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On Veep, everyone’s addicted to politics

As the final season starts, they’ve all given in.

Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, sitting at a desk on the set of HBO’s “Veep.”
Selina Meyer is back for the last season of Veep — and she’s running.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

At the end of its sixth season, Veep’s showrunner, David Mandel, compared the show’s protagonist Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to an addict. “Her addiction isn’t a substance; it’s the power of politics,” he said, later noting that “like any addict, sometimes you’re just shocked when they throw it all away.”

Last we saw her, Selina was in the process of blowing up her life. (Veep’s sixth season concluded in June 2017; the long hiatus that followed allowed Louis-Dreyfus to undergo treatment for breast cancer.) After flailing in her ex-presidency, trying in vain to get a presidential library funded and some kind of life purpose established, she’s finally veered close to establishing a stable and even a happy relationship with the Qatari ambassador Mohammed Al Jaffar (Usman Ally).

But the moment she realizes there’s an opportunity for her to run for president again, the glow in her eyes re-lights. We know she’s going to go for it.

The gang’s all back for the final season of Veep — and Selina’s fourth run at the presidency.
The gang’s all back for the final season of Veep — and Selina’s fourth run at the presidency.

Veep’s season six finale caught a rare moment of deeply human emotion from Selina, who came perilously close to weeping as she descended an escalator after breaking things off with Jaffar. (No presidential candidate in America, they both know, could campaign successfully while in a romantic relationship with a Muslim.) Selina has no trouble showing anger and frustration and passion, but she bottles up affection and sorrow and shame with an airtight seal so that they only leak out when something terrible happens. A cataclysmic event on the level of, say, losing a presidential run might land her in the “spa” for some rehabilitation. You can kind of understand why; Selina is hell-bent on not being seen as a capital-W Woman, except when she has something to gain from it. In a man’s world, anger is much more acceptable than tears.

But once the campaign starts, she can’t let her true feelings show. That’s where season seven (premiering March 31 on HBO) begins. Selina Meyer is back on the road, trying to rally support in Iowa and New Hampshire and pushing the slogan “New. Selina. Now.” She’s still positively mainlining politics — not governance, not public service, but politics. Chasing the win. Positioning herself as the center of influence. Commanding deference from everyone, whether they’re eager to dole it out or not.

She’s never really managed to pull that off before, which is why the concept of Veep has been so bleakly funny from the start: Selina is a nakedly ambitious politician who has somehow managed to score the worst possible job. She’s little more than a figurehead, stuck in an office right across the street from the most powerful person in the world, where she’s tantalized daily with the promise of access to influence. Maintaining a feeling of importance while knowing the president has no interest in talking to you requires some impressive mental gymnastics.

But Selina, both whip-smart and an Olympian in the art of self-delusion, nails it episode after episode, flanked by people who are as drunk on proximity to power as she is. Throughout Veep’s run, it’s been simultaneously sad and hilarious to watch, even as she accidentally stumbled into the presidency, then belly-flopped back out of it. Mistakes and gaffes and missteps blend with miscalculations of the kind you might make when you’re supposed to be leading a country but are too caught up in cementing your own legacy.

Selina Meyer isn’t the only politics addict on Veep

But being blinded by the ache for raw power is not just Selina Meyer’s problem. It’s been clear for a long time that Veep is entirely about political addiction — though on-again off-again aide Dan Egan (Reid Scott) seems to be a sex addict too, and Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) is a high-functioning alcoholic. (Season seven finally reveals what’s in the oversized Big Gulps he’s been hauling around for years.) Put a bunch of people in the same room who are constantly jockeying for position and who can’t resist the siren call of clout, and things are bound to explode.

To be sure, the massive dysfunction of this group of characters is Veep’s reason for being. But it’s always been a little hard to pinpoint what exactly Veep is trying to say. This isn’t The Office, and Selina is no Michael Scott. She and her staff initially come across as bumbling, but eventually you realize they have to have done something right to be working for the vice president, or running a presidential campaign that comes within a Constitutional hair’s breadth of success. They may be fools, but they’re not stupid.

Are these people incompetent or just helpless?
Are these people incompetent or just helpless?

It’s also not really a show about the challenges of governance. For that, we have Parks & Recreation, in which everyone’s kind of an oddball, but an oddball who mostly wants to make Pawnee a better place. In fact, the only times Veep and Parks & Recreation have seemed to intersect has been when Leslie Knope went to Washington, late in the show’s run, and we got a glimpse of the bureaucracy and pomposity surrounding the place. But at home in Pawnee, even when they were dealing with incompetence, the Knope crew usually managed to get things done.

Nor is Veep a melodrama in the style of Scandal; with a few exceptions, this isn’t a show about people driven by animalistic passion or deep connection. It’s not even really a show about ambition. If anything, the characters on Veep are propelled by their inexplicable, uncontrollable need to be in the room where it happens. Not so they can make any specific sort of impact. Just so they can get their next fix.

Season six scattered them all around the Acela corridor, trying to figure out how to stay in the game after their direct connection to the Oval Office had been severed. And everyone seemed listless. But in season seven, with Selina newly returned to where she’s most comfortable — on the campaign trail — things feel like they’re back in the right place.

Which is to say that everyone’s a complete wreck.

Veep in 2019 has a different edge than it did when the show debuted in 2012

As other critics have already noted, Veep season seven premieres in a vastly different political landscapes than season one, which bowed in 2012. The antics were hilarious in a time when the headlines weren’t dominated by tales of unforced errors and political incompetence. It never really seemed like Veep was critiquing any particular political situation; the show hardly even said what party Selina belongs to, though viewers could make an educated guess. It was less satirical, more farcical.

But 2016 changed all that. Today, a political show that doesn’t seem aware of the world in which it’s airing wouldn’t just be bad form; it would risk looking out of touch entirely, an emblem of some bygone era.

Season six struggled to find its footing, partly because its characters were adrift and partly because it premiered three months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and with political farce on TV every day, satire wasn’t necessarily what people needed. But season seven wisely pivots on Selina’s decision to run for the presidency once again, and kicks off with her motley crew having reassembled.

Catherine and Marjorie are on the campaign trail, too.
Catherine and Marjorie are on the campaign trail, too.

The gang’s all here: Selina’s girl Friday, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), who at this point seems fully in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome; Dan Egan (Scott), fresh off a failed TV gig and discovering that youthful charm is no longer enough to open doors for him; jaded advisors Kent Davison (Gary Cole) and Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn); hounddog-ishly faithful bag man Gary Walsh (Tony Hale); and the unfailingly cheerful Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), who’s quietly dividing his time between the Meyer campaign and the upstart bid of Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons). (Splett switches campaign buttons on his lapel depending on which office he’s in; this also has the delightful effect of doubling the amount of time that Richardson, one of Veep’s unsung heroes, spends on screen.)

Meanwhile first daughter Catherine Meyer (Sarah Sutherland) is suffering postpartum depression, supported by the ever-expressionless Marjorie (Clea DuVall) and not, predictably, by her mother. And to keep the new occupation of erstwhile press secretary Mike McLintock under wraps, I’ll simply quote Selina and say that he now writes for “the internet.”

On top of returning to the familiar, season seven feels more connected to current issues, as well. The #MeToo movement has happened. Selina makes a crack about not really wanting to run for “all” Americans, just the ones who voted for her, and the team decides she’ll instead say “real Americans,” which feels like it hews very close to the Trumpian mode.

And since the show is premiering into the same world as a Democratic primary season that promises to be like no other, it’s easy to see how the field of candidates (including Hugh Laurie’s Tom James) jockeying for the nomination on Veep to run against current president Laura Montez (Andrea Savage) resembles our own reality. (There’s even a plot point that couldn’t possibly be inspired by Joe Biden’s rumored plan to run for president and name a vice presidential candidate early, but sure seems like it is.)

Amy and Dan are starting to feel their age.
Amy and Dan are starting to feel their age.

But in the end, if Veep is a show about political addiction, then the seventh season promises a look at what people do to either get sober or lean into their vices full throttle. Every character has taken on the air of desperation, even though you can briefly see flashes of self-awareness — particularly in Dan and Amy, who are beginning to realize that they’re getting older and don’t have much to show for it.

And yet, no one’s ready to kick the habit yet. The look on Amy’s face when an absolutely disastrous rival campaign calls her with a potential job offer makes that clear; the lure of challenge, and the possibility of climbing the ladder, is too strong.

Where Veep is headed is hard to tell. I’ve seen the first three episodes of the seven-episode final season, and some of the show’s characters are certainly headed for a tragic end. Some might make it out alive, with their souls intact, bedraggled as they may be. But with the heady days of the campaign in full swing at the start of the season, there’s no telling who will still be standing by the time it’s all over.

Veep’s seventh season premieres on HBO on March 31.

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