'Veep' Boss on Tackling #MeToo and the Biggest Threat Ahead

Showrunner David Mandel speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the HBO political comedy shining a light on the real movement "by doing our Jonah take on it" and reveals how Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) really feels about women's rights in the #MeToo era.
HBO; Getty Images
'Veep'; Inset: David Mandel

[This story contains spoilers from the second episode of Veep's final season, "Discovery Weekend."]

#MeToo has hit the world of Veep and, just as viewers should expect, the HBO political satire used extreme comedy to shine a light on the movement that has swept up both Hollywood and Washington, D.C. — the two worlds that Veep straddles on TV and behind the scenes. 

"The whole world is impacted by the #MeToo movement, not just politics," Veep showrunner David Mandel tells The Hollywood Reporter. "But we’re in a semi-unique situation where it has hit the worlds of politics and entertainment quite heavily and we are both. At the end of the day, Veep's take had more to do with it being a good story and a funny story, as much as anything else."

The story came in the form of the #NotMe movement, a hashtag that was sparked by one woman and followed by thousands of others who spoke out publicly to say they have never dated and will never date the ever-douchey Congressman Jonah Ryan (Tim Simons). "For too long, people have been silent in the face of rumors they went out with Congressman Ryan," says a lawyer for the first woman. "But finally, people are starting to believe women and I believe Amanda when she says: Not me. Not me." The scene invoked the real movement and managed to flip the script with Ryan declaring, "Jonah Ryan will not be silenced!"

It's the specifics of the story that Mandel says the writers worked so carefully to get right, so as to not make light of sexual misconduct. Jonah, as offensive as he may be as a character, never sexually harassed anyone. These women instead wanted to distance themselves from a man who could kill their reputation and, when NDAs didn't work on Ryan, they went public. "It's shining a light on these #MeToo stories by doing our Jonah take on it," Mandel explains.

Elsewhere in the episode, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is campaigning for her party's nomination at a male-dominated ideas summit hosted by a tech billionaire. "At the end of the day, this is how you get the nomination," says Mandel of Selina having to win over deep-pocketed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and celebrity donors. But when her former vp and paramour Tom James (played by returning guest star Hugh Laurie) arrives, he "weaponizes" his feelings by telling Selina he loves her, distracting her enough to lose the billionaire's backing to rising star Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye).

The gender politics at play — as well as Selina's discovery that Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) is pregnant — lead to some revealing moments about how Selina really feels about female empowerment in the #MeToo era. "I’m sure on some level Selina prides herself as being a great defender of women's rights — except when it’s affecting her," says Mandel of Selina's annoyed reaction to Amy's news (one that harkens back to when Selina got pregnant in season one).

Below, in a chat with THR, Mandel digs into the biggest threads from the second episode of the final season, teases a chance to spotlight Chlumsky with the Amy pregnancy storyline, and cautions this about his starring character: "When the season starts, Selina is the frontrunner and she’s keeping it together. But you've got to remember: she's on edge. She just wants the presidency so badly."

This episode followed three major storylines. Beginning with Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in what ways does this weekend in Aspen illustrate the process politicians go through in order to get the nomination?

Hopefully, it’s changing a little bit. But it’s true that the real way to get the nomination is to get backing from these various cadres of billionaires who, by having money, believe they could have a say in the political process. We toyed with different forms of this event — whether it was going to be a weekend away in the Hamptons or at somebody’s house in Los Angeles. But we made up our own version with "Discovery Weekend," which is like a lot of these types of getaways. We made our own, but I think the message is clear: If Selina can land Felix, Felix brings everyone along with him.

Who is tech billionaire and host Felix Wade (played by William Fichtner) based on?

I don’t know what you mean! Any similarities to anyone living or dead are purely coincidental. (Laughs.) Going back to what I have referred to as "pre-cancer planning," this episode in its original form was going to be a weekend in L.A. Once William Fichtner read to play the part, it became this other thing in a wonderful way and it was fun finding Felix's voice. We wanted one of these characters that assumes he knows more than everybody even when he doesn’t. Someone who lectures people about things that you think you know about and who, by process of their money, just assumes they can. Someone who would tell you their insights into something like climate change when, guess what? They don’t actually have any insights. That was the working idea and then Fichtner made it his own. We leaned into the humorlessness and almost matter-of-factness way that he says things.

This weekend showed how different the process can be for women compared to men when Tom James shows up. What does it mean that Selina is thought of as a "lightweight"?

It definitely has undertones with Tom James coming there with his finance background from running a hedge fund these past couple of years and also his "guy-ness." Both in terms of the other guests and also with Felix, because it’s just easier for him. There is this idea that Felix and some other people think of Selina as a lightweight. That is something women face where, if you don’t do enough, you’re thought of as a lightweight. Then if you do too much, you’re in “crazy bitch” territory. Men don’t seem to be judged that way. Tom gets to very effortlessly hang with Felix, but it’s real work for Selina.

Tom tells Selina he realized he was in love with her, after suffering a heart attack, and his confession throws her so far off her game that it seems like another betrayal. Does Tom actually love her and how does Selina really feel? 

That’s sort of the wonderful thing about Tom James. If you connect the dots from the last time we saw him — they were arguing in the Green Room about what was going on and she accused him of, on some level, loving her — I do think he realizes that he does, on some level. love her. I don’t mean “love” in the way that most normal humans love their spouse, but he obviously had real feelings for her, whether he could admit them or not. He’s showing up and admitting a certain amount of actual feelings, but his choice of timing is on purpose. In some ways, he’s finally coming to terms with some of his feelings for her, but in the quest for the presidency, he’s not afraid to weaponize them. Which just makes them one step further down the pathway of this insane relationship that in some ways was meant to be and I guess in some ways, never should have been.

How will this continue to play out as they compete for the party's nomination?

The easiest way of putting it is: this will not be forgotten by Selina. As we’ve seen in Veep world, everything has ramifications. At the same time, and this is the problem with the two of them, I think she’d genuinely like to murder him and then she’d also genuinely like to spend the rest of her life with him. She’s definitely not looking for love right now but there’s something about Tom James where he makes her think about choices she’s made and roads not taken.

Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) was listening in on them. He withstood a few graphic references about their sex life, including the "bath bomb explosion" line she says in the kitchen. How is Gary feeling about Tom reentering her orbit?

That "bath bomb" line was the original line we wrote. (Laughs.) I also love that Gary is hanging in the back of the kitchen and listening in and seeing it all. Not that anyone has ever questioned just how codependent Selina and Gary are, but I do think that, perhaps even more so this final season, you’ll see how entwined Gary is in every part of Selina's life. It speaks to the level of familiarity between them. On some level, he gets jealous. Hidden very deep down, there is a part of him thinking, "It should be me that she’s kissing." But on some other level, he's also just happy to be a part of the moment. 

When one of Selina's staffers suggests Selina team up with protege Kemi, Selina says Americans work too hard to have to deal with an all-female ticket. What is Selina's outlook on feminism?

The original draft of this episode was two years ago and then last summer, we put the finishing touches on it. Even before the "all-female ticket" part, we wrote this idea about her "shaking things up" and disrupting the election by picking a vice president in advance of her announcing it [at the Iowa caucuses]. These were little bits and pieces of things we were hearing out of the Biden camp. It's fascinating because then it all bubbled to the surface a couple weeks ago, with the whole thing about Biden possibly picking Stacey Abrams to join him on his ticket. We wrote it a little bit about Biden as an idea, but then that idea resurfaced again and it just made everything seem that more timely.

How bad of a sign is it that Selina didn’t get Felix's backing, and that it went to Kemi?

It’s not good. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you go back to 2008 and Hillary Clinton assumed the nomination was hers when, all of a sudden, a young senator by the name of Barack Obama with only a couple years of experience in the Senate started raising money in unseen ways and really captured the fervor of the party. This is one of those things we talked about even before the season started — just because she wants to run and is the presumptive frontrunner, at the end of the day in politics, that is meaningless. This other woman is younger, a woman of color and in Selina’s world, a very different creature just based on their conversation. When Kemi is talking about how the Senator grabbed her ass and has since been gotten rid of and Selina comments, "Oh, right, that's bad now." You can see a pure disconnect between what Selina thinks about it compared to Kemi. She is a real threat to her.

Speaking of #MeToo, next up is Jonah. How did you arrive at #NotMe — a movement where women are standing up to say they never dated Jonah Ryan?

Obviously, things were going on in the world and you’re not writing the show in a box. We didn't sit down and say, "Today’s the day we’re coming up with a #MeToo storyline." But it was certainly something we wanted to address. Even back to the Selina thing, there’s a #MeToo aspect to her not being bothered by having her ass grabbed in the past. It’s in the air and it definitely exists in the season in general, because this is what’s going on. We were playing with a couple ideas and Tim Simons himself pitched a variation of the same thing. It went with what we were talking about and it became this #NotMe storyline, obviously to an extreme, of women around the world who need to be believed that they would never have dated Jonah Ryan: #NotMe. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing that on the Internet for a little bit.

What was trickiest about getting this timely storyline right?

The wording. We spent time on all of the wording and we also wanted to make it clear that, while Jonah is a horrible, horrible date, this was a lunch and they barely interacted. We wanted to make it clear that he didn't actually do anything untoward or even #MeToo-ish to her. The last thing we wanted to do was make light of any actual assault or harassment. I think Jonah is a lot of things, but he’s not that. That was very important to us. In that sense, we didn’t want to be making light of anything that actually happened between the two characters. You understand that if you listen specifically to what he’s saying: He’s obnoxious and made her pay for half a lunch or whatever, and maybe he had designs on her, but he didn’t do anything. But then once you set up that it was this lunch and she doesn’t even want people to know that they ever went out on a lunch, even though she agreed, we had a lot of fun with the language of why she stayed quiet and how she’s dating a good, normal man now and she doesn’t want him to know. Unfortunately, a lot of the wording is pulled from a lot of these #MeToo stories.

Jonah was a victim of sexual harassment himself when Teddy Sykes (Patton Oswalt) groped him back in season four. 

He was. And yet, this season Jonah is back working with Teddy. Which speaks to Jonah’s overall desire to be president. "I have to work with this guy? Ok."

Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) tells Jonah that he’s again up in the polls. How will the #NotMe movement impact Jonah's campaign? 

Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) tells Jonah that he is up in the polls at the end of the episode, but our idea was that Jonah does really well at events that he doesn’t show up at. He leaves New Hampshire at the end for Iowa and goes up in the polls in New Hampshire. It’s less connected to the specifics of having been #NotMe-d and more to just Jonah having left town. Jonah’s campaign is very in-your-face this year. His issues and the way he is on the campaign trail, all of that was definitely a popular area for our writers.

What real-life political themes will you tackle as the campaigning goes?

One of the things going on in the world right now is tribalism and the parties hating each other. We don’t deal with the specific parties on Veep, but we definitely talk a lot about appealing to small groups that don’t like other groups. A big one for me is the war on science and facts. This has been brewing for a long time — this is not just Trump — but scientists used to be well-respected. And, now it’s coming at both ends with something like the anti-vaxx movement, where you have super liberal people who are convinced there’s something going on with vaccinations and then you have the religious right and it’s sort of an odd meeting of the minds. The same person who says, "How dare Trump say 'fake news,'" is the first person to say, "I don’t trust these vaccines." Science is something to be believed in and aspire to, and it connects to everything. It’s hard to be the leaders of science and thought when so much of science and thought is being undermined. Those are my issues and you’ll see them being reflected in Veep a little bit.

Also in this episode, Amy is still trying to decide what she wants to do about her and Dan Egan's (Reid Scott) baby. How does this cause Dan’s — albeit, brief — identity crisis?

I think he’s deeply hurt by the fact that Felix and his minions are not particularly interested in him. Anecdotally speaking, I can tell you that a lot of friends of Veep who are gay find both Reid’s good looks and Dan’s sort of horrific asshole attitude very attractive! Dan prides himself on knowing, "Yeah, guys want me too." So it’s quite a blow to him when they don’t and that causes, for Dan, deep soul-searching — which takes all of five minutes because he doesn’t have much of a soul, and then recovers quite easily. While that’s all very enjoyable and fun, and Reid plays the heck out of Dan philosophically dealing with it all, he goes through it and comes out fine three seconds later.

The real toll is on Amy, who is really struggling. She is on some level fighting because this seems like an opportunity to have that family that she’s told herself she wants. And then trying to rationalize this horrible guy. She’s rationalizing this fake dream world with her, Dan and a baby being together and happy. Now she's forced to come to terms with what and who he really is and what that really means to her. And also, with some thoughts about her own life. It’s really easy to say, "Yeah I want to have a baby," but then to also think about, "What does it mean to me and my life and my career?" It’s been really enjoyable to watch Anna play that struggle.

In what ways will this be a thread in the final season — where characters dig deeper and look ahead to their futures?

We’ve been talking for three years now [since taking over Veep]. Obviously, it’s been a real journey for Selina and different characters have had different moments and chances. For example, when Gary went home and got to visit his parents, we found out a little bit more about him there. We’ve definitely had a little bit more with Mike [McLintock, played by Matt Walsh]. And this was a chance to shine a spotlight on Amy and Anna this season. I don’t want to say it’s "her turn," but it’s a chance to go a little deeper. This Dan-Amy thing has been playing itself out since the beginning of the show. Seven years of it. And I guess at some point you go, "What is it really about?" I’m sure there are a lot of fans who want them to be together, but, why do you want them to be together? They are two horrible people. It’s what I love to do, which is to dig a little deeper, that’s the best way of putting it.

I have a different perspective a little bit, of coming into the show also as a fan. I like the Dan and Amy relationship, too. I don’t think I’m as blinded as some of the fans are (laughs), but there are certain things I want to see. It’s not a magical wheel where I go, "Now it’s Anna’s turn." But I knew that her getting pregnant would be a chance to really get into, not only this Dan-Amy relationship and what the hell that is, but to also go one step further and really get into who Amy is. She's always been this generic, hard-working staffer for Selina. To Selina, it’s just all a giant inconvenience that Amy would get pregnant. And this is a real opportunity to explore Amy. Anna really rose to the challenge, as I expected.

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.