Notes From the Margins…

Borgen Goes to War

  • January 06, 2013
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Last night I watched the first episode of the new series of the Danish political soap opera  Borgen.    I enjoyed the first series, especially the earlier episodes, with their sharp and well-observed depiction of the political wheeling and dealing in which Birgitte Nyborg’s 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 lightweight stuff, but 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 intrude:  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.

There was also 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 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 Nyborg seems to be a liberal type, pragmatic and post-ideological, concerned about the environment, native rights in Greenland etc, whose politics are infused with compassion and empathy, whose idealism is tempered by ruthlessness and decisiveness as she fights to survive in the shark-like world of 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 shapeless politics.    In the second series however, Borgen follows in the footsteps of The Killing and addresses Denmark’s participation in the Afghan war.

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 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 about the freedoms that she and other Afghan women now enjoy, 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 by toppling the Taliban, and that 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 what should be done.  Initially reticent, 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, 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 a simplistic 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 any convincing counter-position.

The scriptwriters clearly got the ‘89,000 children’ figure from statistics presented 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 to be concerned with were Danish soldiers.  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 Karzai government, which is only in power because it rigged 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  fighting 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.  I don’t read fiction or watch tv drama in order to see my own politics played back to me.  But  if writers are going to use popular entertainment into make major statements on matters of war and peace, they ought to be able to better than offer 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’s why I didn’t watch episode two and shall probably not be checking into the Castle again.


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  1. Spies Fan

    7th Jan 2013 - 10:52 pm

    I too enjoyed the first series – indeed, I enjoyed the whole of it thanks to a tendency to enjoy fluffy and hackneyed plots like Birgitte struggling with her home life when I’m relaxing. But yeah, just got to the part in ep1 where the Afghan NGO’s go to her office and the lady talks of her photo driving licence and how a bunch of credit cards represent ‘freedom and democracy’. Errr….no. They represent the DVLA pillaging us with the 10 yearly photocard renewal and the debt fuelled idiocy of our society which is anything but free and democratic if you scratch beyond a very thin veneer. So yeah, it’s 100% propaganda.

    Still, I’m gonna continue with it as it will be intriguing to see what the BBC4 is telling the supposed intelligentsia viewership to think through a slice of ‘sophisticated adult contemporary drama’, along with the Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News and every other piece of horse manure that passes for the media in the UK. Except Russia Today of course – Putin’s mouthpiece is a breath of fresh air. Don’t say that to a Guardian reader though.

    Oh but lets get off the soapbox. The best Scando drama was ‘The Bridge’ btw if you didn’t see it- now that was truly terrific – no agendas, just pure thriller.

    • Matt

      8th Jan 2013 - 8:09 am

      I didn’t see ‘The Bridge’ but I heard it was good. My personal favourite piece of Scando-noir was the Wallander series (the Swedish one not the Branagh).

  2. Spies Fan

    7th Jan 2013 - 11:04 pm

    Oh and just read your piece on Quantitative easing. If you ever want an example of the undemocratic nature of the UK, that’s it. Absolutely destroy the prudent who try to do the right thing (i.e. save for their future) and don’t mindless consume to bail out the feckless who overborrow. I’m not just talking banks – I’m talking the Great British public who can’t make the connection between their stupidly overinflated pile of bricks and why we our now getting rampant inflation in basic food staples. Shelter prices up – hooray! Food prices up – Boo.

    Back to Borgen though – that delightfully toothsome female reporter will have me watching regardless.

  3. Detlev Beutner

    2nd Jun 2014 - 11:02 am

    I’m just watching Borgen and stumbled over S02E01 a few days ago. Ah, no, I did not only stumble, I face planted… When it comes to military, I don’t have much sense of humor or find it negligible and would think “ah, it’s just TV”. No, it is (was) hardcore propaganda, even worse than the Afghanistan episode of “Louie”. Probably the politics Borgen tries to describe made this happen…

    Anyhow, I just wanted to say “thanks” that some other guy felt the same and wrote some good words about it. So I feel a bit less lonesome…


    • Matt

      2nd Jun 2014 - 11:12 am

      Thanks Detlev. Yep, ‘hardcore propaganda’ sounds about right to me.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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