge Saltum behind him, out of focus and turning away: he cannot hurt Kasper now.)

It’s unclear what Kasper’s mother had in mind when she curated the box that the realtor presents to Kasper and Kasper in turn presents to Katrine. But the box, with its innocent bootees which set Katrine up to expect artefacts of a normal childhood, before switching to a catalogue of horror, tell Kasper’s story in the way the master communicator cannot. 

The first family

H C Thorsen and Brodersen mirror Philip and Cecile. In both cases, Birgitte’s up against a double act with their own experience and agency and can’t just steamroller her opinions through. Just as H C didn’t giggle along with Birgitte in the parliamentary chamber, Philip won’t just dismiss the expertise of his new partner.

Birgitte can’t swivel from her macro policy position to think about what Laura needs. But her position on anti-depressants portrays a particular image of childhood, one that psychiatrist Poul helps her to re-evaluate. Perhaps that’s why Kasper’s late comments about a world that’s dead serious finally hit home.

Katrine

Katrine exists in this episode to react to Kasper: when he accuses her of a lightweight interview she goes too far the other way. The final scene is beautiful and tender. Unlike at the ending of episode 7, we don’t assume Kasper has found closure. But he’s a step along the road towards healing and alongside the one person who may be able to accompany him on that journey.

Kasper

The supposedly cool, cynical man of spin fights for his future – and, more crucially, for his past self. Pilou Asbaek’s performance in this episode is outstanding.

Other characters

Torben protests that TV1 will be seen as politically biased and favouring the left: a nice way of heading off criticism of this show as a whole. It’s obvious that the programme makers don’t have sympathy for Saltum: they present his point but undermine it and show he’s clearly beyond the pale, even if it would be quickest to list the characters who don’t have to apologise to him in this episode. 

H C Thorsen is pretty patient throughout this episode, trying to bring Brodersen on side, managing to stay dignified as Birgitte wanders off even as he’s riffing on a potential bill. Later, he’s measured as he explains to Kasper that the bill has lost Labour’s support thanks to Kasper’s advert antics.

Danish delights

The Juul family home may be the scene of unimaginable horror, but it was furnished with beautiful lamps.

And if we’re splitting up Lotte and Kasper’s love-nest, I want the tower block print.

Check out Pia’s scarf.

When Brigitte met Bartlet

Birgitte asks whether she can withdraw the right to vote from Sanne’s mother. In He Shall, From Time to Time, Bartlet describes an episode of Jerry Springer (or similar) and asks ‘these people don’t vote, do they?’

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

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