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The Regime Review: Kate Winslet Reigns Over HBO's Too-Clever Political Satire

The sharp but predictable limited series works best when it focuses on its central odd couple

Allison Picurro
Kate Winslet, The Regime

Kate Winslet, The Regime

Miya Mizuno/HBO

A series with a name like The Regime could only open on a flagrant abuse of power. Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) awakens to discover he's being transported in an armored van to a sprawling palace somewhere in "Middle Europe," as the title card at the top of the first episode informs us. Zubak is a soldier who has been ambiguously reassigned, told only that he's switching posts without further information. He was drugged in transit, manhandled on to the premises, and has barely spoken before being dismissed as subhuman by each member of the bustling staff who suddenly surround him: "Hard vowels," Agnes (Andrea Riseborough) says distastefully, after he tells her his name. "Regurgitative, that." Zubak, we learn, has been brought there at the chancellor's insistence to handle a most concerning mold issue. It's clear from the jump that the staff neither welcome Zubak's presence nor believe the mold is real, but they all understand how the game is played and what they will do in order to hold on to the tiny bit of control they possess.

Across its six episodes, the first of which premieres Sunday, March 3 on HBO, The Regime, created by Succession writer Will Tracy, continues to hammer that theme home. The chancellor herself — that is, Chancellor Elena Vernham, a neurotic, image-obsessed, hypochondriac autocrat played by Kate Winslet — is very much a problem, in all of her tyrannical delusion, but the people who surround her and encourage her increasingly erratic behavior are just as much to blame. When the series begins, Elena is celebrating Victory Day, but it quickly becomes apparent that her control as a leader is slipping due to her agoraphobia and imagined ailments. (The mold is in her head, but it doesn't stop her from forcing Zubak to wave around a moisture-detecting wand before she enters a room.) She addresses her public as "my loves" in her syrupy-voiced speeches and makes regular visits to the mummified corpse of her father, whom she speaks to as if he's alive, her suppressed lisp becoming more pronounced the longer she's with him. Later in the series, she even refuses to admit she's experiencing menopause, cranking the palace air conditioning up to freezing temperatures and receiving a chorus of agreement when she asks her staff why it's so hot.

It's when she's in this fragile state that Zubak, lonely and monosyllabic with a history of violence and a hair-trigger temper, meets her. She likes him, likes what his working-class background does for her reputation, and likes the control she has over him. ("You're here because you are nobody," she informs him. "That means I can trust you.") The entire series is built around their odd couple dynamic; he initially seems like a cool-headed Lady Macbeth, deviously advising her for his own gains, until it becomes clear he's as separated from reality as she is. Elena is a phenomenal idiot who happily ignores the impoverished people she purports to love, but she would be nothing without the staff encouraging her. More than that, she would be nothing without Zubak, her attack dog who introduces suspicious medicines and prevents her feckless husband, Nicky (Guillaume Gallienne), from seeing her. Two people who are desperate to be loved always prove to be a dangerous combination. In The Regime, it has international implications.


The Regime


  • Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts have a perfect odd couple dynamic
  • The writing is sharp
  • It's fast-paced and exciting


  • Too clever for its own good
  • Its ultimate message is sobering but predictable

If The Regime is rarely as funny as a zippy satire should be (it doesn't have a ton of actual jokes, and the comedy is often met with more of an exhale-through-your-nose acknowledgement than an actual laugh), it's the delicious push and pull of that relationship that keeps you watching. (It's worth noting that Tracy wrote Succession's "Tailgate Party," an immediate high of the show's final season, which saw Sarah Snook's Shiv and Matthew Macfadyen's Tom having a blowout balcony fight about their marriage.) It makes up for elements like the show's clever-to-a-fault writing, which does often feel a bit too smart for its own good. Early in the series, a haughtily delivered speech in which Elena decries the United States for its war-mongering feels a bit too on the nose when she, naturally, goes on to do just that later on. At times, you do almost have to turn off your brain to enjoy the whole package of the show; seeing such a ridiculous person in a position of absolute power perhaps hits a bit too close to home to be fun to watch.

But The Regime, which also boasts a richly drawn world full of exquisite details, isn't without its pleasures. The supporting cast is filled out by standout performances from Riseborough, Gallienne, Martha Plimpton, and a very welcome Hugh Grant in a guest role that I won't spoil here, but the series, naturally, belongs with Winslet and Schoenaerts. Elena, with her meticulously styled hair, clinging outfits, and that cartoonish speech impediment, is a tough character to ground, but Winslet is a knockout, playing her with a mix of childlike insecurity and a Thatcher-esque stiff upper lip. Alongside an excellent Schoenaerts, who drops all of his usual on-screen charm for the teetering and steely-eyed Zubak, she comes alive, as does the series around them.

Tracy's involvement, as well as the incompetent tyrant main character, means that the Succession comparisons are a guarantee, but The Regime feels more like a spiritual successor to Veep (another series that pushed back against the "We just need a woman in charge" belief) and The Great (which created a delicious back and forth between its power-hungry leads) than anything else. Although Tracy demurred when asked by the New York Times who inspired Elena's character, there are, of course, endless real-life parallels — and what a moment for this series to come into the world, during an era in which distrust of the government is at a mounting high. Is the only way to deal with corrupt politicians by staging a mass uprising? When people feel hopeless after being mistreated by the establishment for so long, what else are they supposed to do? Will pushing back actually change anything? Without ruining the show's ending, The Regime has an all too predictable answer to those questions. 

Premieres: Sunday, March 3 at 9/8c on HBO
Who's in it: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Andrea Riseborough, Guillaume Gallienne, Martha Plimpton, Hugh Grant
Who's behind it: Creator Will Tracy (Succession, The Menu), director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen), director Jessica Hobbs (The Crown)
For fans of: Succession, Veep, The Great
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 6