“Borgen” returns after a decade in a pessimistic Europe

JDANISH HE TV “Borgen” series introduced Europe’s wildly complex coalition politics to viewers in simpler countries like America and Britain. The show’s first three seasons, which aired in 2010-2013, followed Birgitte Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), leader of the fictional moderates, as she became Denmark’s first female prime minister, then resigned and founded a new party. Striking compromises and pursuing liberal values, Nyborg was a heroine for her time. US Democrats wanting Danish-style health care (or at least hygge and cardamom buns) fell in love. Soon Denmark had a real female Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Nine years later, “Borgen” is back, and its fourth season shows how Denmark and Europe have changed. Nyborg is now foreign minister in a government where the leaders of the main parties are women (as in most Nordic countries). It hasn’t made the policy any less vicious. She is exasperated by the radicalism of today’s youth, especially her own son. In a parallel storyline, the national broadcaster’s white news chief and a non-white presenter, both women, argue over political correctness.

The most profound change concerns world politics. The main plot of the season imagines oil discovered off the coast of Greenland. This contrasts two of Nyborg’s principles: indigenous self-determination and the fight against climate change. Russia, China and America are getting involved to pursue their strategic interests. An authoritarian American secretary of state is a familiar stereotype of European cinema. But the Chinese ambassador scolding a Nordic minister in aggressive “Wolf Warrior” style is new.

Like Europe today, the season has an overall tone of pessimism. A decade ago, he described a messy but enviable Denmark, where responsible politics meant bickering and backstabbing to achieve social goals. Now those goals seem out of sight. The earlier seasons’ fantasies about Denmark and Europe’s global relevance are harder to sustain. In the Obama era, Nyborg was a role model for the frustrated center-left because, in a dead end, she always asked, “What are my options?” Since then, its options, like those of Europe, have narrowed.