This is not, as it happens, an idle reassurance. The year is 1953, and Russians are being killed on a whim by the hundreds and thousands, rounded up daily for torture, imprisonment, exile, or execution. No one is safe, as is made clear at a boozy, late-night meeting of the Soviet Central Committee, made up of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and a coterie of grovelers: his weak-minded, weak-willed deputy, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); the ruthlessly cunning head of the secret police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the quasi-inept plotter Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); the elder statesman Molotov (Michael Palin); and assorted others. When Malenkov asks whatever became of a former colleague, a pall draws over the room, until Beria and Khrushchev begin clowning around to distract Stalin from his potentially lethal rage. At one point, Beria leaves the table to give the day’s “lists” to his lieutenants. (“Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it … Kill him, take him to his church, and dump him in the pulpit … I’ll leave the rest up to you.”)
As I said, none more black.
Even after Stalin dies of an abrupt cerebral hemorrhage, his grip on his underlings—and the nation—remains tight. “Stalin destroyed the status quo and he built a new one,” Beria explains, and everyone, however high or low, struggles to determine which rules still pertain and which are now up for grabs. Informed that she is being released from prison because Stalin has died, a woman weeps, “Our Stalin?” Yes, she is reminded, the one who put you in prison. Though Stalin himself has passed, his amorphous reality still pertains: Today’s truth (My wife was a traitor) may be inverted 180 degrees by tomorrow (My wife was a good woman framed by conspirators). Allegiance to the party line is paramount; the trick lies in determining, at any given moment, what that party line might be.
It is on this political-funhouse terrain that the remaining Central Committee members—soon joined by Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), head of the Red Army—hatch their plots and counter-plots, alliances and betrayals. It’s clear from the start that Beria and Khrushchev will be competitors, but Beria is always a step ahead: first to Stalin’s body; first to contact his daughter; first to alter the military facts on the ground. Moreover, he has Malenkov in his pocket, and however dim-witted the latter may be, he is now the Committee’s titular leader. Those among you who are familiar with the name “Lavrentiy Beria” will know how this all turns out; and those of you who are not—well, that pretty much speaks for itself, no?
It is a precarious balancing act that Iannucci has undertaken here, and it is for the most part wickedly (in every sense of the word) funny. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, Iannucci hit the satiric sweet spot, just one small twist from reality; Veep has been somewhat broader, especially in its later seasons. With The Death of Stalin—based on the 2010 French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin—Iannucci has largely abandoned verisimilitude in favor of straight farce, poking fun at the idea of the thing, rather than the thing itself. The jokes are a bit less razor-sharp (“You’re a testicle”) than in prior efforts, especially on those occasions when they take a stab at mid-century Russian colloquial (“Can we just stop twittering like fishwives at the market?”).