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Hugh Grant's Long-Awaited Appearance Reveals The Regime's Deep Cynicism

"Midnight Feast" pours cold water on any hope of a better future for the citizens of this fictional country.
  • Hugh Grant in The Regime (Photo: Miya Mizuno/HBO)
    Hugh Grant in The Regime (Photo: Miya Mizuno/HBO)

    For The Regime's autocratic ruler Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet), former chancellor Edward Keplinger is more useful offscreen than on. Elena is fond of reminding her subjects that her "neo-Marxist" predecessor plunged their fictional European country into ruin, only to betray his principles and his people by fleeing to his country home when he was voted out of office. Keplinger has hardly been seen in the years since, but the frequent mention of his failures reinforces the fantasy that Elena and the oligarchs in her inner circle are working tirelessly on behalf of the nation, when in fact they're using it as a piggy bank, as she divulged to Corporal Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts), her second-in-command, in Episode 3, "The Heroes' Banquet."

    But as with Zubak's connection to the mythical "Foundling" and the spin surrounding Elena's attempted annexation of the Faban Corridor, the Keplinger story is nothing more than propaganda. After being dismissed one too many times, the "butcher" in Zubak resurfaces. He lunges for Elena's throat, briefly strangling her, before beating cobalt billionaire Bartos (Stanley Townsend) within an inch of his life. As punishment, Zubak is imprisoned in the depths of the palace, where, in Episode 4, "Midnight Feast," he crosses paths with an unlikely (or perhaps all-too-likely) figure: Keplinger himself, played by Hugh Grant.

    Despite his earlier attempts to influence Elena, Zubak is simple-minded enough to have bought the Keplinger propaganda. He's stunned to see that the leftist leader doesn't "live in shame up north in a big house," as Elena's administration has insisted for the past eight years — a claim they've backed up by dragging Keplinger "to a manor house every now and again to film a little fiction" — but was jailed following the election and has been living in captivity ever since. Given his populist ideals, Zubak is skeptical ("You tried to ruin us when you were chancellor. You and your rich leftist friends cutting deals," he says), but Keplinger wins him over by treating him as more than a brute — exactly the kind of attention he craves, but has never received, from Elena.

    Between Keplinger's self-effacing humor and seeming respect for everyone around him, creator Will Tracy initially suggests Grant's character is the anti-Elena, a persona that comes into greater focus when the two meet face-to-face. After a disastrous Q&A with children from the rural Westgate region, the center of resistance activity, Elena seeks solace in Keplinger's cell, not because she enjoys his company, but because she believes kicking him while he's down will make her feel better. But if Elena is expecting Keplinger to roll over as she accuses him of "dreaming of [his] Mandela moment," she's mistaken: He fires back with fiery words of his own, reflecting on "the basic irony" that Elena, once considered the West's "safe pair of tits," has reversed course and adopted an "anti-imperialist swank."

    Unlike Elena's aides and cabinet members, who work to curb her wildest impulses only in secret, Keplinger calls out her hypocrisy and manipulative tactics. "They're born in pain, so you turn their pain to anger and make their anger your cudgel," he says. "It's brilliant. But now they're turning the cudgel on you, aren't they, Elena? And you know it, and you're very scared. That is why you're here, you silly f*cking bitch."

    Keplinger earns a beating for his honesty, lending credence to the idea that he's a brave political activist standing up to a delusional dictator. But in the second half of the episode, that characterization is revealed to be a mirage. When he meets Zubak again, he deliberately misconstrues the conversation with Elena in hopes of weakening Zubak's allegiance to the chancellor; later, once Zubak is sufficiently pliable, Keplinger lays out a plan to use his "experience with the chancellory" and Zubak's "common touch" to take back the country.

    For about half a second, it seems that he actually has people's best interest in mind, but as Zubak excitedly lists his priorities ("We give it back — farms, factories, land reform... and keep the Americans out") and inquires about Elena's fate, Keplinger's true motivations become clear. "She'll have a fair trial so that people can see who she is, what she's done. How it was me who felt their pain all along, and not her," he tells Zubak. "And then she'll get what's coming to her. And she'll finally be gone."

    What's left of Keplinger's mask comes off in the final act, when Zubak breaks into his cell in the middle of the night and insists that because he doesn't "love" Keplinger, he can't truly support him. Zubak's admission brings the real Keplinger to the surface: "It's always exactly the same with you people," he says. "You refuse to choose what's best for you... You people don't want to learn anything, do you? You don't want to help yourselves. You just want to live in your f*cking feelings. You just want 'the dream.'" With that, Zubak snaps, strangling Keplinger until his body goes limp.

    Writer Seth Reiss and director Stephen Frears intercut Keplinger's heel turn (and Zubak's subsequent violence) with scenes of Elena's militarized police force conducting a raid on the Westgate Sugar Beet Union headquarters, followed by a "news" report announcing that state security has uncovered an American-funded "conspiracy of terrifying proportions" within the union. The implication of this choice is clear: Though Keplinger and Elena land on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they're united by their hunger for power and a thinly veiled disdain for the people they claim to serve.

    As a political satire, The Regime is under no obligation to offer up an ideological counterpoint to Elena, and we shouldn't expect it to. But Keplinger, bolstered by Grant's natural charisma and steely resolve, afforded the creative team an opportunity to rise above pure cynicism and deliver something more original than the stale observation that political animals exist on both sides of the aisle. Instead, "Midnight Feast" draws a moral equivalence between the chancellors, pouring cold water on any possibility of real progress in this fictional country. Given the current state of global politics, it's easy to adopt such a pessimistic worldview, but in this case, it betrays a lack of imagination — or to borrow a phrase from Elena, the absence of a "graceful mind" willing to look beyond the bounds of reality and envision a different kind of future.

    The Regime airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Regime, HBO, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Will Tracy