Critic's Notebook: 'Veep' Gets Real and Dark — But Stays Funny — While Bowing Out

Veep_Publicity Still-H 2019
Colleen Hayes/HBO

The column contains spoilers for the season/series finale of Veep. If you haven't watched, come back when you have. 

Veep, one of television's all-time great comedies, closed out its seventh and final season on Sunday with a searing sendoff — and send up of American politics — that, like the season-long tone of the previous six episodes, spared no one, no issue and, with a particular emphasis, certainly not its main character, Selina Meyer. 

It's impossible not to use the word "searing" for Veep, particularly this year, because as the finale proved in multiple ways, there's more than a little bit of anger in the jokes: anger at not just the coarsening of American politics (that's been going on forever), but the venality of it as well.

The finale made clear that was a worthy point to make.

In the end, Veep decided that the awful aspects of Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), which were her defining characteristics, would need to go that one inch further, moving from the thing about her that made the audience die laughing to the thing that made her truly despicable.

Selina was always a terrible person. It's not like there was some Walter White-like Breaking Bad evolution. Veep just decided to be more starkly honest about the toll of her presidential ambitions.

It was a very bold decision from writer (and director) David Mandel and company — no doubt, Louis-Dreyfus had to be all-in on the decision — because it wasn't just that it shifted the emphasis from hilariously awful to unacceptably awful when it came to Selina and her craven pursuit of the presidency; it pushed Veep, at several points near the end of the nearly 48-minute episode, into dramatic territory it hadn't trod before. Luckily, Louis-Dreyfus is an actress, not just a fabulous comedic actress, and she sold the shift beautifully, depicting how absolute power in the form of gaining the presidency corrupts absolutely.

In those moments, Veep went from searing to charred, daring to depict that not only would Selina sell out her own daughter (not at all surprising, though more hurtful and personal than in the past), but also her most loyal supporter in Gary (Tony Hale), the fall-guy who goes to prison for her crimes (a deceit that elicited actual sadness); her willingness in desperation to overturn gay marriage, allow China to overrun Tibet, open up national parklands to drilling and fracking, probably accept Russian money and also take on Jonah (Timothy Simons) as her vice president, despite his racist, homophobic, anti-vaxxer, anti-science and ignorance-driven agenda. As it lingered daringly in that space where the show's anger reflected our current political climate, it required many of the actors — but in particular Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky and Gary Cole — to take dramatic turns of various length.

Mandel had Kent, Selina's numbers guru and polling expert played by Cole, quit in disgust. He had Chlumsky, who plays Amy, the kill-anything-to-be-campaign-manager-and-chief-of-staff girl literally get down on her knees and beg Selina not to choose Jonah: "Ma'am, you can't let a bitter, vindictive, narcissistic man-child be one heartbeat away from the presidency, let alone be the president." And among the several serious bits Louis-Dreyfus was tasked with, one was a blistering callout of Michelle (Rhea Seehorn), who plays the campaign manager for Tom James (Hugh Laurie) and is secretly sleeping with him. She gave her a dressing down and flogging about a smart woman being used as a sexual plaything by a manipulative, morally bankrupt man that only poked at being funny while very clearly being painful in its truisms.

In those moments, Veep was flat out dark. Again, this was a bold move for the show but absolutely in tune with the final season that leaned much more heavily into the shadow cast by the Trump presidency. 

This is an element that I got at in the review of this current season and why it was both a deft and necessary move. For a political comedy, Trump had been both too easy and impossible to spoof satirically because anything the show dreamed up he would probably do first. But he was also the elephant that couldn't be ignored in that Veep is a comedy about politics, and through the ages, comedy has always been used in culture to effectively poke at hard truths that reporters, pundits and people at home can only wring their hands over or bemoan. There's always deep truths in smart satire, and by its seventh season, with Trump long in office, it was almost incumbent upon Veep to acknowledge what's going on even though its world pretends not to acknowledge most current things from its fictional universe.

What Mandel, his writers and Louis-Dreyfus calculated was necessary in this final season was to get at the aforementioned venality of modern politics, not just send it up but hold it up — and to honestly, with horror and disdain, look at the ugliness for at least a few beats before shifting back to the punchlines.

In many ways, this was a move that Veep had to make. If you're going to be scathing about the political universe — something creator Armando Iannucci has been particularly keen on and adept at in Britain before he started Veep here — then at some point you can't look away from the goings on in the era when you're making the show. Not noble but necessary, what Veep decided to do was simple, true and smart: indict everybody, including voters.

Great satire comes from deep-seated cynicism, especially when political parties, politicians, voters, etc. end up validating that inherent jadedness of the observer. This season Veep said, "Hey, look at how awful everyone is and how rotten the system is and what it's doing to this country and its alleged belief system." Sounds bleak, but an endless supply of laughs, often painful, came from that over the years — and particularly this season (emphasis on the painful).

It got dark, but the series finale was very, very funny. It had an endless number of callbacks to previous seasons and characters right up until the bitter end (where it took two time jumps, the latter being 24 years and Selina's funeral); cataloging Meyers' failed presidency, Jonah's impeachment, the super successful two-term presidencies of both Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye) and Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), plus the fates of most of the cast (a final few jokes that reminded viewers, as they came, that it was going to be quite a loss now that Veep is over). 

Mandel and the Veep team tried a lot as it went out — even ending on Gary's wistful, funny and sad (but still devoted) final scene, with Hale nailing it yet again.

The end was also surgical in its viciousness, with Mandel concocting jokes that sometimes felt like he wanted to double down on the hilariously stinging cuts, like he realized there weren't any more chances to do this, so there was something baroque about many of the scathing riffs.

And wow did I love the Tom Hanks bit, which was both ridiculously funny and dead-on — the death of a more famous, more beloved figure overshadowed Selina's death and cut short the personal tribute from the gloriously resuscitated Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh). Damn that was great. 

What I liked about much of this season was that it was so much more than a veiled lashing out at the nightmare of the Trump Era and its endless assault on empathy and democracy, but more a shared blame in what America has become, of entrenched parties unwilling to listen to or work with the other, of an angry, divided citizenship.

You can trace the Veep style of satire back to when Iannucci was doing The Thick Of It in Britain, up through the early, evolving Veep seasons espousing a mockery of both parties, of all politicians, of unscrupulous staffers and operatives, and then find that as Veep was closing out the most accurate, insightful and honest thing it could do was look aghast at what it was spoofing and realize that we were all complicit, we were all indicted in the awfulness, and to mix a little bit of mirror into the message so that we could all see what we've become. 

Selina's willingness to sell out everything and everyone to win wasn't about Trump. It wasn't about one person. It was about a kind of vile desperation to be the star, to jealously own the power at all costs. It was about modern politics.

This season, and especially in the finale, Veep didn't steer away from the dark parts of politics while chasing the jokes. It was a big risk, but had the series not taken it, Veep might have been looked upon in future years the same way Selina was in death — dismissively, for not taking the opportunity presented and doing something good and memorable with it.