It was hard not to be disappointed by Sunday night’s season finale of “Veep.” In spite of their faults, we grew to like these characters over the course of these eight episodes. After all, it’s easy to root for people walking a tight rope in tandem. But in the season finale, it all came crashing down, and Armando Ianucci and his writers refused to leave these characters with any hope for redemption.
In “The Tears,” several season-long plot lines come to fruition: Selina’s approval ratings are in the gutter – who didn’t see that one coming? It has gotten so bad that Congressman Furlong, currently running for Governor of Ohio – that crucial swing state – has decided to ask her not to endorse his candidacy, even though she has flown to Cleveland to do just that (Furlong, played by Dan Bakkedahl, is probably the biggest jerk we have met in the series so far, and that’s saying a lot).
Meanwhile, communications staffer Dan manages to piss off the Congressman, who also happens to be the vice-chair of the Oversight Committee, and he is threatening to investigate Dan’s behind-the-scenes involvement in the introduction of the Macauley Amendment on Clean Jobs in retaliation.
As for the rest of the staff, they have all miraculously staved off getting fired, despite their weekly demonstrations of incompetence. I thought for sure that Mike was going to get the boot tonight, after it was made public that he manipulated Selina to cry on-air, but Selina seems to have a soft spot for him. I was glad to see Mike and Dan’s rivalry come to a head this week, but I found myself disappointed that things kind of reverted to normal at the end of the episode.
But I think that’s the point. The show was only recently renewed for a second season, which means that Ianucci had to plan this season finale as if it were the end of the series. If tonight had really been the end, what would we be feeling right now? I think we would view “Veep” as a darkly funny but somehow lightweight satire of not only American political life but American culture in general. While we might prefer that Selina and her staff pull it all together and really accomplish something, does that ring remotely true to us? In this day and age, I cannot imagine Congress passing something as controversial as a Clean Jobs Initiative. I certainly can’t imagine a vice-president shepherding such a politically volatile piece of legislation through Congress. For better or for worse (usually worse), nothing much changes in Washington, and the finale of “Veep” left things much as we found them in the first episode – maybe just a little bit sadder.
In reviewing all eight episodes of this first season, it is clear to me that “Veep” will continue to rise and fall on the character of Selina. Ianucci has carefully manufactured a character who is sometimes charming and other times mean and spiteful. He never lets her veer too far towards sitcom likeability but keeps her sympathetic enough for us to stay with her. In last night’s episode, much of the plot centers around Selina’s minor emotional breakdown during her initial conversation with Furlong about the endorsement. This show me that Ianucci knows his audience, and it’s funny how Selina’s breakdown made her a bit more likeable to us, as well.
Of course, like many “Veep” plot lines, this one had its roots in real-life politics. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton famously teared up (like Selina, when talking about the emotional stresses of political life). Most pundits linked this timely show of emotion to Hillary’s win in New Hampshire, which kept her in the race for much longer than would have been the case had she lost that state.
Mike and Amy think that the crying would play well on a bigger stage, so Mike gives a TV reporter a little guidance on how to make Selina tear up during an interview. This, of course, works like gangbusters, and her approval rating rebounds (just like a rubber ball, eh?). But as soon as she gets a bump in her approval ratings, it is immediately taken away when the press finds out that Mike manipulated the reporter. Furlong is furious and promises to investigate Dan, and Selina braces herself for the upcoming shitstorm of scrutiny that the Oversight Committee will bring.
So where does this leave Selina? Pretty much nowhere. Her approval rating is high enough that she is unlikely to be bumped off the ticket, but, given the problems she has created for the administration, it is unlikely she will ever be given anything important to do again.
So she is essentially stuck in a dead-end job that involves daily humiliation and dealing with an incompetent staff. Sound familiar? For all of its “insider politics,” Selina’s situation is still immensely relatable, and that is what has kept the show going. At heart, “Veep” is a workplace comedy, and one of its great insights and sources of comedy is that our leaders in government suffer from the same workplace failings that we do. There is general incompetence, petty bickering, personality clashes, etc. The only major difference is that Selina is surrounded by a host of people who pretend to like her, but as we saw in tonight’s episode, that superficial niceness does not count for much in the long run.
When even the most genuine of emotions are just fodder for the political spin cycle, it must be hard to get out of bed in the morning. At the end of this season of cynicism, poor Selina can’t even express a basic emotion. She can’t even cry. I guess that leaves her nowhere to go but up.
Stay tuned for season two.