Why is Kate Winslet Paranoid About Mold in HBO’s The Regime?

In HBO’s The Regime, Kate Winslet plays Elena Vernham, the charming if authoritarian leader of a small European country. Elena, the autocratic chancellor of her nation, is, by turn, charismatic, oblivious, and tyrannical—but above all, she is terrified of mold. Her mycophobia is so great that the first episode of the series, which premiered on March 3, opens with a haphazard renovation to the historical palace in which she lives, in an effort to banish any sign of possibly toxic spores.

Throughout the episode, it’s clear that the only thing that can threaten Elena’s outsized ambition and undermine her power as a dictator is her paranoia about mold, which she keeps secret from the public. It’s what leads her to hire Herbert Zubak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), a disgraced soldier, as an aide whose sole purpose is to measure the humidity in a room ahead of her entrance, and to spend multiple hours a week in an oxygen tank, where she hides, Bubble Boy-style, from the threat of infection.

Read more: Kate Winslet Is Hilarious in HBO’s Authoritarian Comedy The Regime

Elena’s obsession with mold and her potential demise as a result is never more evident in the premiere than when she hosts a banquet where she needs to clinch an important negotiation with the president of the United States. With dehumidifiers under every table, she’s fairly assured of her safety, but loses her cool after Herbert indiscreetly reports the humidity in the room, drawing attention to her greatest fear and putting her in political jeopardy.

To be fearful about mold is not irrational—exposure to it can be toxic, dangerous, and at times, even fatal. However, Elena’s obsessive worry about mold speaks more about her relationship with control and her overall sense of dread around her life and death. It also highlights another element that could threaten her powerful position—her grasp on reality.

Why is Elena terrified of mold?

Every aspect of Elena’s life, from her political meetings as a chancellor to her meals, is tailored to minimize exposure to what she perceives as the omnipresent threat of mold. She has Herbert use a hydrometer to measure the humidity of a room before she walks into it, and anyone who dares to approach her must consume a breath mint and hold their breath to limit possible contamination. Elena also has frequent visits with a doctor, who supervises her sessions in oxygen chambers.

In the episode, one of her advisors makes reference to Elena’s late father, also a politician, and how his death stemmed from a lung issue, triggered by mold. In this, there may be a hint of why Elena is so grimly fixated—mold represents the tenuousness of her mortality, something all the power in the world will never allow her to control.

Is it actually a legitimate concern for Elena?

While Elena is convinced that toxic mold is omnipresent in her life, it does not appear that it’s a legitimate issue. Elena may smell “rotten air” everywhere, but those around her don’t seem to smell it or show symptoms of being exposed to mold. The gratuitous coddling that her staff and family show in response to her extreme worry suggests that they’re more concerned with trying to quell her anxieties than stave off the potential mold itself. “If she smells mold, tell her you smell it too,” Elena’s aide Agnes warns Herbert, in a scene that suggests that those around Elena would rather humor her than risk invoking her wrath.

Is paranoia about health a dictator thing?

As TIME TV critic Judy Berman wrote of Elena in her review of The Regime, “Like so many dictators, past and present, she’s petrified of pathogens—in her case, mold.” It is true that many of the most notorious autocrats in history have had paranoid tendencies and obsessed over their health—Adolf Hitler was a notorious hypochondriac, Joseph Stalin had florid paranoia in his later years, and Saddam Hussein was a noted germaphobe. All of which is to say, the character of Elena, with her fearsome mold obsession and megalomaniac tendencies, certainly seems to be inspired by a healthy list of real-life health anxiety-ridden dictators.

First appeared on time.com

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