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HBO's Palace Intrigue Flop

Tags: prosetv

First, an update on the blog: I've moved Food and Travel posts (including a new post about food in Singapore and Malaysia) to - it's the same code repo but working some HTTP magic so now I have a site for non-technical, uncontroversial posting.

Previously I wrote about the micronation YA drama Republic of Sarah, well here's a very different TV show:

I recently watched The Regime, a six-part HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet portraying Elena, a deranged European dictator. The subject is an open field for big writing and acting choices, but the series seems to have swung and missed in critical reviews and popularity.
From the trailer, you might think that it shows Elena's fall into madness. Others expected a Veep or an Evita (I know only that this exists). Instead it starts off with her already delirious from conspiracies, and the plot is more of a twisted love story.

It's tempting to make the series about Putin or Trump. When a US Senator visits, she offers "a reset" and ends up physically intimidated by the corporal (Clinton and Merkel vibes, reflected in casting). But unless the writers have unusual sources - the other background, obsessions, and diet seem to be something new. An obsession with mold and temperature, a Christmas musical routine, and Apple tech (what of their villain rule?) make this eerily modern, or at least prevent us from writing it off as parodying a specific history.

The central Europe location is probably meant to be a Belarus, Moldova, or Romania. Commenters compared Winslet's festival hair and costume to a former Ukrainian president. Maybe these are a cynical take on institutions across the region having not offered anything new, and led to strongmen and even Russia returning. Russia and Ukraine avoid a mention in the series, and the foreign policy landscape is a clash between opening the mines for US business or being a marketplace for China to dump cheap goods.

From the names and setting, you think of Romania and the Ceaușescus. The Chancellor supposedly met her husband in med school -and as an audience member you doubt if she truly learned or practiced medicine. The threat of a strongman tantrum is set up in whispers, but undermined when the first episode ends with basic arrests. Elena sends someone on an ill-advised invasion, but they return from a bloodless takeover. Compare it to Death of Stalin, which also starts with dark humor about the inner circle living in fear of a dictator, and in the end a character is executed and burned. This is brutal, but validates that being a Khrushchev or a Ceaușescu has life-or-death stakes.

The creators have chosen for Winslet's power moments, especially her final speech, to feature a lisp or her talking from the side of her mouth. There are some articles and Reddit threads about this, whether it's setting up that the Chancellor had a stroke, or it's a weird acting choice.

Telling an emperor-has-no-clothes story with a woman in charge: the story and tone would be different for a man, right? There's a different footing for a storyteller to show us crazy, pathetic, in love, obsession with impressing a parent, laughable. The territory is familiar for anyone who saw the first lady take charge of Moldova in 2023's The Power (based on a 2016 book).

Something is going on with the family character moments, with the dead father mummified like Lenin, infidelity, the husband established as a schemer who abandoned his first wife and child, and infertility leading the couple to adopt a very confused child. On the subreddit, these points have left people questioning motives, outcomes, and the point of including these in the series. IMO it is obnoxious when people try to make the Bush and Trump years about their fathers, rather than pervasive national problems. It's a total misread to see the series as Elena as living up to her father (he never became Chancellor) or as a sympathetic victim (this seemed more like a rumor that people spread about women in power).

I watched over two nights. This convinces me that the first four episodes work as an allegory - the leader too disgusted to interact with her subjects, the left being appealing yet out-of-touch and equally dismissive, the hard right pulling in broken and violent men. The final two episodes then exist to bring the story in for a landing.