The pleasure and shock of HBO’s Veep has always come from its signature pivot. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyers — a hollow, ambitious political climber who began the series as vice-president, somehow ascended to the Oval Office, then came crashing down in an Electoral College crisis before deciding to begin the climb yet again — lets loose a torrent of awfulness to her family and staff, derides the voters that she’s desperately courting, and undermines and mocks anything in her path. But then, the moment she speaks in public, she plasters on a fake smile and delivers nonsensical political platitudes meant to appease everyone and take a stance on nothing. It has happened again and again across Veep’s seven seasons, and it’s shocking every time. It feels like peeking behind a curtain and seeing the truth of who these political animals really are.
Turns out, they’re evil snake people who aren’t even that bright.
In its final season, that pivot is still at the heart of Veep. Selina is back on the campaign trail for a third time, despite wistfully admitting she’d hoped to spend her 50s and 60s “fucking and sucking [her] way through the Shorenstein Center.” She’s still delivering faux-inspirational speeches from the podium while chuckling about her good luck that a mass shooting will distract the press from the fact that she hasn’t paid her campaign contractors. Her staff, including Amy (Anna Chlumsky), Dan (Reid Scott) and Gary (Tony Hale), are still muttering privately about all kinds of monstrous things and then blinking blandly when asked to speak in front of their boss or to a reporter. The show is every bit as horrible and hilarious and razor-sharp as it’s always been.
But like so many TV shows explicitly about politics and government, watching Veep feels different now than it did three years ago. We’ve seen several fictional coping mechanisms for how to tell politics stories in the Trump era: The Murphy Brown revival barreled straight ahead with jokes about Steve Bannon and Murphy getting in a Twitter war with Trump; The Good Fight’s protagonist Diane Lockhart microdosed on LSD to surf the surreality of the news last year, and this season joins an underground resistance cell and hurls axes for emotional release. Meanwhile, Veep is for the most part still operating on the same principle it always has: Here’s what we think the worst-case scenario of a functional, prominent politician looks like, an exaggerated vision of selfishness that highlights something true about optics versus reality.
For reasons obviously beyond Veep’s control, the current political climate has flipped the show’s structure on its head. Seven years ago when it premiered, the fast switch from political blather to idiotic, unfettered ranting felt like a naughty, behind-the-scenes revelation. Now, the reverse feels true: It’s almost nostalgically comforting to watch Selina strive for a distinction between what’s appropriate to say in public versus what she feels safe saying in private. It’s a little surprising that she thinks she can’t just get up on a debate stage and scream about how she should be president solely because it is her damn turn. It’s also a little harder to laugh when Selina and her staff are casually racist, misogynist, or blithely throw out lines about how the entire country is “getting more disgusting by the day” (and then add that the disgusting are a demographic they’re targeting on Facebook). The outside world has gobbled so much of the satirical distance the show used to have from its subject.
As a result, the story line from the new season that feels like the most explicit commentary on current politics is also the one that’s hardest to watch. Jonah, played by Timothy Simons, has always scraped the very bottom of Veep’s barrel of grotesques. He is loathed by everyone; he isn’t capable of compassion, hard work, intelligence, or even self-serving maneuvers. He is, of course, in the midst of the presidential race as the season begins, but Jonah being Jonah, he utterly fails to present a public persona less disgusting than his private one. The joke is that this does not matter at all.
Selina and the field of other candidates vying for a presidential nomination are still playing by some version of the rules. Meanwhile, Jonah’s out there infecting everything he touches with vileness. He’s lost almost all vestiges of his humanity, and whatever pretense he once made that he could engage in acceptable public behavior has been thrown away. You could — but probably should not — forget that he was once a victim of sexual assault, something that seems relevant this season as Jonah gets caught in an inside-out version of #MeToo, where women come forward making public “#NotMe” statements disavowing ever having been in a relationship with him. Of course, Jonah was always terrible, and he was rarely capable of mustering what looked like a mask of decency for public consumption. The difference for Veep’s final season is, this time, there may no longer be any repercussions.
As Selina Meyers’s campaign develops this season, it will be fun to watch whether she finds success by sinking down to Jonah’s level, or whether she tries to stick to some kind of ever-so-slightly higher ground. Her public mask of decency has never been all that effective — the joke inherent in the pivot is that it rarely winds up working as well as Selina would like. If this season of Veep lets Selina’s finally dispense with the ruse, it could be a fascinating way to put a capper on her political career. Is there a level that’s actually too low for her, or at least her public persona? If Jonah’s brand of out-loud awfulness gains traction, does Selina have the stomach to match him?
Either way, Veep is still as hilariously cutting as ever. Its performances are fantastic, its rhythm and density are unparalleled, and its sense of the absurd is still sharp, especially in moments where it mocks political events like the annual Sun Valley conference or the second-tier debate for low-polling candidates. The Jonah plotline is hard to stomach — because it’s meant to be that way — and yet the rest of its stories feel like they’re playing by political rules. That doesn’t make Veep any less watchable, and it still consistently draws blood with its barbed one-liners. But with the end in sight, it’s hard not to look back and see the show as a yardstick of how much things have changed, and how much harder it feels to laugh at the Jonahs of the world today.