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Through the Looking Glass - The Crown and Borgen: Between Symbolic and Real Power

Through the Looking Glass - The Crown and Borgen: Between Symbolic and Real Power
 Alice Baudry
Then Marketing & Communications Director
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Covid-19 is exposing and accelerating history in almost all domains. The pandemic and consequently, the lockdowns, have reinforced a trend that was already underway. No longer able to go watch films on the big screen, frustrated motion picture enthusiasts have taken solace in devouring TV series more than ever. 

Have series not become a unique instrument for understanding the world’s emotions, especially its fears? "Show me what you’re watching, I’ll tell you who you are."

In these times of pandemic, Institut Montaigne has decided to guide you, with modesty and completely arbitrarily, through the universe of a few series. The selection made meets three criteria. Firstly, quality is staunchly required. Then, a theme that fits in with the geopolitical, political, economic and social concerns of Institut Montaigne. Finally, we are convinced that "less is more". TV shows are time-consuming, so we only propose a limited selection. 

What we're experiencing today "is kind of like a science fiction movie, but it’s real," Robert de Niro recently told the BBC about Covid-19. TV series also often sit somewhere between fiction and reality. 

You be the judge. 

Dominique Moisi


Warning, this article may contain spoilers.

A priori, there should be little in common between a big-budget American-British biopic series retracing the life of Queen Elizabeth II, and a Danish show of more modest means, describing the political career of a free, energetic and confident woman who becomes Prime Minister of a Scandinavian constitutional monarchy...And yet, The Crown and Borgen are perfectly complementary. They both shine a positive light on their heroines: two women who fully live up to the expectations of the offices they hold, who manage to bring new legitimacy to an otherwise withering political life. Are women the future of politics?

Borgen asked that question before there was a trio of women with decisive influence in Europe: Ursula von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel. Both series, Borgen even more than The Crown, are in line with the American series West Wing. We are perhaps given a look more into democratic power as it should be, rather than power as it is. 

It is no accident that Queen Elizabeth II is the most popular and respected woman in the world today.

But it is no accident that Queen Elizabeth II is the most popular and respected woman in the world today. It is the result of a woman extremely dedicated to her role and of institutions which, though seemingly outdated, if not retrograde, have been able to withstand the test of time and contribute to the stability of British identity. Everything can go wrong in the world, things may be tough in Britain, but the Queen is here and her great grandson George is expected to ascend the throne at the end of the century.

In a particularly remarkable episode in the first season of The Crown, we witness Elizabeth's political education when she is only an eleven-year-old royal. Her teacher is none other than the Vice-Provost of Eton, from the most prestigious private school in the Kingdom. ""There are two elements of the Constitution. The efficient and the dignified." Which is the monarch?", her tutor asks her, quoting the greatest English political commentator of the 19th century, Walter Bagehot. The Crown must show dignity, the Prime Minister must show efficiency. 

This quote from Bagehot seems to be the guiding thread, if not the perfect summary, of The Crown and Borgen. They both defend and illustrate the stability of a system that distinguishes symbolic from real power, and does not concentrate these two in the hands of a single holder, as may be the case in democratic countries such as France and the United States. 

The Crown, or symbolic power

The American-British series, which has been shown on Netflix since 2016, is a worldwide success and has won numerous international awards. Everyone who has loved Downton Abbey loves The Crown, although the authors here deem the latter to be far superior to the first, both in its subtlety and in its effectiveness.

Three seasons are already out, with the fourth planned for the end of 2020. Seasons 5 and 6 are also in the works. The title of the series focuses on the institution, "the Crown", although its real purpose is to describe the life of the United Kingdom through that of the Royal Family. In the opening credits - which are reminiscent of those of Game of Thrones - a crown is closely depicted from all angles. The point is clear: the institution takes precedence over the office holder. The monarch serves the Crown and not the other way around. In fact, she can no longer have any personal ambitions or even a private life. She must embody the Crown, but in order to do so, the monarch must put herself aside, whatever the personal cost. Elizabeth I was married to the throne. She remained unmarried all her life. Elizabeth II had a husband she loved, children, grandchildren, and also a close and difficult sister, Margaret. But she is alone in a position of power that magnifies her - her own mother bows down before her - and isolates her even more.

Through the portrait of a woman - who will no doubt go down in history as the longest-reigning head of state - the whole history of Great Britain unfolds before our eyes: from the rising perils before the Second World War, to the war itself, from the triumph of the Labour Party to the collapse of the Empire, from the Cold War to social crises, without forgetting the Suez Crisis (remarkably described), or the natural disasters such as the collapse of a coal mine in Wales.

The point is clear: the institution takes precedence over the office holder. The monarch serves the Crown and not the other way around.

But political, climatic, economic and international affairs regularly give way to familial and intimate moments. We are given an insight into the difficulties of the royal couple - Philip finds it hard to accept his role as prince consort -, Princess Margaret’s escapades, Prince Charles’ education, or the Queen's relationship with her uncle the Duke of Windsor (the former Edward VIII). Each theme is most often joyfully treated, thanks to the remarkable actors. One of the daring but successful bets of the directors is to have given the role of the Queen to two very different actresses, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, who, both perfectly convincingly play Elizabeth at different ages. This peak into the intimacy of the royal family may feel a bit voyeuristic, but though what we see is sometimes unsettling, there is comfort in the idea that a country that can criticize itself, also has a functioning institutional system. It would be unimaginable to have such a lucid, direct, objective portrayal of the inner workings of power and the private lives of those who embody it in Putin's Russia or Xi Jinping's China, if not in Donald Trump's United States. Perhaps for the latter it is only a matter of time?

At the end of the day, The Crown reinforces Britain's soft power, with or without Brexit.

Borgen, or real power

Borgen is a three-season Danish show, broadcast in France between 2010 and 2013. The subtitle, "A woman in power", highlights the central role played by Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg. The actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen, has become a quasi-star in France, where she also speaks the language. 

"Borgen' also means 'castle' in Danish, and refers to the headquarters of the government. It is a perfect projection of the more austere Elysée in France, which ministers and their cabinets often call the "Palace".

"Borgen' also means 'castle' in Danish, and refers to the headquarters of the government. It is a good, though slightly more austere projection of the Elysée in France, which ministers often call the "Palace".

However, this show has much greater ambition than to simply offer an account of the adventures of a woman in power. It is like a laboratory where the renewal of democratic life is tried and tested, without hiding the difficulties and challenges of the task, the deadlocks and the mistakes that often go along with such an endeavor.

It has been described by some as the Scandinavian version of West Wing: both the West Wing of the White House where the Oval Office is located, but also the remarkable political series created and written by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin. This much-talked-about series has shed light on this small Northern European country and its political and media landscape. The fourth season of Borgen was announced on Netflix, for 2022. Let us then take the opportunity to retrace the highlights and personality traits of Birgitte Nyborg, whose return we now await with impatience, this time as Foreign Minister of her country after several years in the opposition. We can only lament the fact that the writers did not imagine her as a European Commissioner, or even at the head of the Commission, like Ursula von der Leyen. It is often said that TV series are one step ahead of politics, but in this case the opposite may be more accurate…

It is said that Birgitte Nyborg’s character has been loosely based on the former Danish minister, Margrethe Vestager, now vice-president of the European Commission. At the beginning of the series, Nyborg is a centrist candidate, which is typical in Scandinavian parliamentary democracies. A moderate, she came to power in 2011 almost by accident, following a scandal-ridden election campaign, and was a Prime Minister until 2015.

During this period, we follow her evolution as female Prime Minister. Regarding politics and gender, her first speech says it all: those who question her accession to power are a hundred years too late... Even in a Northern European country, thought to be far ahead in such matters, the media is obsessed with her role as a mother and her relationship problems, burdened by the lack of privacy. Birgitte Nyborg is often a powerless witness of the tacit sexism that characterizes the Danish political and economic class in the series, a sexism that challenges her and makes her task almost impossible. Yet she chooses to promote equality between men and women, for instance in the management committees and boards of directors of the country's companies, something that will later cost her dearly. From her allies to her opponents, all politicians - including women - are jealous of her, and try to defeat her before she has had a chance to take her first steps.

But what best characterizes Birgitte Nyborg is the courage and dignity she shows episode after episode. Holding her head high, in her early forties, initially inexperienced, often on the fringes or even isolated, she stands her ground during her campaign and manages to replace a corrupt Prime Minister. She embodies change, seeks truth, promotes ethics and believes in the nobility of politics - all of which makes her almost unreal at times. But she's not Anouilh's Antigone: for all that, she also knows how to be devious and play Creon.

Regarding politics and gender, her first speech says it all: those who question her accession to power are a hundred years too late... 

Each episode starts with a quote or a proverb. Illustrating the serious and sophisticated character of the series, Machiavelli, Churchill, Lenin or Mao are often cited. During the 58-minute episodes, we witness the difficulties that Nyborg is constantly faced with, like an apprentice forced to confront theory with practice. 

How can a country be managed while raising two children? How can she organize family holidays knowing that the press might pay more attention to those than to the situation in the Middle East? How can she stay true to herself while having to make compromises during election season? How can she protect the country when she has lost the trust of the majority of the public? How can she bring together increasingly divided parliamentarians? How can she accompany a small country through the harsh reality of international conflicts? The writers make her pay a high price: she only manages to do so at the cost of her personal life!

Two seasons later, after the dissolution of Parliament, she withdraws from politics and lives a cosmopolitan life, speaking at conferences between Hong Kong and Copenhagen. But when the Danish political class, so narrow-minded in the eyes of the screenwriters, shifts its attention to immigration, she gets involved. A comeback and a third season are in order. 

At the centrist congress, Nyborg does not shy from expressing how much she disagrees with the closure of borders. In an ode to humanity, she reiterates her early commitments and seeks to rely on her past allies who’ve now become ministers or other important figures. But her return fails. Then, personalities from all sides of the political spectrum, from militants to conservatives, join her to form the "New Democrats", a centrist movement opposed to the majority. A new and important figure enters the scene: Nadia Barazani, an economist of Muslim faith, symbol of the multiculturalism promoted by Nyborg, but whose firmness on integration issues no one had suspected. The task is complex, but Nyborg does not give up the importance of the symbol that this woman from the minority embodies as she accompanies her. 

Nyborg has caught the world's attention, probably more so than Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who was appointed Prime Minister of Denmark a few months after the series was launched in 2011.

Nyborg has caught the world's attention, probably more so than Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who was appointed Prime Minister of Denmark a few months after the series was launched in 2011. In power until 2015, Thorning-Schmidt has often been compared to the character of Borgen. Did they encounter the same difficulties? With Borgen, the viewer was given a "behind-the-scenes look at politics". But, Thorning-Schmidt explained in an interview with BBC Newsnight that this was only "fiction", "which had very little to do with the reality of being a politician". The emotional dimension - Nyborg sometimes finds it hard to keep calm and is repeatedly caught in tears - is not quite the same.

"It's not a bad thing to show your feelings, to be moved, or even to cry," she adds nonetheless. However, with Nyborg, whose humanity is palpable, one cannot help but continually be both seduced and irritated, as with any politician.

With The Crown and Borgen, we open our summer 2020 mini-series on politics and geopolitics seen through the world of TV series. It is not a coincidental exercise. Covid-19 was a revealing and accelerating force also in the audiovisual sector. During the lockdowns, the world has never watched so many shows. We will devote the next "episodes" to TV shows that have dealt with many of our current political realities, even pandemics. 


Copyright : FR_tmdb & Mike Kollöffel DR Fiktion Arte

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