By Debi Enker
Revivals are risky. Resuscitating a series in the hope of recreating the magic that once distinguished it might entice nostalgic former fans and attract new ones. Or it could tarnish the legacy of a once-loved show, leaving a sour aftertaste. We’ve recently seen a flood of revivals, with mixed success, as the streaming services, in particular, have scoured back-catalogues in search of content to woo subscribers. Among them are Back to the Rafters, Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace and the Sex and the City sequel, And Just Like That...
No one is likely to revive a show that wasn’t initially popular, but the stakes are especially high when the original was a global success that launched international careers and was admired for its insightful view of political life. “Scandi Noir” crime shows had already excited the world when Borgen (2010-13) propelled Danish television into a different sphere of drama. Over three gripping seasons, it followed the professional and private challenges of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who became Denmark’s first female prime minister.
Continuing under creator and co-writer Adam Price, the audacious and discernibly darker fourth season, Borgen: Power and Glory (Netflix), picks up a decade on with the protagonist as foreign minister in a government headed by wily new female prime minister Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt).
The new series, neatly described by The New York Times as “less West Wing, more House of Cards”, sees the return of a number of familiar faces. On the home front, Birgitte maintains an amicable relationship with her ex-husband, Phillip (Mikael Birkkjaer), while their son, Magnus (Lucas Lynggaard Tonnesen), has grown up to become an environmental activist who isn’t afraid to challenge his mother.
In the professional arena, journalist-turned-spin-doctor Katrine Fonsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) has been appointed to head the news division at TV1 with her former boss, Torben Friis (Soren Malling), now content as a commentator there. Among the new characters are Birgitte’s adviser, Asger (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and a pair of public servants: private secretary Oliver (Simon Bennebjerg) and permanent secretary Rasmus (Magnus Millang).
The clever set-up for the new series sees the discovery of oil in Greenland, harking back to one of Borgen’s best episodes, the first-season visit by Birgitte to the island. That encounter raised issues that are now played out more fully, to do with Denmark’s relationship with a nominally autonomous region that is financially reliant on it. The potentially lucrative discovery triggers a range of questions, to do with Greenland’s independence, how the proceeds might be divided, and whether it should be extracted at all given Denmark’s commitment to phasing out fossil fuels. Complicating matters further, the world’s powers – American, Chinese, Russian – hungrily circle, eyeing their own interests.
There’s rich story potential to mine as the series raises issues of colonial power, climate policy and the pressure on governments to balance environmental concerns with the need to support industries and jobs. So Birgitte is smack-bang at the centre of the action, as the drama, with its spectacular images of Greenland’s landscape, implicitly questions any development that might damage such a pristine place. She embarks on a merry-go-round of negotiations, trying to maintain her authority, satisfy a prime minister with whom she has an uneasy relationship, and further her country’s interests.
Yet this is not the Birgitte we once knew: she’s brittle and battle-hardened. The sparkle has gone from her eyes and much of the softness has gone from her face, although the adorable nose-wrinkle that has apparently won her considerable public favour is occasionally evident.
Suffering menopausal hot flushes, she’s irritable, yelling at people when a calmer approach would be more acceptable and more effective. Often dressed in black to emphasise her darkened spirit, she maintains that she’s happy to be able to throw herself into her work without guilt. But she’s a solitary figure, alone and lonely. Her commitment to her career has come at a cost and she drily remarks at one point that she has a flower subscription as a bouquet gift is unlikely. It’s hard to imagine a more wretched picture of this once-vibrant woman than the sequence that ends the fourth episode, with her drunk, alone in her office at night, puking into a rubbish bin as she watches TV panels critical of her conduct.
Birgitte started the series as a loved and loving wife and mother, someone who habitually rode her bike to the office, not an embattled politician who only chose that option when it could convey helpful optics. She was politically astute, able to negotiate and compromise, but she was also decent and principled. Now she’s power-hungry and ruthlessly pragmatic: leaking or withholding information to achieve her goals, forming alliances that she previously would’ve shunned if she thinks they could prove useful. At one point, the Americans dangle the carrot of a possible UN posting, identifying her as someone who’d be amenable to making concessions in order to attain a more prestigious position.
She’s now defined by her job, and it has rendered her a hollow woman. As well, her relationship with Magnus has suffered and continues to suffer. One of the subjects that the new series teases out, notably though not exclusively in relation to Birgitte and Katrine, is the psychological and emotional cost of a demanding career.
In this new world, Birgitte has been corrupted, but almost everyone is compromised. Katrine finds herself under pressure due to her managerial style and the content of news bulletins, which might affect government funding of TV1. Asger’s developing relationship with a Greenland government adviser could complicate negotiations between the countries. Magnus’ activism has unexpected consequences.
It’s a bold move by Price to shift such a beloved character into a murky world where she’s undeniably tainted. The final episode tackles the question of redemption and the path to it is compelling. Welcome back, Borgen.
Borgen: Power & Glory is now streaming on Netflix.
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