Borgen: The Danish House Of Cards

Borgen, the first-rate Danish Netflix drama, is at once like and unlike House of Cards, the acclaimed American series.

Borgen is a nuanced portrait of Brigitte Nyborg, Denmark’s mythical first female prime minister and of the rival politicians, colleagues, journalists, spouse and children she interacts with on a daily basis. Although there is a competitive edge to her maneuvers, she is not as venal, secretive, duplicitous or unpleasant as President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), her counterpart in the United States.

And compared to the shrillness and ideological bitterness that  often define U.S. politics today, especially since the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the White House, the business of governance in Denmark is downright civilized, collaborative and even cooperative, a reflection of the social democratic Scandinavian welfare state system.

Borgen, a Danish word for The Castle, or Christianborg Palace in Copenhagen, is the site of the prime minister’s office, Parliament and the Supreme Court. Much of Borgen unfolds there in 30 episodes over three seasons.

Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), in her mid-40s, competently leads the small center-left Moderate Party. She’s a decent, well-meaning person with progressive views who becomes the compromise prime minister after a hard-fought general election.

Sidse Babett Knudsen and her co-stars, Lars Knutzon (left), and Pilou Asbaek

Her chief aides are Bent Sejro (Lars Knutzon), a seasoned, cautious and dishevelled advisor who’s not only a colleague but a friend, and Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek), a young and astute “spin doctor” whose morals leave something to be desired.

Nyborg and her husband, Phillip (Mikael Birkkjaer), a college professor of finance, are happily married and have two children, a teenaged girl and a boy. As she settles into her job, which consumes and distances her from her family, Phillip assumes the household duties, to the eventual detriment and breakup of their relationship.

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjaer

As prime minister, the internal and external challenges that confront Nyborg come fast and thick.

She is called upon to fend off sharp attacks from Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), the mean-spirited, ethically-challenged editor of a sensational tabloid who humiliatingly lost his position as a party leader. She flies to Greenland, a Danish colony, to sort out problems concerning the indigenous population and Denmark’s ally, the United States. She clashes with an influential industrialist over a gender equality bill. She jostles with a wily and dictatorial president over a dissident and human rights.

Nyborg embarks on a family vacation to save her floundering marriage. But as the government considers the purchase of a new generation of fighter jets for the air force, Nyborg forces Phillip to quit his new job as a director of an electronics company, thereby straining their relations yet again.

Nyborg pays a whirlwind visit to Afghanistan to decide whether Danish troops should be withdrawn. Then, in quick succession, the foreign minister commits suicide, Nyborg’s daughter copes with a bout of mental illness, Kasper painfully revisits his troubled youth as a sexually abused child, television anchor Katrine Fonsmark (Brigitte Hjort Sorensen) signs on as Nyborg’s press secretary, and Nyborg mediates a dispute between two neighboring African countries with the help of a Danish Muslim politician. Old friends Katrine and Kasper, two peas in a pod in terms of their interests and work ethic, hook up.

Birgitte Hjort Sorensen plays a television anchor

In the wake of another election, Nyborg launches a new career as a globe-trotting public speaker and consultant and starts a love affair with a British architect.

Unable to part ways with politics, she creates a new centrist political party, the New Democrats, after an argument with her ideologically incompatible successor at the Moderate Party.

Diagnosed with pre-cancerous breast lesions, Nyborg temporarily keeps this information to herself and struggles to keep her party viable and in the news.

At the television station where she appears with other party leaders in animated debates, the somber, no-nonsense news director, Torbin Friis (Soren Malling), becomes romantically involved with an editor, much to the anger of his wife, and falls into a feud with the new programming director.

These sub-themes are captivating in their own right and mesh seamlessly with the main theme, which is never less than compelling.

Knudsen, in a measured yet high-octane performance, is alluring as Nyborg. The other members of the cast deliver plausible to stellar performances.

Borgen, stimulating and invigorating, takes its subject seriously and provides viewers with a commanding bird’s eye view of Danish politics and culture.