From Macbeth to I, Claudius, what makes political drama irresistible isn’t the collective but the intimate. Television writers understand what many historians don’t: Politics is the epic expression of humanity at its most private. Rack your brains, and you might recall that at the center of last winter’s House of Cards was a battle over education legislation; less forgettable are the unctuous and slithery monologues about congressional sway and supremacy by master manipulator Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). The Danish series Borgen roils with policy skirmishes over an African civil war and the legal age of punishment for crimes by minors, but all of it is a stage for the transformation of Birgitte Nyborg, her nation’s first female prime minister. A voice of idealism at the outset, Nyborg struggles with the hard trade-offs of uniting a coalition of fractious parties. As she becomes cannier and more confident at governing, however, she loses her grip on a crumbling family—a daughter afflicted by anxiety attacks, a small son who wets his bed, a husband forced to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime job offer because his wife is running a country.
The third and ostensibly final season of Borgen aired earlier this year in Denmark, and the first two seasons are now domestically available on DVD. If American enthusiasm hasn’t reached quite the pitch of the Borgenmania sweeping Europe—particularly in Great Britain, where the series recently won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best international show—a cursory Google search reveals fans desperate to get their hands on episodes that haven’t even been translated yet. As with a lot of cultural addictions, passion for Borgen (the “castle” in Copenhagen that houses the government) steamrolls any objections to its occasional clichés, especially those that involve secondary characters like the news anchor who’s at once the show’s designated hothead—more a lukewarmhead in Nordic climes—and its requisite hottie, not above sleeping with her sources. When a lover expires in her bed in the first episode, setting in motion the chain of events that makes Nyborg prime minister, it isn’t the last time the show resembles The West Wing, the Aaron Sorkin hit that kicked off its 1999 debut with a sexual dalliance between a presidential adviser and a prostitute. At the conclusion of Borgen’s second season, when Nyborg startles her opponents by calling for a new parliamentary election, the obvious model is The West Wing’s season-two finale, when rain-soaked President Jed Bartlet announces his candidacy for re-election in defiance of everyone’s judgment, or at least everyone who was on the show instead of watching it.
Readers of The American Prospect may expect that Borgen is an ideological Lost Horizon where, as we crawl from the Himalayan crash site that is the free market, we’ll glimpse Denmark’s social-democratic Shangri-la emerging from the mist. To be sure, even Nyborg’s most venal conservative foes, give or take a random xenophobe, are a step or two to the left of Barack Obama. One of the lessons that Nyborg learns with her new promotion, however, is how little respect reality has for principle; she reverses a long-held intention to withdraw Danish troops from Afghanistan. Apparently even in Scandinavian utopia, egos still churn, pettiness still abides, the squabble for influence still rages, and couples still don’t have enough time for sex. In the same way that Borgen displays how a progressive system remains marred by the untidy behavior of those living in it, the show is also an eye-opener for anyone with an exalted view of parliamentary democracy, wistfully coveted by those frustrated with a presidential republic and how unresponsive it can be to all but the narrowest and most moneyed interests. As Borgen indicates, parliamentarianism can be shockingly unstable. While it’s true that an issue supported by 90 percent of the public might be less vulnerable to the dedicated assault of a fanatical lobby, Nyborg’s position remains so tenuous, the ground beneath her feet shifting so constantly, that she scarcely gets her footing at all. Many of Borgen’s initial episodes are preoccupied with the push-me-pull-you existentialism of whether Nyborg can form a government. Counseled every step of the way by a spin doctor just as cynical as any American version, she is as dependent on the alliances she breaks as on the alliances she makes; we come to realize soon enough that if Nyborg isn’t betraying someone—the Muslim leader of the Green Party or the former finance minister who’s been her mentor and most valued friend (and who has warned her she doesn’t have the luxury of friends)—she probably isn’t doing her job.
TV writers also know (if only because it makes for a better narrative) that there’s something to the “great man,” or “woman,” theory of history after all. While politics may be the social manifestation of individual pathology, that doesn’t mean there aren’t larger stakes to which only the charismatic man or woman can speak. The difference between The West Wing and Borgen is the difference between the American Idea and the Danish Psyche; whereas Sorkin’s characters reflected the arrogance of a union forged from revolution and centuries—long clashes over ringing beliefs, Prime Minister Nyborg fights for national greatness in the face of a communal languor older than anyone alive. The Danish experience, and the identity born of it, is framed by indomitable Vikings at the beginning and, closer to the other end, an acquiescence to Hitler so hasty—Denmark’s resistance lasted two hours—as to make France look like the Alamo. We’re better than we know, Nyborg exhorts her countrymen, calling on them to “show the world what some crazy Danes can do” as they negotiate a truce in an African civil war the rest of the world wants no part of. Through sheer force of will, and overcoming the daunting sexism harbored by the males of even an enlightened society, Nyborg commands a personal respect more formidable than an office that is short on trappings or perks, with no “Hail to the Chief” played when she walks into the room and no 10 Downing Street (let alone 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) to live in, and with reporters calling her by her first name at press conferences.
As Nyborg, Sidse Babett Knudsen is the best thing about the series, her portrait of command’s cost to both her and her country subtle and convincing. Sorting out when to be a leader and when to be a matriarch, jettisoning allies she values and retaining adversaries she despises, trying to resolve marital disputes at home by fiat as if she’s running a cabinet meeting, Knudsen is charming but direct, irritable but rarely explosive (in the first 20 episodes, she has a single furious outburst), as we watch her become tougher and more ruthlessly clear-eyed about the obligations of her destiny. If it’s not exactly the metamorphosis of Michael Corleone, there probably are times when Nyborg envies the options Michael has that she doesn’t, constrained by whatever better angels can be heard singing out beyond the aurora borealis. The second season left Nyborg triumphant, cheers ringing in her ears and editorialists opining, “Little Denmark finally has a prime minister it can be proud of!” but those American viewers frantic for new episodes may want to quit while their hero is ahead. The third season opens with Nyborg in exile, out of parliament, her loathsome right-wing predecessor back in power. A prisoner of her stature and haunted by her abdication, she still wrestles with the demons of ambition and the ambiguities of purpose, the song of the northern lights barely within earshot.