Television

The Veep Finale Didn’t Teach Us a Thing

Eight lauded seasons ended on a weirdly upbeat note that no one deserves.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep
Selina Meyer and her fans.
HBO

The weirdest thing about that Veep finale was the touching faith it registered in the resilience of America. The HBO comedy ended as it began—wittily rehashing the premise that all politicos are terrible in a claustrophobic universe that treats politics as a game—but enough has changed in the interim that the series’ conclusion inverts the cynicism that used to drive it. The conventional wisdom, when the show started as a vague and profane riff on a Clintonesque figure starring the great Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was that they’re all hacks: all bad, mostly the same. You might have expected a change when the 2016 election here in the real world exposed some sizable differences in the style and substance of the two major parties—differences the show incorporated into its scripts as Selina Meyer evolved from a Clinton figure into a Trump type. But no: The show with the most imaginative invective on TV turned out to have a startlingly idealistic vision about the durability of American institutions—and a surprisingly limited and sentimental sense of the damage its characters could inflict.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Veep for much of its run. But in its final season, its first since 2017, the show decided to lean fully into Selina’s worst impulses by channeling them through some familiar storylines—including foreign interference in an American election and disenfranchising minority voters. (“I think the Chinese just delivered,” Selina says at the news of 48,000 black voters being turned away.) It drifted awfully close, in other words, to things that have happened in our own universe and done significant harm. But, as the neat little coda set 24 years in the future showed, Selina’s dystopian compromises turned out to be largely inconsequential. It’s pretty weird for the finale not to acknowledge the cost to the country (and the world) of Selina’s and Jonah Ryan’s rise. Selina gave Tibet to the Chinese, but it made no appreciable difference in the show’s limited universe: A younger Dalai Lama had as much freedom to attend her funeral as his predecessor would have. Her deal with the Chinese supposedly got Andrew killed, and yet there he was (for a split-second), surviving her. She banned gay marriage, but Marjorie and Catherine seemed to be together and just fine.

In other words, what that flash-forward showed was a world that wasn’t appreciably worse than the one we’d always known. (If anything, it’s better: Little Richard is no doubt better off for not having known his grandmother.) As for Jonah, for all that advisers Amy and Kent broke with their own ambition (and a bit of the fourth wall) to warn against the rise of such a hateful demagogue, they were wrong! He, too, while more obviously Trumpian than any other character, turned out to have been no big deal. Sure, he functioned as a literal vector of disease, augmenting anti-vax rhetoric everywhere and equating immigrants with germs, but in the end, it seems he only infected the people who came directly in contact with him in that penis-shaped path. And that thing we were all warned about, a Jonah presidency, apparently ends in impeachment. Look at that! The system works!

For all that this finale keeps getting described as dark, I was struck by how insanely optimistic that view of American politics really is. To be clear, I’m all for Veep showcasing the impunity of our muckety-mucks—it makes sense for Meyer to escape Interpol, win the presidency, and end up buried in her longed-for presidential library. That’s not parody; it’s just accurate. The problem, to my mind, is that this comedy, which routinely gets credited with being the best political satire of America’s stranger-than-fiction politics, never figured out how to break out of the bothsiderism to which it first committed. It tried. The show used to pride itself on being essentially apolitical—“We’re never parodying a particular real person in politics. We’re trying to be very careful about that,” Louis-Dreyfus said to Stephen Colbert in 2016, adding that “we make great effort in the writing of the show to keep [Selina Meyer’s party] somewhat indistinct.” But in theory at least, that ostensible neutrality was less possible after the 2016 presidential election: “Oh my God, politics has really changed. These are dark times. I started to feel like if I don’t reflect those two sentences—politics has changed, and these are dark times—we are equally out of step,” showrunner Dave Mandel said in April.

But here’s the deal Mandel made without following up: If Selina is going to embrace dark politics, and if the show wants to spare her any consequences because the rich are immune, then there ought to at least be some lasting damage visible somewhere. Otherwise the “both sides are equally bad” argument turns out to be right—and can be understood as “both sides are equally good.”

And that’s what happened. Every signpost that hinted at Selina’s having gone too far—particularly after her husband Andrew was “blown up” by the Chinese—pointed nowhere. The damage Selina caused appears to have been more than reversible: Andrew isn’t dead, and every former member of her staff ends up basically fine or better (except, perhaps, for Gary). It’s as if the show was so eager to reject Tom James’ “this is your punishment” line to Selina—positioning itself as an antidote to shows where protagonists learn and grow—that it accidentally capitulated to sentimentality along different lines. Everything’s fine! America recovered easily from Selina’s corruption and Jonah’s demagoguery. It even got a couple of basically decent presidents (Kemi and Richard) who could clean up whatever she’d done. That’s a stunningly upbeat ending for a show whose brand is “jaundiced.” And yes, I know Selina was sad for a second alone in the Oval Office. And that we’re supposed to see some comeuppance in the way Mike’s reflections on Selina were interrupted by Tom Hanks’ death. It’s pleasantly ironic, sure, but c’mon. If her biggest indignity in death was her coffin getting stuffed into the vaginal vault of her presidential library, Selina won and nobody (but Gary) really lost anything at all. Her sociopathy turned out to be a win-win.

These are limits the show always had, I guess: It didn’t want to deal with actual political questions and avoided sincerity so hard that it may have accidentally succumbed to it. As satires go, this one turned out to be pretty toothless. In Veep, the rich and powerful get to do what they want and get away with it. The institutions will respond with alacrity to their excesses. And everyone who matters (except Gary) is better off.