These two episodes are emblematic of The Thick Of It’s curious plot structure, which is one of the most interesting things about its truncated early seasons. Episode Two gives us a cabinet-reshuffle drama where Hugh’s job is at risk and, well, it’s plausible that he will lose his job, considering how quickly things seem to change on this show. You feel like Hugh is the main character, but who knows? Malcolm draws so much focus, maybe Hugh isn’t long for this world. Of course, he comes out of the whole situation looking better than ever, but it’s to The Thick Of It’s credit that each plot development doesn’t feel totally telegraphed. The greatest irony is that it turns out Hugh is replaceable as a character, but that wasn’t what Armando Iannucci had in mind when he created the show.
These two episodes are sadly the last we’ll see of Hugh Abbott, as Chris Langham was arrested for possession of child pornography not long after they aired. The show, a surprise hit for the BBC, was basically kept off the air while Langham’s court case dragged on (he said he had been abused as a child and the downloads were his way of working through it), except for two specials in which Hugh is referred to but never seen. Once Langham was found guilty, the show returned with a new minister and demonstrated just how versatile it could be, but the circumstances around that shift just couldn’t be stranger.
Anyway, in Episode Three, we’re introduced to a new paradigm: Hugh is in brand new modern offices as Secretary of Social Affairs and Citizenship, a theoretical promotion and beefing up of his office that really just means he has to shoulder responsibilities no one else wants. It’s the kind of reinvention you’d expect at the start of the season, not for one episode at the end, but it works anyway because it just adds to the unpredictability.
Let’s start with Episode Two, though. This is the first time we get any sense at all of the Prime Minister’s character, although of course we don’t see him (a trope the series sticks to throughout, and has carried over to Veep). Because the episode is about a pending cabinet reshuffle, it’s basically about the whims of the Prime Minister, who can unilaterally decide how he wants to arrange his ministers without any vote from Parliament. Malcolm has always represented the brutal side of government, but he exists as a necessity no matter who’s in charge. Through new character Julius Nicholson (the wonderful Alex MacQueen) we see a more ponderous side to this PM.
Nicholson is a “blue sky” government reformer, some sort of minister without portfolio who is given free rein to wander around departments coming up with great ideas for how to save money (essentially, by making everyone’s lives miserable and crushed with work). Malcolm dismisses it as “helicopter thinking” and warns Hugh et al. to ignore him: “If he does stick his baldy head round your door and come up with some stupid idea about policemen’s helmets should be yellow, or let’s set up a department to count the moon, just treat him like someone with Alzheimer’s disease.”
But Malcolm’s obviously tense because Nicholson has real influence and his more relaxed, condescending demeanor doesn’t jibe well with the blunt Tucker approach. Everything is resolved pretty cleanly—Malcolm has Hugh leak fake news that Julius is after a plum cabinet position, and the PM decides to isolate him as punishment. But that’s not really the point. The scenes with Julius (who’s delightfully unbearable) are extremely funny—it’s great to watch him set everyone on edge. Plus, we’re being shown the limits of Malcolm’s power, and how effectively he can wield it. He’s not God, but he’s still pretty superhuman.
Hugh, meanwhile, agonizes over whether he’ll get demoted, bumped up, or stay in social affairs forever. His poor, terrified Terri-replacement Robyn isn’t much use, and her demotion from Malcolm’s morning briefings has everyone running scared. Worst of all, apparently Hugh made a bad impression on the PM’s wife at a party, where she didn’t like the cut of his jib. “Don’t take it so personally,” Malcolm chides. “You’re talking about how she doesn’t like me as a person, how am I supposed to take it?”
Hugh attempts to inflate his profile through a sparsely attended party, but in the end, his “promotion” is as mysterious and random as everything else in government. There’s the suggestion that the new Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship represents the kind of organization Julius is after (consolidating more things into one department, or joined-up government), but Julius is left in the cold (and Hugh’s shitty offices) while Hugh’s moving on up.
The “governing mall” set employed in Episode 3 (and from now on, as far as I remember) is much more dynamic and fun, and it gives Malcolm more of a reason to keep showing up (he’s basically bouncing between departments, screaming at everyone). As I said before, the whole thing feels like the start of a new season—Terri’s back and Hugh has a new job and is back from vacation. But no, it’s a finale, and it’s also the first episode that really gives us a surprising, welcome punch of pathos.
Terri is recovering from the death of her father, but she gets the most wacky, laugh-out-loud plotline of the episode, as she is tarred-and-feathered for accidentally sending an obscene email to a child (Hugh actually sends it to her account). Terri figures out that Hugh’s to blame, and seems to consider throwing him under the bus, even though that woud be converse to her responsibilities as his press secretary. It’s fun to see Terri coached through the crisis by Malcolm (hardly the most soothing presence) and Robyn (who’s wide-eyed and terrified as ever) given how she’s usually the tutting mother figure of the group.
Hugh has to sell his support for a bill that integrates special education with regular schools, directly opposed to his previously stated opinions—which are informed by Glenn, who has a disabled son. This gets him into all kinds of rigmarole where he lies to a Parliamentary committee and has to cover his tracks, then double back, uncover his tracks, and lie about them once he realizes he’s been rumbled.
But that’s all typical for The Thick Of It. What’s new is the more emotional component—Glenn, resigned to Hugh switching his position on the policy, gets a gut punch he doesn’t see coming when Hugh lies and says he came around to integrated schools because of Glenn’s son. It’s a terrific scene that James Smith just murders without saying a word—the way his face freezes as Hugh launches into the improvised tale of his conversion is heartbreaking.
Of course, the irony is that Hugh’s story is so convincing, he gets away with murder and Malcolm’s as pleased as punch. Glenn’s feelings of betrayal are humored for a minute, but it’s clear everyone expects him to get over it quickly, whether he likes it or not. As Hugh’s (unintentional) last act on the show, it’s quite a callous one, but that’s what we should expect from The Thick Of It.
- Stay tuned next week as I tackle “The Rise Of The Nutters,” the first special that introduces the concept of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown rivalry to the show’s universe.
- Glenn says that he’ll box the ears of anyone who shouts at Robyn. “Box his ears? How long has it been since you’ve had sex?” Hugh snarks.
- Each made-up Julius Nicholson concept makes me laugh out loud. “What proposals have you got today? How about a ban on sandcastles?” Or “inflatable churches for rural communities.”
- Hugh’s the master of jokes that fall flat. “And this was to God, as I mentioned in the setup.”
- Hugh imagines a revenge scenario for the PM’s wife. “If he dumps me, I’m going to find that wife of his, click her through the fucking head. How do you like this jib, darling? BANG!”
- Everyone asks what Citizenship means. Hugh says the PM made it up, but lucky he thought of Citizenship. “Otherwise we could be the Department of Social Affairs and Woodland Folk.”
- Ollie says every other department has dumped shit on them: cutting pensions to the Gurkhas, rejiggering protocols for rabies outbreaks, long-term care for the elderly, and everything to do with the Isle of Man.
- “How do you appear out of nowhere in a building made entirely out of glass?” “I’m a shape-shifter.”
- Hugh’s discussion of truth with Terri is a gem. “I think it was Derrida who said there is no such thing as actual empirical truth.” “I’ll tell you what Derrida said, he said go fuck your face, Abbott!”