‘The Regime’ Puts Kate Winslet on the Throne of Power for a Dark Satire About Dictatorships

In the 21st century, dictators aren’t what they used to be. You don’t get the fiery resonance of Fidel Castro or the fashion sense of Mao and Tito. Now they tend to look very bland while spouting populist rhetoric. HBO’s limited series “The Regime” is a playful satire on what authoritarianism looks like in our time, led by a very convincing Kate Winslet. The idea here is to form a funny amalgam of the basics that tend to create autocrats, from daddy issues to taking advantage of a country’s desire to be respected. The latter gives the writing a fresher, more challenging feel than just another takedown of a cartoonish idea of regimes we don’t tend to like. It is essential at a time when the U.S. is itself not so assured of its democracy.

Winslet is Chancellor Elena Vernham, the head of state of an unnamed country in Central Europe. Speaking with an accent that seems to hint at a dystopian Margaret Thatcher, Elena runs a government that doesn’t hold to any particular form of ideology apart from simple nationalism. She pushed out a previous, “neo-Marxist” party and has consolidated power. Into her lavish palace enters Colonel Zubak (Matthias Schonaerts), a soldier called “The Butcher” after ruthlessly putting down a miners’ rebellion. The hotheaded Zubak has been rewarded with a post next to the chancellor where he must measure the humidity in her zone at all times. He soon becomes a fly on the wall observing the great issues facing Elena. American corporations want access to the country’s cobalt resources and members of her cabinet are weaklings willing to give in to the foreign imperialists. Before long, Zubak, who hails from peasant stock, starts advising Elena on how to apply an iron fist.

Creator Will Tracy, a veteran of “Succession” and writer of the recent food satire “The Menu,” forms the main plot of “The Regime” by cheerfully mixing together lots of tidbits from real autocrats. The more you know about current events, the more fun the show becomes. Elena’s regime is clearly based on Vladimir Putin in the way it veils its authoritarianism in the look of a parliamentary state. Directors Stephen Frears and Jessica Hobbs visually stylize much of the series to evoke contemporary Moscow, Hungary or any corner of modern Eastern Europe where democracy is a tricky concept. Elena gives soothing, nationalist speeches decrying oligarchs and foreign decadence, while privately amassing great wealth and being a germaphobe. She only despises the elites who are not on her side. Like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Elena was originally trained as a doctor before taking over the political party of her ruthless, right-wing father (a nod at France’s Marine Le Pen), whose corpse is kept encased for display like Lenin. Elena’s husband, Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne), is more of a decoration. He’s given funds to open a laughable series of poetry centers around the country, and bemoans that they haven’t made love in over a year. Their epileptic son is another prop, looked over with genuine care by the nanny, Agnes (Andrea Riseborough). 

But while we can chuckle at the funny details of Elena being carried around in a protective bubble by staff or speaking with her dad’s corpse, the writing does get more complex in dealing with the politics of how autocrats tend to emerge. Martha Plimpton is great as the U.S. Secretary of State, who visits Elena with shamelessly shallow rhetoric about wanting to promote freedom and cooperation, if Elena agrees to open up access to the country’s cobalt mines. Like Cuba and Venezuela, this central European nation’s democratic credentials are only a source of concern if it decides to stay independent from U.S. interests. If Elena plays ball, the White House could care less what form her government takes. Zubak then becomes the harsher, violent voice reminding her that the peasants want land reform and take her promises seriously. He is like the specter of populist leaders such as Hugo Chavez, who tend to be the result of systems that never bother to provide anything for the masses. He is looked down on by Elena’s circle of pitiful yes men, who speak with refined arrogance about the peasants.

The great irony of the ads and story is that while Elena is the regime’s head, she’s also more of an overgrown child with deep insecurities. During a dinner scene where the Chancellor invites local peasants to show she cares, Zubak is the one who makes a toast demanding land reform and suddenly gives off an air of chilling charisma. He won’t give in when Elena eventually, mockingly, tries to seduce him when he starts getting disobedient. In another obvious nod at current headlines, the autocrat decides to invade a neighboring territory under the excuse that it has always been a natural part of the country. She is simply reconnecting it through annexation. The U.S., of course, protests, but it is never that simple and, during a press conference, Elena points out our bumbling invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a comic shadow of when Bush railed against Putin’s 2008 war in Georgia. 

Kate Winslet is clearly having a good time bringing this character to life, giving Elena poise and pity. Matthias Schoenaerts is so good as the ironed Zubak, who does pushups and self-beatings every morning, that it makes us wish he will get cast in some future Stalin biopic. They make a good pair by embodying two different sides to power. Winslet is the rather spoiled heir to a political dynasty she feels was owed to her while Schoenaerts’ soldier is that truly dangerous man from the depths of society, clawing to power with a genuine drive to smash the aristocrats. The supporting cast are all nice mini-satires in themselves. Hugh Grant plays the leader of the opposition struggling to find its feet. Another standout is David Bamber as that one sharp but goofy member of Elena’s cabinet who cynically goes with the flow, despite feeling terrified behind closed doors. “The Regime” brings them all together to paint a funny but ultimately sharp portrait of how the halls of power can be aloof, cunning and cutthroat and, us, those watching from outside the palace walls, pay the ultimate price.

The Regime” premieres March 3 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.