Why 'Veep' Is Putting Feminism, Women's Rights Center Stage

Showrunner David Mandel speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about tackling #MeToo era empowerment and an abortion in the same episode of the HBO political comedy.
Colleen Hayes/HBO; Inset: Michael Loccisano/WireImage
'Veep'; Inset: David Mandel

[This story contains spoilers from the third episode of Veep's final season, "Pledge."]

Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has always been a "giant misogynist" in the words of showrunner David Mandel and, in Sunday's episode, she found a way to bring her feelings about feminism in the #MeToo era to the debate stage in a very impactful way.

Selina began the final season of the HBO political comedy as the presumptive frontrunner, but only three episodes later, she found herself nearly being put out to pasture as the race for the party's presidential nomination heats up. By vowing to not engage in campaign mudslinging, Selina tried to advance in the polls by rising above rhetoric in "Pledge." But, after much frustration, it was a shining moment of honesty in her first debate that proved to the world she is a formidable underdog who is coming out swinging — on behalf of women, but not for all women.

Fed up with her primary challenger, the younger Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye), and her constant use of the phrases "as a woman" and "as a woman of color" — on top of what she perceives as whining from her daughter Catherine Meyer (Sarah Sutherland), who is suffering from postpartum depression — Selina tells Kemi and, by extension, the younger generation of women she represents, to "Man up" for a memorable debate win.

"I have had it with this whimpering and whining from you and your generation. It's time for you to grow a pair and man the fuck up!" Selina screams to Catherine behind the scenes. When she takes the stage, she reiterates that message to Kemi: "When I was coming up as a lawyer, I didn't have to remind everyone I was a woman every 10 seconds because they never let me forget it. I smiled all through the casual grabbing of my behind and all the secret meetings on the golf course that I wasn't invited to. So how about giving a little thanks to the women like me who built the ladder that you use to get up onto your soapbox? How about for once in your life you stop whining, you stop complaining and you just man up!" 

Her winning retort was well-received and Selina's assessment of why it worked marked another revealing moment for the character: "God bless America for hating women almost as much as I do," she says. Selina is "a very complicated person, and her own viewpoint on other women is part of that," Mandel tells The Hollywood Reporter of the reveal.

The debate storyline played out as another character was experiencing her own major moment, but on a personal level. Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky), who has been going back and forth about whether or not to keep Dan Egan's (Reid Scott) baby, decided to get an abortion. Amy, who has always put personal matters on the back burner for her career, stepped away from her professional duties to do some soul-searching and did not arrive at the choice lightly. Mandel explains the level of care that went into the choice, which "really was the right decision for that character," and says it will drive Amy's entire final-season arc. 

Below, in a chat with THR, Mandel digs into the parallel stories of Selina and Amy to unpack what their opinions on empowerment, women and women's rights say about the two female characters at the heart of Veep. He also teases a faster pace ahead, as things "change, flip and move around" when the show nears the midpoint of the final season.

You have been dipping your toe into showing viewers how Selina Meyer really feels about empowerment and feminism. Why did you put her feelings about women center stage for this debate?

This season, in terms of who her character is, there are a lot of truths in her frustrations. She’s perpetually frustrated by people’s view of what it means to be a woman, and that includes from men and other women. She’s old school and she doesn’t have patience for anybody who is looking to make any excuses. So when she gets her chance, it comes out initially in a fit of anger against Catherine, and I think she, in a very strange way, is speaking from the heart. You do see this in the workplace — and this comes from talking with a lot of women — where there are senior women who don’t want to bend over backward for another woman who feel like, “I’m a gladiator and I got here on my own — get here on your own.” That is Selina. She’s proud of the fight she went through and pushes back on any sense that other people want something handed to them — whether that’s true or not, that’s not the question — but her perception is that people are looking to cash in on womanhood, which by the way, is something she will occasionally do if she needs to. In this episode, her back is up against the wall. This is where you get to see the real sort of street-fighting Selina, who is willing to do and say anything.

You once called Selina a "giant misogynist" who resents when people treat her like a woman and who certainly doesn’t value other women. Has any of that changed in this new era of female empowerment?

She is a giant misogynist (laughs). No, she hasn’t changed. She feels like she fought certain battles and that, if you’re not going to fight the battle — be it man or woman, but in this case, woman — then she’s just not interested. This is my own theory, but I think she looks down on a lot of women. She expressed it, obviously, to Catherine but she sees the next generation, in her opinion, as very whiney and very touchy feely and, rightly or wrongly, she paints a lot of women that way.

She credits America with hating women for why her "Man up" slogan worked. In what ways does Selina’s misogyny relate and in what ways is it more divisive in the #MeToo era?

On the one hand, in Veep world, she was the first female vice president and the first female president. However she got there, these are significant achievements for all womankind. And then on another level, she has problems, especially with the younger generation of women out there, and when you add #MeToo into it, which is very complicated and this is more anecdotal, you’ll hear about some women getting upset at other women for "crying #MeToo." There was a moment in the previous episode where Selina talked about the senator who grabbed her ass, but he complimented her that she thought she had the best ass. It was a joke but at the same time, there’s a real undertone and that, in some ways, is the paradox of Selina. In no way shape or form is she in favor of women being attacked. But at the same time, she would go, “Look, the guy grabbed my ass and thought it was pretty good. I think my ass is pretty good.” It’s a paradox and, in her own weird way, she’s zeroing in on one of the most complicated parts of the whole #MeToo thing.

Where did “Man Up” come from in the writers room?

We were searching for that magical debate phrase. The debate moment, like “I paid for this microphone” or “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” We were really searching for one of those kind of moments. We were playing around with Selina getting angry at Catherine and “Man up” flowed out of her yelling at Catherine and we realized, “Oh my God, that’s it.” As often happens with these characters, they take us to these places and lead us to the great jokes. 

Selina has always been mansplained to and now she finds herself being womansplained to by Kemi Talbot. How is her response a commentary on modern-day gender roles?

You can see this sometimes with powerful women in general where they don’t have a home. Powerful men, or men in general, are bothered by them, and then less powerful women are not necessarily as embracing of them as you think they should be. Let’s look back at recent elections. One of the things that’s historically spoken about, and it’s not my theory but spoken about in history, is that the last time women were truly powerful was when they were attempting to get the vote and they were a united voice. And once they had the vote and split into millions of subsections and parties and other values and whatnot, they were no longer united as just women. And we’re seeing it right now, where women candidates and really strong women candidates oddly turn women off.

Why is knowing how Selina really feels about women so intrinsic to knowing the real Selina?

I think it’s part of her journey. Because it’s not like she woke up hating women. I think it ties into her relationship with her own mother, with her dad and being a daddy’s girl, and it ties into her damaged relationship with other men for whom she seeks approval sometimes, even though she herself fights against that. All of these things go into the soup pot and have created this very complicated person, and her own viewpoint on other women is part of that.

Selina comments on the "free 24-hour coverage" Kemi is getting from her rallies. How is this a comment on Trump? 

It was certainly very Trump in the sense of the 24-hour free coverage. And we hit on that a little bit with the Jonah Ryan TV interviews. But let’s go back to 2008, and, historically, one of Hillary [Clinton]'s big complaints about [Barack] Obama was that he was getting softball questions. There’s a very famous Saturday Night Live sketch where she’s asked these very hard-drilling questions and Obama keeps getting these soft questions and it was a point that she was probably not wrong about, which is to say that Obama was treated differently than her. Was it a man-woman thing? Not necessarily, but he was getting an easier ride and more press and that’s one of the things we wanted to bring into the season. The notion that the Kemi character speaks for a lot of things. She speaks for a new generation of politics, she speaks for some color in politics. These are things that Selina has a really hard time dealing with. So Selina, who thought she was really the presumptive nominee from the very beginning, is first seeing that the party is perhaps not interested and is looking for the “new.” That was certainly some of what Trump was: people looking for not the same old, same old. That’s something you see all the time. It speaks to the Jack Kennedys, the Obamas, even the Jimmy Carters of the world. This is a perpetual thing in politics of what defines the old guard verse the new guard. We’re commenting on all of that. It’s not just Trump.

She has other hurdles on the horizon, too. How much trouble can ex-husband Andrew Meyer’s legal issues with the Fund cause for Selina down the line?

We’re three episodes in and it is percolating, that is the easiest way I can say it. It went from a small mention to now we’re hearing about grand juries in New York City and, step by step, it’s definitely something for Selina to be worried about.

Meanwhile Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) has been relegated to the undercard debate. What informed that debate and, particularly, the "magician" protest candidate?

It was really fun looking at both debates in the past, and, by the way, it’s something they’re already talking about now where they’ve created these fundraising thresholds for the Democrats. Is mayor Pete [Buttigieg] going to be there? Will [Andrew] Yang make it? But it's going back these last couple years and these large debates where you have 10 guys nobody has ever heard of on a stage and are absolutely hilarious. Over in the U.K., Theresa May was forced to debate this knight who wore a bucket on his head: Lord Buckethead. He was this British protest candidate. So the notion of all these people running, especially in a year where on Veep there’s sitting President Laura Montez of the other party, it speaks to the past but it’s also what we’re going to see with the Democratic party. You could fill three debates now. It also got to be a culmination of Jonah Ryan’s PC lessons. His confusion over the country Niger was some of my favorite stuff we’ve ever done with him.

Jonah's gaffes with "N-word" (Niger) and the R-word — how does this show there is nothing that can kill a campaign anymore?

In some ways, there is no gaffe and yet, there are certain words. The R-word is not a great word and it’s one we have used and we’ve taken criticism for. And those are some of the origins of the story. We get criticized often by people for the words that we use, so it was sort of a commentary on that. Even in a world where you can kind of do anything, that’s a tough word, obviously. So them trying to train Jonah to speak better and not use certain words was a chance to discuss the discussion. They’re trying so hard to help Jonah and he’s just unreachable. As a show that is infamous for not being particularly PC, it was very enjoyable to play with the concept of PC talk.

Then obviously, the debate itself between the other candidates and our protest candidate the Wizard, who is played by longtime Simpsons writer and ex-Seinfeld writer Tom Gammill. This is really the episode where we figured out that we were pushing the envelope on the production schedule and we started contracting some of the numbers of episodes. [The episode's writer] Rachel Axler did such an amazing job gluing together bits and pieces of different episodes to craft this story overall. All of this stuff playing into the debate and then the debate landing all of these larger points that we were trying to set up throughout the episode.

Jonah has continuously failed up. Despite his poor showing in the undercard debate, is there a world where there could be a Meyer-Ryan ticket?

Right now, I don’t think there’s much chance for Jonah Ryan. But he does have sort of an odd way of cutting through the noise. You never count him out, is all I’ll simply say.

Will Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) becoming his campaign manager reinvigorate his run? What challenges are ahead for her?

Amy has skills, perhaps more so then some of them. Her own passive aggressive, sort of parental issues with Selina make her her own worst enemy. Selina almost brings out the worst in Amy, so I think there is something liberating about Amy accepting the job to run Jonah's campaign, both in terms of being away from Selina, but also, I think, given what she has just gone through.

How will Selina react to losing Amy? 

I don’t want to ruin anything. But we come back to it, as you know we do with everything, and I do think people will get satisfaction there.

Amy has debated what to do about Dan Egan's (Reid Scott) baby for these first three episodes. Can you talk about coming to the conclusion to have her get an abortion?

I’ll just take a moment to say that it’s not like she doesn’t bring it every year, but Anna is just killing it this year. She really rose to the challenge of what we wanted to do with the Amy character and the pregnancy, and some final words on the relationship with Dan and all of these things. But more so than that, just getting to the core of who Amy is and really dealing with what she thinks she wants and maybe what she really wants. And it’s just a pleasure to watch Anna.

It was really important to me and to Anna and to [writer] Rachel Axler that, even though we’re in a comedy, getting an abortion is not a light decision for the character of Amy Brookheimer. Quite the opposite. We’ve seen her talk about kids in the past and about freezing her eggs and saying "someday, someday." And she has perhaps a vision of what she thinks happiness might be with her and Dan, which is of course a little naive, vis-a-vis Dan. But it forced her to evaluate: what does she really want to do with her life? I think she looked in the mirror and thought long and hard about: Should she be a mother? It was fascinating as Rachel wrote it, and it was fascinating as we played with it, and fascinating to watch Anna play it. I was really stunned by it in a really wonderful way.

Why was it the right choice for the character?

We talked about it long and hard. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think Anna's initial concern when ending a pregnancy was not necessarily on the table yet, was — does anyone want to see Amy as a mother? What does it mean for the character? I know people ship Dan and Amy, I understand that. But even to those people, who I’m sure will be up in arms, I guess I would ask: Do you really see Amy Brookheimer as a mother? Think about that.

When you juxtapose Amy's storyline with Selina's feminism takedown, what does this reveal about how Amy feels about female empowerment? And how will this decision drive Amy’s final-season arc?

Like it should be, it’s not an easy decision for her. No ifs, ands or buts. Hopefully people will see that we embraced how tortured she is by the decision. She says as much. In some ways, I guess what we’re showing is that it really was the right decision for that character. She makes this decision and is still worrying and thinking about it and then the proverbial phone rings [when Teddy offers her the campaign manager job]. We’re not saying that the only way you get the next great job is by ending pregnancies — that’s certainly not what we’re saying. But what we’re saying for the character of Amy Brookheimer is that this was the right decision. And I think that’s very important here.

“Dan did I make a mistake? What if I never get….” That’s what she says before the phone rings. What’s the rest of that sentence?

I think you can fill it in. Having done it and having done it for all the right reasons, it’s like, how do you know you did the right thing? But then other doors do open for her. At the end of the day, this is what she wants. It’s really so much about the character and the character really thinking about what the character wants. We took it very, very seriously. It’s a painful story, but I felt like she was one of the characters that in my run — we've talked a lot about digging into who these characters are and getting a little into the underbelly of them — and I felt like Amy had never quite gotten her chance. It was really important to me going into this season on this pregnancy story to really dig deeper into the Amy character. Anna was totally into it and, by the way, there is more to come. This is simply a step in her story.

Amy's decision also impacts Dan. Meanwhile, Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) is financially in the hole and Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) quits both campaigns to be mayor. How is this a big shift of an episode moving forward?

Things are moving on. Because of Amy's pregnancy and whatnot, these first couple of episodes have played close to each other and we will start to move forward a little more rapidly. That’s something people can look forward to. For Amy, she had this change that she’s going to go through, because of the new job and what she’s learned about herself. But also, the episodes are inching up and starting to get a little bit longer. They’re jammed full of stuff and we are about to technically hit the midpoint of the season. Things change, flip and move around. And everything is a part of the overall story. But we definitely start to line up things toward the end some more. That’s the name of our little game!

Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO. Check back in weekly for interviews with Mandel and follow along with all of THR's show coverage here.