I’m glad I’m writing this review confident in the knowledge that season four of The Thick Of It is on its way and will be here early next year, playing the same night on Hulu that it does on the BBC, and I look forward to seeing you all there with me then. Because season three ends with the promise of so much more. Tom’s limping, zombified government is finally dead, killed as a preemptive strike against a leadership challenge from Dan Miller. The opposition is finally gearing up to go for the jugular, pushing touchy-feely spin doctor Stewart aside for the terrifying “Fucker” (Tom Hollander, making an instant impression in his two minutes of screentime). Malcolm’s screaming at his PR troops to pick up weapons and “twat the fuckery” out of the enemy. It’s all very exciting.
Of course, this aired in December 2009, and the world’s very different now. One can only assume season four will deal with life in opposition and with the precariousness of coalition government. Malcolm, Ollie et al. will probably be around, but who knows if Nicola will be.
So, on the one hand, it’s too bad that it took Armando Iannucci and company so long to come back around to the show (projects like Veep presumably helped slow things down) but that’s enough about what didn’t happen. The last two episodes of season three give the sense of a complete arc being fulfilled; while some of the high drama and twists and turns are a little jarring, the whole thing is rather exciting while never feeling sensationalist. It’s still a bunch of over-caffinated guys in suits walking around office carpeting yelling at each other. But Malcolm’s fall from grace, and return to power, is thrilling stuff.
If only it was spread over a couple more episodes. The first hint of real trouble for Malcolm comes in episode six, with talk of his old rival Steve Fleming returning to government. In the third season’s seventh episode, Malcolm’s “on holiday,” treating reporters to lunch at home and insisting he’s the heart of government when he’s obviously on life support. By the end of the episode, he’s gone, sunk by a pair of tiny scandals and Fleming’s machinations that make Malcolm the story. Just one week later (although probably longer within the show’s universe), he’s back, dumping Fleming out of government in triumph.
The show’s writers probably didn’t want to keep Malcolm out of the arena for too long, since he’s the driving force of the show and Steve Fleming is a brilliantly conceived, but unbearably annoying character who couldn’t sustain more than a couple of episodes worth of material. No slight to David Haig, who is terrific as the superficially jocular psycho who seems to say everything through gritted teeth. He’s more passive-aggressive than Malcolm, but only slightly, as he’s also prone to violent outbursts that he dismisses just as quickly with a laugh and a smile. Rebecca Front does a great job reacting to him: Nicola always looks like she wants to jump out of her skin when she’s in the room with him.
It’s hard to say whom Fleming is inspired by, but in all likelihood it’s Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of the 1997 Labor Party victory who was then turfed out of power over and over again, returning every time like a well-coiffed Rasputin. His final go-round in government was one of the last efforts of the dying Gordon Brown administration, which took place around the time season three of The Thick Of It was being written and shot.
Fleming manages to take Malcolm down, and the scene is legitimately shocking, even if you’ve seen it coming a mile away. Malcolm’s unrelenting fury as he realizes nothing can be done (the news is playing on the TV behind him as he tries to formulate a plan) is a terror to behold, and Peter Capaldi even manages to slip in a sympathetic moment (trying to comfort his crying secretary) without it seeming corny.
The finale sees our hero sleepwalking through job offers from the BBC (who want him to do a show geared towards people who “tried coke and didn’t like it”) and eventually being invited back into power to prevent Tom’s final collapse. One of the best things this arc does—aside from introducing Fleming and the Fucker—is bring back lovely Julius Nicholson, who’s even more mellifluous and absurd than ever now that he’s been made a lord.
Nicholson exults in Malcolm’s firing but then realizes he’s the only thing that can keep Tom’s patchwork government together, a fact Malcolm uses to his advantage to screw Fleming once and for all. Julius is infuriated that Malcolm’s tricked him again, which is ridiculous considering their history, but that’s part of his lordship’s charm: he’s terribly sweet, even as he tries to wheel and deal and roll around in the muck with everyone else.
Nicola, Ollie, Glenn, and Terri are flitting around in the background for these two episodes, which is a little disappointing but understandable considering how unimportant DOSAC is to the fall of the government. Sure, a screw-up on Glenn’s end triggers Malcolm’s sacking, but apart from that, they’re really just there to make jokes and marvel at the insanity going on around them. I do hope Nicola is back for season four—Rebecca Front doesn’t get enough credit for how much she did with that role, especially since she came into the show under such strange circumstances.
Another regret is that the opposition are barely glimpsed, except for the arrival of the Tory Malcolm, Cal “the Fucker,” whose very presence in the office has everyone on their toes. Tom Hollander has the biggest challenge, since his character is an analog to Malcolm and that’s a tough performance to top, but he gives the impression of being more… unhinged and violent. When Malcolm threatens death, he’s really threatening public humiliation and job loss. When Cal does it, he gives the sense that he’s moments away from thrusting his hand into someone’s chest.
- I hope you’ve all had fun over the summer and I’m looking forward to returning to The Thick Of It next year. Next week, I’ll be watching In The Loop, not directly connected to this show outside of Malcolm, but certainly one of the most essential political comedies.
- Steve gives a bad compliment: telling Nicola she lost weight, he says, “Your face looks quite gaunt. Muscly!”
- Malcolm enjoys returning to the office from his holiday. “Well, fuck a pot noodle. Sam, prepare my horse. I ride to DOSAC!”
- Malcolm assures Julius it’s different now that he’s a lord. “You don’t drink coffee anymore, it’s all port and swan’s blood now.”
- Malcolm insists that he’ll survive the “blip” of bad press. “Tomorrow that’ll all be old news, like the War of the Roses, or AIDS. Remember AIDS?”
- Fleming takes Malcolm down with quite the kiss-off line. “Everyone loved the show, but it just wasn’t buttering any parsnips anymore, brother.”
- Post-Number 10 jobs aren’t too enticing. “Would you like to write a children’s book called The Angry Spider?”
- Julius talks to Malcolm off the record, wearing his “government troubleshooter Stetson, far from my Homburg of sober enquiry.” “What about Steve Fleming, you schizo hat fuck?” Malcolm replies.
- The Fucker makes his intentions clear. “What I really need to do is shoot you all in the back of the head! FUCK FUCK FUCK! But I CAN’T because it’s ILLEGAL!”