The table read for the final episode of Veep hasn’t started yet, but the cast is already in tears.
It’s the first Monday in December, and Anna Chlumsky, who plays Amy Brookheimer, the perpetually stressed-out political adviser, is weepy as she hugs colleagues near the bagel spread outside the writers’ room, which is located on the second floor of the two-level Martin Building on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. Timothy Simons, otherwise known as Jonah Ryan, the former White House flunky who became a congressman and then an alarmingly successful presidential candidate, is inside, thumbing through the script. He has cried, by his count, three times so far this morning. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who plays the show’s central power-hungry politician, Selina Meyer — arrives, she’s dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
“Oh God,” she says, noticing an arrangement of white roses on the conference-room table. “We got flowers from the Veep wives.” The roses are from Elspeth Keller, Martel Hale, Annie Simons, and Morgan Walsh, the respective spouses of actors Reid Scott, Tony Hale, Simons, and Matt Walsh. The card is signed, “From the Veep widows,” a joke about how much time the cast members have spent on the show since its premiere in 2012.
“I’m sad to say good-bye,” says Louis-Dreyfus, sitting at the table next to Veep showrunner David Mandel. She’s fully crying by the time she addresses the room, which is filled with actors, writers, and crew members. Both her hands are shaking. “I love everybody here very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. As dysfunctional as this show is, is how good it is.”
It’s jarring to see so many tears here, since the people shedding them are responsible for some of the most coldhearted and despicable characters on TV. Over seven seasons, Selina — who has been a vice-president, a president, and now a presidential candidate again — and her staff have pinballed from one crisis to another, cleaning up messes of their own making, often in dastardly fashion. But they’ve never been as terrible as they are in this last season, which is less a pure comedy of errors and more a slow descent into the heart of darkness.
That’s by design. In 2017, not long after Mandel and the writers first started working on Veep’s ending, they were hit with unexpected news: Louis-Dreyfus had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which required a total shutdown of production while she sought treatment. (She is now cancer free.) When they reconvened in the summer of 2018, they faced the additional challenge of having to craft a satisfying conclusion to a story about behind-the-scenes political atrociousness in a time when real-world, out-in-the-open political atrociousness had become the norm.
In Mandel’s view, Veep’s only choice was to crank up the monstrousness. That meant that in the final act, Selina, who has engaged in truly horrible behavior over the years, would need to do the worst things she’s ever done — and would learn that those choices haven’t harmed her. In 2020, when her campaign is taking place, they actually help her win the presidency. In the process, she destroys her relationships with the people who have, for seven seasons, orbited her like planets around an abusive sun.
What follows is a look at how, in six not-so-easy steps, Mandel, Veep’s writers, Louis-Dreyfus, and the rest of the cast and crew worked together to push Selina Meyer to the dark side. All while crying. A lot.
1. Reward Her Bad Behavior
In the original version of Veep’s finale, as loosely sketched by Mandel and the writers in 2017, Selina was not supposed to be president (again) at all. The initial outline for the episode went something like this: Facing a brokered convention — i.e., what happens when no presidential candidate has enough support from delegates to be the party nominee — Selina asks Jonah to be her running mate. But he takes so long to give her an answer that Selina’s former running mate and on-again, off-again lover, Tom James (Hugh Laurie), winds up clinching the nomination himself. From there, we flash-forward eight years into the future, when Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) — the onetime aide to Jonah who, in the final season, has stumbled into the role of mayor and then governor of Iowa — calls Selina and asks her to be his running mate. It’s implied that she agrees, which would have meant her seven-season journey took her in one big circle, from the vice-presidency all the way back to the vice-presidency.
The writers room reopened last July for a season that would ultimately consist of seven episodes rather than the established ten. (Mandel says there were a few reasons for the reduction, some budget related and others out of deference to Louis-Dreyfus’s health.) In the intervening months, a political atmosphere that was already pretty cuckoo during the 2016 presidential election and early days of the Trump administration had, in Mandel’s view, parachuted even further into the twilight zone. The delay in production forced Mandel and his team to absorb the political changes in a way Veep hadn’t before. “Nobody wanted Julia to get cancer,” says the showrunner, who took over in season five after the departure of series creator Armando Iannucci. “That being said, I do think I’ll look back and say to myself that Julia’s cancer was the best thing that happened to the series.”
When Veep debuted on April 22, 2012, Barack Obama was wrapping up his first term and Donald Trump was still best known as the host of The Apprentice and someone only toying with the idea of running for president. On television at the time, scripted D.C.-centric stories tended to be fodder for drama — see Homeland and Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal, which debuted on ABC two weeks before Veep premiered. American politics was dysfunctional, and certainly begging for satire, but the news didn’t cause meaningful alarm among liberal HBO viewers. Most of the comedy in Veep’s early seasons was rooted in workplace pettiness that rang true inside the Beltway but wasn’t necessarily a comment on any real-life Executive-branch drama.
Recap: A Guide to the Seven Seasons of Veep
➽ Selina Meyer is early in her term as vice-president under President Stuart Hughes, with whom she has little contact. When she fires a Secret Service officer for smiling, the White House investigates, prompting Selina’s staff to release a massive email dump that seems transparent but withholds some key embarrassing facts. Ultimately, her chief of staff becomes the scapegoat for the Secret Service debacle.
➽ Selina is eyeing a potential presidential run but tries to keep it to herself. First she has to deal with a government shutdown and a scandal over a presidential cover-up involving a recently freed hostage in Uzbekistan who was actually working as a spy. As the word impeachment starts being whispered — “I hate impeachments. They’re so ’90s,” says Selina — President Hughes decides he won’t seek reelection, clearing the way for Selina.
➽ Shifting into campaign mode, Selina and her staff try to boost her image, an effort stymied by a potentially formidable opponent, a bad haircut, questions about her relationship with her personal trainer, and an attempt to be folksy by standing on a titanium-reinforced $1,200 crate during campaign appearances. But when Hughes steps down in the wake of the First Lady’s suicide attempt, Selina suddenly becomes president.
➽ The presidential race is shaken up by a scandal involving private medical records’ being used to target bereaved parents with mailers. Selina’s new running mate, former senator Tom James, is so likable that he immediately upstages her. The election ends in an Electoral College tie, which sends the decision to the House of Representatives. “The rule book’s been torn up now, and America is wiping its nasty ass with it,” fumes an angry Selina.
➽ After a congressman dies, Selina ally Jonah Ryan is appointed to the seat. As the House prepares to decide the presidency, Tom maneuvers to keep the tie, which would make the vice-president-elect — that would be Tom — president. Hoping to run again in four years, Selina tries to get her opponent elected so Tom can’t win. After more ties, the sitting vice-president, who’s not a Selina fan, appoints Senator Laura Montez as president.
➽ Selina turns to the usual work of former presidents: writing her memoirs, making plans for her presidential library, creating a charity. She attends the unveiling of her presidential portrait, which takes place during yet another government shutdown; with White House staff furloughed, they have to serve junk food. Then, against all advice from family and colleagues, Selina decides to run for president again. But so does Jonah.
➽ Selina’s second run for president is mired in scandals involving the Chinese government’s improper support and her ex-husband Andrew’s embezzlement of funds. When it looks as if Andrew may be indicted, Selina’s campaign manager interprets her request to “take care of it” too broadly and has Andrew’s boat blown up. Meanwhile, Jonah’s rants about Muslims and anti-vaxx rhetoric are gaining traction.
Over time, though, the show skewed darker. Iannucci, who had also created the British political TV satire The Thick of It, believes that shift began during his tenure, when Selina inherited the presidency from Stuart Hughes, her predecessor, who had resigned. “By season four, [Selina] was much, much hungrier for power,” he says.
“It’s like the taste of the job makes her worse,” says Mandel, whose previous writing credits include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. By the time they started to break season seven for a second time, it had become harder to mindlessly watch a political comedy for entertainment. Now, reading the news or scanning social media was the equivalent of binge-watching an entire season of Veep every day. “I started to wonder, in a world where Trump and a lot of these other people have risen to power without paying the price for their mistakes and miscues, why exactly is Selina Meyer the only one paying the price?” explains Mandel. “In some ways, is the notion of her paying the price this outdated notion?” The only direction for Veep, he felt, was toward an even bleaker worldview.
In his initial notes last summer for what would become the series finale, Mandel wrote two sentences: “Cut to the White House — she’s won the presidency. She’s our Trump.” Before she could get there, the writers put several obstacles in Selina’s way, some of which they’d started to brainstorm back in 2017: a lack of delegate support; the threat of Senator Tom James, who had been in the presidential race but dropped out, emerging at the 11th hour to snag the nomination; and the specter of federal prosecutors reopening an investigation into potentially criminal activity surrounding her charity, the Meyer Fund, which has been a running story line this season.
Overcoming each obstacle requires Selina to resort to new, ever-lower lows. To dispatch Tom, she persuades his chief of staff and mistress, Michelle (Rhea Seehorn), to publicly accuse him of sexual misconduct, sinking both his campaign and his marriage. To win the party support she needs, she promises Nevada governor Buddy Calhoun (Matt Oberg) that in exchange for his delegates, she’ll ban same-sex marriage, a slap in the face to Selina’s daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who has recently married her partner, Marjorie (Clea DuVall). To secure more delegates, she also taps Jonah — running for president himself on a platform of racism and conspiracy theories — to be her VP. And to put the Meyer Fund controversy to rest, she does the truly unthinkable.
“At end — Selina doing the worst thing she’s ever done,” Mandel wrote in his finale notes. “She has to shoot Fredo in the head, and Fredo is Gary.” As Mandel would write in a more detailed first draft over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend, Selina forces her loyal bagman, Gary (Tony Hale), to unwittingly take the fall for the misappropriation of Meyer Fund money.
“There was the question of what is the final thing she might do if she really was so desperate to get the presidency?” Mandel says. “And I’ll admit, for a while we did not know what that was. Well, what’s the one thing you just don’t ever expect her to do? As mean and as horrible as it is, you kill your lovable screwup of a brother, and that’s Gary.”
Louis-Dreyfus and Hale have been steeling themselves for filming that so-called Fredo moment. “We’re going to be a mess,” she tells me.
2. Sharpen Her Motivation
The table read ends with a performance by a mariachi band (another gift from the Veep widows), who play the show’s theme song along with Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” prompting everyone in the room to sing along loudly. Afterward, Louis-Dreyfus sits down with Mandel and the writers to give feedback on the script. Hanging on the wall behind her is an enemies list the writers have cheekily compiled over the course of the last season. James Marsden is at the top: The Westworld star was almost cast in a previous episode, as Jonah’s much discussed but never seen cousin Ezra, but was unable to take the role. The words breast cancer were later added to the margin with an arrow pointing above Marsden’s name, usurping his position as enemy No. 1. (Other enemies on the list: chives, creamy gazpacho — an order from a local restaurant gave the entire writing staff indigestion — and time.)
“Good job, everybody. This was a great achievement,” says Louis-Dreyfus, before moving on to specifics: “Keep an eye on the ‘cunts.’ We’ve got a lot of ‘cunts’ in here.” Some notes involve her fellow actors (she asks if they can add something more for Reid Scott because the finale is light on Dan Egan moments), but she also steers the writers and Mandel, the credited writer and director of the episode, back to the big picture. “From a Selina point of view, it feels a little one-note,” Louis-Dreyfus continues. “She needs a little more growth.” The writers agree that the finale needs to better explain the motivations for Selina’s actions — she may be a monster, but she still has to make sense.
Louis-Dreyfus routinely meets with Mandel and his staff at this point in the process, which isn’t unusual for a show on which the star is an executive producer. “You’re also talking about one of the funniest people on earth, who has loads of sitcom experience,” Mandel says, “which makes Julia’s notes that much more helpful.”
During the transition between Iannucci and Mandel, she was a steadying presence behind the scenes. The change in leadership was a major shift. “There were some growing pains in the beginning,” Scott says. “I don’t think anyone will deny that.” Louis-Dreyfus both understood the way Iannucci worked and was in sync with Mandel’s sensibility. Under Iannucci, Veep was based in Baltimore and the group worked in a loose, improvisational environment, doing free-form rehearsals after the table reads, which led to rewrites based on what had surfaced when the actors got scenes up on their feet. When Mandel came onboard, Veep HQ relocated to L.A. with a mostly new group of writers handpicked by Mandel. His approach was still improvisational but more writers’-room-based than Iannucci’s.
One constant under both showrunners is that nothing is set in stone. Cast members often get new dialogue tossed at them in the middle of a scene. The writers are always rewriting, practically up until the moment the cameras roll. “It’s a hard show to do,” Louis-Dreyfus tells me. “It’s written, but it needs to feel messy. It’s improvised, but it’s also rehearsed. It’s all of the above. It’s an absolute stew of stuff. It’s fun when it works. When it’s not working, it’s agonizing.”
One agonizing problem area is an exchange between Selina and Michelle at the hospital where Selina’s adviser, Ben (Kevin Dunn), is recovering from a heart attack. First, Tom shows up, ostensibly to visit Ben but also to tell Selina that if he becomes the party’s presidential nominee, he won’t offer her a role in his administration. After Tom leaves, a furious Selina decides the best way to derail his campaign is to convince Michelle to backstab him. She approaches Michelle and says, in this iteration of the script, “You should know, while Tom was cheating on his pregnant wife with you, he was cheating on you with me. Hope you like sloppy seconds.” Shortly after, Michelle holds a press conference to accuse Tom of sexual misconduct, which, we’re meant to understand, Selina helped orchestrate.
“This is a hard leap for me,” says Louis-Dreyfus, noting that it’s unclear what Selina is trying to accomplish by telling Michelle that Tom had cheated on her. Alex Gregory, one of the writers, asks if Selina should treat Michelle in a more sisterly way during their hospital chat, as though she were trying to warn her about Tom. “She could say, ‘He’s going to dump you,’” offers Jen Crittenden, a writer who worked with Mandel and Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld. The following day, Mandel asks writer Gaby Allan to rework the scene so that Selina insults Michelle in a less flip way, one that makes her question whether Tom could fire her because their relationship is a liability.
Louis-Dreyfus also thinks Selina generally needs more of a nudge toward all of the terrible decisions she makes. Mandel points out that she hasn’t fully reacted to the heart attack suffered by Ben, who is the most veteran adviser on her team and the person whose opinion she values above all others’.
“Should she have a conversation with Ben?” Louis-Dreyfus wonders. “And ask, ‘When are you back on your feet?’” In Mandel’s notes for the finale, he characterized Ben’s heart attack as “symbolic to [Selina’s] last remaining bit of conscience.” If Ben isn’t there to guide her, she’ll need to make her own judgment calls. “Then it’s a series of foul motivations, one after the other,” Louis-Dreyfus continues. “It could be a Wizard of Oz moment.” She compares it to Glinda the Good Witch reminding Dorothy she’s had the power to go home all along. For Selina, home is the White House, and Ben will tell her she already knows what to do to get there. Selina will conclude that it’s getting Tom out of the way, teaming up with Jonah, and throwing Gary under the bus.
The next day, Mandel stands in front of the writers’ room whiteboard with a marker in his hand. “Think of this as the sweet spot,” he says, putting a fat, messy asterisk next to scene 731, the one at the hospital. Between Selina’s chat with Tom and her confrontation with Michelle, he plans to add that Selina–Ben–Wizard of Oz moment so her motivation will be clear. This is the pivot point, the moment that leads Selina to put on her Darth Vader mask for good.
When the scene is shot two weeks later, you can see Louis-Dreyfus shedding the last of Selina’s humanity. “You’re my hatchet man,” she tells Ben while sitting beside him in his hospital bed, where he’s hooked up to machines and monitors. “You’re the hatchet man. How can I do this without you?” (On every run of the scene, Louis-Dreyfus is genuinely sobbing, which explains why she Instagrammed this photo of herself that morning.) Her best, most measured work comes after a few takes. When Dunn tells her she knows what to do, Louis-Dreyfus pauses a beat, sits up straight, and dials her facial expression from distraught to determined. In those few seconds, whatever moral compass Selina had left is replaced with a ruthless, unwavering intent to get what she wants.
3. Write Her Some Nasty Dialogue
Because scenes are shot out of sequence and Veep rewrites never stop, all of the writers are back around that conference-room table on the last day of production, punching up the confrontation between Selina and Michelle that comes right after that conversation with Ben. Over seven seasons, Veep’s characters have delivered some all-time-great sick burns. This one needs to be one of the sickest. And they’re going to start shooting it in about 30 minutes.
Selina’s Michelle speech has already been rewritten and punched up once. At the moment, their back-and-forth is scripted as:
President Meyer (referring to Tom): Can’t say I blame you. That Nutmeg State indefinable turns my faucet on. The only difference is I was the most exciting conquest of his life. And you were the last one off the campaign bus.
Michelle: Excuse me, I am the senator’s chief of —
President Meyer: Yeah, for now. But trust me, he’ll never see you as anything more than the TGI Friday’s hostess on Proactiv who lets him bend you over his desk while you close your eyes to avoid coming face-to-face with the framed photo of his family’s trip to Aspen. I just hate to see smart women throw away their political careers so powerful men don’t have to spend campaign funds on prostitutes. Are you a smart woman?
Selina walks away, leaving Michelle to ponder.
Mandel has asked the writers to come up with alternatives for the line “You were the last one off the campaign bus.”
“You were the gash of least resistance,” suggests Gregory. “You like that one?”
“I think so,” Mandel says. “We’ve got to get this a little more into Penny Nickerson territory,” referring to a scene from season five in which Selina tells Representative Nickerson that if she doesn’t vote for her for president, she will “have the IRS crawl so far up your husband’s colon, he’s going to wish the only thing they find is more cancer.” That was another moment when Selina convinced another woman to do her bidding while speaking to the woman in the most insulting language imaginable. This is what Mandel and the writers are going for, but worse.
“I mean, the simple version,” Mandel says, “is ‘While you close your eyes to avoid coming face-to-face with the framed photo of his family trip to Aspen while he comes —’”
Writer Billy Kimball chimes in: “On your back.”
“On your face,” offers Allan, launching a discussion of whether it’s physically possible for Tom to come on Michelle’s face while she’s bent over and looking at his family photo.
“A quick note to all the media here,” writer Pete Huyck says, referring specifically to this writer, “all the women are pitching the dirtiest shit in this room. And by all the women, I mean Gaby.”
Mandel wonders if changing it to “TGI Fridays late-shift hostess” makes it any worse.
“Airport TGI Friday’s?” Kimball offers. There’s laughter in the room.
Mandel offers the prompt “He comes …?” to see where they take it.
“On your T.J.Maxx skirt?” Allan says.
“You pray that his semen is curing your backne?” Crittenden says.
How about, Lew Morton suggests, “He forgets your name before his cum hits your back?”
“While he stares at his own reflection in the cum puddle on your back,” says Kimball.
“Geez,” says Crittenden, semi-aghast.
“Come on,” says Gregory, “we’ve all been there.”
The writers continue to think of things Tom could hypothetically ejaculate on.
Emilia Barrosse: “While he comes on your butterfly back tat? Or your Disney-princess back tat?”
Mandel, laughing: “Your Little Mermaid back tat.”
Dan O’Keefe: “Your Ann Taylor Loft twinset.”
Mandel: “I don’t know, I think we’ve done clothing. I think I’m good with that area.”
“Okay,” Allan says, pausing deliberately. “The Gap?”
The room cracks up.
Crittenden: “When he comes on your problem areas?”
Steve Hely: “While he comes and screams, ‘I’m on the Judiciary Committee’?”
This goes on for 20 more minutes, until they settle on something that, roughly half an hour later, Louis-Dreyfus is saying for the cameras in an expression of gross hostility toward another woman.
Meet the Writers
Background: Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld (“The Bizarro Jerry” episode was one of his), Clerks: The Animated Series, which he co-created, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Sample finale joke: Jonah’s response to being screamed at by Uncle Jeff and Selina, after he initially turns down her offer to join the Meyer ticket: “Fine, I’ll be Vice-President. Just stop yelling at me.”
Background: Saturday Night Live (alongside Mandel), News Radio, Futurama, Family Guy, Arrested Development, and Big Mouth.
Sample finale joke: In a war room scene where Uncle Jeff screams into the phone at a member of the Vermont delegation, Morton came up with Jeff’s kicker after he hangs up: “I’ll give ’em five minutes and then I’ll hit ’em with bad cop.”
Background: The Simpsons, the HBO sketch comedy series Not Necessarily the News, and the Academy Awards. He has also collaborated for many years with Al Franken and produced his Air America radio show.
Sample finale joke: Suggested that Selina refer to Tom James as “that Nutmeg State indefinable.”
Background: The Late Show With David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, and King of the Hill.
Sample finale joke: Came up with the phrase “gash of least resistance,” which winds up in a speech Selina delivers to Tom James’s chief of staff Michelle.
Background: The Late Show With David Letterman, The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, and King of the Hill. (He and Gregory are basically a team.)
Sample finale joke: Huyck pitched a line for Kent to say upon running into Amy, who is dressing like a cross between Kellyanne Conway and a prostitute: “Love the choice you’re making with that hairstyle, Amy. There’s a fine line between professional and ‘professional,’ and you’re straddling it commendably.”
Background: The lone British holdover from the early seasons of Veep, Pritchett’s credits include The Thick of It, Tracey Ullman’s Show, and Succession.
Sample finale joke: Pitched something Jonah says while watching Mike’s news coverage of Selina’s funeral, 24 years in the future: “How does Mike have more hair than me?”
Background: Writing and producing credits include The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Divorce.
Sample finale joke: Pitched a joke for Selina, who is on the phone trying to diffuse concerns among delegates: “This whole Meyer Fund story is a distraction, like how a magician does tricks to distract you from how depressing his life is.”
Background: Scrubs, Divorce, and the Christina Applegate comedy Jesse.
Sample finale joke: A pitch for Congressman Roger Furlong to say to Selina as he attempts to persuade her to make Kemi Talbot, a rival candidate, her running mate: “You don’t have to watch Grease and chew each other’s boxes.”
Background: Not Necessarily the News, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and Man Seeking Woman.
Sample finale joke or writers room comment: Pitched a closer for Uncle Jeff’s line, “The Jews have a word for this feeling. I can’t remember what it is but …” His capper: “… it sounds like a horse stepping on a sea cucumber.”
Background: The Late Show With David Letterman, 30 Rock, The Office, and American Dad!
Sample finale joke or writers room comment: In response to Selina’s “That’s not fucking funny, Kent,” Hely pitched the Kent line: “I haven’t tried to be funny since I gave up prop comedy.”
Background: Friends, Rules of Engagement, and Worst Week.
Sample finale joke: Ted came up with this line for Gary to say after Selina implies she’s not “big-titted”: “We’ve never had a complaint.”
Background: The Daily Show, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Bored to Death, and How I Met Your Mother.
Sample finale joke: Selina tells Kent to pretend to talk to her about numbers. Rachel pitched the Kent line: “To me, the most compelling number is not a number at all. It’s a concept.”
Background: Crank Yankers, Important Things With Demetri Martin, Nathan for You, and Son of Zorn. He’s also the voice of Tina Belcher on Bob’s Burgers.
Sample finale joke: When disabled war veteran and Selina’s almost-running mate Governor DeVito takes forever to walk across the stage, Gary suggests he should lie down and roll. Mintz wrote this response for Selina: “If he knew how to do that, the bomb wouldn’t have hit him in the first place.”
Background: Wrote and/or served as producer on Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, The League, Married, and Silicon Valley.
Sample finale joke: O’Keefe crafted Kent’s response to Selina’s comment, “I honestly think we’re in hell”: “No such place, ma’am. The concept of hell is a dim cultural memory of pre-Mosaic child sacrifices by fire among proto-Judean peoples.”
Background: This is the first staff writing job for Barrosse, who was promoted from writer’s production assistant to staff writer for the final season. She got the job because the jokes, or “alts,” she offered through an anonymous submission process were often chosen by Mandel. Georgia Pritchett made sure people knew Barrosse had written them.
Sample finale joke: Submitted this alt for Selina to say at the end of Furlong’s meeting with the delegates: “Well, thank you, Roger, that was a bigger waste of time than a congressional hearing on sexual misconduct.”
Background: Saturday Night Live, Documentary Now! Kenward works on Veep part time and was not in the writers room for the majority of the finale; he works in-person on Veep during breaks from Saturday Night Live, where he is still a writer.
It’s notable that Veep’s run has played out against the transition from the Obama administration to Trump’s. But it’s just as notable that we’ve watched Selina evolve — or rather, devolve — while this country has more openly wrestled with its mixed feelings about women seeking power. When Veep debuted, Hillary Clinton was secretary of State. By its fourth season, in which Selina takes over the presidency, Clinton was again a presidential candidate. (She announced her candidacy, in fact, on the same day that season four of Veep premiered.) In 2019, more female candidates are seeking the presidency than ever, but even the quickest scan of Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez headlines will tell you that American culture is still uneasy about women who announce their ambition.
Selina is aware that it’s harder to be a woman in politics than it is to be a man. “I’ll tell you something, Amy, a lot of people don’t want me to be president,” she says in the season-five episode “C***gate.” “And you know why. Because fundamentally, people hate women.” At the same time, she’s about as willing to champion other women as an uncensored Tucker Carlson during a newly unearthed radio chat with Bubba the Love Sponge. Behind the scenes, Louis-Dreyfus is always considering these contradictions. During a Sunday-afternoon rehearsal, she, Laurie, Seehorn, Mandel, and several of the writers are standing in the hospital set, talking through a scene prior to the Selina-Michelle confrontation, when Louis-Dreyfus raises some questions. She’s uncomfortable with a line in which Selina asks Tom if he wants her to beg for a job: “I seem to remember you liking me down on my knees. Is that what you want?”
“It seems weak,” Louis-Dreyfus observes. She proposes that Tom could speak condescendingly to Selina instead, suggesting he tell her she “was a force for women,” with emphasis on the “was.”
Mandel wonders if Selina might move closer to Tom or try to touch him.
“I don’t want to play anything sexual,” counters Louis-Dreyfus.
“I’m just wondering, does it get there?” Mandel asks. “How low is she willing
“It feels too down the middle,” she insists.
“If he doesn’t want to be touched by you, it might speak to the past,” Mandel says. He’s trying to highlight the romantic subtext as well as the political text.
“My only concern is it’s a woman using her ways,” Louis-Dreyfus argues. “She’s better than that — not better than that, but we’re more clever with her.” Later she flags a couple of lines from Michelle’s press conference: The character refers to herself as a “girl” twice; she believes she should use the word woman. (Two of the female writers had also noticed this, and Louis-Dreyfus is aware of that.)
Louis-Dreyfus tells me she often gives feedback like this. “I’m just struck by all those kinds of things because of my point of view,” she says, adding that Mandel is receptive to her suggestions. “It doesn’t mean he doesn’t disagree with me sometimes, because he wasn’t so sure about the girl thing. We have creative differences, and when we’ve had those creative differences, we usually shoot it both ways, and occasionally I will really put my foot down and just say, ‘Uh, no, this is not going to work.’ But that’s really not the norm. We’re in step with one another.”
After rehearsal, when Mandel and the writers revisit the scene, the “down on my knees” line is cut. The day the scene is shot, per Louis-Dreyfus’s suggestion, Mandel gives Tom this condescending line instead: “The party and the nation will never forget all the door you pushed open.” That’s door instead of doors because of a spell-checking error in the Final Draft software Mandel uses. Since it was funnier and more insulting, he decided to keep it. “I could have taken credit,” Mandel jokes with the writers. “You assholes wouldn’t have known the difference. When I wrote door — fuck, I was in the zone.”
As for girl, one instance gets switched to woman, and one stays as is. On Veep, if not in politics, there is something called compromise.
There is also something called nailing it. While shooting Selina’s confrontation with Michelle, Mandel throws Louis-Dreyfus an updated version of her speech based on the writers’-room discussion from earlier:
Trust me, he’ll never see you as anything more than the TGI Friday’s hostess on Proactiv who lets him bend you over his desk while you close your eyes to avoid coming face-to-face with the framed photo of his family’s trip to Aspen, while he drowns that Little Mermaid back tat in a pool of jizz and admires his own reflection.
“This is a best of the writers’ room,” Mandel tells his star. In other words, it’s a classic Veep run-on sentence of strange and profane imagery, and Louis-Dreyfus masters it on the first take. When cut is called, Hale pats her back. “That was awesome,” he says. Then Mandel interjects with a note: She forgot to say “pool of jizz” and just said “jizz.” Which, as he explains, is important. “We need it for the reflection.”
4. Outsource the Worst Stuff to Jonah
It’s late in the afternoon on the first Thursday of filming, and Louis-Dreyfus is shooting a scene in a skybox at the party convention, in which Selina attempts to explain to Amy and Kent (Gary Cole), her numbers guy, her decision to ask Jonah to be her vice-president.
Her lines are a tongue twister:
Trust me, Amy, I’ve been veep, and there is no safer place to stick Jonah Ryan in all of Washington, D.C. Being vice-president is like being declawed, defanged, neutered, ball-gagged, and sealed in an abandoned mine shaft under two miles of human shit. It’s a fate worse than death. Besides, I’m not going to die. I have the heart and the twat of a cheerleader who’s only done anal.
Selina’s message is important because it shows two of her closest colleagues that she’s willing to cross one of the reddest lines imaginable: inviting Jonah — an immature White House wannabe whom she once referred to as Jolly Green Jizzface — to be her political partner. It’s also a densely worded monologue that needs to rush out of Louis-Dreyfus in one continuous blast expressing the pent-up frustrations she has felt for the past seven seasons. Saying dialogue exactly as it’s written isn’t always top priority. But getting the pace and tone right is important, and the verbosity of this particular monologue makes that challenging.
Louis-Dreyfus delivers the speech with gusto every time, but for several takes in a row she hits verbal speed bumps. On one, she almost makes it to the end but gets tangled on the line about the cheerleader. On another, she grinds to a halt near the part about the abandoned mine shaft, which becomes “an abandoned fucking shaft.” “God,” she says, during a break. “It’s so hard to get it all out.” In one take, the mine shaft becomes a coal shaft. In another, an aluminum shaft. After that one, Louis-Dreyfus collapses on Chlumsky, hugging her. “You’re doing great,” Chlumsky says. On the next try, Louis-Dreyfus gets the shaft part right but says “buried under a shit-ton of shit.”
Mandel walks over to give her notes. “If you can make it build toward ‘fate worse than death’ and then keep building it,” he says. “Only. Done. Anal,” he adds, pounding his chest on each word. She nods. On the next take, she sails through the whole thing, not flubbing a single word and building to an “only done anal” crescendo delivered with such intensity that her face looks like a rubber band about to snap. After this eruption, there’s little doubt left that Selina Meyer will do whatever it takes to become president — even enlist Jonah Ryan.
Selina may be “our Trump,” as Mandel put it, but Jonah is certainly the other Trump in Veep’s final season, the candidate whose campaign picks up steam as his rhetoric becomes more dangerous. He functions as an exaggerated counterpart to the more grounded-in-reality Selina. “Jonah kinda gets the blind idiocy and self-involvement” aspect, Simons tells me. “Also a lot of the racism falls to Jonah.”
8 Times Real Life Resembled Veep
Veep airdate: May 13, 2012
Senator Bill O’Brien calls for a border wall because his Arizona constituents feel “outnumbered in their own country.”
Real-life event: June 16, 2015
Donald Trump says he is running for president and that he will build a “great, great wall” between the U.S. and Mexico.
Veep airdate: May 4, 2014
Dan tells Jonah he owes his D.C. career to family connections — “because your uncle is Donald Chump.”
Real-life event: November 8, 2016
Donald Trump is elected the 45th president of the United States of America.
Veep airdate: June 8, 2014
Just before Selina is sworn in, a headline announces that Kim Kardashian has taken a selfie with Selina’s daughter.
Real-life event: May 30, 2018
Kim Kardashian discusses criminal-justice reform with Trump. They take a skin-crawlingly awkward Oval Office photo.
Veep airdate: April 24, 2016
There’s a debate about how the state’s name is pronounced: Is it Nev-AH-da or Nev-AD-ah? (It’s Nev-AD-ah.)
Real-life event: October 5, 2016
At a Reno rally, Trump repeatedly insists that the state’s name is pronounced Nev-AH-da, even though locals disagree.
Veep airdate: May 29, 2016
Candidate Jonah Ryan shoots a commercial that features him in plaid flannel, chopping awkwardly at a tree stump.
Real-life event: March 18, 2017
A New York Times profile of Donald Trump Jr. runs with a photo of him in plaid flannel, pensively sitting on a tree stump.
Veep airdate: May 28, 2017
Owing to a government shutdown, junk food is served at Selina’s presidential-portrait unveiling.
Real-life event: January 14, 2019
During this year’s shutdown, Trump hosts the Clemson Tigers football team and serves them a buffet of fast food.
Veep airdate: June 18, 2017
“I once dry-shaved that woman’s legs under her desk during a cabinet meeting,” Amy says of working for Selina.
Real-life event: February 11, 2019
David Mandel confirms the leg-shaving line was inspired by rumors about Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar.
Veep airdate: June 25, 2017
In a campaign speech, Jonah says, “God bless the United States of America, and Puerto Rico, if they can vote for president.”
Real-life event: April 2, 2019
Grumbling about Puerto Rican officials requesting money after Hurricane Maria, Trump says they “only take from USA.”
Mandel says Veep purposely avoids any specific references to Trump, but they’ve gotten close when it comes to Jonah. “We’re never going to pick an actual statement Trump makes and then do it,” says the showrunner. “But we look at things like his just absolute disregard for scientific fact. Something like that has turned into Jonah’s attack on math, which also involves racism against Muslims. And if you go back to Trump’s inaugural address, the way he described America as this crumbling apocalypse — that is something that goes into Jonah’s philosophy this year, this concept of attacking America in the name of defending America.” But Mandel is careful to keep that in check. During one writers’-room session, when Huyck wonders whether Jonah, after becoming vice-president, would keep holding rallies instead of doing his actual job, Mandel dismisses the idea as “too Trump World.”
Still, in the finale, Jonah does hold a brief rally during the convention, firing up his base just as his delegate count is beginning to surge. Early on a brisk morning in December, the penultimate day of filming, a group of background actors has assembled on the front steps of L.A.’s Skirball Center, where the rally is being staged.
“I want to see how crazy you can get,” says the second AD as he tries to pump up the supporters, several of whom are wearing red “Jonah Ryan for President” baseball caps that could easily pass for MAGA hats.
“I love America,” Simons says with a confidence so big it threatens to bust through his signature suspenders, “but it’s time to face facts: This is a horrific country that is falling apart because it is full of people that are different than me.”
The extras cheer but not as much as Mandel would like. Jeff Rosenberg, the first AD, whom everyone at Veep refers to as Rosey, addresses the actors again. “Background, I would give you a four,” he says. “Let’s get it up to a nine.”
“To be clear,” he adds. “This guy is a terrible candidate. You love him.”
5. Nail the Betrayal
The University of Southern California’s Galen Center has been transformed, for the purposes of the Veep finale, into the Spectrum Center of Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of a political convention, one of the more ambitious undertakings in the show’s history. More than 500 extras have been outfitted with red-white-and-blue top hats and “New.Selina.Now” signs that they wave ecstatically but silently from the stands, as though someone had pressed the mute button on their applause. A glowing podium sits center stage. This is where Selina Meyer will accept the nomination for president of the United States. But first, she has to do something despicable.
It’s the morning of production day four, and it’s time for the Fredo scene, the one Louis-Dreyfus expected she and Hale might have a tough time handling for emotional reasons. Selina and Gary’s relationship is the most freakishly co-dependent in modern television. Gary is Selina’s bagman, but he’s also her personal assistant, her walking, whispering Siri, her own personal DoorDash, and her greatest admirer despite the dismissive, often fully disrespectful, way she treats him. Watching in person as Louis-Dreyfus and Hale physically bring that odd symbiosis to life — during multiple takes one day, she casually flings her purse behind her as she enters, and on every single fling, Hale scoops it right up — is like watching a pair of ice dancers who’ve been partners since childhood.
In the scene, Selina thanks Gary, in her way, for everything he’s ever done for her. “You’re a lifesaver — I couldn’t have done it without you,” she tells him, knowing she’s sending him to the metaphorical electric chair. For Selina, this moment comes with a wave of sadness and regret that she must immediately shake off to make her acceptance speech. For Gary, it’s a thrill to watch her win and, for once, show some appreciation for his years of servitude. She knows what’s coming for Gary. Gary does not. The actors need to play the moment with all of that in mind, while knowing this is also a good-bye to the collaboration they’ve developed. Plus they need to do it while Gary is trying to floss a piece of granola out of Selina’s teeth, a touch added by Louis-Dreyfus.
On the “You’re a lifesaver” line, which Selina follows with a hug, Louis-Dreyfus is crying. When cut is called, Hale is wiping away tears too. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I’m not supposed to be crying.”
They try it again, still crying.
“I don’t want to give it away,” says Louis-Dreyfus, who’s concerned that her emotion would indicate to Gary that something is wrong. “I’ve gotta get my shit together.”
“I think it’s okay if you have that moment,” Hale says. “But I sure as hell shouldn’t.”
Mandel comes over to consult. “I feel like Gary knows too much,” he tells Hale. “Right now, you, Tony, know what’s going on. But Gary should be thrilled. You have been waiting for this for 18 years.”
After another take, Louis-Dreyfus and Hale walk down to video village so they can watch playback of what they just did and try to recalibrate. Crittenden offers Hale an alternate line for him to say in response to Selina’s “I couldn’t have done it without you”: “You’ll never have to.” The add, plus a little joking between the actors (“No pressure,” Louis-Dreyfus says before letting out an operatic “Ahhhhh”), releases some tension. There’s still crying in the next take — even writer Ted Cohen is wiping his eyes by this point — but it feels more controlled, more true to the scene.
They do it a couple more times, incorporating a suggestion from Gregory — Gary says, “I’m not going anywhere,” just before Selina goes onstage — and another from Crittenden who advises that Gary, post-flossing, should tell Selina she has a chia seed in her teeth. While still emotional, the next take strikes the right tone. Louis-Dreyfus and Hale watch again in playback and seem satisfied. “I need a psychiatrist on set,” says Louis-Dreyfus, laughing.
Now it’s time for Fredo to die. The next scene is Gary’s arrest during Selina’s speech, which is followed by her onstage celebration. This is shot in the order in which it occurs in the script, so when they get to the celebration, which involves a massive balloon drop, the crew will have three chances to get it right. They have 3,000 balloons; 1,000 will fall on each attempt. Before cameras roll, Mandel, producers Morgan Sackett and David Hyman, and Louis-Dreyfus watch footage of the balloon-heavy aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential-nomination acceptance speech on an iPad for inspiration on how everyone should move onstage.
“I wanted to say a word about sacrifice,” Louis-Dreyfus, as Selina, says from the podium. “It means to lose something for the greater good. And when I look back on my 52 years, with almost 30 of them spent in public service, there’s no one who has sacrificed more than me.”
Mandel tells Hale they are going to try a few different versions: In one, Gary resists the FBI agents as they arrest him; in another, he goes quietly; and in a third, Selina briefly locks eyes with him during the line about sacrifice. All three are attempted, but it’s that last one — in which Selina sees Gary for a second, then turns back to her audience while he looks on, stunned and betrayed — that has the most impact.
After that, the clown car empties. Selina is joined onstage by Jonah, Amy, and the rest of their band of bozos, while Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which was just cleared for use a few days earlier, blares from the PA system. Mandel was adamant that it was the only song that would work for this scene, and it’s obvious why. For starters, it refers back to a comment Selina made in season five, about how she would have Billy Joel sing at her inauguration. But it also speaks to the notion that America has, and always will be, filled with corruption and sin, without taking personal responsibility for any of it. More important, from a comedy perspective, its singsongy list-making provides the ideal soundtrack for a bunch of white people dancing around like morons.
As the balloons drop once, twice, and then a third time, everybody improvises. Simons grabs Louis-Dreyfus’s hand and raises it in victory, practically catapulting her into the air. During one take, she tells him, “Put your arm around my waist; let’s see how inappropriate it gets.” Simons does it and then Louis-Dreyfus squirms away. He does it again, she keeps squirming. On Mandel’s instructions, Chlumsky starts to rock out excessively. Louis-Dreyfus keeps pointing at random people in the audience and smiling with her mouth open extra-wide, a move clearly borrowed from Clinton. Then she does a move of her own: a hip swivel that threatens to, but doesn’t quite, turn into the Elaine from Seinfeld. Selina may have no sense of decency, but even she has a (slightly) better sense of rhythm than Elaine Benes.
6. Give Her a (Brief) Moment of Doubt
When it comes time to shoot Veep’s final scene, it’s the Tuesday before Christmas. The cast, writers, and crew, as well as family and friends, surround video village; everybody wants to be there for Selina Meyer’s final moments. After they wrap, they’ll all swarm into the Oval Office to listen to Louis-Dreyfus make another a teary speech.
But first, she needs to shoot that last scene, which takes place in a meticulously designed replica of the Oval Office in the middle of a soundstage on the Paramount lot. In it, Selina will reflect on the choices she’s made. Louis-Dreyfus is jittery; the scene calls for Selina to sign some documents, and after an early aborted take, she realizes she has signed them as Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
The hardest moment comes when Selina sits alone at her desk after dismissing her staff: Michelle and Selina’s chipper yet corrupt campaign manager, Keith Quinn (Andy Daly), are working for her now. She announces that she’s hungry and, out of habit, calls for Gary. Keith tells her Gary doesn’t work there anymore, but that he can get her some food. “I know!” she snaps. As they exit, Selina mumbles, “The level of incompetence in this office is — ” stopping short when she realizes everyone has already left the room. At that point, the script says, “For a moment, she thinks about everything she has done to get here. She has lost a lot. Maybe the price was too high? Maybe she will regret it for the rest of her life.” Louis-Dreyfus has to convey all of that without any dialogue.
After a few takes, Mandel comes in to give her notes. “I like the dread,” he says of the haunted expression on her face. “Push it to the edge, where you might let the tears come but you don’t.”
On the next attempt, she looks regretful and sad, then snaps out of it to take a call from the prime minister of Israel. She does a couple more, and then Mandel comes in again. (Later, he’ll tell me, “The first two takes were fine and good, but they weren’t Julia. Anyone else, you’d be thrilled. But there was more there.”)
“This is easy for me to say,” he tells her gently. “But I would keep trying to push. Take it to the edge.” Remembering how hard it was for her and Hale to make it to the other side of the Fredo scene, Mandel hits the Gary button. “Think about: You sent Gary to jail. Honestly, the only person who ever loved you.”
“Uh-oh,” says Louis-Dreyfus.
In the next take, she reaches the edge — and looks close to going over it — but reins it in just in time to get back into presidential mode. It is the take Mandel feels certain he will use when he edits the episode, and he ultimately does. Veep was a comedy, but in its final, pained glimpse of its star, it acknowledges that politics is more than just absurd. It’s tragic.
“That’s the best one,” he says, smiling, after calling cut on what will be Louis-Dreyfus’s last moment as Selina Meyer. “It just fuckin’ broke my heart.”
*A version of this article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!