How Will Tracy Wrote HBO’s ‘The Regime’: ‘It’s One Big Nationalistic Yes And—’

The affable ruler to HBO’s “The Regime,” Will Tracy is easy to shop for.

“I’m always somewhat embarrassed to say this, but my beach reading for the last 20 years has been about autocrats and authoritarian regimes,” the showrunner told IndieWire in an interview from before his miniseries debuted on Sunday, March 3. “Just get me a book about Stalin or Ceaușescu and I’ll be happy.”

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Starring Kate Winslet as Chancellor Elena Vernham, the six-part political dramedy is a long-time coming from the “Succession” writer, also known for co-writing the culinary thriller “The Menu” with Seth Reiss. “The Regime” examines an unnamed country in central Europe positioned smack-dab in the middle of the contemporary political climate. New episodes air weekly at 9 p.m. ET — fittingly followed by “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”

“If they look behind their shoulder, they see China and Russia, and if they look in front of them, they see the NATO powers,” Tracy explained of the map surrounding Elena’s tortured homeland.

Neither Vernham nor her constituency are based on any one real geopolitical powder keg, and Tracy is quick to emphasize that the war in Ukraine broke out after “The Regime” was written. Still, he cites Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat” as an essential inspiration for the show. It’s a nonfiction work from 1978 about the decline of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, that meticulously examines the regent’s life from before the Marxist-Leninist coup that overthrew his government.

“[‘The Emperor’] is told almost oral history style through the perspective of servants and functionaries who worked in the palace — and not only about how it functioned politically, but just going through the emperor’s day,” Tracy said.

Reminiscent of something you might read about Trump’s golf game or McDonald’s habit in an old New York Times exposé, Tracy described Kapuscinski’s account as scrupulous — chronicling “when [Selassie] would get up, what he’d eat for breakfast, when he would go for his daily walk, when he would take meetings, how he behaved in meetings, how he would speak, what he would eat for dinner, how he dressed, who dressed him.”

“It just seemed like that would be a great precinct for a show,” Tracy said.

More tidily summed up as farcical and fascist spin on “Downton Abbey,” “The Regime” is not only surprisingly funny but also strikingly colorful and strange in conceit. A commitment to character-motivated specificity in the environments and dialogue (“I bless you all, and I bless our love always…”) help differentiate Elena’s oddly fairytale-like tyranny from the countless other imagined dictatorships across film and TV. Striking costumes caught between east and west are surrounded by a blend of the old and new, as local celebrations of the country’s agricultural history give way to a bizarre media battle over international mining rights.

“In American storytelling, when you see a presentation of an autocracy, usually people do it as like a dystopian science fiction thing, and I didn’t want to do that,” Tracy said. “And I also didn’t want to do the other easy thing I see done a lot, which is a Russified, brutalist, Soviet, or post-Soviet Cold War feeling.”

Tracy had initially planned to keep his dark political dramedy squarely focused on its leader. In an earlier draft, the co-starring character Herbert Zubak (Matthias Schoenaerts) existed primarily as a means of introducing the audience to Vernham’s world. The disgraced soldier would have fallen back into the supporting cast with characters like grounds manager Agnes (Andrea Riseborough) and Elena’s myriad ministers after a few episodes or even a few pages. But the showrunner felt he’d seen that concept done before too, and instead contorted the character study into a tragicomic two-hander centered on a toxic bond.

“He has been abused by the state and she created that state,” Tracy said of Vernham and Zubak. “I just thought it would be interesting if that seemed to be in dialogue with the bigger geopolitical story that’s happening — and that they seemed to be affecting each other.”

Having crafted a well-fortified universe rooted in real patterns we’ve seen repeated throughout history, Tracy populated his satirical sandbox with fake people who intrigued him. Then, he followed their stories’ natural progressions to their most extreme global ends.

“It’s a story in a way about someone being enchanted by something that’s not real,” Tracy said. “It’s sort of one big nationalistic ‘yes and—.’ The comedy and the horror and the tragedy all come from that same place, which is also key to the character of Elena as well. She is quite concerned she might be seen as ridiculous and she doesn’t want to be laughed at.”

Humiliation, particularly experienced in childhood, is a force that ties many of humanity’s worst villains together. Megalomaniacs might weaponized these flaws, Tracy said, but the anger and rejection from those psychological wounds still motivates dictators. With Zubak taking Elena’s hypochondria deathly seriously in Episode 1, he has established himself as a trust-worthy and valuable henchman to the cruel and calculating crown.

“[The Regime] is ultimately about someone who, because of their unlimited access to resources and power, is able to create their own reality,” Tracy said.

“That’s another commonality amongst a lot of these leaders. Even the people who have very different personalities and very different regimes from very different parts of the world, one of their commonalities is that they do get to create their own reality… and everyone has to submit to that reality.”

“Who hurt you?” may be an age-old question. But the idea that personal trauma can motivate humanity’s most consequential and menacing figures is of particular interest in 2024. As explosive political conflicts motivated by intense human emotion continue across continents, “The Regime” seems to have managed the journey from its showrunner’s beach chair to primetime TV at just the right moment.

Having had to deal with headlines regularly on “Succession,” Tracy said that international news had him worried about “The Regime” at first. He went through the show with a fine tooth comb to look for any parallels that might be misconstrued as opportunistic or reactive before each episode was produced — and in the end, trusted the audience to understand that, even on HBO, history repeats itself.

“Hopefully, it should have more of a universal feeling where any events that do occur on the show will feel like 50 other events from recent history,” he said. “It should feel like, ‘Oh, these are actually just reoccurring motifs and problems throughout civilization.’ That’s the hope.” Did he say… hope?

“The Regime” premiered Sunday, March 3 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max. New episodes release weekly through the finale on April 7.

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