By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist February 20, 2014 at 5:00PM
While the novelty factor of "Borgen" is that it's a drama about the fictional female leader of Denmark, what has made the show must-watch TV across two seasons has been its sharp writing and terrific characters, populating a textured world of ethical choices and moral complexity in a constantly shifting political sphere. Which makes it all the more a shame that the third and final season doesn't quite hit the high bar that has been set. An increase of cheap melodrama comes at the expense of nuance, while domestic squabbles get as much play as media and political developments. But all that said, the show's peaks are still some of the best television around, and the second half the third season makes up for a bumpy start.
Season three kicks off two years after the close of season two, and things have changed greatly. Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is now in the private sector, sitting on the board of a major corporation, doing lectures and traveling the world. She's put politics behind, and has even embarked on a new relationship with British architect Jeremy Walsh (Alastair Mackenzie), but until Borgen is calling her once again. Seeing the Moderates taking a decided shift to the right under the leadership of Jacob Kruse (Jens Jacob Tychsen), after Birgitte's attempts to re-join the party are rebuffed, she decides to launch her own party, one guided by the principles she feels have been abandoned by the Moderates.
To make this all work, Birgitte assembles a ragtag, small but enthusiastic team of politicians willing to break their party affiliations to join her side, and manages to poach respected and popular TV1 newsanchor Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) to come and run her media relations. But over at TV1, Katrine's absence couldn't come at worse time for her former boss Torben Friis (Søren Malling), who is under pressure from the new head of the network, Alexander Hjort (Christian Tafdrup) to deliver better ratings even it means trumping the integrity of their work. Meanwhile for Katrine, the new job further complicates the home life for the new single mother, who has split from Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek —disappointingly in a much reduced role) but shares custody with him of their young son. Now toss in duplicity, Communists, bankers, a potentially life threatening disease and more, and "Borgen" has a lot on its plate to deal with across ten episodes. And while density has never been a problem for the writers, the choice of narrative focus throughout season three often unevenly tilts the drama toward the tawdry.
Indeed, it seems no one can get through the season without having an affair of some kind, whether it's between co-workers at TV1, political party members, or sometimes a mix between the two. And while writers can determine that a story can always go where it needs to go, many of these flings ultimately have no narrative impact. Only one actually bears some real fruit in terms of character, while the others for the most part feel more like cheap devices to spruce up a script, rather than organic developments borne out of circumstances presented in the story threads. And this decision to focus on infidelity even gives one particular secondary character much more attention than he deserves considering his place in the series.
But, playing devil's advocate, it could argued that those developments suit the third season's exploration of how the personal is political, and the political is personal. And while the between-the-sheets escapades are perhaps the weakest undercurrents of that backdrop, as always, it's in the characters where "Borgen" shines best. The pairing up of Birgitte and Katrina is slight stroke of genius, as it allows the former PM to observe in Katrina the similar indefatigable spirit she possessed in her youth, but with the distance Birgitte has clearly picked up across her career. They make a wonderful team and intriguing contrast of personalities — one impulsive, and the other more of a tactician — whose combined powers can be unstoppable.
And indeed, with both steering the fledgling New Democrats, they leap ahead of their modest expectations and become something to be reckoned with in the halls of government. Unlike the heightened realm of "House Of Cards," what makes "Borgen" more satisfying is that even with melodramatic twists and turns, whenever the story pivots back to politics there is an ambition for realism. Yes, there is treachery and scheming — these are politicians after all — but unlike the toxic cynicism of the Kevin Spacey series, here there is an optimism and idealism that borders on the naive. Yes, Birgitte is eager to have an influential place at the political table, but she also genuinely cares about the policies she's pushing, and helping to shape the version of Denmark that she would be proud to live in. And there is something truly invigorating and refreshing in watching a drama about politics that isn't so tired with the process that it can only rely on sneering at the system, or sitting back with a self-assured cocked eyebrow.
But that's not to stay Birgitte isn't challenged. Just as in previous seasons, she's put to the test numerous times here, with the pragmatism of her opponents sometimes seeming more reasonable than Birgitte's aspirations. The tradition in those political circles is to compromise ideals in order to keep the government running smoothly, but Birgitte, who found her time in office trying as she was forced to appease no shortage of special interests, is not ready to forgo her principles now. And that little but important detail is at the root of some of the most enjoyable segments of the show, that find Birgitte debating, arguing or discussing policy. Particularly in the latter half of the season, as the plot heats up, one of the purest pleasures is in watching the manuvering within political circles from high and low. Even if you know nothing of Denmark's eight party system, if you're even faintly familiar with politics in general, you'll know that alliances are both important and fragile.
Though wobblier, looser and more structurally uneven than the previous seasons, when "Borgen" is firing on all cylinders, it's still enriching, rewarding television. And as the focus narrows and plot threads tighten as it heads toward the finale, "Borgen" leaves on a note that's a reminder of what makes this series so unique. As Birgitte plays her final chess piece before the credits close, you realize that "Borgen" isn't really about politics in general, so much as what our own involvement may be worth in creating the sort of world we want to live in. With the potential keys to the kingdom looming, Birgitte chooses another path, one that satisfies her needs personally, politically and socially. Simply put, "Borgen" quietly argues that successfully leading country is about listening to what the people want, rather than telling them what they need. [B]
“Borgen” Season 3 is now available on DVD courtesy of MHz Networks.