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How the Veep series finale offered (a little) hope for America in 2019

In its final moments, the caustic HBO comedy suggested that all is not lost.

Timothy Simons and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the series finale of Veep.
Timothy Simons and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the series finale of Veep.
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.

Every week, 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 May 12 through 18 is “Veep,” the final episode of the HBO series Veep.

Nobody could accuse Veep of being a hopeful show about politics. HBO’s foul-mouthed and hilarious tale of a power-hungry vice president and her staff was far more interested in the machinations of realpolitik than in issues or ideals. It was the better version of House of Cards’s ruthless ladder-climbing, the funnier twist on Scandal’s conspiracy world; it was the anti-West Wing. And it was glorious.

Yet when Veep aired its series finale on May 12, after an absolutely packed seventh season, it did sound a note of hope — though it was less a gong and more a light ping from a pair of finger cymbals. It happened so quietly, you could easily have missed it. (It took me a couple days to realize it had even happened.)

Like another show about conniving politicians that’s nearing its own conclusion, Veep had its loyalties, its alliances, and its very own Mad Queen. (The finale aired the same night as the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, and the similarities were too striking to miss.) But while the world of Veep was populated by angry, entitled, addicted players, it turns out that the show knew what even its most savvy characters didn’t: that things don’t always have to get inexorably worse. Improbably, Veep wasn’t quite as nihilistic as we thought all along.

Veep’s final season posited a Washington slightly closer than usual to our own

The final seven episodes of Veep seemed to lean a little more consistently into contemporary American politics than previous seasons. There was a #MeToo storyline. Presidential hopeful Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) adopted anti-vaxxing as a key plank in his platform, to which he also added being against “Muslim math.” A foreign power (China) was trying to interfere with the election. Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) suddenly and pointedly morphed into a Kellyanne Conway clone. The parallels were hard to miss.

This season of Veep is its first since the show went on hiatus for two years as star Julia Louis-Dreyfuss underwent cancer treatment, and the American political landscape has shifted drastically since season 6’s conclusion in June 2017. There was, to put it mildly, a lot of material to work with.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Selina Meyer in Veep.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Selina Meyer in Veep.

Lous-Dreyfuss’s Selina Meyer might have been described in early seasons of the show as “incompetent,” but as the show wore on, it turned out she wasn’t without political skill; she just didn’t care very much about the effects of her actions, as long as she could stay in power. As a politician, she was always far more conventionally competent at playing the Washington insiders’ game than Trump will ever be.

But the show had always been remarkably smart about a politics driven more by power than principle. There were distinctly Trumpian notes in Meyer’s story from the start — the wealthy scion with mommy issues who entirely lacked, as far as anyone could tell, anything approaching real morals other than ones that benefitted her specifically. (The show studiously avoided identifying any politician with any political party familiar to Americans, which gave them a lot of latitude to play with Selina’s convictions.) Even permanent foot-in-mouth sufferer Jonah Ryan’s gaffe-strewn campaign for president, which only seemed to strengthen his base’s devotion, couldn’t overtake her.

To say “Trumpian,” of course, is just shorthand for a phenomenon that was by no means pioneered or created by the current US president, though he may most clearly encapsulate it among political candidates throughout recent history. Veep was really a vision of Washington that suggested everyone harbors a little bit of Trump, because to want to be in politics — which seems, frankly, kind of dreadful — requires the kind of madness that prods one to keep returning, lured by proximity to the halls of power. It was a show about the lengths to which people will go to be in the Room Where It Happens.

That carried into the final season of Veep, as Selina and a bunch of other candidates (though by no means as many as are in the race right now) were gunning for the nomination of their party, to run against sitting president Laura Montez (Andrea Savage). So it was fitting that most of the finale was consumed with the party convention, during which a deadlocked delegation seemed incapable of choosing a candidate, and machinations were necessary for Selina — or anyone — to lock it down.

Amid the whiplash, we watch as Selina first resists, then accedes to the worst possible idea: that Jonah Ryan might be the only running mate who will ensure she nabs the nomination. After adviser Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn) lands in the hospital with a heart attack, he tells Selina that she knows what she has to do — and she does. Pitiless and ruthless, she kneecaps each of her opponents, especially relishing the fall of former running mate Tom James (Hugh Laurie), finally agrees to take on Jonah Ryan, and at last earns the nomination of her party that she so desperately desires.

The Veep team watches the convention.
The Veep team watches the convention.

But along the way, she burns her life down. To nab the nomination, Selina pledges to eliminate gay marriage, alienating her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) and daughter-in-law Marjorie (Clea DuVall). The seemingly conscienceless Kent Davidson (Gary Cole), watching her stride onto the stage with Jonah to accept the nomination, has finally had it; he leaves the convention and deposits his credentials in the trash.

And to remove the looming threat of a probe into the dicey finances of the Meyer Foundation, Selina betrays the only person in the world who truly loves her: Gary (Tony Hale), her faithful bag-man and, aside from Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), the show’s only moral core. Even Selina seems a little shaken by her own cruelty, but it’s worth it, if she wins.

Which she does.

The end of Veep suggests that not even Selina Meyer can cause irrevocable damage

By the end of the episode, Selina has been elected president, but the ravages of her climb are clear. Her advisers are gone, replaced by people who haven’t worked with her for years. She calls for Gary reflexively, but of course, he’s not there. She (and Sue, who still guards the Oval Office) is studiously ignoring Jonah and Amy. Nobody is left.

Then the episode does a smart thing. It jumps ahead decades, to Selina’s funeral. In a way that feels oddly reminiscent of Six Feet Under’s finale, which showed how every series regular would die, everyone gathers, and we see how they turned out after the events of Veep. Jonah was impeached; Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye) eventually won the presidency and served two terms. Dan Egan (Reid Scott) is still chasing women decades younger than him, but now he’s a sleazy real estate agent. Kent has become a bearded mountain man; Ben died, presumably after yet another heart attack. Amy married erstwhile operative Bill Ericsson (Diedrich Bader). Even Gary, who went to prison because of Selina’s betrayal, shows up to the funeral.

It’s Richard Splett’s fate that offers some light amid the darkness. Several times throughout the series, various characters (often Amy) would express their belief that a move Selina was about to make — such as choosing Jonah Ryan as her running mate — was so egregiously wrongheaded that even they could not endorse it. In the finale, in fact, Amy (who is Jonah’s own campaign manager) gets on her knees and begs Selina not to select Jonah. It would be an irrevocable catastrophe, she says.

Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep.
Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Veep.

And yet, somehow, it wasn’t. Jonah, of course, is a catastrophe. But the country soldiered on, and somehow managed to elect both a competent woman with principles in Kemi Talbot and, somehow, Richard Splett himself, a man with two PhDs and so innocent a heart that he actually seems like a truly good public servant, one who bumbled into success, but success nonetheless (and is described at Selina’s funeral as having been beloved).

Would Washington have eaten Richard alive if he’d climbed the political ladder in the usual way, being elected to various positions, instead of accidentally ending up Governor of Iowa and, from there, Secretary of Agriculture? Maybe. Probably. Who knows?

But maybe in a country where only the ruthless succeed, the one that Veep presented, there’s still some cracks for the light to get in. All of Selina’s terrible choices, in the end, had consequences. And yet none of them were absolutely destructive. The US can support a Selina Meyer/Jonah Ryan ticket, but, Veep suggests, it can also elect a Kemi Talbot or a Richard Splett. Corruption abounds, but it need not be all-corruptive. It’s a small bit of hope and by no means inevitable — but for as unrelentingly pessimistic a show as Veep to have finished on that small bright note was a reminder that nobody, not even Selina Meyer, can predict the future.

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