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'Borgen,' Episode 1: 'Decency in the Middle'

This episode will be streaming online for two weeks from September 14 to 28. Catch episodes of "Borgen" that aren't currently streaming via our recaps here.

The series premiere of "Borgen" demonstrated exactly why the show won Best International TV series at last year's British Academy Television Awards. And across the pond, it's being hailed by The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Salon, among other media outlets, as one of the best shows on TV. The Danish political drama, which was conceived by veteran TV showrunner Adam Price and produced by the creative team behind the original "The Killing," is suspenseful yet surprisingly simple, sophisticated yet shockingly sexy.

The episode, like all others in the series, opens with a quote that perfectly frames the upcoming 60 minutes of drama. "A prince should have no other aim or thought, but war and its organization and discipline" from Machiavelli's The Prince float on screen. The prince in this instance is a princess, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) - the leader of the Moderate Party. She evolves throughout the show and must decide whether to get blood on her hands as she navigates Denmark's treacherous political terrain or watch from the sidelines in the hopes that the right side will ultimately be victorious.

With the Danish elections a mere three days away, Birgitte prepares to give an interview to TV1 news anchor Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) about her party's support for the opposition candidate Michael Laugesen, the leader of the Labour Party and the favorite to win. Before she gets the chance to answer any questions, the station cuts to a live feed of Laugesen discussing the future of asylum seekers. The show sheds light on what happens in front of the camera as Katrine questions Birgitte, as well as what occurs behind the scenes with the producers in the control room. In his statement about the status of the large number of asylum seekers in Denmark in the wake of the Iraq War, Laugesen insists that they will be confined to refugee camps and won't be allowed to work. "We can't have employment hampered by refugees already burdening us," he says, going back on his promise to the Moderate Party. Can you say "they took our jobs"? A sidetracked Birgitte is then cornered by Katrine about whether she still supports the candidate. "No," she says grudgingly, as her press adviser/spin doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk) cringes backstage. Although this scene was filled with tension, it also felt contrived. It's hard to believe that someone as shrewd as Laugesen would insist on discussing refugees and volunteer information on live TV was bound to hurt his platform.
Kasper catches up to Katrine, his on-again, off-again girlfriend (currently off), after the tense interview to confront her about bombarding Birgitte and deviating from the agreed upon questions. Birgitte also gives her a tongue lashing. The scene perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the media and the government. But, unlike one of its U.S. counterparts, "The Newsroom," the show is void of preachy character tirades (a.k.a. Aaron Sorkinisms) about the ethics of journalism.

As Laugesen's campaign takes a hit from the Moderate Party's withdrawn endorsement, the current prime minister, leader of the Liberal Party Lars Hesselboe attends a strategy meeting in London. He's ready to throw in the towel at the beginning of the presentation until his press adviser Ole Dahl (Claus Riis Østergaard) learns about Laugesen's missteps in real time. Katrine, his secret mistress, most likely alerts him of the news. Just as soon as Hesselboe gets his hopes up, he gets a call from his wife, Lisbeth, who has gone shopping while hopped up on prescription pills. Let's just say she's less independent than the Swedish Lisbeth of the dragon tattoo variety. He leaves the meeting abruptly and heads straight to the department store where his wife's credit card has been denied. He forgets his own wallet and is forced to foot the $12,000 bill with his office's official Euro card ... anything to shut her up as she prepares to make a scene. "Why can't you just for once be f---ing nice to me?" she screeches. He admits his error to Ole in private, who agrees to brush it under the rug. After all, what's politics without a little dirt? The two spin doctors (and onetime love interests to Katrine) Kasper and Ole later run into each other and plan a future collaboration. Kasper is ready to bed the liberals.

One of the most pivotal scenes in today's episode was Birgitte's first confrontation with Kasper. After he challenged her decision to change their party's stance three days before the election then pressured her to jump on Hesselboe's team, she scolds him mercilessly. Kasper has the audacity to question her work ethic as she heads out the door to go to a birthday party. "It's Saturday. I promised by children the next four hours three weeks ago," she fires back, hinting at her ongoing struggle to juggle a family and career, to "have it all" à la Liz Lemon. "Never let your children down, Kasper, because they grow up to be voters," she says, getting the final word in. A woman with a sense of humor? Lemon would be proud.

Later at home, we witness Birgitte and her husband Phillip's pas de deux as they fire jokes at one another lovingly. He tells her that she tends to gain weight during election season. "You get the most fantastic a-- during an election and I try to live with that in my own slightly primitive way," he says. She proceeds to straddle him. "You've cut off the blood supply to my legs," he jokes. The two get serious later and Phillip offers his wife advice, further solidifying his status as husband of the year.

While the happily married couple talks dirty, Katrine and Ole get down and dirty. Ole gives his mistress a yin yang pendant necklace and tells her that he's leaving his wife, with whom he has two children. After they "celebrate" the news, Katrine finds him unresponsive in bed, dead from a heart attack. She calls Kasper immediately, and he rushes over to hide all evidence that Katrine was ever present in the apartment. Ole was only 42 (13 years Katrine's senior), but most likely suffered from a heart condition. Earlier in the episode Hesselboe asked if he was still taking pills. When Ole said he was, Hesselboe said fittingly, "I'm surprised you have a heart." Kasper carries Katrine away so she won't be found in the apartment and consequently fired, gathers her belongings, turns up the TV, calls the police, and leaves. But before he heads out, he decides to rummage through Ole's folders and discovers Hesselboe's receipts. I guess stealing is a way of honoring the dead. Katrine doesn't show up to work the next day and misses out on the opportunity to interview the Liberal Party secretary about Ole's death, which she wouldn't have been able to bear through anyway. We learn from her absence that TV1's veteran election reporter Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen) and her boss, chief editor Torben Friis (Soren Malling), both see promise in Katrine -- the network's rising star.
Kasper comes into work the next day with guns blazing. His ammo? Information that could cause Birgitte to be elected into office, a.k.a. physical evidence that Hesselboe used state funds to finance his private overconsumption. "How dirty do you think I am?" Birgitte asks. "I'd never forgive myself if I came to power that way." No, your ears and eyes didn't deceive you. A politician chose to take the moral high road to power. Kasper storms off and mumbles that she'll therefore never come to power. Birgitte continues on the road less travelled later that day at a party thrown by Laugesen. He offers her two extra cabinet posts and promises to find jobs for a couple of asylum seekers (as long as she doesn't kiss and tell) in exchange for her party's support. But our old-fashioned gal doesn't accept a marriage of convenience. She heads home convinced that she will lose party seats, forcing her to resign from her post. She and Phillip had agreed to take five-year turns focusing on each of their careers and her time is up. She tells her loving husband, who put his business career on hold to teach at Copenhagen Business School, that it's time for him to concentrate on his professional life now.

Meanwhile, Kasper and Laugesen mingle at the party. Both are morally bankrupt so it's only fitting that they form an alliance. Kasper is convinced that he's going to be fired soon based on several remarks Birgitte has made so he hitches his wagon to who he assumes will be the winning horse. Laugesen, who's about as sleazy and greasy as a "Jersey Shore" cast member, asks him to "sneak something in the back way" (behind Birgitte's back). "She's not fond of the back way. She's a nice girl, you see," responds Kasper. Oh, behave!

Katrine returns to work just as Torben announces that he fired Hanne after he received an anonymous email that she started drinking again. He offers Katrine the assignment of a lifetime - hosting the final debate. She accepts hesitantly. While working out at the company gym (she works out non-stop, cries uncontrollably, and can't hold her food down), she's accused by Hanne of snitching about her alcoholism and sleeping her way to the top. However, there's no evidence that points to either of these allegations being true. Hanne most likely attacked her because she was an easy target and was offered the debate she was supposed to host.

Hours before the debate, we see further proof that Birgitte and Phillip are in an honest and healthy relationship. Birgitte can't fit into her skirt so Phillip asks his wife whether she wants to hear the truth about how she looks or the loving version of it. She ultimately decides to slip into a cocktail dress, the only article of clothing that still fits her (Phillip surprises with a new suit on election day). While giving her closing remarks during the debate, she throws Kasper's speech out the door and improvises. She becomes self-reflective and tells viewers that she's "gotten a bit too fat" for her clothes (Matt Damon's character delivers a similar speech in "The Adjustment Bureau"). Her candidness and call for change are bound to resonate with voters. Laugesen is the last party leader to speak. Despite Kasper's advice, he decides to use the opportunity to confront Hesselboe on live television about his use of state funds. Chaos ensues. However, Hesselboe refuses to address the allegations and walks off stage. After the debate, Birgitte asks Kasper how Laugesen got a hold of the receipts. The usually chatty spin doctor remains silent, confirming her suspicions that he supplied the evidence. She fires him on the spot. When Kasper comes in the following morning to clear his desk, we learn more about Birgitte's no-nonsense attitude. She's a mix between Leslie Knope from "Parks & Recreation" and Elaine Barrish from "Political Animals": quirky and mild-mannered, but tough as nails.

The debate completely changes the course of the election. As in real life, the frontrunner of the race managed to change three times within a three-day span. Laugesen's debate showdown backfires. His rash power play and Hesselboe's meek reaction cause voters to vote for Birgitte, who was completely honest and upfront. The Moderate Party has a landslide victory. And Birgitte didn't have to sacrifice her values to win the 90 cabinet posts. How can the day get any better? Party leaders now want her to be prime minister. The episode closes as she reveals the news to Phillip. It's safe to assume that he won't be CEO of Microsoft anytime soon.

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KCET site editor, movie over-analyzer, TV binge-watcher.
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