Why 'Veep' Tossed Its Original Ending for a Farewell Filled With "Exquisite Torture"

Showrunner David Mandel speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the biggest reveals from the HBO political comedy's series finale, including that "heartbreaking" betrayal, and "a six-second tour de force" from Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
HBO; Getty
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 'Veep'; Inset: David Mandel

[This story contains spoilers from the series finale of HBO's Veep, titled "Veep."]

The day after Veep aired its series finale and bid a bitter farewell to Selina Meyer, showrunner David Mandel was running on only a few hours sleep. The night prior, he joined the cast and crew for a screening, where the finality of the HBO's Emmy magnet of a political comedy hit home across the board.

"Not the end of the episode, but the end-end," Mandel tells The Hollywood Reporter on Monday. "We had a crazy week in New York [promoting the series finale] but now, there’s no next event."

After seven seasons, filming for years on location together in Baltimore, Maryland, and then moving back to Los Angeles once Mandel took over as showrunner from series creator Armando Iannucci — and all the personal milestones experienced along the way, most notably, their star beating cancer — the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-led ensemble has been through a lot as a cast. In speaking to Mandel, some of his team and the actors, it was that close-knit love for each other and dedication to their characters that ramped up the pressure for Veep to stick the landing for every member of the D.C. gang — from Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus) all the way on down.

When Veep aired its supersized series finale on Sunday, it did just that by delivering a daring and searingly funny ending that could be summed up with one word: fitting. Veep gave Selina Meyer the presidency at an unbelievable cost. She had won the Oval Office, but scorched America in the process by picking Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) as her veep and, both personally and professionally, she had lost everyone around her. When the tragic finale jumps ahead 24 years to her funeral, her legacy isn't worthy enough to remain the day's top story. In a callback to the pilot, the sudden death of actor Tom Hanks bumps the late former President Selina Meyer off Mike McLintock's (Matt Walsh) CBS News report, leaving viewers with a lasting image of incompetence as Selina's casket is fumbled into her final resting place.

"It’s very rare that I ever get to be happy about anything and I’m pretty happy about it," says Mandel with a laugh in the aftermath of the finale. Below, in an in-depth conversation with THR, Mandel unpacks all the payoffs that had been hinted at all season long — most notably, Selina's heartbreaking betrayal of Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), which will "haunt her to the end of her days," he says — and he reveals how the original ending was changed so they could "build the more exquisite prison" for Selina: "She dug her own grave and it was just horrific, what becomes of her." But after all of that, Mandel also explains why the cynical satire's big twist of President Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) signals a glimmer of hope for real U.S. politicians — and the voters who elect them into office: "Things could get better. It's possible."

You had an ending for Veep and then Julia Louis-Dreyfus received her cancer diagnosis. When you came back one year later, the world had changed and you said you reworked the final episodes. Can you now reveal that alternate ending?

The basic gist of the ending was incredibly similar, but different. It was never written. It was ideas on an outline board. It would have still been a brokered convention and we would have gotten to it the same way. There would have been no clear candidate and she would have been maneuvering around. Ben [Cafferty, played by Kevin Dunn] was still going to have a heart attack. The main difference was that Tom James [Hugh Laurie] wasn’t going to come out of the woodwork until much later. The arc of the story changed. Things are still going bad, bad, bad. Ben has the heart attack and then on Ben’s deathbed. Selina realizes what she has to do and then goes out and sort of settles all the family business, Godfather style. She takes out Tom and then she does everything she has to do and she gets to Jonah Ryan [Timothy Simons].

In this version, there was less of a definitive turning point. The end of the episode would have been Ben having the heart attack as Selina is giving Jonah the offer for veep. But Jonah is a huge ass and has a major list of demands about his office, wanting a refrigerator, who would work for him and what meetings he would be on. But he would be very much lording it over her that she needs him, and we had a very different attitude for him. He takes so long and somewhere in there, Ben would have had a heart attack before he could get out the news that Tom James was popping up. That message wouldn’t have been delivered by the time Tom announces he’s a candidate and everyone switches to him while Selina is tinkering around with Jonah. From her suite, she would look down to see the convention turning to Tom James. 

In that older version, were you also going to flash-forward to reveal where they all ended up?

Then the idea was to flash-forward eight years to the end of Tom’s second term. There would have been a sense somewhere that Richard might have been his vice president at some point, possibly in his second term, and that Richard was now the nominee. The idea was that Richard would then call Selina and ask her to be his veep eight years from now. The one I always liked the most was that Richard didn’t even get the question out before she was like, “Yes, I’ll do it.” It was going to like when Obama selected Biden: The young exciting new guy looking for the old, gray-haired foreign policy person. We might have even gone gray with Selina, that was something I had joked about. And then we would have jumped further to the funeral. So a lot of things were similar, but different.

What had changed in that year that made the first ending not feel right?

Two things. It felt a little similar to me in that we had done Jonah costing Selina the presidency before. I started to worry it was a little repetitious. I thought the Richard part was exciting, but Jonah costing her the presidency, even though it was interesting and funny, we’ve done that. Then, the bigger picture was that I started to feel like, "Why is Selina Meyer in the year 2020 the only politician paying the price for being not a great person? Whereas everyone else seems to be rewarded." Those were some of the big changing points.

Then you decide you're going to have Selina win the presidency. This leads to an ending that has nods to Veep's origins while also saying a lot about modern politics, and potentially America's future. Why did this feel right? 

It was also connected to repainting the season overall towards the sense that politics had changed. I pulled out the darker brush on the whole season — and some of this was there, but it was putting a fine point on it. The starting point at the end of season six was that Selina was willing to get rid of Jaffar to be president, the man who was possibly the love of her life. So what else is she prepared to do? And along the way, we would see that she’s prepared to get in bed with foreign powers. Ultimately, to give up Tibet and to do all these things. In some weird way, to then lose, started to feel like, “Well, why is she losing? Everyone else is doing these things and they are winning.” Her winning seemed like a satire of modern politics, but it also felt like it might be a way to dig a little deeper with her and say, “Oh, there’s an exquisite torture to this." That she gets everything she always wanted, but pays the price.

This finale had nods to the earlier seasons, but it also called upon a lot of the humanity you have explored with Selina since taking over after season four.

We were able to explore her a little bit as a human over these last three years. A lot of the stuff that we did has paid off all season and is something that I took very seriously. We spent a lot of time on her parents, especially her bad relationship with her mother and her non-existent father. And in this episode, on purpose, you get to build to this moment where, hopefully, everyone realizes, “Oh, fuck. Ben is the closest thing she maybe had to a father. And he is also, in his own way, a terrible father: an alcoholic, burnt-out father who encourages her at the end to do some really horrible stuff.” They have that beautiful moment in the hospital room, but what he’s basically saying is to go out and burn everything to the ground. He’s just saying it in a nice and sweet way. For a woman who never had a father figure, it’s why the Ben thing hits her so hard. That’s a payoff to stuff we’ve been doing for three years. Ultimately, her decision to throw Gary under the bus — obviously a horrific, horrific decision — is certainly set up throughout the season. The notion that it will haunt her to the end of her days again connects to a lot of stuff we’d set up over time.

Putting a pin in Gary for a moment... when we spoke in the beginning of the season, you said there was a space towards the end that you were going to stretch, but that you ultimately realized was a “detour not worth taking.” What was that idea?

These are all loose concepts; it’s not like we had scripts, this is me on a white board outlining ideas. But had there been another season, the idea would have been that Selina getting arrested overseas for war crimes would have been the cliffhanger. And then the next season would have been the trial and ultimately the escape. But the idea of getting her back to running or to the brokered convention seemed too unrealistic. It was one thing to do it the war crimes the way we did it in the penultimate episode, where it happens for a day or two and America doesn’t care. But had she actually gone on trial, which was the idea, I felt like it would be hard to get back to the convention. Also, the idea of her going on trial, I did start to wonder, “Does it start to feel a little bit like Seinfeld?” In terms of it being the same idea of making a bad person go on trial. There had to be a different way to explore her being a bad person. As I was doing it, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t singing. If this was network TV and I was trying to get to 100 episodes I might have forced the issue! But it didn’t feel right and then the second I thought about the war crimes being one episode and the finale being the brokered convention, it just felt so right.

You and Julia Louis-Dreyfus said that when you came upon the ending, you knew it was time to end the show. But that was about the initial idea and before her diagnosis. Why didn’t you have any interest in continuing the show with President Splett and Veep Selina?

It's the notion of Veep Selina. The ending note of her being veep again isn’t awful. It’s just a little been there, done that. If you check the world of the internet, the idea of her becoming veep again was, in some ways, everybody’s idea. I’ve been hearing predictions of her becoming veep again ever since the Tom James stuff of season five. I’m not saying you dismiss it because everyone has the idea, but it does make you wonder if that’s what everyone thinks is going to happen, shouldn’t there be something different or more surprising? That maybe its worth at least exploring other options. I’ve always felt like if she becomes veep, yeah, you laugh. But I know exactly what that is. It sucks, she doesn’t like being vice president. I get it. And I think the challenge then became to build the more exquisite prison for her. You talk about the idea of digging your own grave. She dug her own grave and it was just horrific, what becomes of her. Rather than saying, "Oh, she’s vice president again and isn’t happy."

The ending you did choose makes it clear why it was a fitting note on which to end the series. When Selina is alone in the Oval in the present-day ending, what is going through her mind? 

If you’re a real fan of the character and the show, she got exactly what she wanted, and that’s the problem. It’s the old fable. She’s a Scorpion. She can’t help herself. She got it — congratulations, Selina Meyer! You’re president of the United States! My sense is that every time she’s left alone or closes her eyes, she’s just haunted by her own actions. I know she buries it, obviously, when the phone call comes. As long as there’s action in the White House, she’ll forget it. But that action happens periodically and my feeling is that at night, when she drudges upstairs into the sleeping quarters, she cries herself to sleep. When she’s busy, she’s fine. And the second things quiet down, I believe she’s haunted for the rest of her life.

Does Gary haunt her the most?

Yes.

In a callback to the pilot, she mutters about her "incompetent staff" to no one and calls out to a Gary who isn't there. How tragic is that for you, looking at it from the outside in? 

I was sitting there with the cast and my wife was right next to me. Everyone knew it was coming. I’ve watched the show 100 times with editing and whatnot and yet, when she does it, I get choked up every time and it hits me. And it hit them. It did what I wanted it to do in the sense that it was the most horrible thing I could think of for her to do. Not to take anything away from these other things — it is very funny and horrible in an episode to say she’s giving Tibet back — obviously, it’s horrible. But it doesn’t punch you in the gut the way this does with Gary. And whatever happens with Catherine, it doesn’t punch you in the gut the way this does. This was designed to be the worst thing she’s ever done and yet, it's not shocking that she does it. It's shocking, but not shocking.

The Oval was Louis-Dreyfus' last scene. How many alts and takes did you do?

That last day and last scene was odd and great. The second to last scene was the Sue [Wilson, played by Sufe Bradshaw] scene, and the crowd started building. By the time we got to the Julia scene, there were like 200 or 250 people watching. Every castmember, the crew, peoples’ families, people who used to work on the show and who no longer did. It was wild and wonderful. Then we went to do the scene and I never felt more pressure, honestly, in my life. I knew how important the scene was, but I also felt all these people were watching. Normally Julia comes to the monitors to watch a take, but we actually brought in an iPad and I had her watch on set. At that point, I don’t think she knew how many people were out there and I did not want her to know. I can’t say she would have or wouldn’t have, but I didn’t want her feeling what I was because I was feeling a crazy amount of pressure.

We didn’t do that many takes. We did two takes that I thought were fine. And then, on the third take, we really hit something. And then we did two more. I didn’t want to drain her or burn her out; it was so emotionally exhausting what she was doing. But when we did that last one, that’s where she’s alone and thinking about it and then picking up the phone. I just knew that one was going in the show. I was feeling the pressure, but it came together. And this is what she does. A lot goes into it from the writing, she and I have a very close relationship and we talk through it. But, at the end of the day, it’s her ability to just play all of that regret, recrimination and even a little bit of fear, too, and then to shove it all back down and talk to the Israeli prime minister. And I can tell you that it was basically six seconds. It was a six-second tour de force. I know we’re a comedy and all of that, but there’s some acting for you.

This season has shifted to also be a commentary on the people who elect these politicians, not just the politicians themselves. What does this present-day ending — Selina's election as president — say about us? About voters and about America?

It’s not great. Right now, I am definitely feeling very pessimistic about our country, our world, our earth. All of those things. For a variety of reasons, not just the White House; just what politics has become in terms of the level of discourse, the insane tribalism. Things aren’t great and in some ways, I certainly don’t love all the various candidates and people running and the people in office. But, you get what you deserve. I do think the people are to blame. (Laughs.) That all being said, as pessimistic as I am, and I gave America Selina Meyer as the president, I do maintain a little bit of hope and that little bit of hope is Richard Splett. That’s me saying: Things could get better. It’s possible.

In the flash-forward, America gets a historic, two-term President Splett. Is Veep saying: Out with the Selinas of D.C. and in with the new?

Just a little bit of hope that maybe somebody who is truly intelligent and does actually care could find his or her way of rising up. Even if Richard's rise up, as we saw, was very not of his own making. Maybe that’s how it has to be for somebody that’s that smart and good. He couldn’t win under normal circumstances. He would never have been elected governor of Iowa. Politics would not have allowed him to win that election, but having fallen into it? He can now actually provide a little bit of hope.

Does Selina’s win make her Veep’s Trump?

I wrote that down as a shorthand for the idea. This is a hard one. She’s Trump-ish, absolutely. I feel like everyone has spent the seasons saying "Jonah is Trump" and, to me, Selina is more obviously Trump. Even though she’s not 100 percent Trump. It is a point, but my notes are for me, so take it with a grain of salt.

Should some of the real contenders use Selina's fate as a cautionary tale?

I feel like it should be assigned viewing for everyone in Washington, D.C. (Laughs.)

Back to Selina betraying Gary. We spoke about this when it almost happened earlier in the season, when Andrew Meyer (who is still alive and attended Selina's funeral) suggested Gary take the fall and Selina brushed off the idea. How could she, do this? How could she?!

She did shoot it down when Andrew suggested Gary, but that may have been the seed-planting moment. We spoke about this and how all the hints are there. Even moments like Ben in episode six, when he tells Selina he could be dead and she says that he could be dead tonight. That’s a funny joke, but it’s also there knowing he’s going to have a heart attack in the final episode. So the Gary stuff was a fun opportunity. Knowing where we were going, we were able to map these things out. They’re not obvious hints, but if you go back through the six episodes now, I think you’ll see a lot of signposts for the finale that you didn’t realize were signposts. Going back to Gary, it is awful. But that’s the point! It’s like, how could you? Exactly!

Selina's hospital talk with Ben was her decision to be a monster. How does this Gary act turn her into the monster?

The thing that I was going for, which I’m very happy about, is that she has this moment with Ben that is sort of the deathbed moment and another Godfather reference — where Michael, on Don Corleone's hospital bed, says, “I’m with you, Dad,” and basically goes from being the clean-cut soldier to being the Don. This is sort of my version of that. Ben says, “Don’t be an idiot, you know exactly what to do.” And she clearly does, but wasn’t prepared to do all parts. Now she realizes: These are the answers. In that moment, I think she knows what all of it is and that Gary is included in that. In the sense that she has to find somebody to take the fall and that it better be the right person.

In that moment, Ben tells her that she knows what to do and we, the audience, don’t know what that means. Then we see her come out and take a moment and a deep breath and she’s reinvigorated. We see that moment where she’s like, "Get Governor Shnozlestein on the phone from New York City." And even Gary in the scene, if you watch him, is so excited that she’s back. And we, the audience, are excited. And then she tears into Tom’s Amy [Rhea Seehorn]. We don’t know if she’s turned her yet, but then you go to the Tom James scene and she wipes the floor with him. He’s done horrible things to Selina but she’s always been able to get back up from them. Here, she destroys him. He never enters politics again. He may be a millionaire or billionaire, but she ruins him. I think the audience is cheering at that moment like, ”Way to go, Selina! We love it!”

Then she rolls into that scene and she’s doing the gay marriage stuff and you go, “What the fuck is going on? I was just cheering.” And then by the time she gets to Gary it’s like, “Oh my God! Why was I just cheering! What is wrong?” And that’s the ride and that’s the point. That is the great dichotomy. We’ve spoken about this: You love Julia and because you love Julia, you love Selina, even though she is hateful. This plays with that line. You are so cheering for her until you are not. And then you regret cheering for her.

Gary is performing his duties and getting something out of her teeth while she is basically saying goodbye to him, without him knowing. When the FBI come to take him, Selina and Gary share a glance. What was it like to film that final scene with Louis-Dreyfus and Hale?

On the one hand, it was just incredible. There’s a moment where you have an out-of-body experience where you can’t believe they’ve let you take over the Galen Center downtown [in Los Angeles]. We’re basically filming our own mini-convention. It was huge and I’ve never shot anything like it, in terms of the scale. So that has your adrenaline going. Then you have these two people who have this incredible history and chemistry playing this devastating scene, but they’re doing it so well and everyone is just emotional — behind and in front of the monitor. And it was hard. The hardest part was trying to get them to clear the mechanisms so they could play the scene and not bring any of their own sadness of what was happening into it before it happened. Because they were so sad. I had to remind them this was a happy moment. Especially for Gary, who is happy, happy. It’s a great moment! She’s getting the nomination.

The wonderful thing about Veep is to be able to play with these choices. It was all written down, but you get there and, I guess this is where I get lucky to not only be the writer but also the director, to get to say, “Let’s see what happens if Tony just goes. If he fights it a bit.” And ultimately, what happens is that he fights it a bit until they lock eyes, and then he just resigns himself. And that was an extra level of heartbreak, that his initial attitude is to fight but then, in some ways, he sacrifices himself. He does give up once he sees that this is her. You could argue that he willingly goes. You could argue that he’s so heartbroken that he goes. I’m not sure I can even answer that.

Something I thought about only recently is that I started to wonder if she had actually in that moment when he’s cleaning her teeth, asked him to do it. It was designed this way, where we were looking for something that he could do that was very Gary to Selina — the cleaning of the teeth is so intimate. It’s almost beyond love; it’s something else. I started to wonder, if she had just asked him to take the fall, he probably would have. And then maybe the whole thing would have been better. But she couldn’t even be straight with him. She just had to stick the knife in him. She didn’t have the faith that he would serve her, I guess.

When older Gary is at her casket in the flash-forward, we find out that Selina never visited him. Can you fill in the gaps of the time he served? And in that moment, has he forgiven her?

Like any great white-collar crime, I’m sure he was in for not as long as he was originally supposed to be. But I did figure that he served enough time that when he shows up there, he's different. We talked a lot in terms of makeup, wardrobe and everything with Tony. There’s a broken element to him and I think that means there had to have been a little bit of time served. You get the sense that he’s living in some horrific tiny apartment somewhere. I know it’s awful, but he is a shadow of himself. Another thing we spent a lot of time talking to Tony about is that he’s angry. When he says that stuff about the flowers, that, for Gary, is seething. It was really important that there was anger, but also then the sadness. Because he can’t help himself. It’s not a healthy relationship in either direction. I don’t think he forgives her. He’ll never forgive her. But I think he still loves her.

One of the big thought processes to the funeral was trying to figure out how much was going to be on TV and how much was going to be in Veep cameras. I covered it both ways, but once we started, I knew I was going to use the Veep cameras more. Originally, there was a sense that you would only see Gary on the TV cameras paying respects. One of the problems was that it was very public and why would the TVs ever show that guy? And it felt too early. The notion that a funeral ends and then he sneaks in just felt right. It allowed Tony to play it I think more to himself.

The final joke is that Tom Hanks' death pushes her death out of the news cycle. This is a callback to the pilot episode. How is this a love letter to the show?

There’s two really nice callouts to the pilot, where she starts to say the “level of incompetence in this office” and then the Tom Hanks thing. The notion of her funeral being bumped from the news would have worked with anybody. That was the joke as written and then [executive producer] Frank Rich reminded us of that joke from the pilot and we just thought, “Oh, that’s perfect.” And then, obviously, making it Tom Hanks. I’ve said this since I took over: I was a fan of the show. I am truly a fan and I did the stuff as a fan that I wanted to see. Before this final season I rewatched just about everything, especially the early episodes, and it was the opportunity to make that connection that I was very excited about.

Why is this a perfect ending to Selina’s legacy?

There’s nothing more Selina Meyer, even with her winning the presidency, then finally the day she dies, somebody better dies and steals all her thunder. It’s the ultimate Selina Meyer: Utter, utter lack of respect, but in a form you’ve never seen before. (Laughs.) And in some ways, it’s the “and she ends up as vice president” joke in a much better form. 

What other stories were thrown around to trump her death?

The biggest idea, which makes incredible sense if you think about it, would be that President Hughes, her predecessor, would have died the same day and bumped her off the front page. He would have gotten her one last time. And in some ways, it put even more of a point on the whole vice president respect thing. Selina Meyer spent a lot of time worrying about trying to be president but never spent enough time worrying about what she would actually do as president. And by the way, that is sometimes a problem in politics.

How do you think Armando Ianucci will feel about the ending? 

I told him at the premiere event that she was going to win. I definitely didn’t tell him the Tom Hanks thing, but I told him there was a specific nod to the pilot and a cool callback that he would dig. I can’t be in his head, but I hope he likes it.

There are many callbacks to both the earlier seasons and the recent seasons. Can you talk about why a Billy Joel song played at her nomination? 

That was in the “Mother” episode, the fourth episode of season five. She’s yelling at her team while her mom’s dead and a recount is going on. She basically says, “I’m going to win. We’re going to have an inauguration. And Billy Joel is going to play.” And there’s a moment when Gary is behind her and when he hears that, he gasps and is beyond thrilled that Billy Joel is going to play.

Selina looked quite good in her final picture. How did she die?

It speaks to Selina Meyer in that you could never get a good shot of her later in life. All the footage and photos of her are in her prime. (Laughs.) In my mind, she died at her desk or something like that. 

In the mode of remembering her legacy, what are your final thoughts on Selina Meyer?

Well, I will miss her. I’ll tell you that! She was really horrible but she was good to me, so I’ll miss her.

How do you view this goodbye to her?

To her credit, I always like bringing up what a street fighter she was. She was a fighter, who can obviously be horrible, but there’s something to be said for how strong she could be. I wish she were stronger with her convictions, but there was a strength there that I think people forget about. That’s really important. So she was a street fighter but she was also just horrible. (Laughs.) A really, really, horrible person.

How do you hope the series finale goes down, in the hall of fame of series finales? How do you want Veep to be remembered now that you’re on the other side of it?

That’s such a tough question. All I know is I think it’s a really good final episode. I think it’s a really good episode, forget about final. I think it’s a good episode of Veep and of television. I want people to remember the episode, but I also want them to remember the whole thing. I want them to remember it as seven years of a show that hopefully kept being funny and interesting. That, to me, would be the highest accolade.

You said you hadn't discussed this at the start of the season, but what about now: any talk of Veep spinoff ideas? A movie? What about after the emotions of last night?

I’m still sticking to that. Give me another couple of days before I start thinking about the Jonah Ryan impeachment hearings! There was a moment last night where there was a chant of "four more years." (Laughs.) 

With Veep signing off, do you hope another show picks up the mantel of keeping a check on U.S. politicians?

I hope someone does a political show. It might be time to go a different way. Someone once said that when things are darker, it’s time for a more purely inspirational show. Maybe it’s time for another West Wing kind of a thing. Not a reboot, just that idea that at these times when things are so divisive to remind people of what the good of government can be. We’re guilty of it a little bit, because obviously we’re so cavalier with a lot of peoples’ viewpoints of government. But I’m a believer personally that government can do a lot of good when it’s done properly and I think there are some people who have just forgotten that’s possible. Not to get all philosophical.
 
You have an overall deal with HBO to develop more TV projects. What comes next? 

I’m definitely going to take a break! But I love television. I always have. It would be very fun to, for lack of a better phrase, do my own thing. I’ve enjoyed every second of this and I like to think I put my stamp on it, but I am never not aware that Armando created the show. I’m very proud of my part in it and the people I added to it but, as it should be, it’s his show. It’d be fun to do one where I get to lead and then four seasons in, hand it off to some other schmuck!

Check back in for more from Mandel and keep up with all of THR's series finale Veep coverage here.