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Retro Recap: “The Thick of It,” Episode 3.04

Welcome back to my weekly recaps of The Thick of It! After a short holiday hiatus, I’m back to writing up my favorite British political satire this show. In the episode we’re recapping this week, some new themes are explored that haven’t really been touched upon before. Nicola Murray is, after all, as much a mother as she is a Minister for Her Majesty’s Government. As such, she has to deal with the dual responsibilities of raising a family and managing her public image (with the profanity-laden aid of Malcolm Tucker). With the scrutiny she’s already received in the press, what will happen if some news about her children breaks?

Cast photo for season three of The Thick of It

As the episode opens, we learn two things that will dominate the storyline – the Opposition are coming to visit the department, and Nicola’s daughter Ella is getting into trouble at school. Terri is on the phone, telling someone that the Opposition is coming to let the senior civil servants know what their legislative agenda is. She seems to think that Nicola’s party is on the way out and that they will all soon be working for Peter Mannion, Nicola’s opposite number in the Opposition party.

At the Opposition office, everyone is preparing for their “implementation day.” Emma is doing actual work and Phil is creating what he calls an “implementation matrix” with approximated photos of everyone at DoSAC so that they can formulate strategies for dealing with them all.

Nicola begins her day with a presentation to Ollie, Glen, and Terri about her plans for social mobility and the new “Fourth Sector” idea she wants to launch. But she keeps getting interrupted by phone calls from her daughter’s school. Ollie guesses that Ella is misbehaving because she was forced to go to the state school, rather than the private school Nicola had intended for her to attend. If you’ll remember from episode one, Malcolm put the kibosh on those high educational hopes rather quickly.

Back at Opposition headquarters, Emma accidentally spills the beans about the issues Nicola is having with her daughter. Ollie, no doubt, mentioned these issues while with Emma one evening. Despite a threat from Emma to send a picture of him dressed as Cher to his mother, Phil gives Peter all the information he knows about Nicola’s child troubles.

Stewart Pearson, the Opposition’s spin doctor, soon arrives and he loves the matrix that Phil has set up, of course. Phil tells Stewart about the situation with Nicola Murray’s daughter and, instantly, Stewart sees it as an opportunity to attack Nicola and use this information in the press. Peter, on the other hand, does not want to use this personal issue as an attack strategy.

Meanwhile, Nicola is called away from work to visit her daughter’s headmaster. She starts off their meeting by telling him about the “Fourth Sector” initiative and that she wants him to be one of the “pathfinders.” This is a perfect representation of how divided Nicola must be between her home life and her work life.

This brings up an interesting point for me – is Nicola Murray the stereotypical female character who must choose between family life and work life? On the one hand, the answer could be yes. She’s working in a field dominated by men – politics – who do not have to deal with the demands of raising children or cultivating a home environment. But on the other hand, I feel that Nicola has been written as an interesting enough character that she is not defined by her motherhood. She’s just another person working for the Government and trying to do her best to help others. Although I do think her character introduces an interesting dynamic to the show because she is a woman and Malcolm’s equal in many ways, which I think throws Malcolm off a bit.

At the office, Glen and Ollie tease Terri about her crush on Peter Mannion. They’ve put Mannion faces on her binder and have made Mannion face masks. As they’re all preparing for the Opposition’s arrival, Emma calls Ollie to warn him that the Opposition now knows about Nicola’s daughter.

Ella’s headmaster asks Nicola how she has been behaving at home. Nicola says that she’s been very busy at work and has only heard second hand that Ella has been acting out. In addition, it seems that Nicola’s husband is quite absent and of no help at all. The headmaster tells her that Ella has been bullying other students and he must exclude (expel) her from school. At this crucial moment, Nicola receives a phone call from Ollie and he’s breaking the bad news about Nicola’s personal life being spread all over Whitehall.

Nicola essentially says that it would be bad for her coverage in the media if Ella was excluded from school. That sounds bad, but she goes on to say that the press has been targeting her rather forcefully and she wouldn’t want Ella to be caught up in that. The headmaster then agrees to postpone Ella’s exclusion and to instead draw up a behavioral contract for her to follow.

At DoSAC, the Opposition have arrived and Ollie corners Phil to shout at him for spreading around Nicola’s personal, private matters. Malcolm then shows up and takes over for Ollie. He purposely tells Phil that Nicola’s daughter may be excluded and then says that only he, Ollie, and Nicola know about it right now. So if it makes it into the press, he’ll know that Phil is the one who leaked the information. He then goes on to reinforce that with one of the most frightening threats of the whole show that leaves Phil speechless and sufficiently cowed.

As Malcolm is trying to contain this information, Stewart Pearson is busy zeroing in on how they can respond if the press does get a hold of the story. He says that someone is going to run with this, so it might as well be them and they’ll likely earn some political points in the process.

Stewart can’t control his ministers as well as Malcolm can, it seems. Peter goes to speak with Nicola personally and promises her that he won’t be using her daughter’s school troubles as a political football. Indeed, it’s an astonishingly nice move for someone who is supposed to be a member of the Tory party.

Just as Nicola is cracking down on her staff for this information leak, she is summoned to Malcolm’s office. Glen reads the text, saying that Malcolm wants her there “ASAFP.” Nicola asks, “the F meaning…?” To which Glen responds, “Feasibly, I should imagine.”

And so Nicola finds herself in Malcolm’s office yet again. Malcolm says that everyone has now gotten hold of this story, but none of them are going to use it. What they are going to run with is that the headmaster of Ella’s school gave her preferential treatment because her mum is a Cabinet Minister. This means, he says, the headmaster must resign.

Nicola clearly does not want that. She says the progressive headmaster is one of the only redeeming qualities of that school and that she would rather resign than see him go. Malcolm backtracks very quickly to get Nicola to stay on. He uses everything in his arsenal to make her walk back from resignation, signalling to the viewers that perhaps the Government isn’t doing so well and doesn’t need Ministers leaving left and right.

As Nicola breaks down, even crying a bit, Malcolm is surprisingly nice to her. But as soon as Nicola attacks him for his nasty, manipulative techniques and says that his male obsession with conflict is making people hate politics, Malcolm’s back to his old self. He says that right now, Mannion and his people are probably making jokes about Nicola’s family. He says if they could use it, they would have in an instant. For some reason, Nicola seems convinced by Malcolm rather than by Peter’s earlier promise that he would not use the story against her.

The episode ends with Mannion receiving a call from Nicola, saying that nothing in his personal life is off limits. Malcolm clearly got her back on the bandwagon and succeeded in changing her mind about attacking Mannion on personal issues. Everyone in Mannion’s camp scrambles to think of possible scandals that could be used against him and Stewart laments not jumping on the story when he could have.

I think the message of this episode goes back to something Hugh Abbot said in season one of The Thick of It – that ministers should simply be cloned so that they start out at the age of 55 with no past and no possible scandals to be dredged up. Humans make up politics, but it is a system that seems to punish people for being human.

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