The Regime: Is the HBO Show Based on a True Story?

With Will Tracy at the helm, ‘The Regime’ is a political satire following the tumultuous series of events that are a result of the impulses of an increasingly paranoid and power-hungry head of state. The HBO show introduces us to Chancellor Elena Vernham (Kate Winslet), an eccentric ruler of a small Central European nation. Elena disinterestedly manages the governance of her nation-state while focusing more on showmanship and consolidating her power. Remaining largely within the confines of her palace, the ruler’s insecurity grows as domestic uprisings, foreign influences, and the members of her cabinet seem to undermine her rule.

Her evolution from a bored head of state to a tyrannical dictator is galvanized by her reliance on Herbert Zubak, an unstable soldier known as The Butcher. Many of the events of the series, and especially the character of Elena Vernham, seem to draw parallels with real-world rulers and figures. Within the show, the country is a minor power, profiting mainly from rich mineral deposits. The resources give Elena’s regime diplomatic leeway with other countries, especially the United States, which engages with the Chancellor despite her dictatorial rule. Given the setting’s seeming osmosis with modern geopolitics and autocrats, questions may arise regarding the inspirations and authenticity of the HBO show’s narrative.

Elena Vernham is Partially Inspired by Romania’s Elena Ceaușescu

‘The Regime’ is not based on a true story, but the character of Elena Vernham is inspired by the Romanian First Lady Elena Ceaușescu, along with other leaders from Syria and Russia. The show’s creator, Will Tracy, has read geopolitics with a fascination for authoritarian regimes from his early days, research that has lent itself to the creation of the fictional regime seen in the series. While Tracy has admitted to drawing from various authoritarian leaders for the sculpting of Elena Vernham’s persona, he refrains from naming any particular figures for fear of diverting attention from his intended experience of the show.

However, from the characteristics and actions of the chancellor, Tracy appears to have drawn most inspiration from the life of Elena Ceaușescu, wife of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the former General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. Both Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were widely regarded as eccentric authoritarians who caused much strife for the people of Romania throughout their rule between 1967 and 1989. Known as the First Lady of Romania, Elena Ceaușescu fancied herself a scientific genius despite lacking any formal education in science.

Elena Ceaușescu//Image Credit: Politics-History/Mozello

She famously awarded herself a Doctorate in Science based on a dissertation she supposedly wrote, which was later revealed to be ghostwritten by academics who were coerced into doing so.  Elena Vernham from ‘The Regime’ also shares her supposed scientific background. The similarities extend to their ostentatious fashion choices. Elena Ceaușescu was notorious for her extravagant tastes in clothing and jewelry, often importing luxury items while the country struggled with severe shortages. The chancellor from the show regularly sports bodycon dresses and coiffured hair as a part of an elaborate display of confidence.

Much like Elena Ceaușescu, Kate Winslet’s Elena is also shown to have delusions of grandeur, being out of touch with the reality of her nation’s people while convinced of her own infallibility and the greatness of her regime. Just as she is shown to give populist and patriotic speeches, the Ceaușescu regime often staged elaborate propaganda stunts to bolster their image, such as planting crowds of cheering supporters or orchestrating fake economic successes. These actions, when paired with their strict crackdown on any criticism with brutal force, displayed a certain insecurity and paranoia about their power and survival. A similar case can be made for the show’s chancellor, who frequently uses her power to subdue any opposing voice, both within her government and outside.

Another comparison for Elena Vernham’s behavior can be made with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Elena is shown to largely dwell in her palace and be extremely germophobic, to the point of having Herbert Zubak spray the air around her with disinfectant because she suspects there is mold in the building. As lockdown restrictions were being lifted in Russia in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian President remained holed up at his residence. He created a virus-free bubble by forcing a two-week quarantine for anyone he needed to meet him or stand close to him for an event.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, could have also served as a potential source of inspiration for Will Tracy in drawing up Elena Vernham’s persona. Asma al-Assad has been known for her tone-deaf spending habits, often flaunting her wealth on social media while her country is ravaged by civil war and economic hardship. Reports have surfaced of her spending millions on designer clothing, jewelry, and luxury goods from around the world, while many Syrians struggle to afford basic necessities. Much like Elena Vernham’s indifference to the issues faced by her people, Asma al-Assad is accused of remaining largely silent about the suffering of Syrians.

From being called a desert rose by Vogue, she has been dubbed “the First Lady of Hell” by The Guardian. ‘The Regime’ essays a fictional Central European country with a chancellor who exhibits many traits exhibited by real-world authoritarian rulers. Showrunner Will Tracy seems to have made a composite of various eccentric and tone-deaf rulers from Syria, Romania, and Russia when writing Chancellor Elena Vernham. Through his satire, Tracy highlights dictators’ shaky relationship with reality. He further explores the intense paranoia regarding their own survival and isolation, presenting a hilarious yet authentic depiction of an authoritarian ruler in ‘The Regime.’

Read More: HBO’s The Regime: Where is the Political Satire Filmed?