This piece contains spoilers for the series finale of Veep.
When Armando Iannucci created Veep in the beginning of this tumultuous decade, he wanted to make a show about American politics set in a place where, in his words, “there’s power but where there’s not power.” Eventually he focused on the vice-president’s office and decided to make that vice-president a woman because, “I thought, well, if it’s a female vice-president then at least we won’t get people saying, ‘So is this Dick Cheney?’”
Instead, he got questions about whether Selina Meyer, the vice-president who would go on to inherit a presidency, then lose it and, in the series finale, ruthlessly reclaim it for herself, was Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton.
“By then we just said, ‘No, it’s Selina Meyer,’” says Iannucci. “That’s who she is.”
Selina Meyer was indeed like no one else. She was the first female president in U.S. history, a trailblazer who broke the highest glass ceiling and who also once walked into a glass door by accident. She was a daughter who resented her mother and a mother who preferred not to be around her own daughter. She hated men — “I’m used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men, i.e. men,” she once said from her seat in the Oval Office — but she hated other women just as much. When her advisor Ben Cafferty suggested this season that she should consider another female candidate, Kemi Talbot, as a running mate, Selina responded: “An all-female ticket? The American people work hard for a living, okay? They don’t need that kind of bullshit.”
By inventing her and then giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus the opportunity to fill her with bluster and bite, Iannucci didn’t intend to make a comedy about an anti-feminist with a low-key feminist streak running through it. But it became clear pretty early in Veep’s run that you can’t tell the story of a woman in American politics without commenting on what it means to be an American woman trying to wield power. And what that means is being such a walking, talking, unapologetic contradiction that it becomes second nature to pivot when the political moment requires it.
Selina Meyer was certainly feminine. She cared about her shoes and her lipstick choices. Her decision to get a less-than-flattering haircut in season three notwithstanding, her sense of fashion and beauty was sharp. (That floral dress she wears in the finale? Gorgeous.) But her behavior is what could be described, in stereotypical terms, as male. She’s aggressive. She’s blatantly ambitious. She curses like an inebriated sailor who learned how to speak English by listening to old Andrew Dice Clay albums. She lies and acts with no regard for ethics; the only principle she follows is, “Me first.”
Based on history and this country’s long-standing relationship with misogyny, a woman with these qualities shouldn’t be able to win over the American people. In the early seasons, Selina doesn’t, exactly. Most of the time she either fails upward by chance — she only becomes president in the third season because she inherited the position from a president concerned about his suicidal First Lady — or she outright loses, be it during an election or something as simple as a photo op at a frozen yogurt shop on D.C.’s U Street.
In the last season, which, as noted in this extensive look at how the finale came together, reflects the darker political climate we’re all living in, Selina embraces what, in a more just world, would seem to be her less-electable qualities. Even her campaign slogans — “New. Selina. Now,” which is practically a command, and “Man Up” — suggest she’s flipping the bird at any ideas about how a female candidate is supposed to behave. By bulldozing over her competitor, Tom James (played by Hugh Laurie), embracing Jonah’s raging idiocy and making him her veep, and then, saddest of all, destroying Gary, the staffer she once promised to never fire because, “I am not going to let go the one person in this core group who actually gives a shit about me,” she finally becomes president. But as we see in the Oval Office scene at the end of the final episode, she’s completely alone. Her core group now consists solely of colleagues who ultimately give no shits about her.
The last episode of Veep, which is called “Veep,” can be described rightly as a cautionary tale. A show that began as an absurdist comedy about Washington weasels run amok ends as a tragedy about a society in which morality no longer seems to matter. David Mandel, the showrunner who took over Veep in season five after Iannucci’s departure, and who wrote this episode, makes it clear that this is not how anyone should strive to be, especially not if one of their goals is to be happy and accomplish something meaningful.
On one hand, the Veep finale is a commentary on and reflection of where things stand in American politics. But on another, it’s a pure fantasy. There is no way a woman could do all the things Selina does and be embraced by the public. We don’t see what happens between the convention and her return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but we assume she had to pull a few additional underhanded tricks out of her bell sleeves to beat incumbent Laura Montez in the general election. It’s hard to imagine that working out in reality.
Even the idea of two women running against each other for president is impossible to fathom in real-life America. Think about this: in Veep world, the United States has experienced not one, not two, but three female-run presidential administrations by the year 2020: Selina’s first one, Montez’s, and then Selina’s second. In the actual United States we haven’t been able to pull that off even once, when the woman running was overqualified for the job and facing a candidate even dumber and more offensive than Jonah Ryan. And if you think that comparison is unfair, I refer you to this week’s latest real-life-imitating-Veep moment.
You think about things like this and, especially if you’re a woman, you can’t help but admire Selina Meyer even if you can’t condone her choices. That’s partly because Louis-Dreyfus is playing her. It’s tempting to say that an appealing actor can make a horrible character likable, but that’s not exactly right. A really gifted actor, and Louis-Dreyfus is, can tap into a flawed person’s depths and reveal the extent to which they’re genuinely figuring out what they’re going to do next in real time. Louis-Dreyfus did that, moment after moment and episode after episode. She didn’t make Selina likable. She made her fascinating.
In the finale, after Selina convinces Michelle to accuse Tom of sexual misconduct, crushing his election hopes and, most likely, his marriage, he comes barreling into Selina’s skybox calling her a monster and a conniving cunt. “What the fuck are you?” he asks, finally, a question that implies she is no longer a human with any sort of soul.
I watched Laurie and Louis-Dreyfus rehearse that scene and film it, and every time Laurie, as Tom, lost it, it was like watching every man on earth give voice to his greatest fear: that a woman, or multiple women, will gang up on him and ruin his entire life. The fact that Michelle’s accusations are a lie — her relationship with Tom was completely consensual — make them a doubly awful thing for Selina to have orchestrated. Not only is this bad for Tom, it’s also bad for women who really have been harassed and want to be heard and believed.
Selina, of course, doesn’t care, and Louis-Dreyfus conveys that by having Selina be as blasé as she can possibly be in the face of Tom’s rage. While rehearsing the scene — which, as initially scripted, has Selina dismiss Tom by saying, “I guess some people can’t play the game” — Louis-Dreyfus asked Mandel: “I just wonder if there’s something else to say? Something you might say about a hysterical woman, but we can do it from a woman’s perspective?” Mandel liked that idea.
When they filmed it, he gave her the line, “She’s so emotional,” the “she” being Tom. Selina says it wryly to the old white senator she’s meeting with when Tom interrupts them. Then Louis-Dreyfus ad-libbed, “This is why we need more women in office.”
I can’t deny that when I watch Selina dismiss him with a “toodle-loo,” a shiver goes up my spine. This is not how anyone should treat another person, in politics or anywhere. Literally no one should do the things that she does. But seeing a woman cut an angry, aggressive, dysfunctional man down to size with the kind of language frequently weaponized against women is undeniably empowering. In the thorny minefield that is gender and politics, there were glimmers of something admirable in the way Selina Meyer did what she had to do, and to hell with what anyone else thought.
MORE ON THE END OF VEEP
- How to Write a Jonah Insult
- The Story Behind Veep’s Final Joke on Selina
- Two Democratic 2020 Presidential Candidates Weigh in on Veep