'Veep' Boss on How Season 7 Premiere Raises Final-Season Stakes: "It's White House or Bust"

Showrunner David Mandel unpacks the first episode of the HBO political comedy's final season: "Her mind-set is that everything is going to be new and different," he tells The Hollywood Reporter of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer.
Courtesy of HBO
The final season premiere of 'Veep'

[This story contains spoilers from the seventh season premiere of HBO's Veep, "Iowa."]

Veep is back. In real time, it's been nearly two years since Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her gaggle of dimwitted, bumbling D.C. misfits graced the little screen. But in the world of the HBO political comedy, only a couple of months have passed since the ex-president decided she was going to give a run for the White House another shot.

On the premiere of the seventh and final season of the Emmy-winning comedy that aired Sunday night, Selina is in Iowa readying to make the official announcement about her candidacy. The wonderful ineptitude of her staff, on top of a string of mass shootings, however, delays her announcement and the added time allows Selina to dig deep to figure out why she really wants to be president. 

During a private conversation with her bagman Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), Selina confesses that America owes her eight years in the Oval and, this time, she wants a war. That powerful admission was Louis-Dreyfus' first scene back on set after Veep delayed production on its final season until the show's star and executive producer's cancer was in remission.

"It’s a place that Julia can tap into and that is Selina at her most unhinged. Where her voice cracks and it's almost like she doesn’t even know what she’s saying when she’s saying it. Julia’s taking Selina to this other place and you’re just like, 'Alrighty. She’s back. We’re good,'" Veep showrunner David Mandel tells The Hollywood Reporter in a chat about the premiere.

The rapid-fire pacing of the episode kicks off a high-stakes final season, says Mandel of wanting to remind viewers that Veep is indeed back and planning to go out with a bang. "We were gone for two years. We only did seven episodes and it’s the final season. I wanted to come out of the gate swinging and remind people that we’re back. For them to say, 'Fuck, I missed those guys.'"

In a chat below with THR, Mandel reveals how the premiere sets the stage for the end of Veep and how the last two years impacted the final episodes ("We're in a pessimistic time in our country right now and I think Veep needs to reflect that a little bit," he hints). Mainly, the episode begins to pose a key question: What is Selina prepared to do in order to win? Read the full chat, below.

You said the season six finale was sad. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) got her memoir, her presidential library (her "vagi-brary") and she also found love, but then she decided to go back into politics. If she already threw away her happy ending, what should viewers want for her as this final season unfolds?

Selina has pushed all her chips into the middle one last time for the presidency. We saw what happened the last time she didn’t win. She ended up at the “spa.” (Laughs.) So, this time, gosh, if she doesn’t win when she contemplates everything she did give up, it doesn’t sound pretty. Her only idea of a happy ending at this point is the White House. For her, it really is: White House or bust. It puts a lot of pressure on winning.

You have explored more of her humanity in the last two seasons (after taking over from series creator Armando Iannucci). How does that set up these final episodes?

It was great to get more inside her head. What makes her tick? Why does she need to be president so badly? The last time she ran, it sent her to an insane asylum. What is she doing to try to make sure it doesn’t do that to her this time? There is a sense of how on edge she is through the whole season — because of how badly she wants the presidency and what she is prepared to do, on top of what she’s already done — that gives everything a really great undercarriage. Running is different this time. She’s also a different person.

The first scene you filmed with Julia Louis-Dreyfus: What was it like to watch her step back into Selina's shoes after her cancer battle? 

The first scene we shot with her was in the hotel room with Gary where she’s desperately trying to figure out how to express to America why she wants to be president. That’s the question that she’s struggling with: why does she want to be president, really? Gary is trying to help her and you get into that whole thing about what she really wants to say, which of course she can’t say. She came to that set and Tony [Hale] was there, along with the whole crew and some other castmembers. And Julia took this moment to thank everyone. It was really moving. To point out, I guess a little bit of the obvious, of how thankful she was to be back and it led all of us to realize how happy we were to have her back and to this really wonderful moment.

It’s like a professional sports player when they come back from an injury: Are they still going to be able to jump as high? Are they still going to be able to run as fast? Those kind of questions. And when we started going and we got into the stuff about her screaming about taking a dump on the glass ceiling and shaving her muff in the sink of the old boys club — and the Kennedy joke (laughs) — it was like, "Oh, she’s faster than ever. She can jump even higher now." 

After last season's finale, you hinted that Selina had a long road ahead when it came to running for president. Then you decided season seven would be the final one. How did that change what you had in mind for her?

Not much. There’s a spot toward the backend of the season where, originally, I felt we could stretch it out. There’s a detour we could take and at some point, I realized it wasn't one worth taking. So a lot of what you’re seeing, especially in the front-end of the season, is really what I was thinking then. Things moved around. There were a couple pieces that maybe got thrown out, but everything exists in some form. It was more about going back through and asking, "Is there a better way? Given what's going on in modern politics, how do we think about this a little differently?"

Buddy Calhoun (Matt Oberg) and Tom James (Hugh Laurie) join Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) as Selina's challengers. How will Tom James come into play, given their history?

Selina spends this time trying to announce her candidacy and thinking it’s hers for the taking. By the end of the episode, she does manage to pull a pretty good speech, as she says, “out of her lily-white anus.” And then there is the revelation that Tom James is running. Very quickly, we go from this sort of air of inevitability to — wait a second. That obviously throws quite the wrench into her plans, both politically, and of course with Tom James, personally.

How did you approach real-life election comparisons this season? 

Hopefully we’ll get the weird, voodoo credit later, because we do have stuff coming down the pike that will seem like we wrote it this morning. That’s always the really cool thing about Veep. We had a lot of distance from the last campaign [last season]. This new campaign has started so early that, all of a sudden, now we’ve caught up. There are always going to be things that hit and people just have to remember where and when we were writing this. But this was really a chance to look back on a couple of the last elections and nomination quests.

Selina is never just Hillary Clinton. But there are definitely elements of Hillary's last two campaigns, in terms of the air of inevitability and then perhaps, not being as inevitable. We met early on with the authors of Shattered, John Allen and Amie Parnes, and there are some elements — like the notion of Selina having Amy do a little autopsy because she doesn’t want to make mistakes like the past, but then making them anyways — that popped out of there. Landing at the wrong airport is actually based on a real thing that happened to Obama back in the early days of his campaign. Not for his announcement, but it was something that a couple of the Pod Save America guys and a couple of others who worked on the campaign told us anecdotally. 

What real politicians did you meet with for this last season?

There are many. We’re always trying to do our research and really talk about what this process is like. John Dean, a Watergate witness, came in; Bob Shrum, who was a longtime Ted Kennedy person and then ran the Gore and Kerry campaigns. Both of them were fascinating. We talked to a lot of staffers on both sides; people who do the advance work, the speechwriting and all that kind of stuff, because we knew we were going back into the fields. We talked to a lot of Iowa people, including former Congressman Fred Grandy, the actor who played Gopher on Love Boat. And Aaron Schock, the congressman who was accused of having the Downton Abbey office. He spoke a lot about Midwest campaigning. Just a lot of fascinating people in and out, along with our regular advisers.

"New. Selina. Now." Tell me about that campaign slogan.

(Laughs.) I love how it looks, let me just start there. I wanted it to look good, like a lot of those T-shirts that you see. But at the same time, there’s nothing original about it. That is where her mind-set is: that she’s new and everything is going to be new and different; only it isn’t. That’s one of the big themes, maybe of the season.

You got the whole gang back together again — minus Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh), who is replaced by Leon and is now a Buzzfeed reporter. This group is still as incapable as ever. Why does Selina continue to employ them?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. Veep can look a little bit like current politics in the Trump world, too. At some point you have to wonder, maybe it’s not like she has to keep them, but maybe the word is out enough that she couldn’t necessarily get better other people. She also continues to still be a pretty terrible boss. But in their own strange way, they stick around.

In what ways will #MeToo impact the world of Veep?

We do address #MeToo this season, there are things along the way. It’s present in the world and Selina occasionally bumps up against other peoples’ political correctness. But I think, unfortunately like a lot of the world, she only thinks about it when she is required to think about it. And I think there’s an unfortunate truth to that.

Jonah Ryan married his stepsister and his drama ends up polling well. Do you think a candidate like Jonah could actually tap into something and get elected right now?

Nothing surprises me. How’s that for an answer? That could be just the thing that gets people interested in politics! Jonah hasn’t changed, but what a candidate is has changed. If anything, he’s more himself than ever. And yet all of a sudden, in our current and somewhat messed-up society, Jonah being himself is what seems to be attractive to people.

The standard “thoughts and prayers” reaction to mass shootings has been a thread throughout Veep. This episode, Selina and politicians are finally called on it. Did Parkland inspire this storyline?

The notion of the school shootings was in there from an early, dare I say, pre-cancer draft. And when we came back to episode one, post-cancer, and it seems insane to say this, but in the two years the shootings mindbogglingly seemed to have gotten so much worse. It felt like a good idea to make more of it in the script and get her to say she's not going to say "thoughts and prayers," and then stumbling for other words that mean the same thing. What I love about the storyline is that it doesn’t judge the shootings in any way, shape or form; in some ways, quite the opposite. But it does use the shootings. [The episode's writer] Lew Morton and I made it darker and more perverse, because that’s how we were feeling. That’s what that extra year allowed us, a little bit of perspective. We're in a pessimistic time in our country right now and I think Veep needs to reflect that a little bit.

Did you have hesitations about backlash to Selina using shootings to her advantage? Or, is that the point?

What’s interesting to me is using comedy to shed light on something. I’m not sure I’m going to change anybody’s mind. It was funny but also horrible to do and that’s why I did it. I think it speaks to both the matter-of-factness and the frequency, and how easy it is to use something like shootings and other things like it and yet not effect any change. It’s a real unfortunate comment on political norms. I have no doubt there are people who will be, as usual, horrified and offended. But hopefully other people get what we’re trying to do. Lew has been with me since the beginning of this run on Veep. He’s my number-two guy. It’s a delicate subject and we worked really hard just trying to get it right.

There’s a line where Selina says immigration is a little too “issue-y.” Are there certain topics that are too hot-button even for Veep?

No. There's nothing we really avoid. That, to me, is more of a joke about her not wanting to deal with immigration. The hardest thing sometimes with some of these issues is: how do we have a unique take? If I think we have an interesting take on it and something interesting for the characters to do, vis-a-vis the issue, then we jump in on it. And sometimes that take is a side joke and I think a politician wanting to avoid immigration because it’s too issue-y may be sort of perfect: “I just don’t really want to get lost in the weeds of what I think an immigration policy is. Let’s just avoid it.” Which, by the way — hello, 2019. 

This episode had a rapid-fire pace. How was the writing and filming process different, given the pressure that it’s the final season?

We’re always trying to do that with every episode. But we were gone for two years and the world has a short attention span. I did want to come out of the gate swinging and remind people that we’re back. We don’t pore over it more than any other, but it was somewhere in the back of my mind to remind people: Here we are. We always do lots of alts [alternate options] when filming and we are working on lines up until the last second, just trying to get the best jokes possible. I’m lucky enough to have an amazing writing staff that’s throwing stuff at me constantly. And I have pretty amazing actors that can both handle that and also improv on top of it. It’s a dance sometimes, but it’s all the elements together that I think make Veep so special.

Do you have a favorite moment from this episode?

There were two things unfortunately that got cut that made me very sad. We had a line about Selina wanting a "tumor-sized biography" that Robert Caro would write about her. There was also a line where Kent referenced Dave Weigel from The Washington Post by mentioning some polling or an article he had written. Those are the great regrets. But a joke that really makes me laugh that did make it in is when Selina talks about how she thought she would spend her later years "sucking and fucking" her way through the Shorenstein Center for media studies, which is at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. It really puts a smile on my face every time I hear that, as well as her performance of it. 

Former first daughter Catherine Meyer has postpartum depression. Was this another opportunity to use Sarah Sutherland’s cry as a comedy weapon?

Any time we can make her cry, it’s always good. (Laughs.) The Marjorie-Catherine relationship is one of my favorite elements of the show. The idea that we would put them together to break them up, that’s sort of the bad story pitch and I never want to do that because I like them together so much. But I definitely wanted to put some rocks into their relationship. The stress of being new parents and the notion of postpartum depression seemed like the perfect thing for them to deal with, and for Selina et al to not care about one bit.

Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is going back and forth about what to do with Dan’s baby. How does she really feel about Dan (Reid Scott) — who very casually assumes she will get an abortion — and about having a baby at this point?

Unfortunately, for everything that Amy tells herself, she really still likes Dan. And, I think, when push comes to shove, she wants to have this baby. 

Mike is the only one on the outs. Of all the jobs you could have given him, why make him a Buzzfeed reporter?

Mike switching sides was an early idea, that he would have gone from being in the White House to being a reporter. There is that blurred line between people that are one day in the administration and then the next are on CNN. For Mike, the Internet writing economy popped in and seemed oddly perfect. The idea of a place like Buzzfeed that felt on the one hand, sometimes breaking stories, but on the other hand, sometimes filling their day with Top 10 Trapeze Fails. We’re writing these ideas down, some of them two years ago, and then as of a coupe weeks ago, there are huge layoffs at Buzzfeed and they even did their first print edition. That is another example of Veep writing sort of predicting things.

How does this episode set the stage for the entire season?

The entire season, and even into some of the finale, is set up in this episode. Lines are there for a reason! In the usual sort of Veep way, we’re setting up a bunch of stories and they will obviously twist and turn, but this is stage one. Resetting the board and letting you know where everybody is and where we are. It’s episode one for a reason.

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.