Kate Winslet Rules as an Unstable Autocrat in The Regime

The new HBO miniseries The Regime imagines the last days of a crumbling modern-day autocracy. The series is obviously intended to draw parallels to our own slowly collapsing empire, with Kate Winslet as a grandly imperious and unstable head of state.

Kate Winslet in The Regime. (Max, 2024)

Points for trying, but The Regime is a bit too ponderous for political satire. I remember groaning faintly when I read that this new HBO Max miniseries is set in a fictional country in Central Europe, a choice by writer Will Tracy (Succession) that already seems heavy with effort. And very little humor can survive the plodding pace set by director Stephen Frears in the opening episode. He directs half of the six episodes, with Jessica Hobbs of The Crown directing the other half.

Still, after the justly admired Mare of Easttown (2021), another HBO Max series showcase for Kate Winslet deserves our attention. She’s a grandly imperious star-actor of the old school, and she doesn’t give small performances. If old-time screen queens like Bette Davis or Ida Lupino or Susan Hayward could have worked with her, game would’ve recognized game.

Her regal walks through palatial halls in a state of mental dislocation, her weirdly twisted lip, her fixed stare, and the bizarre accent she’s achieved for her role as Elena Vernham, the mentally unstable right-wing chancellor of an imploding regime, have a fascination all their own that keeps you watching even as your mind dozes a bit over the plot. The first episode lays out the court intrigue surrounding Elena, as well as the elaborate ploys to placate her while courtiers work out their own survival within the crumbling system.

Elena has become convinced that the air of the palace is filled with moisture-born mold spores, based on her despotic father’s death from lung cancer. He’s still on display in a glass coffin, though he’s beginning to decay and show “spots” that distress his worshipful daughter in their one-sided talks together.

The sardonic, put-upon palace manager Agnes (Andrea Riseborough) hires a “personal water diviner,” the hulking and troubled soldier Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), to follow Elena around with a hydrometer checking potential mold levels everywhere she goes. She wants him around, seeing in his apparent brutishness a kind of embodiment of the “folk” values of her country. But he’s called “the Butcher” by the disdainful minister of finance Susan Goin (Pippa Haywood), because he’s one of the disgraced military men who took part in a massacre of striking miners.

Elena is convinced she and Herbert are meeting in their dreams and have already established a significant relationship, if only he can achieve a “graceful state of mind.”

His survival in his new role, or perhaps an expanded one as Elena’s chief adviser and protector, depends on his ability to decode what she means by that and what, ultimately, she wants from him. But since you can’t go wrong flattering people in power and telling them that they’re enormously courageous and brilliant and great and just need to demonstrate those qualities forcefully to the world, it’s not really much of a puzzler what he needs to do.

“You’re nobody,” she tells him, but offers this reassurance: “You are the only one who can tell me what the nobodies want.”

That’s her way of referring to the nation’s citizens. It’s a volatile, irrational, ignorant, desire-based system all around.

Obviously, the series is intended to make us recognize the parallels to our own slowly collapsing empire. I wouldn’t even mention this except it’s so incredible how viewers don’t pick up clues from film and television works frantically signaling, “This is also about us right now.” On social media, I see people complaining that The Zone of Interest gets boring because it keeps showing us repeatedly that the World War II–era Germans sure did suffer from the banality of evil. Just those genocidal Germans, nobody else, certainly not us Israel Defense Forces–supporting, progenocide Americans right here, right now.

Series writer Will Tracy, who claims to read books about crumbling autocracies for recreation, acknowledges that typically “by reading about those sorts of regimes where everything collapses, you can kind of prepare yourself maybe for the same conditions appearing in your own country and in your own life.”

But personally, he also admits that such reading relaxes him:

I also think there’s just something to, you know, when you’re reading about the siege of Leningrad before bed and you turn off the light and rest your head on the pillow, you know, your problems don’t seem so big anymore, do they? . . . I tend to drop right off to sleep.

In short, while I enjoy watching Winslet’s addled grandstanding as the increasingly unbalanced chancellor, I’m not at all sold on the series. There’s the usual lack of politics in this political satire, which is vague about most policies of typical right-wing despots. The Regime so far seems to be a detailed portrait of a lone madwoman in power.

Of course, the series can still pick up steam in episodes to come. There are some intriguing casting choices. Hugh Grant will be playing the previous chancellor, a left-wing challenger to Elena’s authority who’s imprisoned but still dangerously influential. And Martha Plimpton will arrive in the role of the US secretary of state, trying to protect American interests in the region. There are the Central European country’s cobalt mines that would be profitable to control, so at least that episode promises to rip into the United States’ predatory neocolonial relationship to the natural resources in financially struggling countries.

It’s worth taking a look at a few more episodes.