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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday’s episode of Veep, “Mother.”]
Before this season of Veep began, new showrunner and executive producer David Mandel specifically teased Sunday’s episode.
“It has a different taste and feel to it,” Mandel, who hails from Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, told The Hollywood Reporter. Taking the reins from departing show creator Armando Iannucci after last season, the new showrunner had the unique opportunity of thinking like a fan and there was something he wanted to explore: “I was curious about some of these characters and what makes them tick.”
Namely, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
In the episode, which Mandel refers to as “Veep‘s guide to death,” President Meyer’s tunnel vision for winning the Nevada recount gets sideswiped by a semi-truck when she receives news that her mother is gravely sick, and later dies. The fast-moving political comedy changes pace and the Pennsylvania Avenue backdrop is swapped for a hospital.
At first, Meyer is frustrated about being pulled away from the White House during such a critical time to tend to her estranged mother. Her staff sets up a mobile-Oval office and Meyer bounces around the halls like a caged mouse as she attempts to balance her presidential duties with those of being a daughter and mother.
That’s when things get really interesting.
“This was a chance to dig deeper into who Selina is,” Mandel told THR during a recent phone interview. “Why is she a terrible mother? Well, maybe her mother was terrible. Why was her mother terrible? Well, maybe her dad died young. You start to put these pieces together and see who this creature is.”
The strained relationship between the ailing mother and Meyer, the often-negligent mother, is obvious within minutes. Upon hearing the news that Mother, as Meyer coldly calls her, is not going to bounce back to life (“She’s been at death’s door like five times”), the President obsesses over her mother’s nails instead of consoling her own wailing daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who affectionately refers to her grandmother as Meemaw. (About that visceral cry, Mandel says Sutherland “can summon it up. It’s quite a process.”)
So when she gets good news that her numbers are up and that she might even see a “death bump,” Meyer does some selfish praying and decides to “pull the plug” — without even realizing Catherine isn’t in the room. When she returns, Meyer has just received even better news that the recount is a-go and tells her grieving daughter with frantic elation, “We got good news, from Nevada!”
The moment sums up the character, who is awful yet awfully fun to watch — a credit to Louis-Dreyfus.
“The emotions that go across Julia’s face, from kind of sadness to joy to almost hysteria as she’s both processing the grief and trying not to grieve — what is that? I can’t even write it,” Mandel said about the performance. “I remember sitting at the monitor with Dale Stern, who directed the episode, and when this started to come out of her, how do you even give a note? How do you ask for a second take? Julia plays the damage like nobody’s business.”
Later, Louis-Dreyfus does it again when, seconds before delivering the eulogy at her mother’s funeral, Meyer is now given bad results: Not only did they lose the Nevada recount, they also lost the popular vote. Standing before the memorial service, Meyer finally breaks down. “I have lost … so much,” she says in tears.
What remains up for debate is the source of those tears: Was it the loss of the recount/popular vote, the death of her mother, or both? Did Veep fans just witness a breakthrough moment?
“She’s a wonderfully flawed character,” Mandel said of Selina Meyer. “The thing that made the crack in the dam, is losing Nevada and once more, losing the popular vote. In my mind she is initially breaking up about the loss, but I think allows some of these feelings that she doesn’t know what to do with to come out. When you want something as badly as Selina wants the presidency and you end up in this bizarre limbo, like the tie, and then you add in your mom dying, you’re going to get to see some see frayed edges.”
A telling clue into Meyer’s psyche comes earlier in the episode. “You have no idea what is was like to be the only daughter of a pathological narcissist,” she tells Catherine, lacking self-awareness. Then, nonchalantly, when talking about “Daddy,” she delivers it: “Meemaw blamed me for his death.”
“Can you think of a more horrible thing for a mother to say to her daughter?” Mandel said, connecting the dots to how being blamed for your father’s untimely passing could manifest into a “Catherine, why is that your hair?”-motherly attitude. “Whatever you think is the funniest or most horrible thing Selina’s ever said to Catherine, you get the sense that her mother said it to her.”
But their mother-daughter relationship is only going to get worse before it gets better, if any happy ending is even on Mandel’s agenda: The episode ends with Meemaw’s estate being left to Catherine. “The death of Meemaw and everything that goes with it, the estate and the money, has giant effects on both of them and their dynamic,” he said about the pair’s future. “There will be waves of ramifications. Some immediate and some not so immediate, but nevertheless, these things all play out on the season. There’s big changes coming, that’s the easiest way I can put it.”
One of the few silver linings to come out of the funeral was the reaction from Selina’s running mate, Tom Jones (Hugh Laurie), who may prove to be an ally for her moving forward. Particularly with the next step in resolving the tie, which is a Congress vote. “They’re similar creatures,” Mandel said. “She was taken by the fact that he actually understood her, in a way that perhaps no one else at that funeral did.”
Veep airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.
Photos courtesy of Lacey Terrell/HBO.