‘The Regime’ Seems Like A Terrible Place To Live

HBO’s new political comedy has famous faces, sumptuous sets and extremely bad vibes
‘The Regime’ Seems Like A Terrible Place To Live

An autocratic leader runs a nation according to cruelly restrictive policies. Protesters have been summarily killed by security forces. The leader’s closest advisors are sycophants who complain in private without actually taking any concrete action. The leader is also, despite an impressive post-secondary education, highly susceptible to medical junk science. At least she looks great in her impeccably tailored suits! 

Yes, although everything before the impeccably tailored suits also applies to Donald Trump, our subject today is not him: It’s Elena Vernham, the chancellor of an unnamed, fictional, seemingly very young country in Central Europe. HBO has called The Regime, the new show of which she is the protagonist, a dark comedy. It’s definitely dark, but it’s hard to laugh.

As we meet her, Elena (Kate Winslet) is preparing to celebrate Victory Day, commemorating her ascension to the chancellorship through a definitely totally democratic process. But this might be a rough one: Recently, a protest by workers at one of the country’s cobalt mines was put down by soldiers, leaving a dozen dead. But Elena needs a personal protection officer at the palace, and the one who’s been selected is Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the soldier who opened fire on the miners. Elena thinks the soldiers were justified, and that he’s just the kind of man who can see to her personal safety — by walking ahead of her with a hygrometer to help her avoid high levels of mold spores, which inflame her allergies, and by making sure no one gets close enough to her to breathe their bad air at her. 

Already surrounding Elena at the palace are her husband Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne), whose signature achievement as First Gentleman is to establish a National Poetry Project; an assortment of cabinet ministers who perform loyalty to her while roasting her outlandish ideas, both personal and governmental, behind her back; and American envoys from the Senate and the world of business, both of whom want to shore up relations to get access to the cobalt. Even as everyone who interacts with Elena pays her fealty, she’s still haunted by the ghosts of two men who didn’t: her late father — also a politician, though not one who achieved the office Elena has — now lying in state in the palace (and rapidly deteriorating); and her immediate predecessor, the Leader of the Opposition, living in exile. 

Since Elena knows that everyone around her is running their own agenda, she selected Herbert for this duty because, as a true “nobody,” he can be trusted to tell her the truth and speak for her people — you know, the ones she rarely lays eyes on, because she rarely leaves the palace. It doesn’t take long for Herbert to become Elena’s closest confidant, his voice drowning out the others in her ear. But given all the literal palace intrigue, how long can Herbert remain in Elena’s favor?

Series creator Will Tracy formerly wrote on (among other things) Succession, a show in which characters’ political maneuvers only occasionally intersected with the governments of any nation, and generally remained, instead, at levels far above what any of us will ever experience or probably even know about — unless there are plutocrats reading this, in which case, hello and please try to make good choices. The Regime is not a story of succession in the same way its prestige-y HBO ancestor was: Though no one in Elena’s inner circle is very excited about her leadership, it also doesn’t seem like any of them is trying to usurp her when they could keep her as a beautiful figurehead (“America’s safe pair of tits,” as one character calls her), enacting policies that are favorable to the economy, and to the regime’s standing on the world stage. It’s clear immediately why Elena makes a good puppet.

We get our first glimpse at her in the flesh at the same time Herbert does: bathed in golden light, in an elegant ivory suit, like a very businesslike angel. We presume everything she says into any microphone is a half-truth at best, but she sounds convincing. (When she takes the stage at a Victory Day party hours later, we see exactly how far the gap is between her confidence and her actual talent — but her confidence is all that matters, since no one can tell her when she’s fallen short.) 

As Herbert’s influence over her rises, and she starts making hard turns away from the policies her advisors prefer, we hear about the disastrous effects they’re having on the ordinary people who have to live with them, but other than the odd Western news report, we don’t actually see that. Pretty much the only victim of her radical, ill-considered changes that we meet is Agnes (Andrea Riseborough), the officious palace manager whose young son Oskar (Louie Mynett) Elena co-opts, forcing him to stop taking his American and thus suspect epilepsy medication in favor of the healing potato diet recommended by Herbert and his “folk science.” Otherwise, the damage Elena is doing to the country is something that mostly occurs off-screen.

So Elena is both our protagonist and practically our only subject: When we’re not watching her, we’re watching people discuss how much she sucks. But part of the problem with the show is that, when we come into her story, she’s already been in the bubble for so long that we don’t know how many of her, er, eccentricities are the result of the coddling she’s had, and to what degree she’s in control of the ways she’s acting out. (The oppressively elegant production design on the palace, where we spend nearly all our time, means the viewer also feels stuck there; Elena might be exaggerating her allergy symptoms, but this does look like the kind of place that would probably have black mold!) Every person and character contains multitudes, but the show’s writers don’t always seem to have a handle on how much of a monster or victim Elena is, nor how calculated or sincere Herbert is in promulgating his tuber-based cures. 

You may notice that I’m about a thousand words in, and I haven’t really brought up any of the jokes. A lot of it is, in the manner of The Thick of ItVeepThe Death of Stalin or the aforementioned Succession, insult-based: e.g., “You really are a mewling vulva, Mr. Schiff.” Some of it is just absurd visuals related to Elena’s very real, totally not psychosomatic respiratory problems: being carried around in a mobile oxygen chamber like a sickly Cleopatra, and eating literal dirt for breakfast, on Herbert’s instructions, despite the fact that she’s a medical doctor. One of the season’s last episodes takes place at Christmastime, and while the English monarchs are wont to hop on TV to deliver a Christmas message each year, they haven’t celebrated the holiday with a broadcast as unhinged — or as spangly — as Elena’s.

So there are gags; it’s just really going to be in the eye of the beholder how funny they are, not just in the context of this muddled story, but also right now. Through these characters, Tracy and his collaborators are making good points — about the abuses the U.S. routinely inflicts on the smaller nations it thinks it can strip for parts; about the disintegration of political checks and balances in governments the world over; about the dangers posed by the worshipful elevation of charismatic political figures who then convince themselves they can act with impunity; about such leaders’ arrogant refusal to acknowledge protests against their policies. 

I agree about all of it. But I’m already depressing myself thinking about it on my own, all the time. If this show had to confront me with it even more, I wish it had a clearer vision of its targets, and that they were easier to laugh at.


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