'Veep' Creator Armando Iannucci on That "Mischievous" Ending and Why Now Was the Right Time to Say Goodbye

“I’m going because it is in such good shape,” Iannucci tells THR. "That’s the right time to go, so someone else can come in and have the freedom to carry on with it."
Patrick Harbron/HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Veep’s season four finale, “Election Night.”]

And your next president of the United States is … TBD.

Sunday’s finale of the hit HBO political satire Veep wrapped up its fourth season, and show creator Armando Iannucci’s tenure with the show ended with an election and cliffhanger for the books (particularly those dealing with intricacies in constitutional law).

After two seasons of buildup, election night finally arrived, with President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her team cooped up in the campaign’s hotel headquarters awaiting and tracking the votes between the interim president and her opponent, Buddy Garrity Bill O’Brien (Brad Leland).

As key states fell one way or the other, projections were made and then overturned, and concession calls suddenly became not-quite-conceding-yet calls, the “too close to call" election was truly dead heat — the Electoral College was locked at 269, and the election result? A tie.

The initial elation of not losing quickly wore into confusion as the staff tried to figure just what the Constitution says happens next and dropped one final, full-on breakdown-inducing bomb: If Congress could not make a decision, the vp-elect, Tom James (Hugh Laurie), could in fact become president. (“Want to be my veep?” he cheekily asked a distraught Selina.)

So what could that mean for the future of the country? To get to the bottom of this unprecedented turn of events, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the departing Iannucci to discuss that “gridlock” of an ending, his decision to leave the show and why new showrunner David Mandel is the "perfect choice" to take over.

This is the first time we’ve seen a presidential election on this show. What was the most important thing that you really wanted to tackle about the American election process and election night?

For the election process, it’s just how endless it is. It’s really dominated two seasons of Veep. Also, how actually as a politician, you’re divided between what you do as a politician in terms of the public office you hold and the decisions you make, but also this long-running fear that anything you do or say will impact on your election campaign. And a constant fight for money and donors — it’s like a business in itself.

On the final night, I wanted to look at the fact that there is complete gridlock in the country in terms of the political dialogues ground to a halt. [It’s] a country evenly divided between two camps that will not cooperate with each other, and the best way to illustrate that was having an election-night cliffhanger that actually led to complete stalemate [which we checked with constitutional experts and is all true]. It really begs the question [for] something so important in politics: Why would you have an even number? (Laughs) All you have to do is pick out an odd number, and then you can avoid the possibility of a big tie.

How long did you know that you wanted to end the election in a tie? Did it go all the way back to season three, or was it something you discovered later on?

It was when we started writing season four and the season arc. That’s when we made the decision. Also there was a mischievous part of me that knew this would be my last season anyway, so I rather liked the idea of leaving that constitutional dilemma to my successor. In terms of the four seasons that I’ve done, it felt like a solution I wanted to make because so much [in politics] is that gridlock that actually the finale has to be in gridlock too.

Knowing this would be your last season, did you feel any pressure to go out with a bang or provide some type of closure to your run?

It’s closure, but at the same time, not so much that it brings the whole thing to an end. Actually, it just unleashes a whole new area to investigate — the exploration of the comedy [and] comic implications of the American constitution — because you’ve got potentially the Supreme Court involved, you’ve got Congress involved, you’ve got obviously lawyers involved and you’ve got state involved. Each season we’ve been widening our zone of investigation. Season one was very much about the small, benign operation of the vice president’s office. In season two, she got a bit more involved in working with the White House, and season three she was campaigning, and season four, she was in the West Wing. She was the president. So, season five should be about how the entire American political process works when it’s faced with constitutional crisis.

Was there ever any hesitation or fear in not giving viewers a definitive answer after two seasons of election buildup?

No, because the tie is my answer. It’s my response to how American politics work and it’s my definitive answer. It’s like the original version of the Italian Job when a car is perched precariously over a cliff and Michael Caine says, "Hang on, I’ve got an idea," and then the film ends. So if you imagine that I’m Michael Caine (Laughs): "Hang on a minute, I’ve got an idea," and then I’m getting the hell out.

With the entire election process, the scandals of her first term, and this electoral tie, do you think Selina thinks that all this is worth it?

If you’re anyone like Selina, it’s all worth it because there is nothing else. They can’t imagine any life outside of it. Why is Hillary Clinton, at her age, going through what will be the hell of the next two years to become president and then become president? She’s seen what that’s like. It was hell. So why? For someone like Selina, no matter what is happening to her, it has to be worth it because if you say to yourself, "It wasn’t worth it," you’re questioning your entire life and career and that can be devastating.

Election aside, which characters would you say are the biggest winners and losers this season?

It seems to [actually] be Sue. She’s quite stable as the result of it all because fundamentally she says she’s not interested in politics and that’s probably what’s kept her going [to not] become a neurotic mess. She’s kept herself focused.

[Also], even though Jonah’s gone through hell, he’s acquired a status by the end and a public one at that, which is something he’ll treasure because he’s talked about running for Congress and running for President in 2026 — even though that’s not an election year. The idea that he actually has himself a public degree of recognition is something that has made all he’s gone though this season absolutely worth it.

Switching gears, after four seasons working on the show, why was now the right time to pass on the baton?

As I was doing season three, I thought in my head that I had one more season in me. It’s two things. [First], it’s just the practicalities of flying backward and forward between London and Baltimore. As you get older, you think jet lag would become easier, but it gets harder, and when you find yourself on set practically falling over with exhaustion, you feel you’re not giving it your best (Laughs). Also, I’ve been doing Veep for four years, and prior to that doing The Thick of It in the U.K. for five or six years, so it felt like 10 years of doing a political comedy show, [so] it’d be good for someone else to inject some fresh energy and fresh ideas.

When you are a showrunner and you’re in all of the show, four or five seasons is the maximum you can do before you start to feel a little bit — you come up with an idea and you say, "Oh hang on, we did that in season two. Oh no, we did that in season three." You end up overcooking ideas, heightening [them] because you try to stretch things. I fired myself off the show. It shouldn’t be me doing the next [season]. I like the idea of going out on a high other than when you’ve exhausted it to its absolute final [breath]. This has been the strongest season so far, and it allows David to come in with this energy already there and the positivity already there.

What made you confident that the show could move forward with the same comedic sensibility and essence?

Because our method of putting [the show] together is very organic, and the cast work very closely with the writers, so the cast know how it operates. Some of the U.K. writers are going to hang around and help out with the season five arc. Chris Addison, who has directed quite a few of the episodes, is going to direct in season five. Like Selina’s campaign bus had that slogan, "Continuity With Change," we’re doing continuity with change. I’ve talked with David and will be over the summer, but once they start the nitty-gritty day-to-day writing of it, I’ll finally bow out. Everyone wants it to carry on as it’s been going, but there should also feel there’s a fresh burst of energy and fresh thoughts going on as well. It’s trying to get that blend of continuity, and, at the same time, giving it a sense of it going somewhere new

What would you say is the essential thing he needs to capture to keep Veep, Veep?

Obviously he’s worked very closely with Julia on Seinfeld, so he had that heritage, but also, having written and directed [Curb Your Enthusiasm], he knows the whole process of allowing scripts to transform itself into something that’s a bit more organic or ad-libbed. He’s the perfect choice to take it to the next stage. He’s also got quite a lot of academic knowledge of working in American politics. He really should have done it from the start. I don’t know what I’ve been doing these last four years (Laughs).

Did you give him your best tips to running the show? Did you share any dream plot lines or things that might be off limits?

We chatted and he arrived with thoughts of where season five could go, and I had some thoughts as well, and they gelled pretty well, actually. I wanted to avoid the "here’s how you make the show" lecture because he’ll have his own views on how you operate the show. I know he wants to keep it [similar to how] we’ve always done it. After four years, the rhythm of the show is set. I want to be surprised by the ideas that he has for season five.

Is this a clean break or is there a capacity for you to return again in the future? Would you come back as a consultant or perhaps for the series finale?

At this stage, it’s best that I skip away and Dave doesn’t feel that anyone is standing next to him like, "Oh, we did it like this actually," or "Oh, you’re doing it that way, that’s interesting?" He’s in charge and I’m happy to move on to completely different things now.

What are you are proudest of in regards to creating and running the show?

It’s nice to have created some scenes that people talk about already as being classics — like the scene where [Selina] gets the news that she’s going to be president, and her and Gary are in the bathroom. [But] the thing I’m most proud of is the team. The core cast is unbelievable, but I love that every time we introduce a new cast member, even just a guest star, we get someone who feels organically part of that world. It doesn’t feel like we shoehorned anyone in. Then, very often, we get someone for just one little part, and we love them so much we end up bringing them back [like with] Sam Richardson and [his character] Richard Splett. I’m proud of the ensemble feel of it. I was also pleased with the episode I directed that went out [last] Sunday, "Testimony," just because it was a tricky thing to get right in terms of using all the character in a very restricted way but somehow giving it the shape of an episode.

Finally, what’s the most difficult thing about stepping away?

It’s been easy stepping away, but it’s been tempting when I see someone who might still be working on the show to ask: "How’s it going? What’s happening? What are you doing with this character?" And I’ve been trying not to because I’m actually looking forward to watching it as a viewer would, not knowing what’s going to happen. David and I have talked about it, so I know roughly which direction it’s heading in, but I genuinely want to just watch an episode of Veep as a member of the viewing public. I’m looking forward to that.

Thoughts on the finale? Curious to see where the show goes from here? Sound off in the comments below!

Twitter: @NotPhelan

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