I write this review with a heavy heart, for I have watched the last episode of Borgen. It really doesn’t seem fair that when mediocre and unremarkable series drag on for decades, after just 30 episodes we have to wave goodbye to this wonderful series. A lot has been said about the current ‘obsession’ with Scandinavian dramas, but it’s lazy and ridiculous to overlook that Borgen gets praise, viewers and coverage because it’s a great show, not because it has subtitles. When speaking about shows like The Killing or The Bridge, there’s a bit more scope for comment I think, because they are doing very similar things to what other UK and US shows are doing – the serialisation is a bit more unusual, but fundamentally it’s the Scandinavian bit that’s unusual in the the story of a slightly unusual cop chasing a slightly unusual killer. But Borgen – the closest comparisons are The West Wing which has been off our screens (if not our dvd players) since 2006 and The Thick of It which isn’t really in the same genre. Well, and I guess House of Cards actually, but that feels sort of ethically different, it’s about the dirtiness of politics, not the hope.
Unfortunately, while I still adore what Borgen is striving for and greatly admire it’s successes, I have to acknowledge that it never quite reached the heights that it set itself in the first season. The second season could best be described as “uneven” and the third season had a fair share of stumbles too. Around the mid-point of the series I did find myself not really pouncing on new episodes, frustrated at the direction some of the characters and stories were taking. Too often the writers fall back on rather lazy “Tab A goes in slot A” style writing – a tedious mid-life crises and workplace affair, cheesy bullshitting network executive, the trials of being a single working mother. Many of those storylines just didn’t rise beyond their clichés.
At first I was putting the breast cancer storyline with Birgitte in the same class – successful woman side-swiped by a condition out of her power, but actually in the end I felt that was one of the better written stories. It connected into other stories and gave Sidse Babett Knudsen even more opportunity to really shine. It still had its clumsy elements (if it says 1 on the pill bottle, don’t take 3 before going on live television), but it beautifully demonstrated Birgitte’s simultaneous weakness and strength, making her a real person rather than a figure on a pedestal.
Politically the direction of the season was interesting as well. Putting Birgitte outside of politics and then fighting to get back in gave a new perspective. It allowed a refocus on the issues, where season 2 had gotten bogged down in the political manoeuvring. The structure of Danish politics (or at least the version shown on screen) is also fascinating, an entire structure built on coalition. We could probably learn something from that, even if it’s just a warning.
Despite its many stumbles, Borgen is still one of the best shows on television at the moment. The cast is phenomenal, and the balance of human and political drama reminds me of The West Wing in all the very best ways. At it’s core it has such a sense of hope and positivity, I like the characters, I like what they stand for and I want them to succeed, but they’re not unrealistic and make plenty of mistakes. For a show to end while still at the height of its success is disappointing to its fans, but may be better than slowly waning away. It’s hard to say goodbye though.