The Regime Is a Political Thriller in a Funhouse Mirror

It’s Elena’s world; we’re just living in it.

Inverse Reviews

HBO’s Sunday night programming has a lofty reputation. Shows in the coveted 9 p.m. timeslot carry an air of self-importance, standing alongside the likes of Succession, Game of Thrones, and The Last of Us. But in the wake of those series, there’s always room for something a little more experimental. That’s exactly what The Regime is: an uncategorizable, oddly surreal political drama that is one of HBO’s grandest experiments yet — and one of its most outlandish successes in years.

The Regime follows Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet), the newly appointed leader of an unnamed fictional country in “Middle Europe.” We never learn the title of the country, just a few key traits: It’s known for cobalt mining and sugar beets, and the local regions have strong identities.

After an incident at a protest, Elena appoints Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) to her palace staff. As he becomes a Rasputin-like figure on her staff, Elena watches her country crumble around her while she scratches for some semblance of control.

Created by Will Tracy, the writer of the stressful “Election Night” episode of Succession, and directed by High Fidelity’s Stephen Frears and The Crown’s Jessica Hobbs, The Regime is a chimera of genres, bouncing from Succession-style banter to the opulent tradition of period dramas to the ridiculous political satire of Veep and back again.

At the center of all these spinning plates is Elena, the kind of character who comes once in a generation. Armed with Winslet’s commanding presence and a lisp that makes Julianne Moore’s May December character sound like an elocution coach, Elena is simultaneously the most powerful and the most afraid person in every room she enters. She can’t be told she’s wrong, to the point where her entire palace is kept near-freezing to counteract her hot flashes, but also she can stand toe-to-toe with an American senator.

Winslet performs the character with masterful control of her mouth, almost speaking entirely from the bottom right corner of her lips. Her physicality is over the top, but combined with Schoenaerts’ buttoned-up-but-neurotic soldier, the duo’s duality is magnetic. Even when they break apart and act opposite supporting actors like Martha Plimpton and Hugh Grant, it’s never too much.

But outside of the character portraits is a chilling portrayal of just what happens when a government runs out of goodwill. We never veer from Elena’s view of events, but even she can tell her people are hurting. When the palace manager, played by a steely-eyed Andrea Riseborough, gets an offer to leave, her dedication to her country and her dedication to her son (whom Elena has effectively stolen as her own) are pitted against each other. It’s the perfect counterbalance to the opulent spectacle of Elena’s life, which just continues to plod on no matter what.

The fiery love-hate dynamic between Elena and Herbert leads to a revolution in more ways than one.


A lesser series would end where The Regime wraps up its penultimate episode. Every moment of melodrama about mold or breath mints reaches a boiling point where each scene is a fight for life, and reveals and plot twists keep the intrigue building on top of itself. Even character deaths are treated as they would be in real life — just another casualty in a twisted search for justice. The first half of the series could be described as “bizarro West Wing,” but the last half is all Manchurian Candidate-style conspiracies and scheming.

The satire is obvious, but it’s the sort of satire that would apply in 2004 or 2016 or 2024 in equal measure. Yes, some moments automatically date the series — like right-wing buzzwords including “5G technologies” — but fascism is timeless. When Elena talk-sings her way through multiple musical numbers while her country starves, any of a host of out-of-touch leaders come to mind.

The Regime isn’t the next Succession or Armando-Iannucci-alike series. It’s a much bigger swing: a goofy series that examines what happens when absolute power has no other option than corrupting absolutely and what happens when the innocent and the aspirational get caught in the tide. It’s the political thriller at its most realistic: a comedy of errors, and then a harsh reckoning full of secrets and schemes.

The Regime premieres March 3 on HBO and Max.

Related Tags