This review contains spoilers.
Veep season seven, episode seven finishes out the term of President Selina Meyer with a frightening message. Everyone who even thinks about getting into politics is horrible but it is only the truly heinous who claim the top prize. Washington has never been played so openly dirty and with such eternal immediacy. The political cycle moves very fast and a lot of satirical work gets washed over by reality, but Veep has always been able to veer far enough into the netherworld to remain shocking and effective. This season, life caught up with art and the imitations blurred into allegorical genius of comically nightmarish proportions.
HBO has a history of making anti-heroes into beloved figures going back at least to Tony Soprano on The Sopranos. Everyone is a villain on Veep and Selina proves herself a mastermind. Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts teeth in an already vicious character and does it with both criminally callous disregard and deeply moving immersion. She doesn’t blink an eye as Selina casually offers up anything and everything she’s ever held sacred, yet blubbers at the sight of Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) in a hospital bed. And even in that moving scene we don’t know how much of it is because she needs his guidance and what is based on personal pain. We see Selina has been wearing Ben down the whole episode. But you get truly scared he might die right in front of her under the pressure of how much she needs him as a political tool.
Poor Ben almost ends up in a medically induced coma, which may be what he always wanted as Tom James (Hugh Laurie) points out. Ben does perk up for an offer of a sponge bath from a nurse, an offer which preceded all his other weddings. The Ben and Selina scene is truly amazing in its depth and subtlety. He wakes up craving a drink and, even sober, leaves Selina believing there’s nothing anyone can do to stop her from winning the nomination.
In a deadlocked convention, only the quickest and deadliest come out alive and the Meyer campaign is lethal. We know from the beginning the Chinese are ready to fix the whole thing in her favour, which that really is the plan as far as Keith Quinn (Andy Daly) is concerned, but her staff tries not to know that. Where Selina ends up by the end of the election is exactly where she wants to be, and where she’s been, and yet in an entirely different space.
The episode is titled Veep, and the vice presidency comes up a lot during the proceedings. Categorised as an abandoned coal mine under two miles of shit where they leave you to die, Selina has to pick one by the end of the convention. She also loses ground and is asked to consider returning to the job on more than one occasion, leading us to believe Selina Meyer will wind up back where she was when the series premiered.
Can someone really come full circle if they’ve been travelling on a downward spiral? At one point, Selina says she hasn’t come this far only to be right back where she started. But she will never be back where she began. When she first took on public service, Selina must have adhered to some kind of moral and ethical platitudes she felt would have served the better good of whoever she thought at the time needed better goods. Selina could give Cersei Lannister pointers on how to break balls on chain breakers. Luckily, Selina would never even think of sitting on anything so uncomfortable as an iron throne. But she does burn through DC like she is riding a dragon.
This season, Selina’s dips her fingers in voter suppression, she is an accessory before the fact in a murder scheme, her financial records are to kill for, she trades her one legacy for another shot at the White House, and she seriously considered throwing whatever remained of her African-American constituency under the very bus they fought for better seats on. The sad thing is, the audience knows she’s no worse, and probably still a lot better, than most of the politicians we see on the show, which represents what we have in the reality of the national and international stage. Selina Meyer’s descent is the greatest commentary on political life since Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in All The King’s Men.
Tonight Selina offers up casinos in Macao, drilling on protected lands, and assault rifles to anyone with a “slavery-free” history book in Texas. She trades same sex marriage for the endorsement of a candidate running on a religious platform. Selina burns out her family and her staff with every piece of her she sells off. When her very candidacy is denounced by the ACLU, Selina blurts out “we’re gonna win this thing,” putting the last nail in the coffin of any ethical motivation she ever held.
The slide happens to anyone who dips their toes in the mosquito-infested swamp of Washington D.C. Do you think a young freshman Congressman Roger Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) needed a verbal humiliation fetishist sidekick to toe in the nuts? DC did that to them both. Kent Davison came out of his test tube like that, so his immune system is designed never to give in to a spiral. Kent’s programming doesn’t allow him to pretend to talk about numbers, even though he could still go on his favorite numerical concepts. Gary Cole’s deliveries as Kent Davison are so completely deadpan we fully believe him when he says he hasn’t been funny since 1987. But then he breaks his prime commandment and yells “fuck the numbers” when all the maths adds up to Selina picking Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) as her running mate.
Radical Islam and trigonometry propel Jonah to the top of the heap of crazy candidates. Even his uncle Jeff Kane (Peter MacNicol) finds a few good words, and a block of delegate votes, for the overgrown underdog after a terror threat in New York turns out to feed Jonah’s paranoid conspiracy-craving base. Maths is a threat to our way of life, Jonah says, promising to eradicate mathematics from the educational system altogether. This is something he truly believes in.
God created men’s rooms and women’s rooms, which makes him a plumber, like Jesus was a carpenter. Buddy Calhoun, who forces Selina to abandon the bathroom warrior status she is lauded for by the trans community after insisting on using a men’s room, has had an interesting arc. He was engaged to Amy Brookheimer’s (Anna Chlumsky), offered his constituency up to Jonah and was caught on a squad cam exposing himself to a female cop. He is obviously a confused man, and now makes as much consistent sense as any religious candidate now or ever on any platform. His self-loathing closeted sexual preference only serves to punish himself and any voter who would inflict his legislative will on them.
Selina’s revenge on Tom James is as inspired as it is inspiring to watch. She sows the seeds of rebellion in his chief of staff with the most horrid of accusations told in graphic language and delivered with intense ferocity. James learns about the consequences when bursting in on Selina during another meeting, having a private meltdown in public bellowing “what the fuck are you?” at her. It is painful and uncomfortable and Hugh Laurie plays it with a naked intensity.
But nothing is as intense as Amy’s plea for Selina not to consider Jonah for vice president. Amy is driven to her knees in an Emmy-worthy sequence only broken by Selina pointing out its overly melodramatic poignancy. Everyone breaks at least once during the episode. Even Marjorie, who started the series as a Secret Service agent sworn to protect President Meyer, almost makes a run at Selina with violent intent during one particularly heated scene.
There is one silly aside tickles in an almost surreal way. Selina gets so angry at one point she blows Gary over with a scream. This is almost Marx Brothers or Bugs Bunny territory and come so out of the blue it has to be noted. Louis-Dreyfus has never shied away from physical humour, whether she is pulling a Lucille Ball turn behind the velvet ropes on a White House tour or coughing up real phlegm. But for this she and Anthony Hale turn into cartoons for a second.
The inevitable downward spiral may ever happen to Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), but I wouldn’t bet against it. By the time Splett is Ben’s age, he’ll need two Kents, one for each landslide win. Richard’s seemingly inadvertent honesty continues to cut through everything he passes. Throughout Richard entire ascendency he’s been giving sideways looks at Dan Eagan (Reid Scott), who is pretty much established as a heat-seeking weapon of political expediency. When he finally banishes the opportunistic advisor, Richard probably sees it as a good deed for the public’s well-being. Yet he remains Jonah’s closest, and only friend.
Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) is back for the episode, which is probably the biggest spoiler as to where Selina winds up after the election. The episode and series ends with one final frustration. In a flashforward to the passing of the first woman president of the United States, Selina Meyers’ obituary is pre-empted by the death of one of America’s favorite actors. The death of a beloved artist overshadows a character who was defined by overshadowing. Veep broke ground in political satire with savage precision and ending on an almost triumphant note makes it even more of an appalling success.
Read Tony’s review of the previous episode, Oslo, here.