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The Regime Recap: A Situation With a Horse

Photo: Miya Mizuno/HBO

In Alexander Payne’s excellent 1996 debut feature Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern plays a poor, wildly irresponsible drug addict from Nebraska who’s had four children and lost custody of all of them — largely because the state reasonably concluded that a woman given to huffing wood sealant at hardware stores is unfit for motherhood. But her fifth pregnancy lands her smack in the middle of a political fight over abortion, with both sides seeing her as a potent symbol for the cause, especially when the press catches wind of her story. There’s money for her to cancel a planned abortion, and there’s money for her to go through with it, but ultimately, nobody actually cares about her as a person. They just want to weaponize her. And though you could accuse Payne’s satire of bothsidesism, it’s a comedy about a woman who finds her power and reclaims her right to choose.

Tonight’s episode of The Regime follows Citizen Ruth’s satirical strategy closely, with Matthias Schoenaerts’s Zubak as the simpleton whose symbolic value puts him in the middle of a battle between left and right. As I wrote last week, the powers-that-be in the palace made a mistake in elevating Zubak to a folk hero in an attempt to put a wedge between him and Elena. His arrest for trying to strangle her may have seemed like the payoff for that effort, but now “The Foundling” is a martyr for the underclass and a crucial piece in swaying agitated sugar beet farmers to either rebel against Elena for selling them out or shore up their support. That was part of Elena’s original motive for bringing him on in the first place: He may be “the butcher” who put down protestors, but he could support her strongwoman bonafides and win over the great unwashed.

To the show’s credit, Zubak isn’t as reducible as his minders believe, which is true of Dern in Citizen Ruth, who also finds her way through a political mess. However, the main ****** of “Midnight Feast” is the effort to draw Zubak into a potential fight to topple the regime and what it reveals about the cynicism of players on each side of the ideological divide. As with the Payne film, the show is not engaging in bothsidesism per se, but it does have a good feeling for political calculation and the relationship between the arrogant elite and the hoi polloi they seek to claim as their own. Left and right may not see eye-to-eye on much, but they’re together in looking down at the rubes.

Opening four months after the last episode, “Midnight Feast” finds the country in economic turmoil and civil unrest, as Elena’s decision to sever ties with her American partner has led to an alignment with China, who has also made her promises in exchange for a cut of the cobalt business. In the meantime, as construction of a new cobalt refinery has hit a snag, the Chinese have utterly decimated the nation’s sugar beet industry through a free trade agreement that allows them to undercut the local market with cheap sugar. That led to the closure of multiple sugar beet factories in the Westgate region and a rash of angry, violent protests. Conditions are worsened by Elena’s decision to seize the Faban Corridor, which has led to American sanctions that have torpedoed the country’s Gross Domestic Product. (Elena, in one of her mandated radio addresses, tells people not to worry: “The American beast and its client states try to strangle us, but petty sanctions will always fail because our love cannot be sanctioned.”)

Enter Hugh Grant, ideally cast as the sort of fake leftist rabble-rouser who writes books about revolution but has the snooty patrician air of … well … Hugh Grant. Grant’s Edward Keplinger, the author of the surely unreadable book Radical Democracy and its Dialectics, was ousted as chancellor when Elena rose to power and now resides in the well-appointed purgatory of a luxury prison cell. With Elena losing control over the Westgaters, Keplinger sees the opportunity to take advantage of the shift in political headwinds and catapult himself back into office. To that end, he seeks the support of Zubak, his fellow inmate, whose love/hate relationship with Elena has brought him to the brink of madness. With Elena’s regime teetering, Zubak could be just the right brute to tip it over.

For her part, Elena has a PR crisis to manage, and the solution is about as appealing to her as The Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns runs for governor and has to eat a three-eyed fish borne of his plant’s toxic waste. When word comes down that a horse-carrying mounted security officer has kicked a pregnant woman in Westgate, killing her and her unborn child — “an unscheduled abortion,” one of the cronies quips — it adds a splash of gasoline to the fires of discontent that are already raging in Westgate. The whole affair disgusts her, but she agrees to a live event with Westgate children to answer their presumably adorable questions, provided that she doesn’t “play nursemaid of their big, messy feelings.”

The event goes hilariously amiss, with Elena so annoyed by the grade-schoolers’s not-so-adorable queries that she snaps, rolling her eyes over the “horsey” and blasting the mother, saying that “if you’re a giant pregnant tuna, don’t attend a government protest.” This leads to the even more unpleasant prospect of leaving the palace for an appearance in Westgate itself, which has the piquant dog-**** smell of processed sugar beet to add to the roiling social unrest. She even uses the unctuous political phrase “listening tour” to describe her efforts to understand what the people are feeling.

Of course, the better solution for her is to plant guns and U.S. currency in the office of the sugar beet union chief to show that he’s in cahoots with the Americans, which she can do without leaving the office. She can also revive her psychosexual relationship with Zubak, which has a much stronger grip over his emotions than the cheese and sausage and nominal respect that Keplinger offers in his cell. The episode ends with Keplinger strangled and a political union between Elena and Zubak that’s consummated in her office, with her cuckolded husband pleading weakly on his way out the door. Zubak might liberate himself from Elena’s grip one day, but it’s not today.

Spores

• A terrific (and true) line from Elena about the advantages of Westgate protestors getting violent as they get angrier: “Attacking peaceful protesters makes me a monster. Fighting off armed insurgents makes me a protector.”

• Elena’s various health maladies have been a running joke in the series, but this week’s perimenopausal crisis doesn’t yield much comic fruit other than a few colorful descriptions of the heat. (“It’s like lying awake in a camel’s *******.”)

• When you’re not normal, you’re telling me that I’m not normal, which is a bad flavor for this room.” — Elena, doing the extremely normal thing of speaking from an ice bath on a video conference screen that descends like a Jumbotron into a chamber that resembles the war room in Dr. Strangelove.

• “It’s a situation with a horse.” “I’m eager to hear the next sentence.”

• A big TBD on Agnes’s apparent contact with Americans who are promising a home and health services for her son in exchange for help in organizing a move against the palace.

• Funny that Elena and Nicky’s staged “date night” is over fondue, which makes them look like the perfect couple from the 1970s.

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