There is no doubt that right now, viewers have a feast of great programming on American television. It seems that just as one season of a show comes to an end, another must-watch season of something else begins, and that’s not counting whatever you still have pending on your DVR or in your Netflix account waiting for any other moment of spare time you might have. But if you still have room in your calendar for one more show, make sure it’s “Borgen.” As we noted in our review of season one, which arrived on DVD this spring, you’re not going to find anything as smart, well written and wholly involving on your dial. And just in time for your summer weekend binge viewing sessions, when a thunderstorm rolls in or its too hot to move off the couch, season two has arrived and confirms “Borgen” is hands down the best show you’re not watching.
Now, as we discuss season two, there will inevitably be some spoilers from the first season, but we’ll try and stay away from any dealbreakers, though if you want to go in fresh, just stop here and go watch the DVDs. When we left off with Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), her leadership was on the ropes. With poll results falling, she has forged an uneasy alliance with the Labour Party to maintain majority control in parliament, but it has come at the cost of ousting her longtime ally, mentor and close friend Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon) from his Finance Minister position as a concession to the Labour party. In her personal life, Birgitte’s marriage has fallen apart, with her husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær) seeking a divorce, while the constant time away from home has also strained her relationship with her children. Meanwhile, spin doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) was forced to reconcile with his past, and the sexual abuse he faced as a child, while he continues to share a testy relationship with ex-girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen)…who resigned from TV1 after finding out her producer/boss at Torben Friis (Søren Malling) let Kasper edit a news story about the PM. Phew…
Much like “Mad Men,” when we enter season two, some time has elapsed since the season one finale, and eleven months have passed when we enter the first episode. And from the start, the writing team doesn’t waste a moment in getting the multi-threaded, multi-stakes drama rolling. A presidential visit to Afghanistan sparks off a political firestorm about whether or not Denmark should pull their troops from the region when the area around the very military base Nyborg gives her press conference, comes under attack, leaving three soldiers dead (including one who posed for a photo with PM). And once again, the scripts are unbelievably taut, taking us through the kind of topical arc many dramas would stretch over a few episodes or an entire season. And throughout this batch of episodes, complex dramas unfold against the backdrop of everything from African civil war to the internecine politics of EU appointments, but the real focus of the second season is on the characters. And it’s that combination of deeply developed storylines and richly detailed players, that’s the secret to the success of “Borgen,” as obvious as that might seem.
Birgitte’s personal problems continue to multiply even as she becomes a more confident politician in her working life. Philip’s saint-like countenance is now reaching a breaking point, as he patiently awaits Birgitte to sign the divorce papers so he can move on with his life, and start building a future with Cecilie (Mille Dinesen), a pediatrician he’s now started seeing. And Philip continues his monk like resolve even as his continued advances to include Birgitte in his life — having her meet Cecilie, and managing his time with the kids — are rebuffed time and again. But Birgitte’s unconscious isolating of herself continues at work too, as her once, almost sibling like relationship with Bent becomes frayed to the point where they can hardly be in the same room without a violent argument taking place. And Birgitte’s coldness is reflected in her new secretary Jytte (Hanne Hedelund), whose efficiency comes with an almost dangerous focus on keeping the PM’s personal affairs out of the office. And that’s the balance Birgitte struggles to maintain, and what essentially becomes the focus of season two — weighing her role as a mother and provider, versus her responsibilities in leading a nation. And she’ll redeem herself in the eyes of others and herself, and make some rather game-changing decisions in the process.
And speaking of change, Katrine spends a good part of season two seeing what life is like on the political right. She’s now working for former Nyborg enemy Michael Laugesen‘s (a wonderfully sleazeball turn by Peter Mygind) reactionary tabloid rag Express. It’s a sea change from the more even handed work at TV1, where she’s expected to take part in the muckracking Laugesen participates in to drive sales. But Katrine finds an unlikely ally in Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen), the veteran reporter struggling with alcoholism, who one thought her younger competition was trying to get her fired. But it’s all water under the bridge as the two of them at least force Laugesen to approach some stories with a semblance of fairness and balance. But Katrine still feels unfulfilled, and even briefly takes a gig as Liberal leader Lars Hesselboe’s (Søren Spanning) spin machine, but eventually can’t stomach the politicians he gets into bed with. And as second season goes on, she too will face a reckoning between her personal and professional life.
The writing throughout this season of “Borgen” builds rich interior worlds for the lead characters, and even the secondary players carry the kind of weight that’s rare for a show. When Birgitte’s former secretary, the warmhearted and genuine Sanne (Iben Dorner) returns midway through the season, it’s like a new light has walked into a gloomy room. And even though she less to do here than in the first season, her mere presence marks a dynamic shift in Birgitte’s arc. And one can’t help but be profoundly moved with Birgitte and Bent (who goes through some rather heavy developments) finally respark the kind of friendship they had, based around a mutual sharing of values, goals and deep respect they had before she was elected. Theirs is a subtle bond, but one made all the powerful when it’s fused back together.
However, the show is not without it’s faults, and at moments in the second season, “Borgen” dips into trashier territory that’s sometimes rather jarring. A subplot involving a politician disgraced when photos of a homosexual encounter surfaces, feels a bit cheap, and a quickly introduced and discarded story strand involving Birgitte’s dalliance with a one night stand is wholly out of character. And the second half of the season wobbly navigates a multiple episode arc which follows the mental breakdown of Birgitte’s daughter that is mostly well handled, but also feels like a device used to build toward an otherwise excellent season finale in which the PM shrewdly turns the tables on her opponents. But, these are really nitpicks — minor little annoyances or imperfections that fade into the background, because the rest of moving parts are so well oiled and executed.
And it speaks to how dense and detailed the show is that we haven’t yet spoken about what happens with Kaspar, or how “Borgen” makes episodes centered around the passing of various reform bills so riveting. It’s really an accomplishment of scale — of tackling numerous layers of politics combined with a fundamental understanding of how and why people make the choices they do, even when they’re the wrong ones — that makes “Borgen” the must-see show that it is. It’s the rare program where small victories are celebrated like Super Bowl wins, because it’s show that realizes that life is really an accumulation of successes, disappointments and decisions that make you into a good parent or a great leader. A good lover or an understanding partner. An idealist or a politician. And it’s in these spaces that “Borgen” is an immensely entertaining, intelligent, witty and sometimes humorous portrayal of a sea of characters finding out when it’s okay to let power control them, and when it’s right for them to control power. [A-]
“Borgen” Season 2 is now available on DVD courtesy of MHz Networks.