Episode 5 of The Thick Of It sees Peter and Nicola engaged in a (seemingly endless) debate on BBC radio while their aides blither around in the back rooms. It’s a nice mix of good old fashioned farce (Ollie and Emma are breaking up, Terri is still obsessed with Peter) and a nicely cynical point about the increasingly corrupt nature of both sides in party politics.
At first, Peter and Nicola’s debate follows a pretty specific tack: Peter’s generally very assured, except when he’s forced to move away from party orthodoxy like condemning big-bank bonuses. Nicola’s fairly flustered, but sometimes capable of making a cogent point if she calms down enough about how she’s coming across. Behind the scenes, the spinners are already fairly bad at their jobs, and are making things worse by getting in each other’s faces. I especially liked seeing Peter dress Phil down for his incompetence, acknowledging the reality of how much time everyone’s wasting while still managing to be funny.
But then things get more serious, as Peter has to fight charges of the Tories receiving donations from a morally suspect company, something Nicola exults in until she finds out that her party has gotten even more from the same company, which is obviously happy to spread the wealth around to guarantee influence. That gets Stewart and Malcolm rushing down to the studio, and an amusing meeting of the minds that results in strained, but genuine mutual respect.
Stewart and Malcolm have entirely different problems and entirely different ways of approaching them. Malcolm needs to protect his boss (and his boss’ cabinet) from anything negative, and he does it through intimidation and the mighty influence of his office and the access he can grant and take away from journalists. Stewart is more concerned with pushing an entirely new message and selling a brand that’s been tainted for years; we haven’t met the Tory enforcer yet, but be assured, it’s not this guy.
Still, there are things they have in common—like a list of increasingly implausible blackmail subjects they both claim to have in their back pockets. More importantly, they share utter disdain for their charges, exemplified by the episode’s terrific conclusion where they gaze in on Nicola and Peter digging themselves into ever-deeper holes, decide to call it a night and exit together. Malcolm knows the party can’t stay in office forever; Stewart knows Peter has been shoved into the DOSAC slot to put him out to pasture, not groom him for future success.
Most interesting, however, is Stewart’s genuine look of surprise, even sympathy, when he wishes Malcolm a happy birthday and asks if it’s an important one. “Fiftieth? Nah,” Malcolm replies, so blithely that it’s plausible he doesn’t even realize how awful that sounds. Stewart certainly seems horrified at his vision of a potential future, which serves as a nice capper to a hilarious but deeply cynical episode.
Episode 6 begins an actual no-kidding arc for the show, where the rise of rival spin doctor Steve Fleming (who we haven’t met yet) suggests Malcolm’s position is seriously in jeopardy for the first time. Oh sure, he’s seemed on shaky ground before, but there was never a real suggestion that he wouldn’t figure it out—this time, there’s a sense that things won’t be resolved within one episode. Obviously The Thick Of It has a serial nature, because it’s charting the rise and fall of governments, but this is the first time you might expect a “to be continued” at the end of the episode.
The launch of Nicola’s “fourth sector pathfinder” initiative, which has always seemed relatively useless but is championed for being cheap, brings a softball BBC interview that she unsurprisingly fumbles. The surprise is how she screws it up: tripping over her praise for Tom as Prime Minister, she implies (through some selective editing) that maybe it’s time for a woman to lead the party. From that, everyone infers that she thinks she’s the woman to lead the party, and Tom is seemingly weak enough that the media briefly takes it seriously.
Malcolm is on hand to handle the situation, as usual, but something’s wrong with him. You don’t even notice it at first, just assume that the orders he’s barking are the right ones because he tends to fix things like this right up. But he’s making the wrong calls: locking everyone down at DOSAC, feeding the story rather than immediately putting the fire out, and then bungling Nicola’s media availability by ordering her to get in a car and then changing his mind.
Sure, it’s not all Malcolm’s fault, and yes, we’ve seen him make errors in the past. But Terri, shockingly, knows that this is beyond his usual frazzled way of doing business and calls him on it, leading to possibly the tensest scene of the series as Malcolm leads her into a fishbowl office and, well…doesn’t scream at her. Which is, of course, 10 times more confusing and scary than his usual stream of abuse.
“It feels like my brain has been emptied into little fucking crisp packets,” Malcolm explains, before apologizing to Terri and saying he likes coming to DOSAC because it’s “fucking tranquil” compared to the collapsing leadership of 10 Downing St., with people screaming “you gave me this fucking disease,” he explains. “I used to be the fucking pharaoh. Now I’m fucking floundering in a fucking Nile of shit. But I am going to fashion a paddle out of that shit. I’m not going down,” he insists.
It’s a nicely emotional moment that doesn’t get at all sentimental (Malcolm politely turns down Terri’s offer of a “huggle”), and it’s appropriately startling to see Malcolm acknowledge any vulnerability at all. Perhaps that’s why Terri’s the recipient: she’s so bad at massaging people’s egos in general, so she’s the only one able to see past Malcolm’s profane braggadocio.
At the same time, Nicola’s one meaningful initiative is being squashed before her eyes, and her husband is not providing the required support. Glenn’s hopes of running for MP in the next election vanish because of his association with Nicola the rabble-rouser, another in a long line of crushing moments for the poor guy. Worst of all, Ben Swain is being denied the food he so obviously needs to stay alive. It’s a rough episode for everyone, but hilarious for us, and proves that the show has evolved a little bit since its beginnings, expanding its universe and its story formula without sacrificing the bitter, frozen heart that makes it so unique.
- Malcolm’s birthday present: a cake reading “Happy Birthday Cunt.” “This could be from anybody. Ah, it’s from the Prime Minister…and he wonders why we don’t let him out in public.”
- Nicola’s debate flubs are like “a clown running across a minefield,” Malcolm says. Or “a squirrel trapped in a pedal bin,” Glenn suggests.
- Malcolm has a new career suggestion for Nicola. “Are you producing porno now for the visually impaired? Because what I’m hearing here is Nicola Murray being roundly fucked.”
- Ollie attacks Phil with coffee, but to no avail. “It’s a dark suit and it’s only lukewarm, I still win!”
- Malcolm tries to force a pierced individual into the studio to distract from Nicola. “I’ll shove a magnet down your throat, watch your face implode!”
- Ollie chooses to ignore Malcolm’s call, which leads to a worried message. “I just keep getting these terrible images, you know, of you being stabbed repeatedly in the face.”
- Glenn plays chess via phone, but is losing. “Can you not multitask, Deep Beige?”
- Malcolm finally gets Ben to shut up by giving him a disconnected keyboard. “Play with that! Go stand in that fucking corner! And do not move or I will perform a fucking living autopsy on you!”