Squawk Box: Borgen/Queen's Gambit

I actually own a Season of Borgen that I've kind of watched, but never actually finished- because who watches DVDs these days when you can stream anything and everything? But when I heard the news (via a Marginal Revolution link) that Netflix was joining forces to bring the 4th Season to life and they had acquired the three-season run of the show, I immediately plunged into the show once more and this time, I watched it all the way through.

The series opens on the eve of an election in Denmark and Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of the Moderate Party is expecting to just do all right- but an unexpectedly strong performance in the Final Debate, where her unapologetic idealism catches fire with the voters, combined with a late-breaking scandal that the main opposition leader, Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind) tries to pin on the Prime Minister Lars Hessleboe (Soren Spanning) pushes her Moderate Party into an unexpectedly strong position of being able to actually form a Coalition government with Birgitte as Prime Minister.

The first season sort of focuses on Birgitte learning the job and does an excellent job at portraying the horse-trading and power politics of coalition government- but her marriage also takes a hit. As her husband, Phillip (Mikael Birkkjaer), and her kids Laura (Freja Riemann) and Magnus (Emil Poulsen) all have difficulties adjusting to her unexpected vault into the spotlight. By the end of the First Season, they've separated. 

(Borgen also looks at the media that covers the politicians fairly well-- Katrine Fonsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen) are the two main journalists for the first two seasons- while they do battle with Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek) who is Birgitte's spin doctor and Communications Chief for the first two seasons-- Kasper and Katrine have an on again off again relationship as Kasper struggles with to come to terms with his past- eventually, they have a kid together and then promptly split up- so the on again off again thing continues throughout the series, but it gets to a healthier place by the end of the first three seasons.

The second season opens up a couple of years later- and Birgitte has settled into her role as Prime Minister and is getting good at the political thing. Her marriage is on the rocks and pretty much over-- but her daughter Laura's increasingly fragile mental health eventually forces her to make a choice between being Prime Minister and being a Mother and at the end of the Second Season with her Coalition uncertain, she stands down as Prime Minister and calls an election.  

This launches you into another time jump for the third season- a couple of years after that and Birgitte is on the board of a pharmaceutical corporation, given guest lectures, has an English boyfriend and in general is happier with everything except the direction of her party, The Moderates, which are supporting Lars Hesselboe in government and are increasingly right-wing. She challenges the leadership of her old party and loses and then decides to start a political party of her own- the New Democrats. The arc of the third season is mainly about the formation of the party, the struggle for relevance, and trying to make a mark, which they do- and the series ends with Birgitte and her Party in government and her going to work as Foreign Minister.

Borgen is an excellent show. If you loved The West Wing, you'll like this show- and even better, it's a portrayal of Denmark's politics and not US politics, so there's less baggage involved if you're an American viewer. The ins and outs of Parliamentary horse-trading are on full display here-- Knudsen gives a great performance as Birgitte Nyborg and I like that over the course of the show, the characters end up in better places than where they started. 

That's not to say, however, that this show doesn't have its flaws. I can't stand Birgitte's marriage in the First Season. She and her husband seem to have a supportive, team-based relationship, and yet as soon as she wins power, her husband immediately starts to pout. Like, I get it to a certain degree: you and the wife had a plan and it was about to be your turn, but you have to have known that even if she's the head of a relatively small party, her winning power was a possibility. There's no evolution of his attitude either: had his resentment built-up over the course of the season, it would have been easier to understand I think. Instead, it sort of goes from happy to full-on resentment right away, like flipping a switch. But the show, to its credit- lets the relationship evolve and they're in a much better place by the Third Season- however, the relationship in the First Season is a drag on the show, I think. They could have handled it better.

Overall: If you love politics, this is a must-watch. If you just like a good television drama, this is also a must-watch. Either way, I can't wait to see what they do with the 4th Season of this show. My Grade: **** out of ****

Queen's Gambit was the period piece that set the internet on fire with chess a few months back and I would say if you can get past the first episode (which is a little slow, imo) then it really begins to take off and by the end, you're almost left wanting more- but I'm honestly glad this is a miniseries/limited series because this really works and works well.

The story of Elizabeth Harmon (Anya-Taylor-Joy), who is orphaned at the age of nine and sent to an orphanage where children are given tranquilizers to make them more compliant. While cleaning erasers in the basement, she strikes up a friendship with the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) who reluctantly teaches her how to play chess. Realizing that he seems to have stumbled across a prodigy, he introduces her to the local high school chess club teacher, Mr. Ganz (Jonjo O'Neil) and she beats him and gets invited to take on the entire chess team as well. But the state has gotten wise to the tranquilizer thing and bans their use in orphanages- and when Beth begins to suffer withdrawal, she gets an extra pill from her friend Jolene (Moses Ingram) beats the whole chess team, but sneaks into finding the now confiscated tranquilizers and overdoses.

This leads her to be forbidden from playing chess and some years pass before Beth is adopted by a local couple Alma (Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatly (Patrick Kennedy.) Alma drinks a lot, Allston is emotionally distant, but Beth soon realizes that Alma uses the same tranquilizers she was on as a kid and that gets her back into chess- and when Allston abandons the family, Alma and Beth soon realize that chess and Beth's abilities at it could be a lucrative way of making a living and Beth starts making her way up the chess rankings. 

Beth wins the tournament in Cincinnati and heads to Las Vegas for the U.S. Open where she is reunited with Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and finally meets a competitor that challenges her in Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) who is the current US Champion. Watts exposes some flaws in her game that shake her confidence- but soon she's taking night classes in Russian at the local college and heading off to Mexico City for her first chance at taking on the Russians- but Alma dies on the trip and Allston wants nothing to do with Beth, but agrees to her keep the house.

Benny steps back into her life and helps her train for the Paris Invitational, but it all goes disastrously wrong and Beth loses again to the Russian champion Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). Alcohol and drugs are taking their toll at this point and Beth flees to Kentucky and holes up in her house until the reappearance of Jolene who reveals that Mr. Shaibel has died shakes her out of her stupor.

Going back to the orphanage, Beth finds that Mr. Shaibel had kept newspaper clippings over her career right up until his death as well as a photograph of the two of them together. Rallying, she realizes that she has friends and a family of sorts that will help her and she makes her way to the Moscow Invitational and makes her way through the Russian field until finally she gets another shot at Borgov and this time, after refusing a draw offer, she emerges triumphant and eschews the chance of meeting the President to go and play chess with some old men in a Moscow park.

This show more than overcomes a slow start to suck the viewer in and has drawn much well-deserved praise for its portrayal of chess matches throughout the series. If you, like me and many other people, have often wondered just what can be so gripping about a chess match, well, Queen's Gambit manages to makes several chess matches into high-stakes absolutely thrilling duels of strategy that leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent throughout and it's a delight to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster (the kid from Love Actually) all grown up in an excellent role as Benny Watts. 

Overall: excellent, from top-to-bottom and it'll make you try your hand at chess if nothing else. My Grade: **** out of ****

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