Borgen episode recap and review S2 E9 The Sanctity of Private Life

Quote: Success is not final; failure is not final. It is the courage to go on that counts – Winston Churchill

Birgitte’s trying to push through health care reform, reversing years of tax incentives that draw money out of the public system and into the private. Meanwhile, Laura’s anxiety is at the stage that she needs residential care. The waiting list is nearly a year so Birgitte and Philip book Laura into a private facility, leading to accusations of hypocrisy. The tabloid press, led by Laugesen, send paparazzi to the institution, leading Laura to suffer a setback and intimidating and harassing the other patients. Eventually Birgitte and Philip are asked to make other arrangements for Laura. Birgitte decides to create some other arrangements of her own.


After the sweeping themes of the previous double-bill, this episode and the one following it (a double bill of their own) focus firmly on the personal. Until now, Birgitte has always answered the central question of Borgen, ‘Is it possible to maintain power and be true to yourself’, in ways that have allowed her to keep control. But this episode sees a shift, in that the main opposition to her integrity is not political but from the media. Even Anne Sophie Lindenkrone, who has previous form for attacking her opponents via their family, albeit when drunk, and has a clear opposition to the use of private providers in health, steers well clear.

Skatteministeriet, Copenhagen

For all that this episode focuses on privacy and allegations of hypocrisy, it gives plenty of airtime to try to show what mental illness is like. Until now, Laura’s health has been the B- or C-plot to an episode, simmering gently to show something’s not quite right. It meant that when Laura’s breakdown happened immediately after Birgitte’s big peace triumph, many viewers won’t yet have had much sympathy with the statsminister’s daughter. Now Birgitte’s attention – and ours – is on Laura and what it might mean to live with anxiety. The section where Lisbet Kofoed tries to explain to Laura what her experience might feel like is, if accurate, a neat bit of pedagogy for we viewers.

Mental illness lives in plain sight – despite the stigma attached to it – and so it was a nice contrast to see a relatively happy Kasper, reasonably content in his new relationship, and to see how important it is for Laura to realise that she is not alone. We’ll come back to Kasper though.

But in posing the question about privacy and integrity, Borgen for the first time challenges its audience. It invites us to wonder what is going on in the background of our own politicians’ personal lives, not from the prurient/gotcha style of sleaze merchants like Laugesen’s Express, or in the UK Guido or the old News of the World, but in showing our politicians – or at least Birgitte and her family – as reasonably rounded people, or people who would be reasonably rounded if the system would allow. What are people trying to juggle? And what is the right balance between giving politicians a bit of slack so they can concentrate on the job, and their feeling that the rules do not apply to them? ‘Partygate’, currently raging in the UK, is all about those boundaries. But I wonder what purpose is served by the process presented in this episode of Borgen, whereby Birgitte can’t get on with her government’s agenda because of a level of scrutiny not into her policies but on the health of a child.

Sometimes, non-Danish speakers can be aware that we’re getting a distorted picture, and the hall of mirrors is a fitting venue for one of those scenes. We know from comments that the showrunners have made that Kasper’s leg injury reflects a real football injury to Pilou Asbaek (who had been told not to undertake risky activity). The dressing down he gets from Birgitte later reflects the showrunners’ views – though I wonder if they had a slight smile behind it all, as Birgitte does. But as Kasper tells the press pack that there won’t be a news conference, and Hanne tells Katrine that her colleagues are gossiping, we know that the subtitles aren’t giving us the full story: even we monoglots can guess what the word ‘idioten’ might mean (referring to Channel 2 sleazeball Ruben), but it’s missing from the subtitles. What else have we missed? And who might be wiser and deeper than they get the credit for? I wonder sometimes about Torben: a man who once won a journalism prize, who has morphed into an irritated pen pusher and constantly looks defeated: is he a genius hidden by translation? (Katrine’s response to Ruben later on is a joy.)

And what is going on with Anne Sophie? She doesn’t want to support Birgitte’s bill as it doesn’t go far enough – but, two years on she is still concerned about the bugging affair in series 1 episode 7. It’s not as though the situation wasn’t serious, but we’re now 3 years into the administration, so what has happened since? Has Anne Sophie refused to support the government in every bill? It’s interesting that Anne Sophie indicates that she thinks Birgitte is bad at compromising – though Amir might well agree – given that Birgitte proved herself in the last two episodes at getting other people to compromise (and that she threw Bent under the bus in series 1 episode 10 to fall in Labour demands).

The charge of hypocrisy is frequently laid on politicians – often by their political opponents and a lot of the time it’s simple humbug. I’m intrigued that Hesselboe, who is still I assume leader of the opposition bloc, hardly gets on TV these days. But he uses his slot to call Birgitte a hypocrite without overtly doing so. Here’s an example that’s live in the UK at the time of writing: the Labour party is proposing a VAT reform on energy (a reform that Brexit campaigners promised during the 2016 referendum campaign but which they now refuse to implement). Opponents of Labour’s policy say that this is hypocritical since official Labour policy at the time was to oppose Brexit. But Brexit has happened and even though Labour was against it in the round, the party would be stupid to not consider the full range of policy levers open to the government at any one time. 

Equally, I am not sure about the charges of hypocrisy being levelled at Birgitte. She is trying to improve the health system for – as she’d see it – everyone, so that no one at all has to wait 51 weeks for treatment. She has not managed to do so yet and is operating ‘under the given circumstances,’ as she tells Katrine. It may be that holders of private health insurance will not in the future obtain the same tax perks, but as she fights for those who can’t afford private insurance, she is not trying to effect personal gain at others’ expense. On the other hand I am uncomfortable with the idea that she won’t use Philip’s health insurance to help Laura, on the basis that this suggests that private care is available only to the seriously rich who can afford care without insurance. You may disagree – feel free to comment below.

Whether politicians are hypocritical or not, there’s something deeply nauseating about the self-righteous way in which the tabloid press assume the moral high ground. But how else would you justify to yourself going through someone’s bins? The news crew at TV1 have a revealing discussion – Katrine points out that this is a story about a child and Ulrik points out that Birgitte’s health reforms are relevant. They are both right – and Katrine’s interview with Birgitte, while a bit soft, shows one way of covering the story. Laugesen, on the other hand, is happy to drag Laura into his personal vendetta against Birgitte, and then says that he’s protecting the weak. But the interrupted game of rounders cleverly and clearly shows the photographers as intrusive, entitled, creepy and bullying. I am not sure whether Laugesen is telling the truth when he says he didn’t want to terrify anyone – and he certainly understands the impact of the interview with Ulrik and Laura’s nurse – but he clearly doesn’t care either way – and the Ulrik interview doesn’t have the effect of the paparazzi being called off. With their cameras and microphones their activities are presented as not legitimate, and their cry of, ‘We want to show compassion but you have to give us something. Give us something!’ is knowingly disingenuous. They are shown as a swarm, or, later, as an invading force which for the patients and staff of Liseholm they are. 

The line that Kasper wants Birgitte to use, about the relative importance of her role as statsminister and that of parent, is in some ways as tacky as Birgitte thinks. Politicians have to work out if they can find a comfortable balance between their various roles at that point in their lives, and act accordingly. Some will feel that they can’t. Or they downplay their relationships with appalling results, as we’ve seen Hesselboe and Bent (and Birgitte) do. Birgitte decides that the need of her daughter to be ‘given peace to get well’ is incompatible with reasonable press scrutiny of the statsminister’s policies. It should, in theory, be possible for at least some people to find a balance that allows a full life. But the small snippets of vox pops show that the public love to weigh in with judgements on people they don’t know. Perhaps the rise of politicians who have previously been television personalities is linked to this confusion of celebrity.

The circus moves on, and it’s possible that the passing of the health reforms will take the heat off. But Birgitte has given Kofoed a promise to act in 24 hours. We’ve seen her act boldly and courageously at various points, and she confounds us again by stepping down in favour of H C Thorsen – just in time for the season finale. Nyborg out.

The first family

Philip seems utterly broken, losing it when Lisbet Kofoed tells Birgitte and him that they’ll have to take Laura out of Liseholm . Since we’ve not really seen him since the divorce, we can forget that he spent many years as the primary parent (I’d say full time dad, but he did have that gig at the university) and is still really hands on. But Cecilie is supportive, and we know that Birgitte doesn’t get similar support from anyone. And we see the family as a foursome (or at least all in the same space with Birgitte and Laura in the kitchen (doing what? They eat a takeaway later) and Philip and Magnus in the lounge). Both Philip and Birgitte observes the other cuddled up with one of the children and we wonder whether this situation will bring them back together, in the same way that Birgitte has been reconciled in previous episodes with other characters.

It’s interesting to watch Birgitte and Philip in a setting where they are equals with each other, but on someone else’s turf. At Liseholm, they both stand when the principal, Lisbet Kofoed, walks in. Laura’s dismissal of Kofoed sparks the only mild rebuke we see from Birgitte. 

Poor Magnus is bearing up really well, given what he went through in the last episode. Philip tries to distract him with old family pictures and Magnus develops a sense of nostalgia, remembering ‘before you got divorced and Laura went mad’. But no one thinks that Magnus’s schoolfriends’ parents might shop Laura’s illness to the Express: just another thing for a conscience that is already unfairly burdened. But is his favourite show really All About Wine? There are continental attitudes to young people drinking, but this is ridiculous.

Katrine and Kasper

Everyone’s favourite power couple start the episode very settled, with the idea of TV dinners exciting and romantic, because everything is exciting and romantic. But once they realise that they have to go public about their relationship they take very different approaches. Kasper’s matter-of-fact with Birgitte, mentioning it at the end of an ordinary conversation. Katrine’s conversation with Torben is quite the opposite, though given the conflict of interest perhaps inevitably so. (Maybe Katrine could point out that her previous spin cycle, with Ole Dahl, didn’t result in any betrayals (other than of Dahl’s wife) one way or the other.) Later, Katrine has to call Torben out when it looks as though all the political stories are being diverted to other news anchors for spurious reasons. That period of adjustment for Torben and Pia is perhaps understandable. But I’m staggered by Torben’s other comments, as when he asks Katrine to outline any plans she has to start a family. They’re wholly inappropriate; in the UK I wonder if they would be illegal given that Katrine is not a permanent member of staff. 

After over two decades of burying his childhood abuse, it’s no surprise that Kasper is unwrapping the layers of his illness slowly. When it’s obvious that he’s opening up, Katrine is naturally supportive. But, later, when they begin to discuss their future, it isn’t obvious to them why they’re not both on the same page. Kasper’s not ready for the discussion and tries a glib approach, which irritates Katrine. More to come on this, no doubt.

Kasper’s impression of a crazy person (to Laura) is hilarious in its dad joke delivery – though his joke about Limp Bizkit later on is excruciating.

Other characters

What is it that Hanne chucks at Ulrik as he’s on his way in to talk to Torben?

Master reporter Ulrik has a game of patience open on his desktop screen. He doesn’t seem to be very good at it. He tries to be the big man against Kasper but comes across as truculent and out of his depth. Kasper completely has his measure. But Ulrik’s response to a furious Laugesen – ‘Feel free to stay. But it may look a bit strange’ shows he is at least confident in his own place of business.

When Birgitte met Bartlet

Jed Bartlet is fiercely protective of his family. The series opener, Pilot, hinges on evangelicals bullying his grand-daughter Annie. In Six meetings before lunch, he yells at C J to get the reporters into the press room to chastise them for coverage of Zoe. And of course, Bartlet also steps down at the end of Commencement, when Zoe is kidnapped. The two situations are in some ways comparable – both Bartlet and Birgitte step down in favour of a politician from another party (in Bartlet’s case an opponent). Both Jed and Birgitte show confidence, patriotism and an understanding of the importance of their office that has been used to contrast against real-life office holders (certainly in the UK and USA). But the situations are quite different (as are their storytelling purposes): Birgitte steps down specifically to care for Laura – she would ride out the press attacks if Liseholm could do the same, while Bartlet is protecting (or trying to protect) his family against external attack.

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

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