Let’s Discuss Borgen’s Unsurprising Surprise Ending

Photo: Mike Kollöffel/Netflix

At the end of Borgen: Power & Glory, the revival season’s protagonist, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), pulls off an enormous, paradigm-shifting surprise. That’s how it’s presented in the world of the show at least. After weeks of strife and frustrating negotiation, Nyborg stands in front of her party and announces that she’s going to resign her leadership position. The room is stunned. Even Jon Berthelsen, the man Nyborg names as her successor, can hardly believe Nyborg has given up her self-serving embrace of bothsidesism and handed over the political reins. Everyone cheers. The prime minister, Nyborg’s longtime fractious political partner, seems taken aback but thrilled. But my own surprise, as a Borgen viewer in 2022, had a different tinge to it — something more wistful or maybe even bleak.

As any longtime Borgen viewer knows, on paper this is the least surprising twist the show could’ve offered. Throughout Borgen’s first three original seasons, produced between 2010 and 2013, Birgitte Nyborg was regularly presented with challenges to her political beliefs. She was often forced to compromise with her detractors and sell out her allies in the interest of forming a government within the tricky parliamentary dynamics of the Danish political system. Even more difficult was that when the show first appeared, she was married and the parent of young children. Borgen was perpetually testing her commitment to her own stated personal priorities: putting her kids first, maintaining a healthy partnership in her marriage. She often failed, which was so much of Borgen’s appeal. Even before the “actually, you probably can’t have it all” storytelling wave of the last few years (particularly about motherhood and careers — like Workin’ Moms, The Letdown, or SMILF), there was already Borgen turning the importance of compromise into a dark warning. Nyborg and the Danish government could not function without compromising in some important ways. What that meant, inevitably, was that Nyborg could not move forward without losing — often quite a bit.

So it is not at all shocking that this new season of Borgen concludes with Nyborg embracing victory by choosing defeat (albeit defeat disguised as a probable promotion, with Nyborg likely headed to Brussels to work for the EU). Even without that fitting thematic decision, her choice to resign is resoundingly obvious. She spends most of the season slowly compromising not for the good of the country but in ways that baldly betray her most deeply held political convictions. She begins Power & Glory insisting that broadscale oil mining in Greenland, a country still under Danish colonial rule, is an environmental disaster. Her initial certainty is shaken by the challenge of positioning Denmark within the interests of various global powers including Russia, the U.S., and China. Eventually, in order to maintain her position as Denmark’s foreign minister, she does an about-face, insisting that oil production in Greenland is fine and will have no major ecological ramifications. By the end of the season, she is undermining her own son (an animal rights activist) on national television, has engaged the services of her former enemy to bolster her image, and, most shocking of all, shrugs off the fact that her pro-drilling climate report is patently fake.

Of course she was going to resign. Obviously! This is probably the end of Borgen, and it’s certainly the end of Birgitte Nyborg’s career in Danish government. For as admirably unflinching as Borgen has been in its willingness to paint Nyborg as a flawed human being, there’s just no way this show would let her land on a devastating heel turn. Not to mention the pleasant symmetry of it: The series begins with Nyborg’s shocking rise to power. It’s nice for the show to end with a similarly abrupt, symbolic departure.

It’s classic Borgen. The kind of ending that underlines this season’s ability to nail one of the most challenging aspects of a TV revival. In almost every instance, Power & Glory walks the line between retaining the feel of the original and embracing the intervening passage of time. Nyborg doesn’t fight exactly the same struggles — she’s frankly thrilled to no longer be beholden to a husband and young kids. She’s a parent in a new way. To adult children with their own opinions and desires. The global politics of 2011 are not those of 2022. But Borgen is still Borgen: full of delightfully wonky details about shipping harbors, international-trade negotiations, and the drama of political optics. (It is also more full of skepticism about Greenlanders’ right to rule their own country, one little bit of Danish political thinking that feels like a bizarre relic of the 19th-century-colonial mindset that somehow got ported into the 21st. If this is a real reflection of current Danish thinking, Denmark, wyd?)

Power & Glory plays the moment of Nyborg’s resignation like an unexpected source of celebration, but it’s undergirded by a sense of inevitability. The characters in the room are surprised, yes, but we viewers are not. She chose correctly, and although we may have feared a different outcome, this is the Birgitte Nyborg we all know and love. Maybe we’re startled by the abruptness of the decision, but we’re mostly relieved — with that flavor of relief in which the conclusion was never in doubt, it was just a question of how long we’d have to wait for it.

Yet in spite of all that — the nice symmetry, predestined nature of this character’s development, fun drama, and extreme obviousness that this is where it would always end up — I found myself taken aback by Borgen’s final twist. Not surprised in the world of the show but in a more global sense. She resigned? She’d finally wound her way through the tricky political waters, had a solution for how to stay in power, and at the precise moment of her grand elevation from party leader to cult of personality, she steps down? Watching in 2022, especially as an American, Nyborg’s conscientious resignation feels like visiting another planet. It’s a nice place to visit! But while I wanted to be able to feel fond pride as Nyborg applauds for her successor, that ending gives Borgen a hint of a fairy tale. In the past, I watched Borgen with a sense of bafflement and delight, fascinated by the dynamics of coalition politics. Now it looks naïve — or more probably, I’ve gotten more cynical. The ending of Power & Glory made it painfully clear that while Borgen has not changed, I (a Borgen viewer) have changed quite a bit.

It’s not Borgen’s fault that its grand gesture of an ending feels unreal. The show is operating in the same lane it always has. Nevertheless, that lane has drifted further from the pleasant stories I once told myself about how real people in power can come together to make meaningful decisions. In that context, the closing twist is legitimately astonishing. A fairy tale about a politician who descends into the well of self-interested cowardice, then at the last minute gives up all the power she’s fought so hard to hold. Might as well be a show about witches and talking bears.

Then I feel ashamed of my cynicism, and then rueful about it. The ending only emphasizes what has always been true about watching Borgen as an American: a culture that openly embraces collective, communal life is going to look like an impossible fever dream, even when it’s inside a story about the most cutthroat, self-serving politics Denmark can muster. Only now, as Borgen comes to an end once more, it’s much more startling to wake up from the dream.

This article has been updated to include acknowledgement of Nyborg’s new EU post.

Let’s Discuss Borgen’s Unsurprising Surprise Ending