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When did Veep’s universe split from our own? The showrunner explains.

In the Veep world, Donald Trump is a shoe seller on Long Island.

In Veep’s universe, there have been two women presidents, but no black presidents. Where did their universe split off from ours?
In Veep’s universe, there have been two women presidents but no black presidents. Where did their universe split off from ours?
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.

Perhaps theories about the multiverse aren’t the first thing you think about when you think about Veep. HBO’s caustic satire about narcissistic politician Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her band of merry, miserable staffers kicked off its seventh and final season with an episode in which the fledgling Meyer campaign keeps getting derailed by incompetence and news of mass shootings. The show feels, at times, a bit too real.

But while Veep’s reality strongly resembles our own in many ways (right down to its bevy of politics-addicted characters), there are some huge differences between the two. Somewhere around the 1980s, Selina Meyer’s universe seems to have split off from our own in some significant ways. There are no Clintons or Bushes in the world of Veep, and no Obamas either.

The show is more interested in skewering politics itself than specific parties and people. So it’s always consciously distanced itself from the details of the real world. No actual politicians appear on the show, and Veep’s writers try to keep audiences from knowing which political party the candidates belong to as well.

But sometimes there’s a link, regardless. And I’m enough of a multiverse nerd that I started to become mildly obsessed with figuring out where Veep’s universe and ours split, and why a few historical events seem to have still happened in both places. So I figured it was best to take my questions to the source: David Mandel, Veep’s current showrunner, who took over from series creator Armando Iannucci after the fourth season.

I spoke with Mandel by phone the night before the season seven premiere. We discussed the show’s writers’ theory for the Veep timeline, why Hamilton exists in their world, how the show keeps predicting things that happen in our own political reality, and what Beyoncé’s role is in all of this. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, is below.

(Very mild spoilers for two unaired episodes of Veep season seven follow.)

Alissa Wilkinson

I was rewatching the sixth season of the show, and at some point Jonah Ryan starts talking about Hamilton. I was like, wait a second — Hamilton exists in the world of Veep? Then I knew I needed to ask you about the relationship between the Veep universe and our own.

So first of all: Their world split from ours right around Ronald Reagan, right?

David Mandel

I believe before I took over, they had gotten to Carter. And at some point or another, I think we added Reagan. And I’m not going to lie: We added a lot of Nancy Reagan blow job jokes; that may have been one of the main reasons.

So we went that far in terms of naming presidents. We’ve never named anybody else [from our world], but we’ve named other presidents [from theirs] in the “Library” episode. So, along with Hughes, I think Selina ran into Stevenson. I want to say they referenced a third name, as well. But they’re all very similar-looking white guys, as you would imagine.

We don’t necessarily talk about this in the writers’ room, but I’m going to get really uber-nerdy on you.

The world of Veep is like ours, but it’s not the same world.
The world of Veep is like ours, but it’s not the same world.

There are a couple of different time travel theories. But the first key is accepting that time is like a stream, or a river. Time is flowing in one direction. Sometimes you put a big object — say, a rock — in the time stream, and the water flows around it. If you do enough blocking, you can create a split. It’s very Back to the Future Part II, if you’re looking for conceptual backup. That’s where I learned most of my science from, Back to the Future Part II.

So there is this idea that basically, at some point, the time stream did split off. But because it is a raging river to begin with, there are certain things that are going to happen no matter what. So even though we’re in different time streams from Veep, 9/11 did happen in their world. It’s just that George W. Bush wasn’t president.

Whoever was president ended up acting somewhat similarly, though. We’ve mentioned Osama bin Laden, and [9/11 attack ringleader] Mohammed Atta gets a shoutout this year. But we’ve also talked about long wars in Afghanistan, those kinds of things.

So specifics changed in this offshoot from our world, but the general flow of time caused certain things to happen, like Hamilton. Now, I can’t swear to you that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the author of Hamilton [in the Veep universe]. But there is a popular musical called Hamilton in their world.

That’s our sort of our running joke [in the writers’ room]. We laugh a lot about the different time streams, and other possible time streams.

Of course, everyone’s always asking about Donald Trump. “Trump. Trump, Trump, Trump. Is there a Trump character?” In my mind, in our Veep time stream, maybe there is a Donald Trump, living in Long Island. But he’s the manager of, like, an athletics sneaker store. Some people exist, but they have very different lives in the Veep world than they do in our world. Years ago, I wrote the “Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld. There’s a little bit of that sort of bizarro thinking to the whole thing, the idea that people end up in very different roles.

The one thing that we, for whatever reason — we really ruined a day of writing talking about this, which I’m sure HBO really wants to hear — one thing we are sure is that Beyoncé manages to exist in all the various timelines. But it’s just one Beyoncé, who has the ability to travel between different timelines. She is the only one who knows what’s going on in Veep world, and our world, and also in, like, 14 other timelines.

I’m sure at this point your readers are closing their computers and unsubscribing to whatever they humanly can unsubscribe to.

Alissa Wilkinson

Eh, I think a lot of people could get behind the idea of Beyoncé being omniscient. But it’s interesting to entertain a world in which Hamilton happens but Obama doesn’t.

David Mandel

Hamilton is popular, and it’s clearly about certain things; I think Jonah does make a joke about a black guy shooting Hamilton, which means they have a similarly fluid casting with respect to race — one of the wonderful things that makes Hamilton what it is. But technically speaking, we don’t really know all the details about the musical in our world.

But what it means is that, much like 9/11, Hamilton had to happen. No matter what. And I think there’s something cool about that. Obviously, it’s horrible for the bad stuff. But it’s kind of cool for the good stuff. I’m sure Einstein would be hip to this: If you accept various time-space continuums, Hamilton is still a really great piece of theater.

Alissa Wilkinson

In this new season, it’s obvious that the #MeToo movement also has happened.

David Mandel

Yes, 100 percent. I don’t think we ever say “Me Too,” but in episode two, Selina is talking to one of the new characters, Sen. Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye). Selina asks her what happened to another male senator. She inquires, “Is he still grabbing your butt? Did he try and grab your butt?” Selina, of course, kind of enjoyed it [when that male senator grabbed her butt], because he was very complimentary about her derrière. Of course, Kemi is horrified, and says something like, “No, he’s been censured and removed from office.”

Selina kinda goes, “Why?” You know, very innocently — and then she says something like, “Oh, right, because that’s bad now.”

So yes: The #MeToo movement has definitely happened. I’m guessing a lot of it happened the way it happened in our world. But I can’t swear that to you 100 percent. I’m guessing in Veep world, instead of masturbating into, like, potted plants, maybe Harvey Weinstein masturbated into waffles. That might be one of the timeline differences. We’re not sure where he masturbated.

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you seen the new Spider-Man film, Into the Spider-Verse?

David Mandel

I have indeed. Yes, exactly — perhaps there’ll be a sort of president team-up of different presidents from different universes. But yes. Same idea.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is there anything that’s happened in our world that you really wish you had access to, for joke writing? I was thinking that Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” would have furnished a lot of material in the Veep world.

David Mandel

Generally so. But I’ll be honest, if we needed it, we’d figure out our own way of doing it.

In season six, Jonah was trying to date — his advisors felt that as a congressman, he really needed a spouse [in order to reach] the next level of Washington. I don’t know if you remember — it wasn’t a binder full of women, but Kent put together a spreadsheet and a slideshow of available women.

Jonah Ryan on Veep
He’s running.

But you’re right — that’s a wonderful turn of phrase. But we can always figure something out like it. In this case, obviously, we have our own sub-movement of the #MeToo movement which is, in episode two [of the final season], the “Not Me” movement. It’s sort of an offshoot, if you will.

Alissa Wilkinson

I personally was really startled, watching upcoming episodes of season seven, that Selina suddenly comes up with the idea of announcing a running mate early as a political tactic. That had just been in the news that day, as something Joe Biden might try.

David Mandel

We pride ourselves on this. So: We have these wonderful consultants on the show. Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute. Eric Lesser, formerly of the Obama administration. Jeremy Bash [who was chief of staff at the CIA and the Department of Defense under Obama] is available to us. Anita McBride, who was incredibly close to the Bush White House. [Veteran TV executive] Tammy Haddad is an adviser to the show. If these people can’t answer my questions, they get me somebody who can. Mitt Romney came to our offices. People come to our offices — it’s pretty cool. I can call them on the phone.

And so, somewhere, going back maybe two years ago, this was a rumor: Someone told us that [choosing a running mate early] was a thing that Biden might entertain. But it wasn’t public.

I thought it was great and wrote it in, because it was a really interesting tidbit. And it was perfect, and exciting, and also, dare I say, a desperate thing for Selina to do in that episode.

We put it in, as we do with a lot of these things, hoping it would break our way. Had Biden’s idea come out two years ago, we probably would have changed it to something else. In this case, we wrote it in, then kind of forgot about it. It was just a neat beat in the story.

And then, a week before our premiere, it’s a front-page story.

It now looks, of course, like we see the future. But that happens a lot with Veep. We put the research in; we’ll do something like “Jonah hates daylight saving.” Then cut to now: It’s almost a mainstream dislike, as opposed to Jonah’s fringe thing.

I wanted to do a story about the anti-vax movement, and the ongoing war on science and facts. I did not imagine that in our world, New York City and parts of the West Coast would be getting sick and dying from measles. But we have a line coming up in, I believe, episode six, where Amy says to Jonah something along the lines of, “This issue has united Orthodox Jews,” and I think something like, “kombucha-douching yoga moms.” That’s just the most spot-on thing you can draw on that map right now.

Sometimes we joke in the office that it’s a little bit like — you know the movie Candyman, where you say his name three times and you summon him? It’s like, if we write it in a script and say it a couple of times, it happens.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, who’s back on the campaign trail in season seven.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, who’s back on the campaign trail in season seven.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which brings up what’s funny about the Veep universe: Two women have managed to become president, kind of accidentally. But no people of color have been president, unless you count Laura Montez, though the show makes it clear that her background is a little shady.

David Mandel

Well, Laura Montez counts herself, certainly.

I hate to say this, but, if the Veep universe at this point had had a president who was a person of color and multiple women presidents, I think we’d be worried we’d constructed something like an Asgardian Valhalla, or a nirvana of some sort. People would start wondering, “Where does this show take place? In heaven?”

Maybe the price of having no Obama in Veep was an accidental woman president. Because even in Veep world, they’re not quite ready to have a woman win.

Alissa Wilkinson

This season starts with a bunch of candidates vying for their party’s nomination. I know the parties in Veep aren’t the same as in our world. But it feels a lot like watching the current scramble for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

David Mandel

Sure. But you’ve got to remember whenever it was — gosh, only two years ago — there were 20 Republicans onscreen doing the same thing.

It is an ever-constant thing, and it’s going to seem a little more Democratic this time around. It’s about frontrunners. And, I daresay, if someone wants to cast Jonah in a particular role, it’s clear he’s the kind of candidate who people don’t think has a chance, and then he begins to surprise people. Right now that feels very Republican. But he may also feel a little Democratic. In the Veep world, it’s neither, and it’s both. You know what I mean?

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