Borgen episode recap and review S2 E8 What is lost inwardly must be won outwardly – Part 2

Quote: Take up the white man’s burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of famine/And bid the sickness cease – Rudyard Kipling

The warring nations of Kharun send delegations to Birgitte’s peace summit. Hanne and Katrine discover that Crohne’s man in Kharun, Niels Mikkelsen, is involved in massacres committed by the North. The peace process gets off to a rocky start with a clash in the city of Orisia. The North has bought helicopters from China: when they arrive the North should win a swift victory; the Chinese Ambassador says he can’t turn the choppers around, but seems to arrange it. But there is a twist when Niels Mikkelsen tries to buy off Katrine and Hanne with a story that’s so explosive it could bring down the whole peace process. Laura’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

North and South

Well. Let’s start with that heavily  jarring stanza from Kipling above. My best but frankly most generous guess is that it is meant to be ironic, that the claims of Crohne and others to be acting in the interests of Africa don’t compare well against the business-related genocide, and that any sense that major actors such as China have Kharun’s interest at heart is for the birds. To my limited knowledge, Denmark had little involvement in the colonisation of Africa, and less of a sense of excusing that colonialism using the phrase the ‘white man’s burden’: perhaps Kipling is less divisive there. 

Christiansborg tower, Copenhagen

This is the second of a double-bill focusing on civil war in the African state of Kharun. In the last episode, Birgitte invited the two warring parties to talk things through in Copenhagen, so today we’ll see whether Birgitte can bring peace where others have failed.

The first day of the summit means a 4.30 start for Kasper: the delegations are coming at 10.00 but it’s OK because the foreign ministry wonks have been preparing for ‘days’. (Reminder: these things usually take months.) The African Union, the UN and EU are observers. Perhaps actual foreign minister H C Thorsen can find a way in using his UN hat. He is nowhere to be seen as Birgitte, Vedfeld and Niels Erik brief the troops. The hall of mirrors has turned into a kind of ops room, with maps, whiteboards, photographs and laptops, and while this still feels like a tiny fraction of what a peace summit would constitute, there’s enough of a sense of the balance of legal technicalities, broad moral arguments and petty egoism (North Kharun insist on arriving first) that would pepper the real thing. Things are nearly derailed right at the start, with reports of the South using the cover of the summit to attack the city of Orisia. Al-Jahwar is furious enough to address Birgitte directly in English. By the time of the next TV1 bulletin, the graphics guys have managed to do a backdrop visual showing the peace summit logo torn in two. Birgitte and co scramble to keep both North and South in Copenhagen. This part of the episode is excellent: although we know, deep down, that talks will at some point continue, we might not be sure about how we, in #TeamWorldPeace’s position, would go about it. The showrunners have our full attention, and Birgitte our support. But we’re also aware of the growing scandal that Hanne and Katrine are looking into:

In the previous episode, we met Niels Mikkelsen, Crohne’s associate in Kharun. Katrine had been looking for an expert in the country, and someone (we’re not sure whom) had pointed her towards Mikkelsen. Crohne Industries has a massive investment in Kharun but Mikkelsen is the Middleman. Katrine got straight to the question of whether business-related massacres are taking place and Middleman denied knowledge. Subsequently, Hanne found that a Swedish oil company may have been involved, and Dan found some photos showing the massacres took place ‘long before’ the war. He wouldn’t have recognised Mikkelsen in these pictures – but we did. 

Now, Hanne sees the pictures and recognises Mikkelsen straight away. He’s with Mohammed Azzez, Al-Jahwar’s hardline general notorious for thousands of civilian deaths. Torben wants the journalists to wait until after the summit, but they ignore him and return to see Mikkelsen, who is at home and no longer involved with #TeamWorldPeace. He is plausible but shifty, and we aren’t too surprised when he fails to show up at TV1 that night. Hanne’s Dutch journo mate knows Mikkelsen as Theo Van De Cloe, up to his arms in ethnic cleansing.

Back at Borgen, Lokoya loves the homely advice of his ‘Uncle’ Bent. He agrees to make the disputed city, Orisia, a demilitarised zone for the period of the summit, but that’s not enough for Al-Jahwar. Talks are at a standstill until Crohne gets wind of China having sold 40 helicopters to the North. The North have no incentive for these peace talks to succeed. But Birgitte points out to the Chinese ambassador that China has an interest in an uninterrupted oil supply.

It’s half way through the episode and half way through the night before we check in with Laura and Magnus. In a creepy and menacing scene, Laura starts unplugging electrical appliances. Confronted by Magnus, she calls his bluff and phones Birgitte, but keeps Magnus from talking to his mum. We know Laura’s not been sleeping and we know she’s not taking her pills: she is becoming unwell and through her psychological control she’s likely to take Magnus down with her. Later, she will stare Magnus out of mentioning anything to Birgitte over breakfast.

Al-Jahwar pulls his team out of the negotiations, but then China turns the helicopters around and gives Birgitte 36 hours to make progress. We assume that China also puts some pressure on Al-Jahwar, otherwise he could have sat tight for a day and a half and be no worse off.

Now, 93 minutes into a two hour double bill, the summit begins properly. We know they mean business because the Borgen photocopiers are working full pelt. Sanne has now been co-opted into #TeamWorldPeace and H C Thorsen is still nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Katrine and Hanne are running on empty having pulled at least one all nighter, and beginning to get despondent. They have been working on this story for a few days; Torben thought it would take three weeks. Maybe Torben is a better journalist than he gets credit for. But Katrine calls Mikkelsen’s bluff and tells his housekeeper that TV1 are doing a documentary, ‘Merchant of Death’, on his corruption and international law violations. Would he like to comment? Suddenly, he’s back in touch.

The summit’s going smoothly. Who knew that actual negotiation could be so smooth? Amir reckons the Green River strand of discussion could be completed ‘within the hour’. That foreshadows a problem, surely. But the problem comes from a direction we’re not expecting. The final 20 minutes of this episode progress at breakneck speed, and the lives of millions are affected by decisions that are taken.

The bits of this ‘quest’ double bill that have worked best are the ones where we see individuals we care about make breakthroughs or truly express themselves. The plot itself – affecting a made-up country we will likely never encounter again – is in some ways secondary. We don’t really consider the alternatives presented to the characters, but it is entirely possible that a different cast of characters would have, entirely reasonably, taken a different approach.

Mikkelsen’s fraud dossier is an insurance policy he’s long prepared, which in itself raises further questions. Who is in the ‘network’ whom he wishes to protect, and won’t he have to deploy the dossier again if other reporters come knocking? I can’t accept that only Mikkelsen has access to these sums. This is assuming that Hanne and Katrine had enough reason to believe that the dossier is genuine before going to Torben. And is trade fraud a good swap for the admittedly undeveloped story about the ‘merchant of death’?

Torben has to decide whether to run the story. He hasn’t seen, as Katrine has, the hall of mirrors with its maps and whiteboards, and he wants to run the story. Katrine argues that thousands of lives are at stake: is it worth it? which is in some ways a curious argument as it suggests news should concern itself with minor stories.

In the meeting with Birgitte, Torben argues that TV1 can’t be held responsible for the fallout from running the story. But no one really questions whether publication would definitely ruin the talks. Certainly, the South would demand recompense. They might indeed walk out. And the North might well believe that this is a stitch-up. But the international outrage might mean that the expected helicopters won’t arrive. The balance of power would undeniably shift, and things would be messy. Whose decision should it be whether things become messy? Is that what they showrunners mean about the white man’s burden? I sincerely hope not.

Borgen is all about the balance between compromise and integrity. Hanne, Katrine and to an extent Torben come to the view that the greater good is served by not publishing information that indicates that a presumably poor nation has been swindled out of billions. That may be true, but they are given the power to make that decision. Birgitte tells Al-Jahwar that she ‘will not lie’ to her supporters around the world, but she is already complicit in the deceit of the North. Again, that is her decision. The South Kharunese, by contrast, do not get a say. They do not have to decide between compromise and integrity, even though it is their resources that everyone else seems to have happily allocating.

At the end of the episode, Niels Mikkelsen and his ghoulish partners have faded into the background. Did Hanne and Katrine really say that they wouldn’t pursue him? But how could that really be enforced given that the links between Mikkelsen and mass murder are available to see for anyone who looks in the right place? How about Hanne’s Dutch friend? This is where Katrine and Hanne’s semi-independent journalism falls apart. It is unimaginable that the TV1 newsroom would let this story lie, should Torben hear about it.

There’s a further potential criticism: that for all the success of this episode, Birgitte has bounced from event to event. She is reliant on the Chinese to review the helicopter sale, and had the fraud case not emerged, might have found it difficult to move Al-Jahwar. She has been fortunate. Frankly, good luck to her. She has got involved where many other nations couldn’t be bothered. Although I am not convinced that the decision to keep the South in the dark is the right one, Birgitte’s actions have brought peace and saved lives. Perhaps even Grundtvig would approve.

Birgitte is quick to share out the credit with Amir (who still looks uneasy and awkward about it – perhaps to indicate that it’s unlikely that he will return) and Bent. Vedfeld should also take a bow. But in this scene we can pick out Sanne – almost the only person not wearing black or grey – in this scene: we can see she’s on the phone and something is not right.

If the credit is rightly shared for the diplomatic triumph, it’s clear that Birgitte, Philip, Anne and especially poor Magnus wrongly blame themselves for what has happened to Laura.

I enjoyed that Amir and Bent shared a brandy at the end. Any good quest ends with a party, even if Birgitte’s office is hardly the Forest Moon of Endor. But for Birgitte, the warm words of Torben on TV1 fill her with tears and  regret as she sits in a cold hospital corridor. Philip and Birgitte sit in silence for a full 20 seconds before the credits roll: a bold way to finish what has been a frustrating, thought-provoking but at times brilliant double bill. 

The first family

The Laura storyline is extremely hard for the showrunners to get right. We all want Birgitte to succeed and to be given the chance to enjoy her hard-won moment. In contrast it’s very easy to dismiss mental illnesses such as anxiety. Laura has been given treatment, and she’s refusing her pills and lying about it. The way in which she disturbs and threatens Magnus will also have lost her sympathy. So many viewers will identify as being on Team Birgitte and very few on Team Laura. And Team Brigitte will resent that Laura has blown Birgitte’s moment of triumph. Mental illness carries such stigma. Birgitte is on Team Laura, and that should be enough for us. In the hospital corridor, the coverage of Kharun seems to mock and rebuke Birgitte. We know she took as many precautions as she could, but she will always doubt whether she did enough for her daughter. She has won outwardly, but lost inwardly. She has, as the title of the book version of these recaps reminds us, won power and lost everything.

Katrine and Kasper

Katrine and Kasper are still in the honeymoon period of their rekindled relationship. Katrine is visibly proud as Kasper gets ready for the summit and works the coffee machine.

Often we’ve seen Kasper and Katrine argue at the drop of a hat, and in the previous episode Katrine was a little put out by Kasper’s deflection about Birgitte’s location, but when Kasper shows Katrine the hall of mirrors he makes his case powerfully but subtly. This is a Kasper of bonhomie, who can applaud and shout ‘BRAVO!’, not the finger-pointing shouter we’ve often seen.

Other characters

I love that Torben stands up when he’s talking on the phone to Birgitte. His body language in the meeting with her is stiff and formal though his clothes are…less so. Hanne takes over that meeting, speaking up when Torben pauses. In a sense their roles are the right ones: as the boss, Torben needs to stand up for the story while Hanne can be slightly more creative. But, frankly, Hanne on this form should have been on #TeamWorldPeace. The only time when she’s lost for words is when Torben diffidently praises her work. About time. And don’t they look similar when they’re in profile? Maybe it’s their glasses.

Danish delights

There’s a very stylish clock somewhere in the Statsminister’s suite. And the dim lighting in Birgitte’s office at night tine is gorgeous, with simple but tasteful table lights as well as the much loved lampshade.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

This episode shows the different options available to Birgitte and Jed Bartlet. In Hartsfield’s Landing, to take just one example, Bartlet seems to be about to do an arms deal with Taiwan, which will anger China. Carrier groups sail towards the Taiwan Strait to raise tensions, but Bartlet expects to be able to divert them before they get there. We wonder whether China are playing a similar game in this episode of Borgen: it is a Chinese government official who passes on the helicopter news to Crohne, presumably in the sure knowledge that he in turn will tell Birgitte, and the hardware is in transit but has not yet arrived when it is turned around. We know that China want South Kharun to supply oil to it, via the North, and perhaps that is enough. Birgitte by contrast has very few levers to pull, and she knows it. She’s only here in the first place because the UN could not agree. Kasper’s idea of trying to pressurise China via the media seems uncharacteristically naïve and I’m more convinced by the idea that there’s someone walking the halls of Beijing playing chess and paying attention to what’s going on in Copenhagen. Clearly China is watching matters and seeking to intervene in its own interests where it can. 

What Birgitte does have is a relative freedom. Kremlinology takes place in all major powers. There is slightly less room for manoevre when you are trying to juggle considerable coalitions. Denmark may not have the same pressures. I suspect that Borgenology is less of a thing.

An earlier West Wing episode, In this White House, sees Republican Ainsley Hayes observing the White House senior staffers as they react to news of a coup in Kundu. By watching what’s going on, she gains enough respect for the staffers to accept the offer of a White House role. Watching Amir close the Sarifan group plays a part in convincing Katrine that the need for peace is greater than the need to run the story. 

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

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