[Requisite spoiler warning for Season 5 of Veep.]
The people got what they wanted by the end of Veep’s fifth season. Little-loved, accidental president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) lost the popular vote in her failed bid to stay in the Oval Office and was booted from the White House after just 12 months of governance. But the American citizenry didn’t win. If anything, in one of its strongest seasons yet, HBO’s spiky political farce brilliantly illustrated how powerless voters actually are.
At the season’s outset, I thanked Veep for veering away from the topical and distracting us from Trump vs. Clinton, even with the extra attention paid this year to Selina’s status as the first female president. That doesn’t mean, though, that the series is any less timely or relevant. New showrunner David Mandel, who took the reins from creator Armando Iannucci, arguably outdid Veep’s signature jagged cynicism with an arc that emphasized how little the will of the people can actually matter in choosing our leaders. And in an election year when many Democrats and Republicans fiercely dislike their party’s nominee, billionaires openly boast about rigging the system, Congress won’t pass life-saving gun legislation that nine out of 10 Americans support, and most demographic groups harbor legitimate resentment about being shut out of power and influence, Veep stays necessary by being one of the few voices in pop culture to acknowledge the prevailing sense of political helplessness.
One of the show’s core themes is the empty spectacle and disingenuous theater that is politics. But this season, the politicos needn’t have bothered with their speeches and appearances. The “Founding Fuckers,” as Selina calls them, have bequeathed us an electoral system that spurns fairness. Poor electoral infrastructure in the form of lost paper ballots and unreliable voting machines exacerbates the problem, which is how Selina and her campaign rival ended up tied in the electoral college at the beginning of the season, then became mired in a recount battle that recalled the mess that was Florida in 2000. The clout to decide who should become the next president was then transferred to fewer and fewer people, from the voters to the House to the Senate and finally, in Sunday’s relatively somber episode, to Vice-President Andrew Doyle (Phil Reeves). And that’s how an election between Selina Meyer and Bill O’Brien (the barely seen Brad Leland) ended up anointing Laura Montez (Andrea Savage), O’Brien’s VP, as president.
Trapping Selina in political purgatory (and eventually spitting her out into hell — i.e., anywhere outside of the White House), Veep kept Season 5 humming by relying on its strongest scenes: its leading lady throwing frustrated tantrums and her aides’ insult-laden wheeling and dealing with the craven lizards in Congress, who come in all different shades of shit-stain. (Lord have mercy on Stephnie Weir’s swag-loving Colorado representative Penny Nickerson, because Selina sure won’t.) This year’s jaunts to Nevada and New Hampshire only emphasized how monstrously narcissistic D.C. political creatures and their advisers are — and how vanishing the citizenry’s authority to decide their future is compared to the horse-trading that goes on in the corridors of actual power. That the presidency could be decided by the VP — someone whose explicit role is to wield the barest of official influence — is a testament to the obstacles to democracy that have been in place since the founding of this country.
Casting a ballot in November remains one of the most important civic duties we owe to ourselves and each other. But Veep’s confirmation of the political impotence many of us have learned to feel is no less urgent. It’s a bleak and squalid vision, but an honest one, matched only by the candor of Selina’s reaction to the inauguration of America’s first elected female president: “I had no idea her tits were that big.”