How Veep became TV's best show about broken people
"I hate this country," soon-to-be former President Selina Meyer says in the season finale of Veep. She has just lost her last chance not at the Oval Office but at Oval Office adjacency. Her only option, now, is to be a regular person. The question this season — Veep's fifth — leaves us with is whether she is even capable of living such a life. "I don't even remember how to drive," she says in another scene. "I need a wallet. And stamps. I gotta get stamps."
This last comment hints at one of the most jarringly anachronistic traditions in American government: franking privilege. According to this practice, members of Congress are allowed to send official mail by signing the envelope in lieu of using a stamp, and the privilege is also afforded to vice presidents and former presidents, as well as their spouses. When Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, she lost her franking privilege because she was no longer, at least from a dynastic perspective, John F. Kennedy's widow.
Aristotle Onassis — who upholstered his yacht's barstools with whale foreskin so he could have the pleasure of telling the women he invited aboard that they were "sitting on the largest penis in the world" — could probably afford all the stamps he wanted, and so, by extension, could Jackie. Losing the right to send mail using your signature alone suggests a loss too finite to fall within the realm of tragedy, yet too surreal to compare with any "regular" person's experience. It's a crystallization not of what one woman lost, but of what her country wanted from her. Jackie Kennedy used to be able to send mail for free. Her signature was the equivalent of legal tender. She was, transparently, worth more than the rest of us. For a while, she was our queen.
Veep has always been particularly brilliant at finding the surreal bits of ceremony that are still visible in American government, and have not yet been eroded away by our desire to believe that we live in a democracy. At its foundation, a true democracy can only be a society in which each individual's vote — and, at a more essential level, each individual — matters equally. American politicians' perennial attempts to perform a kind of drag act based on their understanding of working class citizenry speaks to just how badly we crave this fiction. (It's also a campaign hallmark that Veep lusciously satirized this season.) But, within the system of government we abide by, some people do matter more and a great many people are drawn to work in it because they, too, want to matter more than others.
Within Veep's world, nearly every single politician and pollster and aide and intern falls into this latter category — and understandably so. Greed for money and power aside, Veep's politicians operate in a landscape where actually caring about a particular cause or initiative can only end in heartbreak. Selina Meyer, already deeply jaded at the series' start, still possessed enough optimism to push for the Clean Jobs Commission and the Families First Bill — quickly dubbed the "Mommy Meyer Bill" by her opponents — during her time as vice president. By season five's finale, she has been reduced to wailing "I want my Nobel Peace Prize!" as she makes a last-ditch effort to secure her legacy by freeing Tibet before she is shoved out of office.
In Veep, the only characters who have at least a glancing familiarity with kindness or altruism are the ones who always end up at the bottom of the dogpile: Jonah's cheerfully incompetent assistant, Richard Splett (Sam Richardson), and Selina's long-suffering body man, Gary Walsh (Tony Hale). Gary is also the only character on Veep who ever enjoys much in the way of success, because his goals are usually finite: Find Selina's lipstick, pick out Selina's purse, make Selina feel better after her latest defeat. Gary, unlike anyone else on the show, actually can make Selina feel better, but he can only do so with a treat or a snack or a burst of sycophancy.
Gary is less Selina's assistant than her parent, but even he can only do so much. In a drunken confession to Richard, Selina describes the presidency as "the 12 loneliest months of my life." But she forgets this admission almost as soon as she makes it. Collapsing onto the floor and curling into the fetal position, the president moans: "I wish I'd won."
"I wish everybody won," Richard says.
On Veep, the major divide between the show's characters is not one of youth vs. age, but of political innocence vs. experience. Richard Splett started out as side character, but his role has developed into something more telling: He is able to be happy because he doesn't see political power as a panacea for all his problems and insecurities, and isn't constantly frustrated by his inability to reach the level of power that might make him feel not even successful, but whole.
Overwhelmingly, Veep's other characters are constantly embroiled in this pursuit. The question this finale poses is what life might hold for them when they wake up to find they have really become the political "outsiders" they always claimed to be.
"From a distance, it looks really beautiful," Gary says, as Selina's helicopter spirits her away from the White House.
"Yeah," Selina says, defeated. "From a distance."
Veep began, five seasons ago, as a show about one woman's frantic attempts to scramble into the Oval Office. But maybe this was never quite the point. Veep is a show about the pursuit of power, but it's also about the broken people who pursue it. In the process, it's become one of the most disturbingly insightful character-driven narratives of our day. Stripped of their power, who are the people we have spent the last five seasons getting to know? After this season finale, Veep is poised to show us its characters with more devastating clarity than ever before.