Borgen episode recap and review S2 E10 An Extraordinary Remark

Quote: ‘To be or not to be. That is the question’ – Hamlet (Shakespeare)

Birgitte has now been on leave for a month, and while Laura is making progress, there is inevitable political gossip in the press about what will happen next: acting statsminister Thorsen is flexing his muscles a bit and opposition leader Hesselboe is planning to launch some populist policies. Kasper and Katrine are flat-hunting but need to make some more fundamental decisions about their future. This causes Kasper to seek out his mother, who is suffering from severe dementia. After some ridiculous debates, in which it is implied that a statsminster must be married only to the job, Birgitte decides to return to Borgen and drop a bombshell: an ‘extraordinary remark’ that gains everyone’s attention.

Redemption song

This episode first aired in Denmark on 27 November 2011. 1.6 million Danes heard Birgitte Nyborg name the first women to be elected to the Danish Parliament, back in 1918, and say: ‘To all those who wish to debate whether women should enter politics on equal terms and ultimately make PM, I can only say: you’re 100 years behind.’

Cyclist riding on bridge over Nyhavn River

Less than two months earlier, on 3 October, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democrats, had become the first woman statsminister in real life. Thorning-Schmidt was to lose office in the 2015 election despite increasing her vote share and number of seats: if we’ve learned anything from this series it’s that you have to be able to count to 90, and Thorning-Schmidt could not. But Denmark is already on its next female statsminister, Mette Frederiksen, who took office in 2019.

I mention all this because it’s easy for international viewers to lose sight, 11 years later, of what Borgen was all about in its first two series. It was not an art-house, subtitled, exotic number, even though the production values and cinematic style made it easy to think of it that way. Borgen was mass-market, popular television shown on the main licence-fee funded station DR1, the equivalent of BBC1 or NBC, in its flagship Sunday 8.00pm slot. DR provided most of the investment, and in return demanded high ratings and high engagement. With most of its funding from within Denmark, and with no expectations of foreign sales, Borgen was written for the Denmark of the time, one which had still to have a female head of government. Some of the debate about whether it is possible to juggle a leadership position and a family seems a little old-fashioned today, which is not to gloss over the huge barriers and double standards of expectation that women face in attaining elected office.

Much of the attraction of Borgen for foreign viewers was its portrayal of certain stories in ways that would not be possible for ‘home’ producers. For example, it was suggested that no lead character in a USA-made could have had an abortion in as matter-of-fact way as did Katrine in series 1. That is as much a function of Danish society and norms as was the relatively recent appointment of a woman as statsminister. 

So as we watch the show in 2022 we’re a little bit removed from the purposes of the show’s creators. And there’s a third element to consider as we’ve seen series 3: if the triumphant feel to the end of this episode makes us think that Birgitte will enjoy a landslide election triumph, we’ve been entirely wrong-footed. Borgenhas never really been about this kind of victory. The speech that Birgitte makes is aimed at all parts of the political divide, just as was the speech at the end of series 1. But whereas Birgitte at the end of the first series was coming unmoored both from her marriage, her allies and her sense of self, here she’s fending off her ex-husband, receiving hydrangeas from her old mentor and confident that she is the best person to lead Denmark into the future.

Borgen producer Camilla Hammerich has reported that the original idea for a third series, should one be ordered, was to follow the ins and outs of the election campaign announced by Brigitte in this episode. That would have been fun, but would have diluted what is a possibly inadvertent message to the viewer: Birgitte may have thought she is the best potential statsminister, but the camera pans through all of the Folketing, from Solidarity on the left to the Freedom party on the right and it is the electorate who will make that decision.

The triumph of this episode is not political, then, but personal: the second half of this series has shown the redemption of Birgitte after she lost and then found her moral compass. And this is mirrored, too, in Kasper’s story of healing.

We start the episode with a conference between H C Thorsen, Niels Erik, Kasper and Christoffer. Who, at the start of series 1, would have put money on Thorsen becoming statsminister? Work is being done, but with a different emphasis. In Thorsen’s case the emphasis is on pastries. Until now they have fobbed off EU chief Betancourt which seems odd given that Thorsen’s substantive role is foreign minister. Thorsen is not interested in Greenland, but is very quick to pick up the phone to TV1. Given that TV1 try to get Birgitte on air to comment on every little thing, it’s surprising that Thorsen hasn’t done even one or two appearances to show the public that things are moving along and to fulfil what Torben later calls ‘the psychological factor’. Can we be really surprised that gossip has arisen to fill that vacuum?

Katrine and Kasper must be getting cramped in their tiny flat, but their flat-hunting shows that their relationship is still not on a particularly practical footing. Kasper is excited about identifying original stucco while Katrine seems overwhelmed by the prospect of space and lots of walls on which to hang posters of journalists. Unlike the intrusive estate agent, though, K&K don’t have clear ideas about what their future should hold. I loved that a discussion about the size of the flat quickly segued into a completely different argument about Katrine not feeling that Kasper was prepared to acknowledge their relationship in public. Estate agents can probably tell all sorts of tales of domestic disharmony, though I wouldn’t want to hear any more from the eye-rolling specimen featured in this episode. 

Laura seems to have passed a milestone in her treatment. She has made a friend and her medication is being reduced. She ‘may’ be off the pills completely ‘in a couple of months’. Birgitte seems completely disengaged from the day-to-day, having a clearout of papers with a Mozart piano concerto on in the background. She is still getting updates from Kasper but seems surprised that things are going on in her absence and that not everyone else has put things on pause as she has, and she’s certainly not pleased by Thorsen’s patchy performance on TV1. Clearly he’s not prepared and gives hesitant and confused responses to Katrine’s fairly soft questions. He gives Birgitte the credit for the forthcoming reforms but then points out that ‘it’s not uncommon for Labour to lead the nation’.

Torben’s beginning to tell Katrine how much he loves her work when Kasper rocks up at TV1 with flowers. Torben’s awkwardness is fabulous, as is Ulrik’s whistle and grin as Katrine and Kasper share a moment in view of the entire newsroom. Torben goes on Ulrik’s news bulletin to warn that rumblings about a supposedly leaderless country are now getting more serious. It’s obviously on Birgitte’s mind when she goes to Liseholm the following day and has a short but important heart-to-heart with Lisbet Kofoed, who gives Birgitte a pep talk about how no one can cover everything, and it’s natural to sometimes find work more interesting than family: ‘Laura did not get ill because you made PM.’

If Kasper hadn’t turned up at TV1 with the flowers, Katrine might have completed her discussion with Torben, with her future employment status settled. Round 2 with the judgemental estate agent sees Katrine and Kasper row about Katrine’s career. ‘If you can’t stay on at TV1, we’ll find you another job,’ says Kasper. The estate agent decides to ask whether Katrine is going to take maternity leave. Wow. Kasper doesn’t hear this and starts waffling about taking walls down. He wants to live a rich, settled lifestyle, which we presume he’s never had. But he and Katrine are at cross-purposes again.

Bent shows up at Birgitte’s where she’s mending her bike and has been reading a paperback in the garden. He warns her to get back to work. Now. She replies that her priority is Laura, but he tells her to ‘make up your mind where on your list of priorities you put “prime minister”’. This is good framing. He’s not telling her she can’t have it all. 

I can never make my mind up about H C Thorsen. Torben reckons he’s done a good job, and at least he’s kept Pernille Madsen from becoming Labour leader. He’s gracious and grown-up but awkward and slow. And Birgitte’s first action seems to be the downgrading of the catering at meetings. Meanwhile the headlines are mixed: Politiken runs with ‘After a month’s absence the PM is back and ready to work’; BT has ‘Mother is with you’ and Ekspress’s subhead (the main headline is obscured) is ‘Do we want a PM with a human face at all?’ That’s similar to Torben’s line in the newsroom responding to Ulrik’s framing of the debate as ‘Can a woman be PM?’ Poor, useless Ulrik. But it’s Ulrik’s version that gets to Birgitte, via Kasper’s sloppy message. She’ll discuss policy, but she won’t discuss her gender. Nice one, but Hesselboe gets the airtime instead and literally uses phrases like, ‘Some of my best colleagues are women’, before saying that they don’t take it seriously enough unlike he, Hesselboe, who ignored his family to show what a great PM he was. He’s wearing it as a badge of honour! Philip, watching with Birgitte, takes his ex-wife’s hand and looks like he’s having a revelation. 

The last five minutes are a real wrap-up – or as much of one as Danish TV tradition would allow. It’s heavily sentimental, emotional and a little bit melodramatic, even with something that feels like a breaking of the fourth wall, but we don’t mind. Bent pops up with a list of achievements. And then we have our extraordinary remark, the whole of Denmark hanging on the words of this extraordinary politician. And the challenge to us all to find the best leader for our place and for our time.  

The first family

I feel a little bit sorry for Philip in parts of this episode. Hear me out. He can see pre-statsminister Birgitte again, and it adds to his growing understanding of what he has lost. But Birgitte is right to call him out on his insistence on divorce after only a year. Living Philip’s life during series 1 episodes 6-10 must have been extremely tough, and indeed he clearly still hasn’t got over Birgitte’s suggestion that he have an affair – but there were various points in this series where a reconciliation might have been possible. Now Birgitte has moved on and poor Cecilie is left by the wayside. Is Birgitte right that ‘the Birgitte of [Philip’s] dreams’ would have been at home all day? No. But he has had plenty of chances to disprove the point. And when she says he was ‘weak, and you quit’, we can’t really argue against it.

Philip is reeling from his argument with Birgitte when Cecilie brings up that she’s feeling odd about the situation. He drums his finger on the car windscreen but her words about thinking that the Nyborg/Christiansens are a family again hit a wound. He argues but then rallies, but we know that he’s going to be weak, and quit, all over again. And once he’s watched Hessleboe saying that neglecting your family’s part of the job, even Philip realises it’s over with Cecilie.

In contrast, Birgitte is lonely – she needs people other than her children to have dinner with – but seems to have found an inner contentment. She does seem to be appraising Philip warmly and affectionately later in the episode, though her parting glance, after he’s told her he’s dumped Cecilie ,shows she has the measure of him.

We don’t see much of Magnus in this episode, but he really delivered with the selection of swords he wanted to pack for his sleepover.

Katrine and Kasper

Katrine and Kasper have dated before and have had a will-they-won’t-they that’s lasted nearly two series. It’s probably natural that they assume they need to shift straight to the long-term future. But this is the first relationship Kasper’s had that’s not based on spin and tall stories about his past. For the first time, we see him invest thought and time into a relationship: Lotte would be shocked. But he also wants to play the young professional couple, and that’s got old for Katrine already. 

Katrine is becoming irritated by Kasper’s reluctance – as she sees it – to move out from the ‘shadows’ of his past, but her passionate declaration – ‘You’re living proof that kids survive the worst things’ – shows how much she believes in him. And when – in a very touching scene – Laura shows that she now believes in the future – Kasper decides to go to his mother and seek understanding. In a scene which is heartbreaking but which also seems to bring Kasper some closure, his mother seems only to react to the word ‘baby’ with a rendition of a nursery rhyme. Kasper seems to recognise that his future is for him to write. The scene with Katrine later is beautiful too, even if the symbolism of Katrine’s Pill is a bit overblown. 

Other characters

Ulrik’s still playing patience. He says to Kasper that Thorsen gave a good interview. Did something get lost in translation?

Hot on the heels of Torben’s praise for Hanne Holm, we find that he truly values Katrine pushing and questioning him. Perhaps he’s realised that Ulrik is the alternative.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

The opening scene is surely a direct tribute to Pilot, as Niels Erik pirouettes his way through the corridors of Christiansborg. He greets people, he asks for reports and he talks about sugar and coffee. It’s a fifteen second spot, whereas Leo’s tour of the West Wing is over three minutes, but it gets the point across: Thorsen is far more reliant on Niels Erik than Birgitte was. This is a government that is different.

Bent hands Birgitte a copy of a note written in the early days, as Bartlet does with Leo in Bartlet for America – though this is more of a checklist of achievement than a three word slogan. And Bartlet had theirs framed but Bent tells Birgitte to do it herself.

And, mirroring the very first episode, Birgitte’s speech has a ‘watch this’ feel, similar to the cliffhanger at the end of Two Cathedrals.

Danish delights

Birgitte’s home now sports a ‘Prince chair’ by Louise Campbell – the winner of a competition in honour of Crown Prince Frederick. The chair, which is part of the collection at MOMA in New York, is a ‘powder coated laser-cut steel frame with felt covered water-cut neoprene rubber seat’. Now you know. Birgitte’s also got a very smart black coffee pot. I’d like one.

The hall of mirrors is equipped with an elegant carafe and some tumblers with sloping lids.

Do we hear Birgitte tell Laura to have some hygge?

Cecilie’s practice has a Moomin mobile!

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

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