Wednesday 1 April 2020


Borgen (which means “The Castle,” nickname for the building in Copenhagen that contains the Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, and Supreme Court) is a Danish series that is rather different from the usual kind aired on television. It has two kinds of focus. One is on gender and its implications in democratic political systems. The second is on how a job that is important, that demands unremitting involvement, can affect a person inwardly, and can affect that person’s relationships not just with others at work, but also with family and friends. So, as in many of the better kinds of novel, the central issue is character. 

The protagonist in the series is Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Aged about 40, she is leader of a centrist party, the Moderates. A second protagonist is an ambitious television journalist, Katrine Fønsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. Although the series is about women, the writing team, Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm, is all male. In an interview, Adam Price, the series originator, said that women in public life are not as unusual in Denmark as in some other places, and also that he thought the series would never travel beyond its home country. But it has; it’s been enthusiastically reviewed and widely appreciated.

Episode One of the first season starts with the approach of an election, with the Liberal Party currently in power and the main opposition, Labour Party, with similar prospects of winning. The Moderates seem out of the race. Then it turns out that Katrine Fønsmark has been having an affair with the current Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who dies during one of their meetings. On clearing up the chief of staff’s belongings, a receipt is found which reveals the Prime Minister’s financial wrongdoing. The receipt is given to Nyborg who refuses to have anything to do with it. Then it’s given to the Labour leader who very much likes showing off and presents it in a televised debate. Liberal and Labour support plummet.  Suddenly, it seems Nyborg might become the new Prime Minister.

In a world in which so many national leaders are older men it may be appealing that political decisions might be made by principled women, of whom there are some such as Angela Merkel. In this series, Knudsen plays Nyborg as someone who is thoughtful, who sometimes gets cross, but in personality is kind and considerate. As Knudsen acts this part we, in the audience, often see, in a smile at someone, or in a moment of hesitation, a depiction of a person whom we would very much appreciate as a political leader. And beneath this, as a principle of fiction, we are invited to think what this might mean for our understandings of political democracies, and of other people more generally, and of our selves. 

Borgen (2010-2013, three-season television series). Written by Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm. Denmark. (Available on services such as Apple TV.)

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