‘The Regime’ Episode 1 Recap & Ending Explained: Will Zubak Become Elena’s Advisor?

HBO’s fresh political satire starring the Oscar-winner, ever-so-charming Kate Winslet, is all bark, no bite—at least from the looks of the pilot. This didn’t have to be the case, but the fact that The Regime is playing it too safe for the dark comedy to be truly dark is rather evident. A fictional European country being torn apart in the tug-of-war between internal autocracy and external exploitation sounds like a perfect setup for the dark humor The Regime is aiming for. But as of now, Will Tracy’s show seems to be bogged down by the same flaws that doomed The Menu, and the boldness that made Succession work is sadly missing. 


Spoilers Ahead

What’s Wrong With The Chancellor?

It’s been seven years since the former physician Elena Vernham overthrew her left-leaning opponent and made this fictional country in central Europe her playground. I say playground because the Elena we meet in the pilot doesn’t seem to be fit for making the smallest decision, let alone running a country. But boy, is she authoritative! And that would’ve been a fine quality to possess for someone who’d try to hold on to the autocracy that favors her with her last breath, but Elena isn’t that simple. The isolation she’s found herself in is partly self-imposed and partly a result of the manipulation of her cabinet. I mean, nothing is stopping the finance minister, Susan, and the other America-loving bureaucrats from getting their way when the Chancellor’s mind is consumed by paranoia. She’s not just unbelievably mycophobic, but she’s terrified of dying of the same lung disease that took her father. She’s got a lot to prove, though. The “love” that she convinces herself her subjects feel for her is something her father failed to achieve in his time. And it’s a morbid mix of daddy issues and an undying urge for validation that’s made her keep the corpse of her father locked in a glass box—slowly rotting and developing spots that appall Elena. Pretty ironic and amusing a parallel to Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, both of whom were also embalmed and placed in glass boxes after their deaths. She is, at the end of the day, a delusional narcissist who’d only ever pay attention to the things that align with her own perspective and beliefs. It’s this very quality that’s made life a living hell for Agnes, the woman in charge of taking care of the palace according to the eccentric Chancellor’s whims. And how could the country avoid the repercussions of this megalomaniac holding the highest seat? Elena not only turns a blind eye to but endorses the violence carried out against anyone not falling in line. Case in point, the Site Five fiasco, where a group of protestors were accused of turning unruly and the army had the green signal to perforate the rebellion with bullets. 


What’s Herbert Zubak’s Job At The Palace?

What does someone like Elena do when she spots mold? Lose her marbles, of course. And that includes issuing an order for an unbelievably thorough cleaning of the entire palace. But why stop there? She’s had a disgraced officer of the country’s army brought in. Zubak has his own share of issues to deal with. For starters, the trigger-happy maniac is being termed a “butcher” for slaughtering protestors at a cobalt mine. And now, he’s been drugged and handed the job of being the Chancellor’s personal humidity checker. The gun’s been replaced by a hygrometer, which he wields with as much seriousness as is expected of him by the Chancellor. Apart from keeping unwanted hands seeking to greet the Chancellor away from her, his duties also include entertaining her peculiar claims of them having met in a dream once upon a time. Oddly enough, the bewilderingly pointless nature of his job doesn’t seem to bug Zubak. But there’s a reason for that. Out there, he’s the killer of peaceful protestors. And even though he’s not exactly hounded by the press, he’d rather be in the palace, catering to the bizarre needs of someone who, in passing, throws unabashed validation his way. In the eyes of Elena, Zubak is a good man who did what he had to do and shouldn’t be condemned for it. The “butcher” finds solace in the problematic camaraderie between his violent impulses and Elena’s formidable dictatorial nature. 

Why Is Elena Wary Of The Americans?

Despite Elena’s claims that she’s won her position fair and square, there’s nothing fair about an autocracy. Elena is actually fooling even herself when she claims it, though. There’s no reassuring lie that this woman wouldn’t eat up, even when she’s the one saying and stressing it. But most importantly, what stands out about her character is her overwhelming confusion. There’s never a sense that she knows what she’s doing or what she even wants to do. In her cringe-worthy rendition of If You Leave Me Now at the banquet with the American diplomats, she seems like someone who’d bend over backwards to get the cobalt deal from Mr. Kaiser. And why wouldn’t she, when the industrialization that’d result from joining hands with the Americans would only help keep the machine running? But as much as she is a flagbearer of dictatorship, she is strongly opposed to American imperialism. She’s in no mood to entertain Mr. Kaiser when he plays hardball and sneakily includes the clause that America would be the bigger shareholder of the mines should the deal go through. She was fine with America holding a 30% stake in the cobalt mines, but the promise of an increased 51% stake in the future is not a deal Elena would agree to. And she’s certainly not naive enough to think that Mr. Kaiser can be convinced to take the smaller piece of the cake. Then why go through with this entire ordeal of singing and dancing and embarrassing herself in front of the Americans? One might think that it’s because she took Susan’s reasonable points about the failing economy to heart. But the truth is, Elena doesn’t seem to have the first clue about what to do in any given situation. 


Why Does Elena Lash Out At Zubak?

Elena’s husband Nicky’s interview with Vogue goes just as well as you’d expect it to. I guess the only reason he was ever there was so that he could be bombarded with questions about the Site Five massacre. You’d be wrong to think that he’s a sweetheart who doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s very understandably irked by the fallout of his wife’s political missteps, especially when he’s the one bearing the brunt. His way of communicating his frustration is rather passive-aggressive. Instead of having it out with Elena, he chooses to humiliate her in front of Kaiser and Co. with this far-from-fairytale story of how they met and eventually tied the knot. Now, I’m not saying that Elena wasn’t furious at Zubak for making her look like a lunatic by intercepting a handshake and declaring the humidity percentage in front of the Americans, even though he was just following orders. But if you ask me, the reason why Elena pulls Zubak out of there and violently thrashes him is because, at that moment, he is her punching bag. If it really was about Zubak’s mistakes, the punishment would’ve been far more immediate. It was a cumulative result of Nicky’s story making her look like a ruthless homewrecker and a narcissist, and Kaiser showing her just how fragile her position really is. Zubak was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Will Zubak Become Elena’s Advisor?

The turning point in the pilot of HBO’s The Regime came when the show decided to get real. For the most part, all the characters, including Winslet’s Elena, seemed garishly caricaturish. It was almost as though the narrative was begging for something to ground it. And there it was: a towering man in Elena’s bedroom, sending the entire palace into panic. While the incident itself isn’t all that moving or even meaty enough to be considered a crisis, what makes it effective is the fact that it may just be inspired by a real-life incident. Now, I’m not sure if Elena was meant to be likened to the British monarchy’s Queen Elizabeth, but a similar incident did take place at Buckingham Palace back in 1982. A man had broken into the palace and made his way into the queen’s bedroom, an incident that was also covered by The Crown. But, unlike Michael Fagan, the man who’d trespassed into Buckingham Palace and was relatively peacefully escorted out, the intruder in The Regime was punched mercilessly by an ever-vigilant Zubak. 


If anything, by beating the man to a pulp, Zubak not only got a chance to release the violent urges brewing within him, but he also got to sweep the Chancellor off her feet. It was pretty humiliating a demotion after the mishap at the banquet hall. For a while, Zubak wasn’t allowed the sight of Elena. But by “rescuing” her from the perceived threat, he’s redeemed himself in the eyes of the chancellor he’s grown to worship. The woman who needs an in-house oxygen chamber to tend to her lungs, which most likely work just fine, freaks out at the thought of breathing the same air exhaled by other people and holds Zubak’s blood-soaked hands in her panic-stricken state. A bond has been made between the paranoid, bloodthirsty queen and her hound. And this doesn’t evade Nicky’s insecure eyes. 

Of course, the palace is now at its worst. Ever since the break-in, microbes have joined forces with the mold spores that apparently threaten Elena’s life. In between the rigorous scrubbing and washing and covering every part of the palace that hasn’t been disinfected yet, the staff also have to cater to an ever more paranoid Elena, who now only moves around when she’s carried around in an enclosed palanquin. But she allows Zubak to be around her and even sips on the tea he so lovingly brews. Clearly, she’s not the same free-spirited woman who once wooed Nicky. The Elena that he fell in love with now resides only in his memories. Elena, for the most part, is terrified of imaginary threats while overlooking the real ones. 

The real threats are the people in her own cabinet, specifically Susan. It’s possible that Elena’s mycophobia and germaphobia could’ve been nipped in the bud. But those who stood to gain from her mind being occupied by irrational fears only fueled her paranoia further. And they’re at it again now that Elena doesn’t even feel safe in the “petri dish” that is her palace. They aim to send her away, seemingly to let her recuperate while they scrub the palace clean. What Susan really wants is to hold the reins for the time being, just so that she can oversee the cobalt deal and make sure it goes through. 

In The Regime episode 1’s ending, Elena for once takes a stand for herself and looks up at the potential ally she recognizes in Zubak. He’s a nobody, as blatantly asserted by her. But if she is to lead the people she deems nobodies, she needs to know what they want. Unfortunately, someone as unstable and vicious as Zubak is the last person she should seek counsel from. He is right about one thing, though. Everyone around Elena—everyone catering to her unreasonable needs and validating her irrational fears—stands to gain something as long as that fear holds her down. Elena finally taking charge marks the downfall of Susan and those who got a bit too comfortable exploiting her eccentricities. But this is also the start of the dictator truly coming into her own. With Zubak’s volatile reassurances strengthening her determination, she has no need to cower to the Americans or those who can’t wait to replace the autocracy with a foreign imperial force. The promise of democracy will remain a promise. And any external help will be analyzed with suspicion. I doubt that she knows how she’ll run the country without America’s help. But if the help comes at the cost of Elena losing her iron grip on the country, she’d rather watch it burn than relinquish her authority. If you think about it, our Chancellor’s fear of mold and microbes isn’t too dissimilar to her fear of the outsiders. You’ve seen her condition after a prolonged period of self-imposed isolation. And now that NATO and American oligarchs have replaced fungi and bacteria, instead of herself, Elena is going to isolate the country she’s in charge of. 


Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjeehttps://muckrack.com/lopamudra-mukherjee
Lopamudra nerds out about baking whenever she’s not busy looking for new additions to the horror genre. Nothing makes her happier than finding a long-running show with characters that embrace her as their own. Writing has become the perfect mode of communicating all that she feels for the loving world of motion pictures.

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