Slovak Prime Minister Viktor Hudák (Vladimír “Ady” Hajdu) resigned. He was unable to credibly explain his numerous cases. However, he has made many enemies among politicians, including the president, who cannot bear him in her field of vision, and former voters. He will come into contact with them much more often now. After 20 years in top politics, he is about to be relegated to the ranks of mortals. However, neither he himself – unable to turn on the coffee machine, let alone click a pepper at the self-service cash register – is ready for something like this, nor his large family.
After the last wild ride with the blue beacon, he says goodbye to his faithful driver, passes a hostile neighbor and enters a spacious Bratislava apartment – where no one welcomes him enthusiastically. His wife, gynecologist Saša (Ivana Chýlková), and three daughters of different ages have more or less forgotten that he exists. They don’t know how to continue a long-broken dialogue. Embarrassment and remorse hang in the air during dinner. According to Hudák, the woman could not take care of the children as well as he took care of the state. She, in turn, resents him for not being home forever.
After the first half hour, there’s no doubt that Hudák represents a bloated self-pitying sexist who has such an overgrown ego that he can’t see his loved ones through it. Already in the title sequence, he is always standing alone in the shots, possibly with his party colleague, not with his family. She, in turn, perceives him only as a source of capital. The youngest daughter Hanka (Rebeka Rigová) takes advantage of her father’s ignorance and convinces him that 20 euros for a baguette is not enough. The eldest Bára (Natalia Germani), also active in politics, hopes that her father’s connections will help her in her career. The retired politician continues to find himself useful through these transactions. However, they don’t fill him up so much that he doesn’t start looking for the office again, this time presidential.
A politician on a banana peel
From the outline of the plot, it might seem that Jan Hřebejk returned to the genre of tragicomedy, which was most characteristic of him in the past, after a series of solid but uncharacteristic TV crime films. The series written by Peter Nagy and Zuzana Dzurindová, the daughter of former Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, is rather confusingly presented as a pure family comedy, or a sitcom with satirical overtones. Especially when watching the first episodes, which more often cause a feeling of shame and embarrassment than laughter, it is therefore appropriate to ask where all the jokes have gone.
The winner in some ways really has the parameters of a sitcom. It follows a dysfunctional family, amusing precisely because of their inability to openly talk together, solve problems and move somewhere. With the exception of drone footage of the Slovak metropolis, which would look good in a promotional video for tourists, the action takes place mostly indoors, just like in sitcoms. The basic building block is dialogues. Bohudík, he wants to add when from time to time he comes up with a sitcom based on Hudák’s notorious clumsiness.
Also, the construction of episodes around one leading motif (a pompous portrait, a meeting of the SVJ, a running race) and the protagonist’s exaggerated unpreparedness for life, giving rise to the suspicion that he has not spent the past two decades in politics, but in a coma, correspond to a sitcom. However, Hudák primarily experiences comical incidents. The storylines of the other characters, which take up a considerable part of the footage, are quite serious in contrast, there are screams, tears and disappointment. They deal with school performance, partner disagreements, health problems or the impossibility of stepping out of the parents’ shadow. The connection of these sidelines with the initial premise (the prime minister returns to civilian life) is barely noticeable in some cases.
Diplomacy or morality?
Despite the aimlessness of the individual parts, which, in addition to humor, often lack a stronger conflict and goal and seem somewhat empty, in the background, supporting themes, which for Hřebejk seem to be made up, gradually crystallize in the background – failing family communication and the crisis of middle age. Hudák is unusable in private, among other things, due to the fear of losing the statesman’s face. That’s why he still uses the diplomatic tactics he learned in politics. He doesn’t stop pathologically caring about his public image and proving something to someone. Otherwise, he can’t even achieve the feeling that he is a winner, which he has become addicted to.
A more withdrawn prime minister is rarely able to really relax, step out of the role of a populist politician and enjoy free time with his family. Gradually, however, there are more and more scenes showing that he can do it and can still do it in private. The Slovak actor Ada Hajdu, who gives the most confident performance of the entire ensemble, successfully transitions between the two positions, distinguished and snobbish. Hudák’s belief in his own importance is also reflected in his symmetrical compositions, corresponding to how loftily (and unrealistically) he perceives himself. Also, thanks to the stretched image post-production, the visual side of the series is not as cheap as some of the jokes. For example, about women’s football, which is played for two periods.
Bára is dealing with a similar dilemma as the protagonist, who does not have time to devote to her husband and sons due to her workload. The dramatic potential of this internal conflict is best exploited in the last episode, which takes place during the Hudák family’s visit to Poland. The clash with the local conservative Catholicism and the violation of human rights forces Viktor to finally decide between diplomacy and morality, family and politics. The piece culminates with a moving speech about democracy, but it is followed by an ambivalent point, leaving us unsure whether the hero has really seen through it.
The conclusion most openly touches on current social issues. In the context of a series that has been rather vague and cautious in its political allusions in the previous 150 minutes, this is an unexpected but gratifying move. Perhaps, however, it does not only reflect the disarray of the series, which wants to be mischievous and benevolent, but our perception of politicians. We laugh at their incompetence, we think of them as scumbags who can’t even afford to buy rolls, and at the same time we hope that they will represent the state, defend the right values and promote significant changes.
The winner works best not as a comedy, but as a bitter portrait of a chauvinistic egotist who is guided more by external expectations than internal convictions and takes others into consideration only if it brings him some benefit. In this position, Hřebejk’s series, despite all the dead ends and embarrassing falterings, finally touches upon an important and timeless theme. And incidentally, it sheds light on why we are moving further and further away from that “hate free” zone, which Hudák talks about in the last episode. Like many other influential middle-aged men, he overlooks that he is part of the problem.
Series: The Winner (2023)
Screenplay: Zuzana Dzurindová, Peter Nagy
Cast: Vladimír Hajdu, Ivana Chylková, Milan Ondrík, Petra Dubayová, Zuzana Páleníková, Ján Jackuliak, Kristína Sisková, Rea Frlajsová, Natalia Germani