Borgen Goes to War
- January 06, 2013
Last night I watched the first episode of the new series of the Danish political soap opera Borgen. I quite enjoyed the first series, especially the earlier episodes, with their sharp and well-observed depiction of the political wheeling and dealing and jostling for alliances in which Birgitte Nyborg’s charismatic and engaging PM finds herself engaged, and the overlap of media and politics at ‘the Castle’ – Denmark’s seat of government at Christiansborg Palace.
It was ultimately, pretty lightweight stuff, but gripping nonetheless and done with some panache – like a less moody version of The Killing without the body count, and with many of the same actors.
As the series wore on, some rather clunky and predictable plot devices began to grate; conflicts between home and political life; Nyborg’s marriage unraveling; the resentment of stay-at-home husband at his wife’s career; the on-off relationship between Nyborg’s troubled spin doctor Kasper and his hot journalist girlfriend, one of whose sexual partners expires from a heart attack in her bed; political betrayal, intrigue, and backstabbing.
I also felt that there was a glaring weakness in its central premise. In the first series Nyborg wins the Danish elections as the leader of the ‘Moderate Party’ – a loaded term in itself which the program does not examine -apparently on the basis of a radiant smile and vague promises to bring a ‘new kind of politics’ to Denmark.
What this ‘newness’ consists of is never made clear. But we are led to assume that Nyborg is a touchy feely, greeny, liberal type, pragmatic and post-ideological, concerned about the environment, native rights in Greenland etc, whose politics are infused with a distinctively female compassion and empathy, and whose fluffy idealism is tempered by reality as she learns to be ruthless and decisive in order to prevail in the shark-like male world of modern democratic politics.
For the most part Sidse Babett Knutsen’s seductive performance makes you believe that such things are possible, and willing to overlook her heroine’s essentially vacuous politics. In the second series however, Borgen follows in the footsteps of The Killing and addresses Denmark’s participation in the Afghan war and occupation.
Where The Killing once offered a typically dark and murky plot involving rogue Danish Special Forces murdering soldiers to cover up an atrocity, last night’s program ‘89,000 Children’ delivered a jarringly simplistic pro-war message.
The programme begins with Nyborg visiting the troops in Afghanistan, where she has a photograph taken with a Danish soldier who is later killed by the Taliban. We are told that she is – or has been – opposed to the war and in favour of withdrawal, but in the space of an hour she comes to realize that this position is ‘out-dated’ .
What explains this transformation? Firstly, a female member of an Afghan NGO tells her that the freedoms that she and other Afghan women now enjoy, thanks to the war and occupation, and warns her that these freedoms will be lost if the occupying forces withdraw.
Then the father of a dead Danish soldier who initially believes that his son’s death was ‘senseless’ reads her the last letter from his son, which explains that ‘89,000 children’ have been saved in Afghanistan as a result of the toppling of the Taliban, and this was why he is proud to be fighting in the war.
Finally, Nyborg speaks to a high-ranking Danish army officer and asks him his opinion on what should be done. Initially reticent and suspicious, the officer is won over by her sincerity and willingness to listen and explains that the army needs more equipment so that it can fight the war properly. Nyborg agrees to this, and convinces her cabinet, while simultaneously impressing the rightwing opposition with her masculine patriotism and sense of purpose.
This ‘issue-based’ plot alternates with snippets of her deteriorating private life/loneliness/problems with her children, who are reacting badly to her separation. At one point, she cries when her errant husband Philip presses her to sign divorce papers and exclaims plaintively ‘I’m at war at the office! I’m at war at home!’
When Nyborg says that she doesn’t want a divorce him, Philip replies ‘Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.’ Nyborg later repeats the same words to her old anti-war confidante Bent, who criticizes her for changing her position on Afghanistan.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that – the Afghan war reduced to the level of a domestic soap opera, akin to breaking up with your husband, and neatly packaged with an easily consumable moral message that makes Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty look like they were penned by Ibsen.
Over at The Guardian, Mark Lawson called it an ‘impassioned argument for the past and future logic of occupation’, but this argument is presented without an convincing counter-position.
The scriptwriters clearly got the ‘89,000 children’ figure from statistics presented with great fanfare by the Karzai government in 2007, which reported that under-five infant mortality had dropped from an estimated 257 deaths per 1,000 births in 2001 to 197 per 1,000 in 2006, thanks to improvements in public health.
This is clearly a positive achievement, but Borgen made no mention of the numbers of Afghans who have died because of the war, both directly from insurgent or coalition violence, or more indirectly through the impact of the war on security, health and the economy.
The only casualties the programme appeared tobe concerned with were Danish soldiers – a tendency which is pretty much replicated by all the countries involved in the Afghan occupation. Nyborg’s meeting with a female NGO member unproblematically revisited the old ‘saving Afghan women’ arguments that were once used to justify the war by Laura Bush, Cherie Blair and others.
Viewers would be entirely forgiven on the basis of this episode for believing that the situation of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan has been an unambiguous triumph, which is not the case at all.
At one point Nyborg says that Denmark must finish its mission and hand over Afghanistan ‘to the Afghans themselves’. Which Afghans? The incredibly corrupt Karzai government, which is only in power because it fixed elections, yet somehow represents ‘democracy’ in Afghanistan? The growing numbers of Afghan soldiers and police who are turning on NATO occupation forces?
Who are ‘the Taliban’ and why do so many Afghans support them? Why, twelve years after bombing and invading Afghanistan, are NATO troops still killing and dying in a war that it is increasingly clear has no military solution? Are its soldiers really young idealists fighting for the rights of Afghan women and children?
Borgen does not ask any of these questions, and you might say that it doesn’t have to. Now I don’t read fiction or watch tv drama in order to see my own politics played back to me. If I did that, I would be reduced to even thinner cultural gruel than what is generally on offer.
But I do expect that if writers are going to make major statements on matters of war and peace then they should try and do justice to the complexity and seriousness of what is being discussed – regardless of whether they are for the Afghan war or against it.
Last night’s episode didn’t begin to do this. Instead it offered up a manipulative, draw-by-numbers account of the war that might have been scripted by the Pentagon or the Danish Ministry of Defence. A programme that does such a thing can no longer use the conventions of fiction as an alibi, and crosses the boundary between entertainment and propaganda.
And that is why I didn’t watch episode two and shall probably not be checking into the Castle again.