The Regime review: Kate Winslet’s dictatorship dramedy falls flat

HBO introduces The Regime, featuring Kate Winslet as the paranoid chancellor of a fictional Central European nation, as a “darkly comedic” series. The trailer showcases some quirky moments (“You all need to be better at being normal,” admonishes the Chancellor from a bathtub filled with ice), and the premiere includes Winslet’s Elena Vernham delivering a cringe-worthy rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” to American diplomats at a state dinner.

However, while the label of “darkly comedic” isn’t entirely inaccurate, the six-episode series, created by Will Tracy (known for The Menu), doesn’t quite fit neatly into the comedy genre. Rather than offering genuine laughs, The Regime presents a bleak and superficial exploration of authoritarianism’s dangers and America’s complicity in global oppression. While the themes may be relevant to current times, the series falls short of delivering genuine humor, enlightenment, or depth.

The Regime Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts

In her seventh year as Chancellor, Elena Vernham lives in perpetual fear of succumbing to the same lung condition that claimed her father’s life. Convinced that her opulent palace is infested with toxic mold, Elena commands her anxious staff—including the pragmatic palace manager, Agnes (Andrea Riseborough), the formidable minister of finance, Susan (Pippa Haywood), and the servile Dr. Kershaw (Kenneth Collard)—to recruit Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) as her latest “personal water diviner.” Essentially, Herbert follows the chancellor around, meticulously measuring the humidity levels in every room she enters with a hygrometer.

Corporal Zubak, like his new employer, bears his own burdens. Known as one of the “Butchers of Site 5” for his involvement in a fatal confrontation with protestors at a local cobalt mine, Herbert grapples with overwhelming guilt and PTSD, resorting to self-harm as a coping mechanism. However, Elena surprises him during their initial encounter by expressing gratitude for his service, recognizing the goodness within him despite his troubled past. A security breach at the palace, coupled with Herbert’s outspoken criticism of America’s influence over their nation, solidifies Elena’s dependence on the tormented soldier and his anti-imperialist ideology.

Over the course of The Regime’s six episodes, spanning a year, Elena adopts increasingly isolationist policies, much to the dismay of her cabinet members (David Bamber, Danny Webb, Henry Goodman) and her husband (Guillaume Gallienne). As her government teeters under Herbert’s undue influence, Elena’s once-eccentric devotion to him evolves into something far more sinister. Initially portrayed as harmless eccentricities—such as her insistence on filling the palace with bowls of potatoes for their purported healing properties—the tone of The Regime grows progressively darker. While this shift in atmosphere better suits the disturbed central characters, Elena and Herbert remain enigmatic figures, their extreme behaviors shrouded in ambiguity. Herbert’s tumultuous upbringing and history of violence, including incidents involving his mother, provide glimpses into his complex psyche.

Andrea Riseborough, Kate Winslet in The Regime Season 1 - Episode 1

In succumbing to Herbert’s influence, Elena seems to exchange one imposing male figure—her deceased father, Joseph Peter Vernham, whose body lies in state in the palace basement—for another. Through Elena’s frequent conversations with her father’s corpse, we catch glimpses of his true nature: domineering, cruel, and prone to belittling his daughter for her intelligence and slight speech impediment. It’s evident that both Elena and Herbert are deeply scarred individuals, and their damaged psyches inevitably affect those around them.

While The Regime attempts to serve as satire, its effectiveness in this regard is limited, though it does offer a competent portrayal of the myriad ways in which dictatorships are harmful. Beyond this, the series seems to convey the message that there are no true heroes—or heroines—in politics; indeed, ethical leadership may not even exist. Even the ousted former chancellor, Edward Keplinger (guest star Hugh Grant), fails to live up to the ideals of his far-left policies. The leader of the resistance movement also proves to be power-hungry and opportunistic, while America, represented by Senator Judith Holt (Martha Plimpton), is complicit in the unfolding chaos.

The shortcomings of The Regime predominantly lie in its writing. While Elena’s character may be perplexing at times, Kate Winslet brings depth and complexity to the role, ensuring that she remains compelling throughout. Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal of Agnes, the character with the most empathy, helps to temper the overall misanthropy of the series. Keplinger’s observation that “broken people really love broken people” may hold true in politics, but its applicability to television is debatable.

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