It’s no surprise that the Danish series Borgen was a balm for many American viewers in the early days of the pandemic. Centering on the (fictional) first female prime minister of Denmark, the show depicts a functioning democracy with a robust social safety net, where government-funded health insurance and pensions are benefits voters take for granted. Sure, the show sometimes felt like fanfic, and it was often unclear exactly what heroine Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an avowed moderate, really stood for. But she came across as generally principled, caring, and humane, and it was comforting in 2020 to watch someone like that in charge of a country, even if she wasn’t real and the country wasn’t ours.
Borgen (spoilers follow) was also very consciously a show about the challenges faced by women in power, documenting not just Nyborg’s rise but also that of Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), an ambitious young TV reporter who covers Nyborg’s government and also dates her top media consultant. Both women were moms, and both at times faced an uphill battle as they tried to succeed in all-consuming careers while still showing up for their kids. In the show’s first three seasons — released in Denmark from 2010-2013 and on Netflix worldwide in 2020 — they were making it work. They were leaning in.
Then came Borgen’s long-awaited fourth season, released on Netflix in June and subtitled “Power & Glory.” This pandemic-era iteration is darker and less comforting, and takes an entirely different view of female power: It’s one of the first shows I’ve seen to reckon with the decline and fall of the archetype of the girlboss.
Season 4 finds Nyborg and Fønsmark in new roles: The former is now foreign minister under Denmark’s second-ever female prime minister, Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt), while the latter has just become head of news at the struggling TV1. They’re as ambitious as ever, but that ambition has begun to warp them, clouding their judgment and destroying their empathy as they scramble to hold onto power.
The foreign minister abandons her principles to back a climate-destroying oil-extraction agreement with Greenland. Struggling with her approval rating, she hires a slimy tabloid-news muckraker to retool her image, and he convinces her to abandon even more of the principles viewers of previous seasons expected her to hold dear. She’s mean to her son on national TV.
Fønsmark, meanwhile, micromanages and then fires her star anchor, who also appears to be the only woman of color among the station’s on-air staff. She momentarily discourages an employee from taking maternity leave, causing internal conflict and public scandal (the level of horror with which this suggestion is met both inside and outside the company is, frankly, refreshing). She starts having panic attacks and yelling at her family.
All this makes season 4 kind of hard to watch at times — the striving heroines of previous seasons have essentially become villains, and as the show progresses it’s increasingly difficult to see how they can ever turn it around.
Then comes the season finale, and Nyborg and Fønsmark both do something that would have been unthinkable on pre-pandemic Borgen, and in pre-pandemic girlboss narrative culture more generally: They quit. Fønsmark leaves her job at the TV station, and Nyborg steps down as foreign minister, though not before negotiating an exit from the bad oil deal. Their announcements are met with shock, but for the viewer (or at least for me), it’s the only way the show can come to a satisfying end. The mindless pursuit of power has so thoroughly stripped these women of their wisdom and dignity that the only way to reclaim any shred of humanity — or to repair the wrongs they’ve caused — is to walk away.
It’s a solution that feels perfectly timed to the moment. The 2000s and early 2010s — when Borgen debuted — were a time of starry-eyed optimism about women in power, at least among a slice of mostly white feminists. As Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos writes, women like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and former Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso “were finally wrangling power away from the men who had held it for so long, which was seen as a form of justice.” That perception started to crack as more and more female bosses were accused of pregnancy discrimination, bullying, racism, and other misconduct. And it arguably shattered irrevocably in the pandemic, as months of working during a public health crisis led to widespread disillusionment about the value of the hustle.
We’ve all seen the dark side of the girlboss — and of the boss in general, and of capitalism — in recent years, and we’re beginning to see popular culture reflect that disillusionment, whether it’s Apple’s Severance or Ling Ma’s Severance. It’s rarer to see an established show revisit its earlier premises with jaded eyes.
Borgen has not entirely abandoned its old principles, nor are its characters realistic role models for ordinary viewers who might want to step away from the capitalist treadmill. After all, when Nyborg steps down from the Danish parliament, a prestigious post with the European Commission is apparently waiting for her. Fønsmark isn’t sure what she’ll do next, but she’s thinking of writing a book called Power in Denmark. These ex-bosses don’t have to worry about money or health insurance, and they get to keep doing cool stuff despite messing up catastrophically and hurting people along the way. Even this death-of-the-girlboss story takes the girlboss’s point of view.
Still, I felt joy when Birgitte Nyborg announced her resignation on my TV screen. More precisely, I felt like a pretty good trick had been played on me. I started watching Borgen for the soothing fantasy that, somewhere in the world, there was a country where nice ladies were working hard to make everything okay. Borgen season 4 destroyed that fantasy and made me feel dumb for ever having it, then offered me something more interesting in its place. In a lot of ways, it gave me the ending that I — and Nyborg — deserved.