Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 5 through June 11 is "Congressional Ball," the seventh episode of the fifth season of HBO's Veep.
It’s been one hell of a season for Veep, HBO’s comedy about the high toxin levels in American politics. Creator Armando Iannucci moved on to other projects after four seasons with the show, with several writers following suit. Also, not insignificantly for a show about a hypothetical female president, Hillary Clinton is set to become the first woman to be her party's nominee for the same job.
So with a new team and relevant new context, Veep has become even more ambitious than before. This season follows Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) navigating the transition from an ineffective veep to sitting president — thanks to her former running mate getting cold feet a couple of years into his term — and her struggle to earn votes in a historic congressional tiebreaker that will decide if she or her opponent Bill O’Brien will be elected president.
With only a few episodes until its finale, it's safe to say that season five has felt different from Iannucci’s previous seasons. Everyone is a little more blunt, their signature vicious insults a little less nuanced. Selina and her team are so focused on the vote that there have been fewer side plots about Washington inanity, where Veep used to find some of its best and weirdest jokes.
But there have also been some truly stellar episodes that — as with any great Veep episode — let Louis-Dreyfus unleash pure hell on anyone who dares to get in Selina’s way. The fifth season's fourth episode — "Mother" — was one of the series’ best, as Selina struggled to accept both the death of her difficult mother and the possible death of her presidential dreams.
"Congressional Ball" isn’t quite as spectacular as "Mother" was. It is, however, the best representation of what Veep’s fifth season has been trying to do.
President Selina Meyer takes what she wants when she wants it — including men
When Veep premiered, Selina Meyer was a frustrated vice president with ambitions of landing the most powerful position in the country.
She was also divorced and single.
For my money, that’s by far the most surprising part of Selina's résumé. Unmarried people rarely hold office; currently, the most notable single person serving in US office is Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s subsequently been the subject of endless speculation on his personal life. Politicians usually come as a complete family set, and more often than not it’s the wives of powerful men who get to navigate exactly how political or down to earth their public personas should be, as they stand supportively on the sidelines.
So maybe the most unbelievable part of Veep isn't that Selina's the first female president but that she's a single female president.
In the fifth season, President Meyer has adopted a strict "no fucks given" policy on her dating life. She summoned finance CEO Charlie Baird (John Slattery) to her chambers for booty calls, and in "Congressional Ball," she got into such a heated, furious fight with her vice presidential candidate (Hugh Laurie) that it ended with them having frantic sex barely 20 feet away from the president’s annual Christmas ball.
Veep never bothered to give Selina even the appearance of a picture-perfect family. She's picked up and discarded men in the name of getting laid between infuriating closed-door meetings.
It's all perfectly in line with Selina’s administration, which, as the fifth season progresses, has become more and more about making power plays wherever it can — a policy that becomes downright dangerous when it’s not about Selina’s dating life.
Season five of Veep leaves Selina very little room for redemption
Veep can be both a source of comfort and concern for those who always assumed Washington politics are a nauseating clusterfuck. (Washington insiders themselves call Veep "the most authentic" political show, much to my constant amusement/terror.) But season five has taken this idea to a whole new level, to the point where I wouldn't be at all surprised if the series ends with Selina's impeachment.
Whereas the main takeaway from Veep used to be that everyone in politics is a craven opportunist, season five has made a point of amplifying just how awful Selina’s team is in particular.
The stakes are obviously much higher now that Selina’s president — the most powerful person in the world — but that also means that the lengths she and her team go to to get their way have become so much more horrifying.
Selina’s blamed a mistaken tweet on Chinese hackers, which might have been blown off when she was vice president but now results in strict sanctions with international repercussions.
She decided not to bail out the bank owned by her on-again, off-again boyfriend (Slattery) because it would look bad, not because it would be better for the country. (It decidedly wasn’t.)
And in "Congressional Ball," Selina's need for support results in some of the most calculating and almost desperate behavior we’ve seen from her yet. She corners people with a steel grip and a crocodile smile. She ignores her daughter’s wishes to keep her new, same-sex relationship under wraps by thrusting her daughter’s new girlfriend into a photo op with the congressional LGBTQ committee.
All the while, Selina courts votes for the presidential tiebreaker with the focus and fury of a dart. So when her plan starts to go south, with several congressional members nervously telling her that they’re abstaining, Selina doesn't hold back. Even by Veep’s standards, Selina's "Congressional Ball" rants are so incredibly harsh that even the cynical politicians she corners are horrified.
When a cheery Southern representative who had previously promised her vote to Selina in exchange for more resources for her district retracts that promise at the ball, Selina doesn’t hold back.
Here's that scorching missive, verbatim:
You’re playing a very dangerous game of chicken with the head fucking hen. Because if I don't win the White House, O’Brien is going to sink your stupid boats, and you're going to look like a hairsprayed asshole in your 1980s mother-of-the-bride dress. And if I do win, I will have my administration come to your shitty little district and shake it to death like a Guatemalan nanny. And then I’m going to have the IRS crawl so far up your husband’s colon, he’s going to wish that the only thing they find is more cancer.
So ... can I count on your vote? Or do I need to shove a box of White House M&Ms up your stretched-out, six-baby hatch?
And so while everyone on Veep is a contemptuous jerk, Selina (and Louis-Dreyfus) tops them all, with rage to burn, acidic takedowns always ready at the tip of her razor-sharp tongue, and a demonstrated willingness to blackmail her opponents to high hell.
It’s a terrifying, disgusting, completely beautiful thing to behold.
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 pm on HBO.