Veep, the fourth season of which begins on HBO Sunday evening, is a deeply cynical show. In Veep’s Washington, D.C., the corridors of power are filled with bored narcissists who speak of their convictions only when forced by political exigencies to abandon them. For instance, in Season 2, then-Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is caught off guard when the president proclaims that he is pro-life, and Meyer’s presumptive presidential opponents scramble to claim their positions on abortion. Forced to say where she comes down on the issue, she frantically turns to her ghostwritten memoir, hoping that its pages might contain an acceptable answer. To her and her team’s dismay, she finds only gobbledygook.
In the new season, Selina has ascended to the Oval Office, after the former president resigned in order to spend more time with his suicidal wife. But in some ways, Veep is more cynical than ever—the show portrays her new position as so precarious that she is mostly as ineffective as commander-in-chief as she was as VP. So it’s significant that there is one undersung character who has worked to maintain her idealism, no matter how futilely: Catherine Meyer, Selina’s daughter. Catherine, who is played marvelously by Sarah Sutherland, suffers much hilarious, casual mistreatment at the hands of her distracted mother. And her beleaguered optimism has made her perhaps the best character on Veep.
Catherine endures indignity after indignity. Early in the show, after a lifetime of insisting that Catherine couldn’t have a dog, Selina decides to adopt one in order to soften her image—but then ridicules the pup her daughter selects. Later, Selina ruins Catherine’s 21st birthday party by turning down the music so that she can conduct budget negotiations. During Season 3, Selina, Catherine, and Selina’s ex film an awkward, staged cooking scene for a TV interview—but it’s quickly evident that her parents have forgotten she’s a vegetarian. Rather than tell her parents herself, she asks her mother’s right-hand man to pass along the message. “I’m not going to sacrifice my morals for her career any more,” she tells another one of her mother’s staffers, right before eating roast chicken. This is Catherine: meekly attempting to stand up for herself before capitulating.
Catherine exudes a defeated sincerity. She knows better than to be earnest—she is not deluded about how Washington and her mother really work. Nevertheless, she’s excited to tell a journalist, played by Allison Janney, about a college class she is taking in which the students “sort of debate current issues through movement.” It’s the kind of insight into Catherine’s life that we rarely get from this show, since Selina tends to deflect details about Catherine that don’t directly pertain to her. But she remains loyal to her mother, even punching a protester who gets too close. And when Selina goes almost catatonic with fear before officially announcing her presidential campaign, Catherine is the only one who can snap her out of it.
Another recurring theme in Veep is the public’s distaste for Catherine, and vice versa. (After one forced media appearance, she says, “This is really nice, working together as a family. I actually enjoyed that gun show, you know, once I got used to all the regular people and how fat they were.”)
Catherine has accepted that she serves at the pleasure of Selina, whether she’s vice president, president, or a senator. Sure, she is resentful when she finds out that she’s being sent make an appearance on MTV, which, she reminds us, no one watches anymore. “I’m starting to feel like you’re hiding me,” she tells one staffer.
In Season 4, Catherine, who seems to have graduated from college, is determined to help her mother’s campaign, but the media don’t seem to like her any more than they do Selina. “The press doesn’t take me seriously because I don’t have a role here. I need a core role,” Catherine pleads.
Selina is game, but sadly, her numbers guy, Ken, later announces, “I think that Catherine is a valuable asset, and daughter. But her likability index is shallow.” Selina is briefly appalled that he polled her daughter’s popularity—and then convinced by the numbers. “She’s going to have to be told, gently, of course. Who’s doing to do that?” Selina asks.
Not her mother, of course. Ken breaks the news, suggesting to her that she act more friendly. But after crying just a bit, Catherine soldiers on: She submits to a makeover, during which her mother tries to teach her a basic insincere D.C. smile, and later gamely, if awkwardly, appears at a kids’ event. She could quit and leave her mother behind—and Selina might even welcome that, given her daughter’s “shallow” “likability index.” But though Catherine knows Selina’s flaws and Washington’s cruelty better than anyone, she is idealistic and resilient (without the sad masochism of Selina’s bag man Gary). So as the cynicism of Veep’s vision of politics continues to escalate, Catherine is a rare bright spot. Take the way she corrects her mother when Selina brags to her team that Catherine “turned around” her college film society: “I transformed it, Mom.”