Hit Danish show Borgen returns to Netflix with dark power struggle over Arctic oil

After a 10-year hiatus, smash hit political drama Borgen returns to screens this week for a new season that sees Denmark wage a high-stakes power struggle over the Arctic after Greenland strikes oil.

Sidse Babett Knudsen returns as Birgitte Nyborg
Sidse Babett Knudsen returns as Birgitte Nyborg in the new season of Borgen on Netflix. Photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix

The fourth season, “Borgen — The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory”, premieres internationally on Netflix on Thursday.

Viewers last saw former Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg the day after her brand-new political party scored a sensational win in elections. Ten years on, she is foreign minister in a government headed by a woman 10 years her junior.

As the season opens, Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory, has just struck oil.

Local political leaders see the black gold as Greenland’s long-awaited ticket to independence, undeterred by the environmental risks posed by drilling in the Arctic’s untouched wilderness.

Yet Denmark’s government — specifically Nyborg, as foreign minister for Denmark and Greenland combined — must wrangle with China, the US and Russia, who all have stakes in the lucrative discovery on the geostrategic island. 

The eight episodes treat viewers to breathtaking views of Greenland’s pristine icy landscapes — and a dive into Birgitte Nyborg’s darker side.

Series creator Adam Price told AFP the central plot idea came to him five years ago when he discovered there was a law that dictated that Denmark and Greenland must negotiate the division of revenue from any discovery of natural resources.

He saw an opportunity to combine the characters’ political battles with the strained relationship between Copenhagen and its former colony.

“When something is emotional and political at the same time, it’s just the perfect stuff for Borgen”, he said with a smile.

He didn’t want to pick up where season three had ended. After almost a decade, the world had changed, and his characters too.

Nyborg, now single with adult children, finds herself on unfamiliar ground and faces several setbacks in her career, despite her years of experience.

Once altruistic, she is now hardened and cynical and ends up turning her back on her ideals in order to cling to power.

“She is almost struck by the modern times”, Price said. “All of a sudden she has to wake up to this new dawn”.

“I really wanted to take Borgen into modern times … I wanted to basically throw (the characters) into the fire,” he said.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Nyborg, said the season’s more cynical turn “terrified me a bit”.

“The world of Borgen has always been a little bit more idealistic, kinder”, she told AFP.

“Times have changed, so were going to completely change the world of Borgen to follow the real world, and I was curious to see how that would work”, she added.

The actress had previously vowed that the third season would be her last.

“I was completely sure that I would never do it again. I thought it was good (to end after three seasons) and a lot better than many shows that just keep going on until they’re worn thin.”

“I felt like we had told our story and we were done.”

But in the end she was “seduced” by the script for the fourth season and was easily persuaded — to the delight of fans around the world.

“When I worked abroad, people always asked me if there would be a new season”, she said with her trademark smile that crinkles her nose.

It remains to be seen if the fourth season will be a hit internationally, but Danish fans have already been won over.

Danish broadcaster DR released the series three months ago.

According to data from ratings institute Nielsen, Borgen had on average 776,000 viewers across the eight episodes — in a country of 5.5 million — and an average share of 44.5 percent.

The show has also aired on Netflix in the other Nordic countries, where it placed in the top 10 for several consecutive weeks.

So could there be a fifth season in store? 

“I’ve learned that you should never say never, but I think this is the end”, said Knudsen.

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Amateur treasure hunters’ gems go on display at Denmark’s National Museum

They may be derided elsewhere but in Denmark, hobby archaeologists who hunt treasures with metal detectors are such an asset that the National Museum has dedicated an entire exhibit to their finds.

Amateur treasure hunters' gems go on display at Denmark's National Museum

“What they save now means the world for what we can do in the future and how we can build our museums,” exhibit curator Line Bjerg told AFP.

“What they do really matters.”

In Denmark’s muddy soil, if objects “are not saved, then they are lost to history”, she added.

In three rooms on the museum’s bottom floor, visitors can learn about “detectorists” and admire some of their discoveries, including rings, necklaces and gold coins, all marked with the name of their finder.

In the Scandinavian country once populated by Vikings, amateurs can use metal detectors almost everywhere as long as they get permission from the landowner. They are not, however, allowed to dig beneath the top layer of soil.

Any archaeological finds have to be turned over to a local museum for an initial evaluation before they are transferred to the National Museum for an in-depth assessment — and a possible reward.

Detectorists’ hauls can be abundant.

“Last year, we had almost 18,000 objects that were sent for treasure trove processing. The year before that it was 30,000 objects,” Bjerg said.

Known as “Danefae”, any archaeological artefacts found by treasure hunters automatically belong to the state, under an old medieval law.

According to Torben Trier Christiansen, an archaeologist with the Historical Museum of Northern Jutland, the collaboration with the hobbyists is

They are “one of the most important collaborators of the museum”, he insisted.

There are more than 250 detectorists in his region, with the most active among them handing over around a hundred objects per year.

Arne Hertz, a 64-year-old pensioner who heads a local association of detectorists, said “people are pleased to do the right thing by handing over the findings”.

Experts Krister Vasshus, left, and Lisbeth Imer hold golden bracteates unearthed in Vindelev, Denmark in late 2020. Imer holds a golden bracteate features an inscription mentioning Odin, the Norse god. (Photo: John Fhær Engedal Nissen, The National Museum of Denmark via AP) 
Writing history together

The unique collaboration is based on a mutual understanding. On the one hand, archaeological sites won’t be looted. On the other, authorities are able to showcase the amateur discoveries.

“Sometimes it’s these particular finds that change our history because they add knowledge that we simply did not have before,” Bjerg noted.

One section of the biggest exhibition room is dedicated to the “Vindelev Treasure”.

Comprised of 22 gold objects, it was buried in the sixth century in southwestern Denmark and found in late 2020 by an amateur who had just bought a metal detector.

The treasure trove includes a bracteate — a thin coin stamped on one side.

“And on the inscription of the bracteate is mentioned the name of Odin, the Norse god. And it puts Odin 150 years before we actually knew that he existed as a god,” Bjerg said.

“We’re building our history together in Denmark.”

For detectorists, whose finds have on occasion been displayed at local museums, the exhibit at the National Museum is a major recognition.

“It’s very impressive to see how the things we’ve found are displayed — and to see that we are actually helping a little to enrich Denmark’s history,” 38-year-old Simon Grevang, who works in online marketing and has been a detectorist for four years, told AFP.

The exhibit has drawn crowds since opening in February.

Annie Lund, a 72-year-old retiree who was enthralled by the jewellery on display, said it was a good way of making history accessible.

“Twenty or forty years ago, this was only for a small group of people, scientists… not for the general public. So I think this is really good,” she said.