Borgen: in defence of Philip

It is the law: when two or more people come together to discuss Borgen, Philip Christiansen will get it in the neck. He and Birgitte made the perfect couple at the beginning of series 1; by its end he is asking for a divorce and everyone thinks it’s down to him. By the end of series 2, Philip himself would agree with them, and show creator Adam Price has referred to Mikael Birkkjær’s character as ‘an idiot’ so the counter-argument is not often made.

Picture of Sidse Babette Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjær as Birgitte Nyborg and Philip Christiansen, in Borgen

The case against

The case against Philip is easy to make. There are signs of his grumpiness as early as episode 3, which given that Birgitte became Statsminister at the end of episode 2 is quick work. Doesn’t he realise that Birgitte is working around the clock? Can’t he be more understanding given that his wife is doing one of the most important jobs in the entire country? Surely he understands she is not ignoring the family just for fun? Didn’t he agree not to take a more senior job? Was that kitchen-top shag in episode 8 truly consensual? And, given that Philip is the one to have an affair, can he really take the moral high ground when Birgitte offers him the chance to continue playing away?

The case for

Team Philip has to make a more nuanced case. We’d need to start by making some general observations. Birgitte has the right to expect the support that Philip freely offered. No doubt they both thought that it would be similar to the previous five years, during which Philip has combined being a house husband with light economics lecturing. And at the beginning things seem to be OK. Indeed, when Birgitte continues to talk with Philip – for example, seeking his views about Crohne, it feels as though they will find a way to avoid the fate that every other first family has experienced. But the dynamic between them changes quickly. Some of that is down to Birgitte’s inexperience, such as when she blows off a family shopping trip to meet with some rebellious backbenchers. The Philip who can take the head of the table would tell her to make them wait, but he can’t tell her because she’s left already. Bent and Kasper are closer confidants almost immediately, and Kasper’s advice will have disastrous results.

A second picture of Sidse Babette Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjær as Birgitte Nyborg and Philip Christiansen, in Borgen

The collapse of the relationship seems all too heartbreaking because we see it happen over only a few episodes but we’re really talking about ten months and that’s a long time for a relationship to withstand constant crisis. Birgitte and Philip stop communicating and neither is able to think creatively about possible solutions. An au pair for the children is off the table because that’s what they previously agreed, long before anyone would have thought Birgitte might make the Statsminister job. And ideas like the holiday in Marienborg backfire as the family, out of politeness, don’t push back against the staff’s family-unfriendly policies. Philip has less and less agency and something’s got to give. 

Given time and space, the relationship could possibly have recovered. But a combination of naivety on one hand and clear choices made by Birgitte on the other make that impossible. It’s naive for the family not to have set up a blind trust, in which their investments could live happily during Birgitte’s period in office. Birgitte and Philip are arrogant to assume that their relationship won’t go the same way as everyone else’s at Christiansborg, and they don’t plan to deal with the inevitable setbacks. Birgitte chooses to micromanage her ministers and prioritises dealing with a short term crisis caused by Thorsen over Philip’s medium term happiness. She takes Kasper’s advice (which turns out to be catastrophic for her marriage but also just plain wrong) but won’t talk to Philip at all. She is quick to assume Philip is having an affair with Freya which is somewhat insulting to a man who’s crying out for some adult conversation. And she pushes him into an affair he arguably doesn’t want to have.

It’s entirely understandable that Birgitte should make some poor choices as she tries to navigate her stressful new job. A good relationship would give her the space to make mistakes. But she forgets that her family can be a source of strength and support, and gives the impression she no longer values it. 

A third picture of Sidse Babette Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjær as Birgitte Nyborg and Philip Christiansen, in Borgen

By the end of series 1, Birgitte has cemented power, but she has lost much of what is important: her husband, her mentor, and an assistant who was scatty but human, and for what? It’s no surprise that once she regains her moral core, in series 2, putting Laura’s health before the job, that Philip begins to realise what he is missing. Birgitte rightly chews him out when he expresses regret. But she has lost too. Jeremy is no replacement and by series 4 she has given up on relationships completely.

If Philip really were up before the beak, he’d be able to count on the support of Laura and Magnus. He’s consistent throughout, which is an opportunity not afforded to Birgitte. That said, in series 4 Birgitte uses Magnus to provide political cover when she has, once again, lost her way.

Our final piece of ‘evidence’ on behalf of Philip is that – not that he would care – Birgitte snaffles his chocolate. 

So: Philip has an impossible job. He lasts about 10 months. Could he have done better? Of course. Should he have done? It’s harder to say. In the end, both parities lost the ability to think things through, to talk and to have ideas. The success of Sidse Babette Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjær is to make us care about their failure.

What do you think? Stand up for Team Birgitte or Team Philip in the comments below. And check out the rest of our Borgen coverage.

2 comments

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s