Veep has always put the spotlight on some of Washington, DC's most vicious assholes — a term I use affectionately, as the show's characters undoubtedly would. In season five, though, President Selina Meyer has stepped up her disdain game so much that she's almost become a total tyrant.
Again, and to be clear: I mean this as a compliment.
Selina (the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus) just wants to be done taking orders. After languishing for so long in the inconsequential wasteland that was the vice presidency, she's now fighting to remain president of the United States (a title bestowed upon her when the incumbent stepped down at the end of season three). She's got no time for bullshit — unless, of course, it's of her own making.
Veep's fifth season — the first without series creator Armando Iannucci at the helm — has been its bluntest yet. Whereas previous seasons dissected Washington's most insidious politics with hyper-focused jabs, season five has shifted into something more direct. The clear downside of this approach is that many of Veep's standout secondary characters, particularly Amy (Anna Chlumsky), Dan (Reid Scott), and Jonah (Timothy Simons), have become much less cunning and, honestly, much less interesting.
But the upside is that as her minions scramble, Selina has fully embraced the power trip that is being president to become much more ruthless. The result? A terrible, slow-motion train wreck — and in the hands of Louis-Dreyfus, a completely hilarious one.
President Selina Meyer is bad at her job — and it's enthralling to watch
Since the start of season five, Selina has thrown her power around almost entirely for the hell of it. Once a fumbling vice president, she's become the Cersei Lannister of Washington, wreaking unholy havoc on those who try her patience, just because she can.
She exacts revenge on her insubordinate vice president, Tom James (a dry, hangdog Hugh Laurie), by making him the scapegoat for a potentially failing economy. She stops pretending to even humor her sensitive daughter, Catherine (the quietly hilarious Sarah Sutherland). Selina takes the easy way out over and over again, even when it means blaming an accidental sexually explicit tweet on Chinese hackers, just to avoid embarrassment.
Basically Selina's a little more desperate and a lot more aggressive than we've ever seen her. And as played by Louis-Dreyfus, she's never been more fascinating.
In "Mother" — the fourth episode of season five, which aired May 15 — Selina must decide when to take her mother off life support. To no one's surprise, Selina had a complicated relationship with her mother, who apparently set impossibly high standards that Selina could never meet.
In a series of alternately heartbreaking and brutally funny scenes, Selina circles her mom's deathbed, wincing at how a woman who was once impeccably put together is now so frail and weak, not to mention sporting stubby fingernails instead of the glossy manicures she always favored. Meanwhile, as Selina grapples with the idea of letting her mother go, she's also trying to concentrate on the Nevada recount that could secure the presidency for her, to predictably mixed results.
Every season of Veep inevitably lets Louis-Dreyfus rip into some acidic rant, the better to prolong her Emmy streak — she's won Best Actress in a Comedy four consecutive times, dominating the category for as long as Veep's been on the air — but "Mother" gives her a bigger showcase than ever before.
Thrown by her mother's impending death, Selina swings wildly from callous disdain to manic determination. She goes from feeling the highest highs of possibly winning an election and brokering significant talks with China to the lowest lows of watching her mother flatline while her team tries to ignore their loudly buzzing phones.
The final beat, however, comes seconds before Selina is supposed to give her mother's eulogy (written by a member of her team, of course). The Nevada recount ends up revealing absentee military votes that award the state to her opponent — and losing Selina the popular vote. This doesn't mean she's quite lost the election yet, but she'll have to battle it out in Congress. The situation doesn't bode well for her, and she knows it.
The resulting scene is one of the best Veep's ever done, and it's entirely because of Louis-Dreyfus. Selina is only a few words into her eulogy when she breaks down completely. "I've lost so much," she sobs. "It's not fair."
Selina being Selina, we know that her distraught state is maybe a little less about losing her mother than it is about losing the presidency. It's the only thing she's ever wanted, and now, despite all the work and manipulation, she's probably lost it for good.
The entire series has been leading up to this moment, and it doesn't disappoint. Everyone in the room sobs along with Selina, even when she finally caves and lets Catherine play the Tim McGraw song that "Mee-Maw" reportedly loved. But even as Selina sways to the twangy music with tears streaming down her face, Louis-Dreyfus never loses sight of the fact that she's here to make us laugh. Selina's stubborn pride and nearsighted ambition are still on display as she's crumbling, struggling to keep herself upright — and to stop herself from strangling all the incompetent nerds who surround her.
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go and HBO Now.