'Veep' Boss on "Amazing Timing" of Election Reveal Amid Mueller Report

Showrunner David Mandel speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and foreign interference in the HBO comedy's presidential race: "It doesn’t come without a leash."
Colleen Hayes/HBO; Getty Images
'Veep'; Inset: David Mandel

[This story contains spoilers from the fourth episode of Veep's final season, "South Carolina."]

When Veep held an event for the final season ahead of its March 31 premiere, showrunner David Mandel joked that he and his writers colluded with the Russian government — but only to get material for the HBO political comedy. The joke, delivered to an eager New York City crowd, got a big laugh. Now, given the plot of the fourth episode — which aired Sunday night, three days after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election — Veep is landing with an even bigger roar. 

Sunday's episode, titled "South Carolina," revealed the biggest plot yet of Veep's final season when presidential candidate Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) sells her soul to her old friend, the President of China, and gives him the go-ahead to interfere and help rig Veep's presidential election in her favor. Selina's deal with devil results in a $25 million anonymous donation to her campaign and African-American voter suppression in South Carolina so Selina can emerge victorious against her formidable challenger, Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye), in the primary race.

"I asked them to release the Mueller report three weeks ago so we would get a little space. Attorney General William Barr felt that it would make Veep more relevant if it came out this week and I couldn’t argue with him. He’s a huge fan of the show. He’s always been very helpful to us, so we want to thank him," Mandel jokes to The Hollywood Reporter when speaking about the prescient timing of this week's episode amid real-world politics.

Though Selina's slippery relationship with the President of China is steeped in Veep's history, Mandel admits that the timing of their fictional rigged election reveal is not lost on him. Of all of Veep's prescient storylines, "this one is not bad, even I will admit," he says with a laugh. "That is some really amazing timing."

Below, in a chat with THR, Mandel reiterates that Veep is never "doing Trump" as he digs into the plotting of the pivotal final-season storyline and teases major ramifications ahead. The showrunner also points out how the episodes are getting bigger, larger in scope and longer in runtime as the seven-episode season races toward the series finale. 

How many months ahead did this episode jump in Veep world?

When we last saw Selina Meyer at the debate, she had been losing and losing to Kemi. And now — off of “Man up!" — we jump ahead and piece together that Selina not only turned the debate around, but really turned the whole campaign around. We’re at the beginning of the New Hampshire primary and we’re hearing that she fought her way back to second place in Iowa, which was huge considering how badly she was doing, and now has won New Hampshire. She’s hitting the wall that is South Carolina and we’re in it deep. When you look at the season, we made the decision for all the different production reasons to shrink the episode order [of the final season] but increase the shooting time on each episode because they were getting large in scope. Starting with last week, they all start to get more complicated and bigger.

This episode tackles foreign interference in an election, voter fraud and race in politics. All of those themes are tied together by the fact that Selina makes a quid pro quo with the Chinese so they can rig the election in her favor. Did you always know this final season would tackle foreign interference in Veep’s presidential election?

The Chinese and their relationship with Selina goes back to my first season, which was season five, and has always been an ongoing part of things — her special relationship with China. Because she and President Lu of China (Tzi Ma) have always seen eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff, it started to make sense that they may be interested in helping her. 

When were you writing this?

The initial laying out of it would have been 2017. Then we came back to it in 2018 and we definitely amped up a little bit more of the Chinese involvement to make the show a little more relevant to the world.

How did the evolving headline news around the investigation into Russian collusion in Trump's presidential election influence the final season as you were plotting it over these last two years?

At this point, I think foreign interference in our American way of life is a given. Obviously, it’s very easy to dismiss it as, "Oh, it’s the same as Trump." But, we don’t do that. I think you’ll find that it’s very much a Veep version of foreign interference. It was there for the taking, what can I say? We’ve gotten very used to [Veep reflecting real news]. Anything we put into the show seems to reverberate into the real world 1,000 times over. For us, this has been part of the ongoing story with Selina, China, the Meyer Fund and what they’re willing to do for cash, and all of these things. These were things that Hillary [Clinton] had to contend with in her own way as well. It’s a mix. This is not specifically one thing. It’s tied to a lot of stuff, but it’s influenced by everything.

Would Selina Meyer have responded to the release of the Mueller report with a Game of Thrones meme? How would she have handled this if she were in Trump’s position?

I’m not sure there is Game of Thrones in Selina’s world. I don’t know why it’s not popular. (Laughs.) She’s not a social media gal. But I believe she can feel as persecuted as the next guy. I think she would not have enjoyed a lot of her foibles and requests and anger getting documented so specifically. I think they would have shared that in common. She would not have been happy.

Is there anything you read in the redacted Mueller report that felt overly Veep-ish?

I’ve read as much as I humanly could take. I certainly read the bigger, brighter feature points, and there’s nothing normal about any of the behavior. But Trump wondering why the lawyers write stuff down just felt like we could have written that.

One of the ways the Chinese help Selina is by suppressing the black vote in South Carolina so she can defeat Kemi, who is black. Did the filming of this episode line up to the 2018 Georgia election, which put a national spotlight on voter suppression? 

We filmed this episode before the election and this is another example, like foreign interference. Obviously, Georgia happened and, until recently, former felons, who unfortunately are majority African American, have been disenfranchised in states like Florida. The notion of certain parties trying to stop minority voters from voting was not invented in 2018. Nor was it invented in 2016. It has a sad, rich American history and it is not a shock that we’ve added it to Veep world.

Do you hope some of the themes you are tackling resonate with viewers going into the 2020 election?

My own philosophy on this is to use black comedy. One of the better ways to deal with something horrible is to laugh at it and by laughing at it, you’re putting a spotlight on it and maybe it helps move the needle down the line. To me, a lot of these issues are horrifically funny and that’s what’s funny about them — but also the word "horrific" is in there.

We’ve spoken a lot about Selina being a misogynist. This episode tackles how she planned to use race to her advantage. Is Selina racist?

Selina is not a racist. In fact, as she points out, she sort of prides herself on being a great friend to the African-American community. We were very much enjoying and having fun with the fact that Bill Clinton was always referred to as "the first black president" and Hillary Clinton in 2008 really thought she was going to walk away with the election until she ran against an actual African-American person. We wanted to explore those ideas of race and politics and also, it’s usually a white person who is the first to tell you how much black people like them, love them or think they’re cool. That’s the stuff we’re playing with.

Like when Selina says she plans to be "Lion King-ing" her grandson, Little Richie.

She’s headed to South Carolina and she has a half-black grandson. She is a political realist and, as you see in the episode, she goes with the wind for wherever the advantage is that she can get. She was prepared to go one way and embrace the African-American community and when she realizes that’s not working, she goes the other way. And that’s Selina Meyer. Within that story, though, we are enjoying the opportunity to touch the third rail of race and politics, which are really charged issues. 

When she speaks to the black congregation, she does stop short of delivering her manifesto to court the white vote and pivots to delivering a message to the Chinese instead. Why?

She chickened out, but she had another door to go through. That is Selina. What’s worse: Possibly accepting help from China or possibly horrifically offending an African-American Sunday morning church crowd. Take your pick!

How does her deal with the Chinese impact her moving forward?

Like everything else for Selina, it’s often an easy decision to go through the door and then — what are the ramifications? Obviously, it doesn’t come without a leash. It’s not quite as easy as she thinks it might be.

Tom James (Hugh Laurie), once again, betrays Selina by failing to endorse her after they sleep together. Why doesn't she learn her lesson with trusting him?

It’s mutual. Neither of them can help themselves. It’s like if the roadrunner and the coyote sometimes had sex. There is some world where they wonder, what if they could have just been happy together? And they realized that would have just been boring. They cannot help themselves and it’s very much a two-way street. He would be the first to admit that there are lots of women in Tom James’ life, but there’s just something about Selina. In some way, it's because they see each other as equals. And, by the way, she would have done the same thing to him. That’s what you always have to remember when Tom does something to Selina or she falls victim to something he does — it’s only because she’s in the position to fall victim. If the shoe was on the other foot, she would have done it to him. 

Selina then has a shocker of a one-night stand with Dan Egan (Reid Scott). Where did this attraction come from?

If you look at the seven-year run of the show, that’s always something that’s been there, just in terms of how attractive both of them are. In this episode, in a world where Amy is gone, you see Selina leaning on Dan a little bit. He’s taking a more prime role. At the end of the day, on the Dan side, he’s a bit of a man whore. That’s Dan. For her, it’s a combination of what went on with Tom James, but it’s also Selina taking a full breath of her power and her position and enjoying herself as the frontrunner. She's winning primaries and winning big states and it’s really her just expressing herself as a woman in full. If a male candidate won a big victory and decided to have sex with one of his underlings to celebrate, it’s not a big deal. So don’t think of it as a big deal here. We think of it as a big deal because it’s Dan. But she’s thinking, “I just won New Hampshire. I just won South Carolina. I’m gonna run the table. I’m gonna celebrate tonight.” And then the second after she does it, look what she does.

She fires Dan, vis-a-vis Keith Quinn (Andy Daly), who gets a promotion because of his relationship with the Chinese. Dan even got her the Hillary Clinton-style balloon celebration at her rally. Why fire him?

He did a fine job. But she slept with him. She’s done. (Laughs.)

How did you settle on Selina’s campaign song?

In the back of my mind, I had “Fight Song,” the Hillary [Clinton campaign anthem], in my head a little bit. It was about lyrically finding something that had an expression of something where you could see why Selina would have used it, and that musically worked with the notion of it kicking in and then cutting out when the balloons don’t go, and then kicking back in again. It was less of any kind of grand thought and message, but that was the thought and message behind it. 

Dan — along with Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) and Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) — is now floating outside of Selina’s orbit. Why split the band up again?

Selina has run with a lot of these people and I would make the argument that at the end of last season, when she put the team back together, that is the team that has led her to multiple defeats. It’s not lost on her. As we move forward and the stakes get higher and she wants it more and more, she’s going to go with whoever and whatever gets her there. And if that means not Dan and not Amy, so be it. And that’s a real fact of political life. In some ways, the fact that our characters stayed with her as long as they did was probably the anomaly. Why was Dan fired? Because they slept together. But in terms of, can he be replaced? She does not see why not.

Selina says at one point, “There is no way I would appoint anyone competent to my cabinet.” Does she want competence only when it serves her?

What she was talking about there is competition and not wanting to be overshadowed by any of her cabinet. Having somebody good working for her behind the scenes is a different matter. This is about the idea that she would never make Tom Secretary of State — and this goes back to what we were talking about earlier. She was trying to get Tom’s endorsement and if he endorsed her, she was never going to make him Secretary of State. Let’s land on that fact. The last thing Selina Meyer wants is Tom James going overseas and creating an Israeli peace plan. If Selina Meyer had General Marshall working for her after World War II, she would have lost her mind that they called it The Marshall Plan. She’s not interested in The Marshall Plan; she’s interested in The Meyer Plan. 

Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) asked for and got more responsibility with Selina's campaign. Why did you want to explore more of Selina and Gary’s codependency?

When we went into this season thinking about Gary, the idea that he would really want to do more and try and help Selina as best he could was something that we thought would be a really interesting point for him. Because, what is he really skilled to do? And imagine a world where he wasn’t in Selina's — what would he be like? So we got a chance to see some of that and then at the same time, the notion of Marjorie [played by Clea DuVall] filling in for him. The thing people forget about Marjorie, and that you saw last week at the fair, is that she’s probably some sort of ex-key military official turned into a secret service person and, I’m sure at some academy, holds the record for highest shooting score. She takes that really seriously and, unlike Catherine, she’s very competitive. This was an opportunity to not only have Marjorie working for Selina, but to also fall a bit under Selina’s trance and that competitive side of wanting Selina to win to come out. It was nice to add some texture to Marjorie and Catherine’s relationship. Just to see that they, too, go through things. It’s probably very hard being with Catherine and now Catherine is seeing this other side of Marjorie that maybe she doesn’t love. 

Ultimately, Gary realizes that he wants his bagman job back. And Selina realizes she missed him — and his false compliments. 

The grass always seems greener, but it isn’t. So at the end of the day, they’re back very happily together with him lying outrageously and her believing it. It’s sort of a perfect end for them. Although, Gary is still nominally doing the faith-based initiative, which really is being very used by the Chinese.

A major transformation in this episode comes with Amy morphing into…Kellyanne Conway?

That’s one interpretation!

She seems to be committing to going down with the ship that she chose, which is being steered by Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons). Why does she make this decision to go all-in?

Think about Amy and her career and the way Selina has treated her. By moving over to taking the top job with Jonah and by actually making some progress with him — such as it is, it’s Jonah — but, all of a sudden, she gets to be successful in her own right. Much in the way of why Selina sleeps with Dan, this is very much Amy coming into her own and feeling her power for once without the specter of Selina belittling her and mistreating her. It’s a very different world for Amy all of a sudden.

Amy publicly spins Jonah as the “only candidate who is honest about his dishonesty." Is this Amy 2.0?

This is an Amy that wants to win and an Amy that made some decisions in her life. Rightly or wrongly, she pushed all her chips into the center at the end of the last episode in terms of job, career and that this is the time for that [after she got an abortion]. So maybe this is the next logical step in: you’re all in, so you embrace it.

Jonah calling math teachers “terrorists” might be his most out-there agenda. Yet, that rally inspires Amy. Does she still believe she can turn him into a winner?

There’s definitely a bit of, “I can work with this.” But she’s a political animal. And she’s standing there and watching a crowd come alive. Yes, it’s coming alive because a guy is spouting some crazy ass shit. But most politicians would kill for that kind of reaction and she’s seeing it with her candidate. So, again, she has decisions to make. You walk away and then, where are you? You’re not going back to Selina, so, are you done? And if you are done, what does that mean? Why did you do everything? Or you go, “Oh my God. This is a crazy horse but I can ride this horse.”

Last week, Anna Chlumsky teased that where her storyline goes is "ugly." Does this again show how Jonah cannot be counted out of the race? 

Jonah is a cockroach. Campaigns don’t get easier, they get harder. And he somehow always seems to still be in the mix. I would simply say, never count him out. Jonah is tapping into an America that we don’t like to admit is there, but I think increasingly we are faced with the fact that it is there.

How hard does Selina's disappointed reaction to her decisions hit Amy?

It’s not lost on Amy. I think she feels a love-hate to Selina. She almost feels like Selina is more of a mom to her than her own mother. There is this desire to both please her and also, destroy her. You want her approval but also you want to bring her down.

Mike McLintock, when not busy with his new BuzzFeed show McLinTALK, becomes the key character who kickstarts the Chinese interference. Does he even know what he did?

BuzzFeed has decided to expand into vlogs and launches an Internet talk show with their number one reporter, Mike McLintock. (Laughs.) It’s sort of perfect [that he passes along the message after a consulate visit when trying to adopt another Chinese baby] and that he wouldn’t really know anything. But, by the way, he also might accidentally tell everything. That’s the beauty of Mike.

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.