Thursday, April 11, 2024

Review [TV]: The Regime

Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what your country can do to you

Every tyranny encounters opposition. But there are also, under every tyranny, a number from among the population who mold themselves to match what the tyrant demands of them. That raises a valuable question: what type of citizen does authoritarianism want? The typology of dictators has been catalogued extensively in political philosophy, but what about those on the receiving end of absolute power? If we could envision a nightmare scenario, where the common human being gladly consented to being controlled, what would be the traits of such an aberrant political subject?

The HBO Max series The Regime shows the mutual cycle of enablement and abuse that would emerge if the archetypal wielder of total domination crossed paths with the archetypal wielder of total submission. We know what happens when an oppressive ruler meets resistance, but The Regime suggests that the reaction can be equally explosive when the oppressive half of the equation is paired to an obedient follower who understands that they're living under tyranny and willingly accepts it.

In The Regime we meet Elena, the head of state of a fictional Central European country. She is a psychopathic narcissist who barely cares to perform empathy before the public eye. She never leaves the obscenely luxurious government palace, detests meeting in person with citizens, holds in the highest reverence the embalmed corpse of her father, routinely borrows a child to be seen with at public events, and fosters a cult of personality where she plays the role of loving partner to everyone. To fill the smoking crater where accountability and rule of law should be, she love-bombs her people in florid speeches calculated to simultaneously seduce and infantilize. She weaponizes her sex appeal like a gender-swapped Vladimir Putin while pummeling dissidents with an iron fist clothed in raunchy lace. Adept at terrorizing the nation with a gentle, motherly smile, she's an Isabel Perón convinced that she's really Evita.

And then we meet Herbert, a soldier hated across the nation for his brutal role in suppressing a protest. The depths of his self-loathing make him a danger to himself and to everyone around him. He follows obsessive rituals of self-punishment that worsen after he's hired in a minor position at the government palace, accidentally finds himself at the right place and the right time to save Elena's life. She promptly starts giving him bigger and bigger roles in her administration until he ends up being her personal enforcer, bodyguard, advisor, confidant, propagandist, policymaker, medic, and dietitian, despite his dangerously multidisciplinary ignorance. He's happy to serve as a pawn to his queen in all but name, but the dynamic of their relationship is too volatile to remain one-sided. His encroaching influence over her turns him into a hulky Rasputin in jackboots and a high-and-tight cut. But he's no crafty schemer: he's a cauldron of bubbling emotions desperate to be told in which direction to let them boil over. An incurious simpleton, fluent only in violence both given and received, he's the perfect match for Elena, the burning, furious yang to her cold, dark yin. He's someone who yearns to become just something. He's what remains of a human being once all self-respect has been extirpated with a bear trap. He's the ideal citizen of totalitarianism.

It's with morbid fascination that one watches Elena and Herbert bolster each other and injure each other and inspire each other and destroy each other. Their damaging codependence becomes indissoluble in the way that addicts feel compelled to seek more poison. And here the relationship between oppressor and oppressed grows a few symbolic layers with disturbing significance. Ever since modern democracies emerged within the still prevailing economic system, politicians have known that campaigning is advertising is persuading is seducing is cajoling is beguiling is captivating is enchanting is exploiting is controlling is conquering is possessing. The emotional tropes that apply between lover and beloved can also apply between ruler and ruled. There's an unmissable erotic dimension to the act of delegating power onto a representative, a dynamic of submission and trust that requires vulnerability and expects exclusiveness. Elena and Herbert jump into bed with the mutual sadism of one who unabashedly seizes and one who dejectedly gives up, both aware of their alternating roles as user and used.

The result of this mix is necessarily misery for everyone else. A tyrant alone can still cause harm by reiterated acts of combustion; a tyrant with a follower is a harmoniously rolling engine of predatory impetus.

And yet, the final episode of The Regime reveals that the components of this self-sustaining despotic machine are three: alongside the head of state and the common citizen, you also need the businessman. You need the complicity of private power in order to return to a semblance of stability each time a crisis blows up. It has been said that money is the mechanism that allows two parties that dislike each other to deal peacefully instead of bringing about mutual annihilation. However, the businessman is no less a giver and receiver of violence than the other members of the triumvirate of dystopia. The Regime seems to be saying that, even if one of the three gets eliminated, the system can still function with few mishaps until the next cycle of abuse and enablement can get going. Tyranny is a monster that feeds on itself, incapable of telling apart appreciation and absorption. The warped eroticism of complete control doesn't cease to be, even then, a force of creation.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.