Borgen episode recap and review S2 E7 What is lost inwardly must be won outwardly – Part 1

Quote: Danes are doubters because Denmark’s history is the story of the downfall of a strong tribe – Johannes V Jensen

Birgitte’s government is stuck in the mud, and Christiansborg is in election fever, even though it’s a year until Denmark will go back to the polls. A civil war in Kharun means an uptick in refugees arriving in Denmark, but it’s the commercial downsides that have industrialist Crohne banging on Birgitte’s door: he wants her to broker a peace deal. She fobs him off but comes round to the idea, pulling together a negotiation team that includes some familiar faces. But it’s harder than they hoped to bring the sides round the table. And in the meantime, Crohne’s visits to Borgen have raised the suspicions of the TV1 journalists: Katrine and Hanne follow a trail that seems to suggest that the Danish industrialist may be indirectly linked to acts of genocide.

The Statsminister of the Rings

This is an episode I both love and hate but before we get to that it’s worth setting it in the context of what the show’s creators were trying to achieve. Let’s remember that the first series were fully funded in Denmark with no expectation of foreign sales: Adam Price and the team are talking very squarely to their fellow Danes. They want to challenge the view ascribed in this episode to the writer and philosopher Frederik Grundtvig which might superficially be summarised as: Danes, know your place. And they want to promote the idea that politics can be a force for good in Denmark, and that Denmark can be a force for good in the world. So a confident, modern Denmark, says Borgen, uses its soft power and can do things that other countries don’t have the imagination to do.

Boat and Danish flag seen in Nyhavn, Copenhagen

There are various potential problems with this approach but the most immediate is that the exposition required to pull it all off leads to extremely clunky and clumsy storytelling, which pollutes even the parts of the episode that don’t need exposition. We haven’t seen Joachim Crohne recently, but here he is in his Jaguar XJ, Niels Erik is buzzing around telling Birgitte to snap to it smartly and Birgitte is playing it cool while trying on lots of jackets – which Niels Erik then comments on. Yes we get it. This guy is important.

Crohne isn’t happy with Denmark’s harsh immigration laws but makes it clear that this his position arises from a financial (Muslims don’t buy his stuff as a result, to a tune, he calculates, of up to DKK 1.5 Bn a year) not a humanitarian position (though he later says Birgitte should get involved ‘for Africa’). He refers to the situation in Kharun as ‘one of Africa’s forgotten wars’, and he asks Birgitte if she knows about it and tells her that the EU is looking for a head of government to take it on. Now the viewer will certainly not know about it, since Kharun is made up, but Birgitte should. Ulrik on TV1 News can talk of nothing else, Denmark happens to be chairing the UN security council, and it is inconceivable that Birgitte hasn’t been involved in EU discussions. In the Borgenverse, this cannot be a forgotten war.

All the war coverage seems to have addled poor Torben. He can’t remember the name of his new debate format but recovers in time to slap Ulrik down when he comes up with an arcane reason why Katrine shouldn’t host Dilemma (wouldn’t it have a regular host?). Freelance photojournalist Kalle rocks up with some stills of Crohne’s Jag at Borgen and wants to know if TV1 can ‘use it’ – it feels as though a newspaper would have been a better destination, especially as Kalle doesn’t tell us that the Crohne/Nyborg meeting isn’t in the official diary.

Svend Åre Saltum’s adverts have the effect of creating a debate where previously there was none, and (unlike in Them and us) Birgitte wants to take the Freedom Party head on. This is more like it. Birgitte seems quite confident and relaxed even in the face of her circling enemies, though perhaps she has half her mind on Laura’s recovery: Laura is making progress but her pills are giving her insomnia.

The night of the Dilemma episode seems to be the turning point. Birgitte takes on Svend Åge while Hesselboe preens and looks pleased with himself for asking what he thinks are killer questions (but uneasy whenever Saltum has the mic), and Thorsen comes across as reasonable but defensive and ineffectual. Saltum’s comment that Denmark is too small to make a difference. Birgitte watches TV late into the evening, and hears that the UN security council (which H C Thorsen is chairing?) is impotent and can’t make a decision. She studies an atlas in which Kharun seems to take the same sort of shape of Sudan which is perhaps the inspiration for this pair of episodes, and calls Kasper in at 3am to help her make her decision. Not, we note, her foreign secretary. Kasper’s advice isn’t always spot on – it was his take on Philip’s new job that put in train the sequence that cost Birgitte her marriage – but his arguments against getting involved including citing Norway’s involvement with the Oslo Accords help her make her mind up. Kasper gives a smile that signifies both defeat and slight admiration.

This is beginning to feel a little like a quest. And that framing may help us make sense of what is a highly emotional, enjoyable and confusing sequence, as Birgitte starts building what feels a bit like a scrappy team of insurgents to achieve something that the United Nations – despite a Danish chair – could not. First up on #TeamWorldPeace is Bent, who knows the difference between Islamists and Christians. Amir still has beef with Birgitte and won’t come on board. Thorsen’s permanent secretary Frederik Vedfeld makes up the quartet, which Bent refers to semi-sarcastically as a ‘great team’. Though in Bent and Amir, Birgitte has reached out to people she’s discarded along the way. Who next: former chauffeur Kim? Bjorn Marrot? Fifties throwback Jacob Kruse? Bent has had a 180˚ turn overnight: having previously warned Birgitte off, he tells her she’ll probably fail but she should do it anyway, and in one piece of advice which is expository but not jarringly so, tells her to get Crohne on board.

Speaking of Crohne, Torben’s insistence on war coverage that makes great TV sends Katrine and Hanne to Niels Mikkelsen, an associate of Crohne’s. I’ll cover the news story in the recap for the next episode, as it makes more sense to treat it as a single story arc.

Back in Birgitte’s office, the band isn’t back together quite yet. ‘We’ve been through all relevant Muslims,’ sighs Bent, but none has ‘the charisma and clout we need’. Birgitte doesn’t challenge this ridiculous point. And H C Thorsen, the actual foreign minister, is not in the inner circle. Who is chairing the meetings of the UN security council, since it is implied that Birgitte is not? I keep coming back to the security council, because in real life Denmark has been president for a total of two months since 1986 so to have this happen is a very big deal: I can see why leaning into it might lead to a more complex and less linear story but the idea of the plucky amateurs taking on the world is somewhat unconvincing, even if we are at the same time loving this reunion. Then – just as they come to the conclusion that a genocide is imminent – in walks Amir, who is, we must now believe, the only relevant Muslim with charisma and clout in the whole of the Danish kingdom. He makes it clear that he is doing it for Africa, not for Birgitte, which sets us a nice bit of potential tension within our merrie troupe. And, just like that, #TeamWorldPeace is back in business. Within minutes they’ve cooked up a plan for Birgitte to lead negotiations, undertake a ‘co-ordinated effort’, and set up a minor diversion for the press – a little mini-obstacle to get us warmed up for the big challenges to come.

All of a sudden obstacles fall and new ones are presented: just as they are learning that Kharun has loads of oil, President Al-Jahwar of the north has agreed to meet in Sahore (this, we are reminded, is no guarantee of success). That means shirts to iron for Bent. But he is too expensive for the Danish government to insure on the trip, so he is off the team, but he makes a fuss (bust up in #TeamWorldPeace as Niels Erik as Bent SLAMS him as a ’paper pusher’. Shade!) and is reinstalled.

The Kharun trip itself is a triumph of visuals over dialogue. A lot of money has been spent on this episode: on the plane, the shots of downtown ‘Sahore’ (probably Nairobi), the shots of the road trip through the fields of Kharun (Kenya). We see that #TeamWorldPeace really are putting the miles in. The visuals give credence to what is by necessity a fairly low-level series of setbacks and mini-triumphs. Al-Jahwar won’t meet, then Amir offers a bribe. Al-Jahwar doesn’t want to talk, then Birgitte persuades him to, by ignoring Bent’s advice and reminding the northern leader that many in the West think of him as a war criminal. Money, in the end, brings the north to the table. Perhaps a Muslim with less charisma and clout than Amir would have been able to speak to the leaders of the south. Birgitte brings Lokoya ‘bad news’ about China’s intent (where did that come from?) and Lokoya brings her the good news, as he sees it, that there are no homosexuals in Kharun. Birgitte looks awkward, but Lokoya’s coming to Copenhagen so hey. But all this is only part one of the quest. As Bent points out, Birgitte has ‘sold the same piece of land at too high a price to both men.’

This may all sound a little churlish. What the programme team are showing us is what it might look like, re-interpreted in a way that can be followed by a general audience. And the team discussions, the waiting around, a mild slapdown, the key moments and – we hope – the breakthroughs do all hang together. As you peel back the layers of this episode, its elegant construction becomes clearer.

If this is indeed a quest, then we can’t complain when minor characters are introduced and discarded for the purpose of plot development. On the other hand I don’t see how that ever excuses the use of stereotypes: again, looking at Kharun’s leaders, we have the sophisticated but misogynist and corrupt one, and the friendly but casually misogynist and homophobic one. Are those distinctions drawn to show Birgitte operating even with people who have values closer to her nemesis Saltum? Possibly. But they are regretful all the same. We are meant to shake our head along with Vedfeld at Al-Jahwar’s greed. And when Bent imitates Lokoya, self-described sophisticated viewers are able to decide to laugh along together with Birgitte at the backwardness of the African leader.

Back in Copenhagen, Laura fools Philip into thinking she has taken her pill. She smiles at the mirror, just as Birgitte smiles at her sleeping compadres on the plane back to Denmark, half their quest complete. But at least one of these stories isn’t going to end well.

The first family

In previous episodes we’ve seen Birgitte’s ideal marriage fall apart, and then we’ve seen her struggle and then seem to find a way of working which involves attempting to make time for the kids. It is Laura’s breakdown in Plant a tree, coupled with her realisation of what she did to Amir, that leads Birgitte back to idealism. Even if I’m unsure that the Kharun odyssey is strictly idealistic in execution, it might be at its outset. But the meaning of Birgitte’s life is found back at home: even when she is in the depths of rural Africa, her mind is on her sick daughter and whether she will continue her recovery. When speaking with Bent, she says, ‘I haven’t really told anyone else. It’s strange to…keep it all inside,’ which is perhaps the spur for the inward/outward episode title. It’s almost as though finding peace in Africa would allow Birgitte to deserve health for her family. 

In the meantime, Birgitte takes what seem reasonable steps to protect Laura and Magnus. And just as Bent and Amir have been recalled, so’s Philip: could there be a further reunion down the line?

Katrine and Kasper

It’s sweet to see Katrine and Kasper dating again and re-establishing where how their professional lives conflict. The scene in which Katrine tells Hanne proudly that ‘pillow talk’ has got her an exclusive is amusing. Katrine is so busy being pleased with herself that she assumes she can trust a source she knows to be unreliable. Even if she believed Kasper about Birgitte going to France, wouldn’t she then follow it up by seeing how the French media are covering Denmark? But when she follows up with him, he senses that she’s not convinced and wriggles free with plausible deniability. But then she goes through Kasper’s bag in the same way that he once went through Ole Dahl’s papers, and though she knows she can’t use the information, she thinks that Kasper having lied to his own girlfriend overshadows the wider implications of her conflicts of interest. Hanne is magnificently furious about it.

But these two are soul mates to an extent, prepared to eat a takeway at 4.15 in the afternoon. And Kasper is so excited to share that the two leaders are coming to Copenhagen, and Katrine can see and share how much it means to him. (Is this the first time we’ve seen a genuinely excited and happy Kasper? Will it last?)

Other characters

Niels Mikkelsen channels Jeremy Clarkson a bit when he, Birgitte and Bent are on the trip to the south.

Danish delights

Birgitte appears to be wearing two enormous scarves when she tries to recruit Amir. He’s doing gardening grungy chic with co-ordinated scarf, beanie hat and layered tops.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

Bartlet’s Kharun is Equatorial Kundu, which in series 4 sees acts of genocide being committed. The ‘acts of genocide’ do not constitute a ‘genocide’ which would see the USA legally required to intervene. In series 4 episode 14, Inauguration part 1, Bartlet is considering whether to intervene. He has more TVs than Birgitte, so while she watches only the news while weighing up her decision, he has two news channels showing footage of actual soldiers, and the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland, which features marching toy soldiers. One interpretation of the scene is that he decides that the soldiers under his command must be put to good use, or they are as potent as the wooden soldiers from the film.

There is never any question of Birgitte deploying Danish forces. But there is another line in Inauguration, one which is often used by Aaron Sorkin: Margaret Mead’s ‘Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’. Birgitte’s messy band are off to change the world, and we should never have doubted that they could.

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

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