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News Every Day |

The Regime Recap: Christmas Carp

Photo: Miya Mizuno/HBO

“Whatever this place was for you, it’s over now.”

This is the moment when the penultimate episode of The Regime — and really, The Regime itself as a series — starts to circle the drain. To this point, Agnes, the chancellor’s unfailingly loyal right hand, has resisted entreaties to flee the country for Europe in exchange for her intel as a “palace ghost,” which would be valuable given her unique access to Elena and the goings-on in every fake-spore-infested corner of the building. She could also get better and more consistent treatment for her son, Oskar, who at one point had to have his epilepsy pills smuggled into the palace because Elena and Zubak had opted to treat him with folk remedies instead.

From what information the show has given us about Agnes and the day-to-day hassles of her life, the decision to leave seems easy. If anything, she should be ahead of the weaselly ministers in jumping on the next helicopter out of the country, with or without the offer for information. And so now we’re asking ourselves questions the show has in no way prepared us to answer: What does this place mean to Agnes? What accounts for her loyalty to Elena? How has she put up with the chancellor acting as a mother to her own child? And then those questions lead naturally to an even more damning one: Why should we care about any of this?

In many ways, Agnes has been the closest thing The Regime has had to an audience surrogate, the one identifiably human character in a cast that includes a batshit dictator, an extremely volatile ex-soldier, a cuckolded husband, and the parade of greedy, lily-livered ministers and oligarchs who are propping up the government while feasting on cobalt riches. From where the series starts, we don’t know how Agnes got to this position of power or how Elena has treated Oskar as if he were her own son. It’s not necessarily the show’s job to fill us in — using flashbacks or exposition to explain the backstory is almost always a bad idea — but we should know enough about Agnes to care, especially when the episode ends with her lying in a pool of blood.

The essential thinness of The Regime has been a troubling undercurrent to the previous few episodes, which have more or less gotten by on the wit of the dialogue and the absurdity of the situation. But “All Ye Faithful” leaves it fully exposed, because the inevitable collapse of Elena’s administration has turned the series into a more conventional political thriller, making how we actually feel about these characters important. That was the secret sauce of Succession, for which this show’s creator, Will Tracy, served as a writer: These Murdoch-esque collection of failkids may represent everything wrong about American media, culture, and politics, but they were recognizable enough as people that we cared about them over our better judgment. That’s not the case here at all.

As this episode opens, Elena is too revved up by romance to pay much attention to the rebels encroaching on her central European Versailles. Six months after she and Zubak consummated their relationship in her office, with her husband and the ministers scurrying out the door, things are still hot and heavy between them, though Zubak has at least one foot in reality. In the opening scene, the two are visiting a dream reader whose job is to reinforce the positive spin Elena wants to put on her lover’s nightmares about biting (“Dreams about biting our partner may reveal a desire to establish intimacy”) and drowning. Meanwhile, the Westgate rebels, who have dramatically increased in number, are 23 kilometers from the palace and show no signs of slowing down.

Sensing the inevitable, most of the ministers are eyeing the exit door. “The pyramid door is closing and we’ll be trapped in here with this cock-mad pharaoh,” one of them says. When they sound the alarm for Elena, she blithely dismisses their concerns about her collapsing poll support (“fake CIA numbers”) and clings to the special relationship that she believes herself to have with the people. “They take my love for granted,” she says. “They push me away. They’ll find their way back to me, just as Herbert did.” A holiday-themed suggestion is made, amusingly dubbed “Elena’s Christmas Sack,” which will offer the people reforms, bonuses, and a ration program to fight starvation, but the chancellor won’t hear of it. She calls the rebellion “a self-cleansing process for the state,” as if revolution were equivalent to a Hollywood enema.

With the rumble of explosions outside, the oblivious Elena tries to keep Christmas festive inside and outside the palace. On the state media channel, she has recorded a sexy holiday special for the people in which she offers a sultry performance of “Santa Baby” and serves up the delicious “Christmas carp” that will surely be on every table. She and Zubak exchange presents that suggest that they might not know each other so well: He has painted her a kindergarten-level portrait to hang alongside the austere masterworks in the palace, and she gives him a German gun, which at least seems like a practical gift at a time like this.

Eventually, reality comes crashing in, once the rebels take over the media channel and security around the palace breaks down. When Elena still insists that the “Westgate trash” just need to hear from her and reaffirm their love, Zubak finally hits her with a cold splash of water: “They hate you and they want to kill you.” This leads to a hasty plan for Elena to resign and Zubak, “the Foundling’s heir,” to take her place, which isn’t an unreasonable idea, given his Westgate roots and his once-fervent desire to strip land from the greedy oligarchs and return it to the people. But by then, the building has already been breached.

“All Ye Faithful” ends with Agnes presumably dead, the ministers flying away on the last helicopter off the palace roof, and Elena and Zubak running for their lives. It’s hard to guess exactly how the show will end next week, but Elena’s government has ended without much insight into its operation that wasn’t apparent in the (very good) opening episode. Without the buzzy palace intrigue that had been keeping the show comedically afloat, all we have now are two mismatched lovers on the run, with no power left to yield. There’s seemingly nothing left here to satirize, much less to care about.

Spores:

• Has Elena considered pardoning a Christmas carp? That’s always a public-relations winner for U.S. presidents sparing a turkey on Thanksgiving.

• On the bright side, Elena takes concrete steps in loosening ties with her father’s rotting corpse. First, Zubak firmly tells the old guy off (“You are a very poor influence on Elena. The time has come for you to step away.”), and then the rebels send the glass casket flying over the balcony.

• Agnes pitching her son on a move to France: “The French sometimes smell of sweated onions. And they have sort of dead eyes. Dress a bit like bank clerks. And worship this very small dead man who ran screaming from Russia, but they’ve got a very lovely tart. Would you like a French tart?”

• One great line here has a minister offering a plan to take over for Elena by claiming “we’ve been acting as active resistance within the regime,” which strongly recalls that brief moment in the Trump administration where White House officials claimed to be protecting the country from its president’s worst impulses. There was even a New York Times op-ed piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” that was published anonymously but eventually revealed to be the work of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor. Good times.

• Elena increased female participation in the workforce by 37 percent. Who’s to argue with those numbers?

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