A Salute to Veep’s Sue and Competent People in the Workplace

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Photo: HBO

Warning: Major spoilers ahead about the season-five finale of Veep.

By the end of the fifth season of Veep, everything has collapsed for Selina Meyer and most of her staff. After losing the votes needed to secure the presidency, she reluctantly agrees to serve as vice president to Tom James, only to watch Tom lose the presidency to Laura Montez thanks to a deciding vote cast by the sitting veep, Andrew Doyle.

By the end of the episode, Selina and nearly every one of the people working for her — Ben, Kent, Amy, Dan, Mike, Gary, who presumably was dragged from the White House kicking, screaming, and clinging to an official presidential tea tray — is forced to vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But there’s one person who manages to stay, remaining seated at a desk mere feet away from the Oval Office. That person is Sue Wilson-Levinson, one-time personal secretary to President Selina Meyer who’s now, apparently, personal secretary to President Laura Montez. 

For obvious reasons, Veep is thought of principally as a political show, a show that reveals all the ugly blemishes of inside-the-Beltway operations and sits in the same genre space as Amazon’s similarly satirical Alpha House and CBS’s BrainDead, as well as governmental dramas like House of Cards, Scandal, and Madam Secretary. But Veep also is a workplace comedy. Within that workplace, Sue, played with ramrod-straight, no-nonsense perfection by Sufe Bradshaw, is the most recognizable and real character on the show. 

Sue is funny, but she’s not the funniest character on Veep because she does not have time for jokes. (Also, extreme competency tends to be less amusing than, say, watching Mike McClintock nearly pass out during a press conference because he’s on a juice cleanse.) She doesn’t get as much screen time as many of the others, either, because Sue is busy making sure the entire Selina Meyer operation doesn’t collapse in on itself, while rarely trying to take credit for all that she does.

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you have probably worked with a Sue and you probably have not thanked her to the extent she deserves. She’s the office manager who makes sure there’s always ink in the printer. She’s the receptionist who answers a million simultaneously ringing phone lines while keeping her vocal inflections bright and her smile cranked to eleven. She’s the personal assistant who keeps her boss’s schedule straight and all superfluous meetings blocked from the Google calendar. She’s the administrative assistant or the HR rep or the payroll department employee who makes sure everybody gets paid, submits their health insurance forms, and keeps the office expenses in order. Nine times out of ten, she’s a woman. And while all of her colleagues Tasmanian devil their way through each day, trying to put out fires with bottomless buckets, the Sues keep calm, carry on, privately shake their heads at all the foolishness swirling around them, and remember to use all their allotted vacation days. Sues work hard, but they value their down time because their priorities are stacked up exactly the way they should be.

Veep’s Sue embodies all of these qualities. She may have engaged in a very low-key flirtation at one point with Kent Davison, but that never went anywhere because Sue is wise enough to keep her personal and professional lives separate. This is also why she got married, never told any of her co-workers about it, and invited exactly none of them to the wedding.

Sue doesn’t half-ass anything, but she also doesn’t invest her whole heart in her job either, because she needs to keep some of her heart for herself. This is why, after being furloughed during a government shutdown, she displayed a rare burst of emotion in front of her colleagues, then immediately left the office, wiped away the faux tears, and negotiated a reservation for a full spa day. Sue Wilson-Levinson subscribes fully, when appropriate, to the “treat yo self” philosophy.

There are not a whole lot of Sues on television, perhaps because of what I noted earlier: watching people who are extremely skilled at their jobs doesn’t usually lend itself to great comedy or drama. The closest thing to a Sue on The Office was probably Rashida Jones’s Karen Filippelli, although she was both too interested in a promotion and in her fellow co-worker, Jim Halpert, to qualify as a true Sue. (Repeat: Sues don’t do dating in the workplace.)

Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation was as Über-organized and capable as Sue, but also more ambitious and interested in getting credit for her work. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) For a while, Joan Holloway on Mad Men was a Sue — Sterling Cooper would have been an even more chaotic den of disorganized inequity without her — but she, too, eventually wanted to further her career (and income) by attaining a higher stature. Over on Orange Is the New Black, both CO Maxwell and, to a lesser extent, counselor Berdie Rogers were great examples of extraordinarily capable employees. Sadly, and pointedly, both of them were out of Litchfield by the time season three was over, which is just one of the many reasons why that prison was a tragedy waiting to happen by season four.

You probably noticed that having too much ambition is something I’ve characterized as a non-Sue quality, which sounds like a negative. But I don’t think it is. Certainly we need our Leslie Knopes out there in the world, becoming leaders, bursting through glass ceilings, and showing us all how to be bosses like, um, a boss. But we also need our Sue Wilson-Levinsons, people who are committed to doing the important but lower-profile jobs, day in and day out, without complaint and without veering away from excellence. In a job market where most people tend to leap from gig to gig, hungry for the next title to add to their stacked résumés, there’s something incredibly admirable about the individuals who choose to keep our offices running, year after year, and are happy to do it. (And, to be fair to Sue, she is savvy and ambitious enough to get in good stead with the new administration and make sure she gets to keep her job, something no one else on Selina’s team had the skill or foresight to do.)

The truth about both Sue on Veep and the Sue equivalents is that they are the people most equipped to be in charge. They’re unflappable, smart, diligent, astute, incredibly hard-working, and not motivated by ego. But it’s that last quality — the lack of ego — that prevents the Sues from gunning for that No. 1 spot.

To put this back into a political context, Veep’s Sue would never run for office because, as she noted last season, she hates politics and finds it boring. But there’s probably no one on Veep who would make a better president than Sue Wilson-Levinson. Sadly, it’s precisely the qualities that would make her a great commander-in-chief that also make her extremely unlikely to ever want that job. Sue is good at what she does and she knows it, and that’s good enough for her. People like her don’t need to try to “make America great again,” because they already, at this very moment, are making America pretty damn great.