This article contains Borgen Season 4 spoilers
In April, 2020, it was announced that Danish political drama Borgen would be returning to TV screens after almost a decade away. Like many fans, I was delighted by the news. The show had been a source of joy during its original three season run; a sort of feminist, European version of The West Wing without the Sorkinisms but with a similarly huge helping of idealism splashed around the halls of Denmark’s Christiansborg Palace, as the savvy and shrewd Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) became the country’s first female Prime Minister against all odds. Nyborg would go on to face wave after wave of fellow politicians and twisted media stalwarts who couldn’t wait to see her fall from grace, but she stood strong, nearly always coming out on top.
In Netflix’s Borgen revival, Power & Glory, Nyborg is still clinging to power as foreign minister while her own party, the New Democrats, are in coalition with the Labor Party. But now, she claims, it’s easier than ever to do her job without the distractions of a home life getting in the way. Alone, she can focus on the work she’s dedicated her life to, and although the isolation she’s embraced doesn’t seem particularly healthy, Birgitte does seem to be more determined than ever to make a difference while still having fresh games to play at Denmark’s political carnival.
All that shifts out of focus when she agrees to help the oil-thirsty Americans in Borgen Season 4’s opening episodes. Having struck oil, her ministerial counterpart in Greenland has started envisioning a richer, more independent land, but Birgitte is instantly conflicted by the discovery. After all, her platform is heavily based on environmental concerns, but should Denmark fail to keep Greenland in check, America, China, and Russia would swoop in to claim the glory for themselves, and a big chunk of the Danish population would question why they lost out on billions in revenue while its centrist politicians held fast to green energy goals. There seems to be no way for Birgitte to win, so she agrees to keep the results of an unsettling investigation into an oil company’s ownership a secret to give Denmark’s American allies the upper hand. That one favor becomes the catalyst of Birgitte’s downfall.
In Season 4, we watch in discomfort for hours as our once steadfast and idealistic female protagonist makes one disgraceful decision after another, both personally and professionally. Birgitte pushes away everyone who disagrees with her or stabs them in the back, fuelled by her desperate need to remain powerful. Her earnest and hopeful son Magnus, very much an “apple didn’t fall far from the tree” type, remains the one person in her life who is willing to stick around and fight her, but even he drifts away in disgust as Birgitte’s corruption takes hold.
“The first time you taste [power], it’s amazing, because you actually get to realize many of the idealistic dreams you had as a young politician,” Borgen creator Adam Price told Time. “But power is a slow working poison as well. And it drips into your cup of coffee every day, until, as a politician, you’re almost not able to taste that it’s coffee anymore.”
While it pains us to see Birgitte take steps to hurt both the planet and those in her immediate circle, seemingly ditching her hopes for a brighter future for all in exchange for continuing personal glory, nothing about that journey seems incorrectly juxtaposed with real world politics. We regularly see our once young and hopeful politicians have their ideals eroded. We see people we once believed in take money from corporations and governments with horrifying human rights records. In Season 4, the minds behind Borgen – Power & Glory apparently wanted to show us that even our beloved Birgitte wasn’t immune to corruption.
“When I was young, we were always talking about the roles that weren’t there for women: they were either the bitch or they were put on a pedestal. Whereas men, in their parts, could move around, they could be in between,” star Knudsen remarked. “I think it’s really important in a feminist sort of way that we don’t pretend that women have to be perfect. It’s also interesting to show somebody who gets lost. Because that is part of the human condition.”
Indeed, we spent many hours watching Birgitte get lost in Season 4, but in the finale of the Netflix revival, Price couldn’t help but give Borgen a happy ending. As fans, we should naturally be overjoyed that Birgitte came to her senses after realizing how disappointed and crestfallen her family, friends, and colleagues had become in her actions. We should be relieved that she finally decided to move on to pastures new. Perhaps that is a fitting end for the show and its central protagonist, who always seemed to land on her feet in Denmark’s political landscape.
But it was only after some brief, last-minute reflection and public humiliation from her old advisor Bent Sejrø that she actually decided to do the right thing, and that decision came after hours of Birgitte drifting to the dark side in a way that she seemed unable to pull back from on many occasions throughout the season. Birgitte’s sudden, positive heel-turn, while of course admirable, didn’t really ring true for me. In our current political climate, it also felt hollow: after nearly a decade of harsh real world lessons since our last dalliance with Borgen, it was practically a fairy tale ending.
Since Borgen’s third season wrapped in 2013, our knowledge of global political machinations has increased spectacularly. We’re fed a constant diet of distressing news and revelations about the wheeling and dealing of our politicians, and what they’re willing to do in their quests for relevance. We’ve witnessed those who have beliefs that don’t align with our own cross line after line to remain in the public consciousness, or on the good side of questionable leaders. “We’re better than this,” might have once been a rallying cry we could get behind, but it seems important to note that a response now always echoes from the darkness: “Are we?”
It was upsetting to watch our heroine Birgitte be sucked into this quagmire of corruption for only a short time, but it does feel like Price could have fully gone for the jugular when he wrapped this up, ditching his convenient ending and following through on one that taught us an updated, cruel and necessary lesson about the ongoing destruction of idealism in politics – if things had become so rotten as to claim Birgitte’s soul, then the progressive ideals of her children’s generation could have been emphasized as being more important than ever.
As it stands, Birgitte has finished her Borgen journey in a crowd-pleasing place, having ultimately done the right thing. Good for her. That may well have been the ending we deserved all those years ago. But I don’t think it’s one we can truly believe in right now.