Inside 'Veep's' Election Day Episode: Voter Fraud, Corrupt Leaders and Selina's Bribe

Showrunner David Mandel speaks to THR about all the Trump nods they didn't foresee in the Russian-themed episode about democracy, and the one comparison they did.
Justin M. Lubin/HBO
'Veep'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Veep, "Georgia."]

"I saw your last election, no thank you."

Of course, Veep viewers understood the reference when a foreign leader uttered those words to former U.S. President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) on Sunday's episode of the HBO comedy. But what they might not know is that the scene was filmed before Donald Trump was elected the real president of the United States.

"When we wrote that line we didn't know Trump was going to win," showrunner David Mandel explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "But it had been such a shit show of an election in general that it felt like it was funny no matter what."

The idea that Selina would travel to the Republic of Georgia to oversee their crooked presidential election first began to take shape in February 2016, when a scene between Selina and the president of Georgia had to be cut from the fifth season. The writers enjoyed the scene so much they decided to send Selina to Georgia in the sixth season and wrote the episode that June — months ahead of Election Day and any headlines about Russian interference in the outcome.

As it happens, the episode was shot on the night of Nov. 8. So as Selina, surrounded by voting booths, praises democracy while secretly decrying the free election that lost her the presidency, the real polls were coming in and Trump was in the lead. Mandel described what it was like on the set of his political satire amid Trump's stunning victory in a guest column for THR, and now that the episode has aired he explains all the Trump nods they couldn't have predicted and the one real-life comparison they intended.

What was it like to be essentially celebrating democracy on set as Trump was winning the real presidency behind the scenes?

Many ex-presidents go overseas and get involved in things both officially and unofficially, and the idea of election-watching was sort of a natural fit. This was all pre-Trump and Russia, and it seemed funny that a woman who lost an election and who is angry at elections in general was being sent to an election. Selina's appreciation of democracy is not at its highest point. 

What kind of research went into capturing the Republic of Georgia?

Billy Kimball, the writer of the episode, lived in Russia for about a year many years ago, so he brought an appreciation of the levels of corruption over there to the entire story. One of the things I like about this episode is that it’s ever-so-slightly off-kilter. Our production design team did an amazing job. Even though we shot in Los Angeles, the sets and the hotels are all old, trying to be fancy and somewhat Russian, as the Republic of Georgia was formerly part of Russia. A lot of it was filmed at a lodge in Pasadena that we turned into the lobby and old rooms of the hotel. We had to cut a second scene that we filmed at the restaurant where Jonah sees all the congressmen dining without him, where we added walls decorated with all old Hollywood people. Like Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Just the idea that in the Republic of Georgia they would decide to Hollywood-theme their restaurant, little touches like that. 

This episode came together long before Trump was in the news about his ties to Russia. How did you decide to set it in Georgia?

Last year during the "Congressional Ball" episode where Selina and Tom James (Hugh Laurie) hook up, we also filmed a scene that didn't make it to air. In between all the vote-getting, Selina was called to the Situation Room, and we shot this mini-story of her talking to the president of the Republic of Georgia whose palace was being surrounded. There was a crisis, they joke about the country and Selina basically tells him to calm down. She didn’t do anything, but the situation sort of resolved itself, and she was ultimately commended by newspapers for her "firm hand." It was a funny little runner, we just didn't have space because the episode was giant. We fell in love with this guy and kept quoting him in the writers room, so we had the idea that she would go visit President Murman (played by Eugene Alper) as a former president. The seeds of it were coming together last February as we were finishing shooting the season and then we sat down to formally talk about in June. Months and months before any of the Russian interference in the election.

The episode also — quite hilariously thanks to Gary's (Tony Hale) attempt to hide his green thumb — has a voting irregularity plotline. What were you thinking when so soon after shooting the episode, Trump begins his voter fraud claims and Russian headlines swirl?

We shot the episode. Trump won the election. And then since Election Day, it's just been this drip, drip, drip of the Russian stuff. Every time it happens, we just shake our head. Our episode isn't about an American election or voters participating in one, but it's very of the place. A lot of the democracy jokes were the one place where we were influenced by the fact that Trump was the candidate of one of the two major American parties. The fact that he even won the nomination and then was inviting former Bill Clinton accusers to debates? And the level of discourse had just lowered itself beyond low. It was not specifically a comment on Trump winning, it was a comment on the state of politics.

Did Tony improvise those scenes, where he attempted to hide his voting thumb?

We thought the green thumb thing would be such a fun challenge for both those guys. But I have to give credit where it's due. The script read, "Gary helps her one-handed take her jacket off," but no one told Tony to grab her scarf with his mouth. We knew that Tony doing the scene without a thumb would present a funny challenge, but we broke up on set over what he did with it, especially with the water when he was making such a mess. And in reality, that scene is about something else entirely. The key info is being delivered on the other side, and then there's Gary distracting from it. 

Selina ends up accepting this quid pro quo from the president and changes her stance on the election so she can have money for her library. Is this her lowest professional moment?

Yes and no. This was based on both talking to people and also our writers' experiences over there, where often it's choosing between two corrupt parties. We weren't trying to give Selina an out, but while Murman is an authoritarian horrible present, Nikolai (Stephen Fry), the other guy, is not necessarily going to be any better. He's running as a voice of the people, but there's an underlying sense that, were he to be in power, he would be equally as bad and corrupt. So there's the question of: "Do I want to take $20 million from this corrupt oligarch, or $25 million from this other guy?" She is supposed to be there doing something honorable, which is looking over an election, but when both parties are screwing with the election, how do you choose? This was a thoroughly corrupt thing and I don't think either side was going to be the answer. In the grand scheme of horrible things Selina has done, I actually think this one isn't so bad, because the two choices were not so great to begin with.

Selina's questionable choices also call to mind Trump's relationship with Putin. Is this the moment where you say that the worst thing you’ve imagined could happen in D.C. is happening?

A lot of these thoughts were pre-Putin. There's a famous quote from F.D.R. talking about one of the South American dictators, and the gist of the quote was, “Well, he's an asshole, but he's our asshole.” Let's not be naive, American foreign policy is long filled with America supporting people in regions who were at best strong men and at worst, dictators. That’s a truth. Some of that is what is there with Selina, this idea that Murman being the Republic of Georgia is an ally against Russia, in the Veep world, so everyone looks the other way about his horror shows. Sometimes that can work, and sometimes that can make things even worse. We also love the fact that Ben (Kevin Dunn) knows both of these guys and has worked for them, which preceded the Paul Manafort revelations. This idea that American campaign guys go overseas and work for these sometimes unsavory guys for a lot of money. A lot of these ideas were based on overseas politics, and as it turned out, we just hit it at the exact right time with all of the Russian stuff.

Meaning, Trump's Putin situation is not entirely unique in American political history.

The openness with which he tried to cozy up to him is. There's a difference between being the president of the United States and deciding to keep a bad leader close because he's helpful in a region. It's another thing for a candidate for the presidency to openly invite another country to interfere in our election. There's a huge line between what Selina's doing in this episode and what currently seems to be going on in the United States of America. But there's certainly a long history of overseas involvement. By being over there and shining a light on their world, this episode does make us reflect on the Trump Russian stuff. And that was not on purpose. 

Still, in the end, Selina gets rewarded. Why did you have her stumble into this accomplishment?

That's a classic Selina thing. She doesn't get what she wants, which is the money for the library. But having done everything for the wrong reasons, they end up with a new leader over there anyway and she gets some of the credit. It was nice to see her get a little bit of a victory over her former Vice President Doyle (Phil Reeves). He was the ultimate vote in picking President Montez and becoming the current secretary of state, so for her to steal his doctrine and name it the Meyer doctrine is a win. I'm a huge believer in dumping a bunch of crap onto Selina, because that's when Julia is really funny, but sometimes she fights her way out of it and that's fun too. Selina Meyer is a fighter and she rose up from her party to become vice president and ultimately president because she's not an idiot. It's easy to dismiss the show as being about an idiotic vice president, but she's not. She's sometimes incompetent and her own instincts lead her astray, but she rose to her position for a reason, and seeing some of these little victories are a reminder of that. 

She ends up getting only $380,000 out of the deal. Now what?

The search continues for more money for the library. It's a big bill. She's not giving up on that.

One thing you could plan for was the contrast between Selina's post-presidency journey and Obama's. I'm sure you saw he just snagged a $400,000 speaking engagement.

All the questions were about Trump, Trump, Trump heading into the season and what people were missing is that by the time we air, Obama will have just moved out of office and his book deal will be announced, work on his library will commence and he will start taking speaking engagements. There is a certain world to being a former president. You're seeing it with Obama and we're writing about it and that's really fun. Obviously, he is a popular, two-term president, and something we did plan — because we keep talking about all the Trump stuff that we didn't plan — was the dichotomy with Obama. You''re seeing Obama emerging from the White House and being paid top dollar for everything that he did and that his library will be fully funded and probably start being built ASAP, and obviously the respect that he would be given for all these things, and that would stand in stark contrast with everything happening with Selina. That was definitely something we were writing into.

Sally Phillips returns as former Finland leader Minna and calls Selina out for her stay in the insane asylum — how does Minna know the truth?

We're always looking for realistic but interesting reasons to bring Sally Phillips back as Minna because getting her and Julia together is just so much fun. So we thought: What if Selina goes over there to watch an election and there’s somebody there watching here and that's Minna? The thing about Minna is that she's brilliant, in a spectrum-y kind of way. I like the fact that in America, everyone is believing the spa story and taking it at face value, but that Minna sees right through it. It's not specifically that there's some exciting backstory of Minna visiting Selina at the "spa," it just speaks more to Minna's lack of filter and intelligence that she knew what it was. There will still be clues and little pieces to fill in as we go along.

Their secret "spa" day would be fun to see.

I'm guessing that Selina would not have put Minna on the guest list. As much as Minna would have wanted to be on it. The chance to put Sally, Julia and Stephen Fry in a room was something I would take any day. We don't have Hugh Laurie, but we got his old partner, and what a pleasure it was to work with one of the comedy greats. I must credit the fine people who poison each other all the time in the Ukraine as the origins for his character's scarring. And Selina being forced to listen to Minna's details of her sex life just seemed like exquisite torture for her. For Stephen, it's goodbye for now, but lord knows we're already thinking of ways to bring him back. 

Is Selina coming after Jonah next, and was the assumption that, in Georgia, Jonah would be a skinhead something that was too good to pass up?

Well, Selina is not a fan of Jonah's. He's certainly scared of her. One of the things we knew was that this episode was going to be an opportunity to get most of the characters back together again. Not necessarily to deal with the missing time, but to deal with the state of the relationships. Selina had seen Ben, but it was nice for her to see Ben and Kent (Gary Cole) and to have them both fall back into advising her again, while in some ways still being less helpful than ever. But one of the big things was for Jonah and Richard to see each other. Jonah is angry that Richard abandoned him. Speaking of Russia, they definitely had a detente, but it's still not perfect. Jonah carries a grudge.

Meanwhile back in America, Amy continues to play "the good wife" in an interview with Danny Egan on CBS. Is this her own personal hell, to have to do her Buddy act to Dan?

Even though Amy and Dan couldn't be over in Georgia, we could at least have them together with the interview. One of the things we talked about when making Dan the CBS anchor was that he would still be able to be involved in all of these stories. And what would be more embarrassing for Amy than to have to be interviewed by Dan about this scandal? Dan's ability to report on Georgia and Amy brings these worlds back together.

Is there still hope for Amy and Dan to get together, and does Amy's disappearance mean she's left Buddy?

Yes. She ain't coming out. But nobody's ever done on our show. And it's always there between Amy and Dan, because it's a part of the characters. They were together. Even when we don’t do anything, something's there. 

Will Dan see through his offer to Marjorie and Catherine that they can use his sperm to have a baby?

Yes. While they're always presented as the good characters of the show, there is also a little bit shallowness to Catherine and Marjorie as well. When looking for a sperm donor, who do they want? Let's pick arguably one of the more horrible characters, but darn if he isn't good looking! Then there's the ease and the quickness with which Dan agrees to it. You're geared up for a long negotiation and it takes about three seconds.

What did you think of Veep? Tell THR in the comments below and check in every Sunday for Live Feed chats with Mandel.

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