That, ladies and gentlemen, is yer lot. It is done, lords and commoners, backbenchers and backstairs boys, Nutters and fuckers and wannabe Malcolm Tuckers. As I watched the credits, I heard a sound like ten thousand Guardian readers weeping; a noise came to my ear like the ordering of unnumbered box sets and beneath it all, the muffled clink of ice under scotch as Steven Fielding’s editor anticipated the imminent arrival of a manuscript. The Thick of It is over, and after its complicated involvements with political time over the last few years, it is now beginning another epoch of its life. We’ll find out whether the continual comparisons with Yes Minister and House of Cards will guarantee it a place in the British people’s political imagination, and indeed whether “omnishambles” and other coinages keep their place in the vocabulary of political hacks. We can at least hope that the phrase “In a catastrophe worthy of political satire The Thick of It, the department for…” will appear slightly less frequently in the opening paragraphs of Westminster stories.
After the forensic character studies last week, this episode slotted the figures back into their landscape for one last go-round. If I seem to be making too much of the fact that everyone knew this was the last episode ever, I think the structure of the finale is as much to blame. It pulled itself in various directions throughout its half-hour length. One storyline was straightforward DoSAC nostalgia: there was a backlog in processing arrests, and the department, the police and the Home Office were all trying to sort it out and disclaim responsibility at the same time. The Lib Dems suggested bringing in the private sector, there was a “Thinking Socially” policy initiative to be announced which Teri had cleared without actually clearing it, these were all comfortable variations on familiar themes. It could have been Nicola Murray’s department from Season Two.
Alongside this (and also involving police stations), Malcolm Tucker was trying to produce an exit strategy. This, of course, was where a lot of Guardian-reading eyeballs were focused: I’ll put my hands up to getting most of my news from either the BBC or the dear old Grauniad, but I’ve never understood why they fixate on certain fictional characters. Remember last election campaign, when they were actually commissioning articles under his name, like some nightmare Gorbals-spawned Martin Marprelate? Recall their weird schwarm for Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve? Anyway, Peter Capaldi’s creation of the Malcolm Tucker character has touched a strange and perhaps best unsounded chord in the hearts of a certain slice of Britain, and people were going to care how Tucker left. At least one friend suggested Iannucci would kill the character off in some deliberately futile way. Or would he reprise his Malvolio Tucker riff from the end of Season Three, snarling “You will fucking see me again!”
In the end, we saw him resigned to being arrested for perjury during the Goolding Inquiry, but desperately trying to stop this looking like a defeat. Since, as aphorism tells us, all political careers end in failure – whether you resign or get thrown out by the voters, you always lose the last fight – this was a tricky conundrum. And it wasn’t helped by Olly clearly being eager to take over Malcolm’s job as head of communications to the newly-elevated non-specific member of the Miliband of Brothers who now leads the party. (Or is he supposed to be one specific Miliband – the one who isn’t leading the party in real life – crossed with the Third Man of New Labour? Answers on a comment, if ye please.) The exchanges between them were one of the highlights of the finale: you kept expecting them to lurch over into What I Think About Politics, but they kept us guessing, with both men getting to lay out their scorn and loathing without either winning the argument. The camerawork changed drastically, though: we got tight close-ups of Malcom’s eyes as every now and then the faux-documentary shakycam moved to something more akin to regular TV drama seeing off a major character. A bit of House of Cards in there? Impossible to tell, as that show is such an insistent and inevitable comparison, whether or not the parallels are meaningful.
But Malcolm’s speech about the job as a parasite finally had the ring of sincerity – there was none of the possible calculation of the vampire hags speech or last week’s rant at Lord Goolding. What could he be trying to gain? There seemed to be angle he was working. The same could not be said of Olly, who sympathetically heard Malcolm’s plans to turn himself in quietly whilst the press were at another police station, and immediately set about making sure the press were rerouted to bury Tucker beyond possibility of undead return. The scenes of Malcolm running away from the press brought into sharp relief something we might not have noticed before: the character doesn’t run. I can’t remember seeing him do anything more than a fast angry stride (apart from in In The Loop, the Washington spin-off movie) and a friend tells me this is because Capaldi himself can’t run on camera. The result when he tries (and by tries, I mean when Iannucci makes him) is like something out of an Ealing Comedy: flustered, comical, suggestive of a tinny piano playing in the background. A high-speed mincing Malcolm and a Malcolm collapsing back onto the cushions of a taxi marked two images of him we’d never seen before, and the character ended The Thick Of It unprotected by the reputation and charisma he’s exerted inside and outside the show.
A similar story was being played out in a minor key as Glen made the same decision. No dramatic exchange with a youthful challenger for him, however, he just pottered around in the background, shredding documents and clearing out his desk, until he wound himself up to the do leaving speech. Again, the director and writers wouldn’t let anyone have the floor for this sequence: Glen got to be brilliantly rude to his colleagues, but they got to mock his attempt at a grand leaving gesture. It was equivocal in the best sense, with that combination of the sad, the angry and the knowing which The Thick of It shows in its best character studies. And Stuart Pearson got sacked. Excellent. As a lefty, this is lovely on two levels: Pearson is irritating as hell, and TTOI is making it clear that the detoxification of the Tory brand over the last decade or so was a total sham, and the Cameroons are just as avowedly nasty-party as the 1922 committee. Glad we all agree on that. (And yes, that is a problem with this show, now you mention it: it involves signing up to a lot of what Guardian readers think about politics for it all to be not only funny but OMG, so true and perceptive.)
The last scene had Mannion as happy as if he’d just had a health scare (his words) and passing round tots of Scotch, before the office descended into another crisis. DoSAC is under threat of being subsumed into the Home Office, the solution to the arrest backlog has allowed at least one case of domestic violence to happen, and the two parties are at each other’s throats. But it’s a warm, fuzzy sort of a shitstorm – a comforting assurance that the fictional world we’ve got to enjoy won’t be dismantled, and will still keep going on even whilst we aren’t watching. Whether this sepia close was typical of TTOI’s toothless pseudo-satire, or a bleak assertion that nothing is solved and nothing will be OK, will have to depend on your feelings about the last few seasons. Or it’ll depend on obsessive rewatchings of the box sets, of course…
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield