This one took me a while, partly because I have a semester to finish at the Uni, partly because I was as awed by this revival as I was conflicted: Did the best political drama of the Century pull an Aaron Sorkin on us?
I’m shamelessly stealing Tori Preston’s title for her review of The Lost Daughter, and though there’s a whole other essay that could’ve written about the parallels between Birgitte Nyborg and Lidia, as middle-age, European women who bounced-off of that very American dream of “having it all,” the truth is, I stole that title because Borgen: Power & Glory is a work of art, somehow towering over the already timeless three seasons of its original run, matching the tone of our post-2016 and post-2020 world, actually questioning the values and figureheads we held dear a decade ago, but without falling into the trap of cynicism.
The original Borgen was as much a character study as it was a parable on a political compromise under a functional democracy, a lesson on how Progressive politics, from centrist liberals to the Left, should tackle a decade of crisis within a crisis. In comes Birgitte, a figure that disrupts Danish politics just by virtue of her being principled, by seeing challenges as something to be addressed, not as a platform for pointless lecturing, as well as by being a complex, vulnerable human being. While Jed Bartlett’s characterization was progressively defined by being the opposite of Dubya, Birgitte was allowed to be her own character, but not without abandoning her image as a wake-up call to the unprincipled, short-term way Continental European politics tried to deal with the crises of 2010, in particular, Angela Merkel before 2015. The final chapter of its original run encapsulated the ultimate message Borgen urgently wanted to convey: Nyborg, after an election that allowed her party to become kingmakers, rather than returning to the position of PM in an alliance with the Social-Democrats and the far-right, decided to join with the Right-Wing Liberals and the Conservatives as Foreign Minister, blocking out the far-right party and pulling the coalition to the left.
But it’s a decade later. The far-right continued its ascent in the so-called Developed Countries, the EU is still finding its bloody way, China is on the ascent, the US is trying to regain its waning relevance and Russia is a decrepit old man yelling at clouds (but with nukes). A series of much-needed political movements have begun to question the foundations of this current order of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. The environment is still warming up without the Big Powers doing jack-shit about it. And more in particular, we have started to question if the figures we, back in the 2010s, thought would bring about change. So, why wouldn’t we do the same with someone like Birgitte Nyborg, even as a fictional character?
The revival starts with Birgitte still as the Foreign Minister, but this time, in a progressive coalition headed by a female Prime Minister, a Social-Democrat (cue in glossy magazine covers and a “Future is Female” discourse surrounding the administration). But after a decade or so in power, the cracks have begun to seep into Nyborg’s character. Tensions grow between her office and the PMs over areas of influence with the Social-Democrats having fossilized long ago into an establishment, power-centered party, while Nyborg’s New Democrats are slowly falling into that default trap. But the molasses of institutionalized power-sharing are broken as oil is discovered in Greenland, which is still a constituent kingdom/colony of the Danish Crown.
Nyborg, as the Foreign Minister, is responsible for overseeing the negotiations to exploit the resource, something that goes against everything she stands for and the very platform that won her coalition an election. The choice couldn’t be more obvious for one of the leading countries in the Green Economy: No, absolutely not, this is a Carbon Bomb at the heart of the island that is the very symbol of the fight against the Climate Crisis, not to mention a threat to the low-lying peninsula of Denmark.
But it also turns out that the Greenlanders, mobilized by their desire for independence and represented by a cunning foreign minister, Hans Eliassen (Svend Hardenberg), are mostly in favor of tapping a source of wealth worth hundreds of billions of dollars and that could easily make each and every single one of them a millionaire from the profits alone.
Why wouldn’t they? The original series devoted an entire chapter to the plight of Greenland, Denmark’s very own colonial shame after what they did with the Inuit … well, the same things Canadians, the US (and Chileans) did with Indigenous peoples in the 1800s. Unlike US colonies though, Greenland does have devolved autonomy, proper representation in the parliament, and receives substantial subsidies from Denmark. But that has trapped the Inuit into economic dependency, developmental stagnation, discrimination, and compounded historical trauma. It was easy to ignore that back when Greenland was the Northern end of the World, but in this fiction as in reality, Climate Change has placed the country as one of those geopolitical eyes of the storm, as the ice melt and China, the US, Europe, and Russia try to make their moves on new sea routes.
Borgen: Power & Glory delves into the most important global conversation of our times: What is the responsibility that developed countries should have to developing and poor ones? What does the Global North owe to its former colonies, to the peoples it disrupted? Compounded by a similar question: Should developing countries make use of all their natural resources in order to jump into a better life? Are our environments be the sacrifice when we need to build roads, hospitals, schools, nutritional plans, cities? After all, the Europeans did it themselves 200 years ago in their own territories? In many ways, this revival of this very grounded political drama shares a lot of the same themes as The Expanse.
This is how Greenland’s former PM, Jens Enok Berthelsen (Angunnguaq Larsen), calls out Birgitte (the same person to whom she had acknowledged Denmark was in debt to Greenland). Why should Greenland pay for 200 years of mistakes of the West? How dare they come to them with predictions of a future Apocalypse when indigenous peoples themselves, as Abigail Thorne once mentioned, live in a post-Apocaliptic society?
The plot forces Birgitte to correct ship, as she tries to balance the interests of their US allies (and the critical Thule air base), the Chinese (why wouldn’t the Inuit accept their investments?), and Russian incursions, while her own coalition pressures her to just accept the drilling and secure a good deal for the European part of the realm. After all, isn’t it better to extract oil from within the realm itself rather than finance the Saudi family and the slavers at the Emirate countries? Wouldn’t she just be imposing her Urbanite, upper-middle-class values onto racialized others by blocking oil extraction?
Beautifully, the revival pivots towards the political thriller without falling into House of Cards bullshit, as Birgitte progressively begins to sell out her convictions, driven by her inner compromise-seeking algorithm, but also plagued by the anxiety of seeing her political career waning, the biological shock of perimenopause, a mostly empty house even though she remains close with her now-adult children, and the need to secure a legacy aside from being the first female PM (and a very good one at that). For example, becoming UN Secretary-General.
That compromise-seeking algorithm is a single point of failure unique to Liberals, because of their own philosophical underpinnings. But unlike in the US, Continental European Liberals like Nyborg lean to the Center-Left, which comes with one advantage and a particular pragmatic flaw. The advantage is that there are principles they will never compromise on. Historically, it has been trying to both-sides with the far-right, with the Environment becoming the most pressing front today. The pragmatic flaw is the obsession with holding onto power, based on the correct notion that Progressive governments are a net-positive in the end; after all, your people are the kind that want to make a career in the State. When Progressive politicians mistake the strategic need to remain in power with the principle in itself, it becomes a self-destructive path (not a problem for the right-wing). Birgitte plunges herself deep into that mistake throughout the length of the series, inching closer and closer to a Shakesperean tragedy. No, not that one, these ones.
And then comes the final chapter, and I couldn’t stop thinking… was this a cop-out? I don’t like reading other reviews before writing my own, mostly to avoid an Amy Schumer-style “parallel thinking,” but I read Kathryn VanArendonk piece on the revival’s ending, and I couldn’t help but think the same. Maybe it’s exactly the ending that makes sense within Borgen’s universe and what we know of Birgitte Nyborg; it is the only logical outcome from a series that has always been realistic and grim at times, but never cynical, always cautiously optimistic. And perhaps it is us, Kathryn in the US and me as a Chilean, who have become weathered by the last decade of our political history. At the very least, we Chileans share the Borgen ethos that challenges are something to be tackled; we don’t see them as a pit of hopelessness. Maybe the ending of Borgen: Power & Glory is the ending we need right now, a new lesson for any Progressive movement (MILD SPOILERS): The importance of stepping aside when you are the one compromised.
There is so. much. more. to talk about Borgen: Power & Glory (the title is not grandiloquent; it makes sense in the end!). I’ve completely neglected Katrine Fønsmark’s (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) storyline, as the newly minted Head of News at TV1. She starts embodying the worst traits of white feminism, a poignant, critical parallel at a workplace level of Birgitte facing her role in upholding Colonialism. There is also an interesting, although overdrawn love story between Birgitte’s acting ambassador to Greenland, Asger Holm Kirkegaard (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, bae), and his Greenlander counterpart, Emmy Rasmussen (Nivi Pedersen, also bae), dealing with their own, personal ethic quandary unrelated to the negotiations, further complicated by Hans Eliassen’s own family drama, a microcosm of the challenges Inuit Greenlanders face.
This revival is the exact kind of uneasy we need, beautifully shot, the kind of media that thrives in ambigüety and complex questions. But it is also brave enough to answer them.
Borgen: Power & Glory is currently streaming on Netflix. Seriously, it’s one for the ages.
Header Image Source: Netflix