Veep has always maintained a delicate balance between power and powerlessness. The vice presidency is supposedly the second-most powerful office in the executive branch, which made Selina Meyer’s status as a de facto wall decoration all the more infuriating — and the bottled rage she subsequently took out on her staff all the more blistering. But in the Season 5 finale, the Veep writers’ room, now operating under showrunner David Mandel, put its collective thumb on the scale in favor of “powerless.” Selina Meyer lost the presidency, fair and square; what a resignation-worthy scandal had undemocratically given her, the American people (and some judges in Nevada) took away. That the ultimate victor turned out to be the other side’s female vice presidential candidate rubbed a boulder-sized hunk of salt in the wound.
Going into its sixth season, premiering this Sunday, Veep is left with both a problem and some possibilities. What can the show do after taking a pair of scissors to its central tension? Selina’s never going to be (a properly elected) president, and that’s that. But this left the show with more options than if it had given Selina her heart’s desire; there’s nothing funny about happiness. And freed from Selina’s tyrannical employ, at least for now, there are all kinds of comedic avenues the former members of the Meyer administration can take. This being Veep, the post-presidency hasn’t exactly been a reprieve from the degradation marathon of political life — but it does offer more flavors of it than we’ve ever seen before.
Veep has long been a petri dish of vanity and neediness. Season 6, however, sees a greater diversity and degree of ego starvation than ever, the positive (for the viewer, at least) result of a show abandoning its traditional structure and venturing into the unknown. The pivot is best appreciated through a survey of how its major players have scattered to the winds, organized by the core trait that unites them all. It turns out that what’s wrong with these people can’t be left at the White House gates. Here are the seven central characters of Veep, ranked from least to most pathetic.
7. Jonah Ryan
We start with the cruelest joke of all. Jonah Ryan is still a repellent, constitutionally loathsome dweeb who looks, to quote Zach Woods’s Ed Webster, like “Frankenstein’s monster if his monster was made entirely of dead dicks.” But at the start of Season 6, he’s also a representative from New Hampshire, and therefore the only Veep character currently holding elected office. Which makes him the only person currently in possession of what everyone else on the show so desperately wants: the teensiest slice of institution-granted authority and the attention that comes with it. That’s why Ken, ever the pragmatist, has glommed on as Jonah’s in-house consultant. But on Veep, even the least loser-y ensemble member is still a gigantic loser. Just as he was in the White House, Jonah is positively loathed by his colleagues in Congress, trapped in a trivial committee posting — “Nobody in Congress cares about ethics!” — and pointedly iced out of social gatherings. Lest you start feeling sorry for Jonah, he’s also been faking cancer for sympathy points and taking a principled stand against green beans in school lunches. On Veep, even the bestish-case scenario involves overgrown middle school bullies endlessly showboating over meaningless scraps of nonchange. Jonah’s misadventures, however, are very much a sideshow. They’re a time capsule of the old Veep, there in part to remind us of what everyone else has sunk below. Selina and her entourage are learning the hard way that government goes on without them.
6. Catherine Meyer
Happily partnered and freshly loaded, Catherine kind of has it made. Or rather, she would have it made if Veep allowed her to escape the default submission state her mother has bullied her into. Even a grandma-bestowed fortune and the subsequent, humiliating financial control Catherine now has over her own mother hasn’t rendered her able to stick up to Selina, or freed her from the stranglehold her mother’s political career has on all aspects of her life, or kept her from being caught in the middle of her parents’ never-ending … thing. The only Veep character sane enough to see the political circus for what it is still can’t keep herself out of it. Catherine is trapped in a role she never cast herself in, and her unending misery is our constant reminder that Selina’s been ruining lives for a while. She’s also Veep’s mousy, whisper-quiet conscience: These people may no longer be capable of shocking each other, but they’re shocking to someone. Unfortunately, a moral compass isn’t all that’s required to make a half-decent documentary.
5. Ben Cafferty
Like some other former White House officials, Ben has headed to Silicon Valley, which has supplanted both Wall Street and K Street as the preferred post-government landing spot. The public-sector-to-private-sector revolving door is a logical place for Veep to go, and even though Ben bounces before there can be a crossover with HBO’s other hit satire, the few minutes we get of him playing Grumpy Old Legislative Consultant to a crowd of slideshow-loving Uber employees are worth it. Tech and politics are both the most natural fit in the world (self-obsessed money pits) and an obviously terrible match (fetishized change meets bureaucratic quicksand), a paradox Veep distills into mere seconds. Ben’s glibly amoral, for-hire expertise brings him wherever the money is — which, for now, is far away from Selina, not to mention his own comfort zone. Before long, he decamps for his natural habitat. The residents of Veep’s Washington, like our own, have put down roots so deep they can’t take anywhere else.
4. Dan Egan
All that miserable brown-nosing has (kinda, sorta) paid off. Dan, who now goes by “Danny” to appeal to the “middle-American mom channel-surfing during a View commercial break” demographic, has found himself in a textbook careful-what-you-wish-for situation: He’s the probably-temporary cohost of a morning show ruled with an iron fist by an irascible, territorial woman he admits makes him long for the days of Selina ripping him a new one. But let’s look on the bright side — he gets to be on TV! Veep studiously avoids commenting on current events, a task that, as many have noted, is harder than ever following an election that delivered a crushing defeat to a prominent female politician and during a presidency that writes its own parody. (Mandel admitted during a recent interview that the writers had to scrap a golden shower joke.) But the show’s decision to dive into the vagaries of cable news at a time when we’re more frustrated with its awful incentives than ever is a shrewd one. Jeff Zucker callously calls his contributors “characters in a drama”; Dan baits an interviewee into losing his shit, which a producer immediately praises as great TV. He’s a slimeball who’s found his level, which just so happens to be at the top of the world. Or would be, if he didn’t have Meyer 2.0 undermining him at every turn.
3. Amy Brookheimer
Poor Amy just can’t turn it off. Selina’s attack dog has always taken pleasure in devising increasingly elaborate ways to demonstrate her contempt for the American electorate while doing her best to shepherd them towards her preferred candidate. Without Selina to enable her, she’s recreating the Meyer experience on another campaign: her now-fiancé Buddy Calhoun’s bid for Nevada governor, or as Amy puts it, to “bring this state into the 20th century.” The only problem is that Amy clearly likes Buddy more as an employment opportunity than as a romantic partner.
She’s also unable to modulate her unbridled hostility for a slightly more … normal workplace environment. Amy wants to run a down-and-dirty campaign for a milquetoast guy not temperamentally suited to running attack ads against his opponent’s wife, and when Buddy won’t let Amy be Amy, he’s failing at the one thing he’s worth to the supposed love of his life. Amy’s years in public service have turned her into a vicious automaton who no longer even wants human connection. Like an ex-con or a combat veteran, she’s no longer suited to life on the outside. Veep cannily demonstrates that toxic people have a ripple effect. Selina Meyer creates broken people, then cuts them loose to break the world around them.
2. Mike McLintock
When the season begins, Mike finally seems to have found the one job he’s good at: stay-at-home dad to a straight-up litter of adopted kids. Being Mike, he finds a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. By premiere’s end, he’s managed to find a gig that’s equally grueling, thankless, and unpaid, with the added bonus of being under the woman who made his life hell for years but he still can’t say no to. He’s once again (ex-)president Selina Meyer’s press secretary — minus those government paychecks. Somehow, though, Mike remains happily married and seems to genuinely enjoy fatherhood, which paradoxically rockets him to the bottom. Mike has an out and doesn’t take it, the walking symbol of the Veep crew’s shared masochism. Still, he’s not the one who keeps an obviously incompetent lackey on retainer because he’s a punching bag who gives minimal pushback. The bottom/top spot here is reserved for one person and one person only, and it’s the woman who’ll never admit she wants to keep as many trappings of her former life as she can, whether or not they can write a decent press release.
1. Selina Meyer
In the year-plus since her historic loss, Selina hasn’t come any closer to figuring out who or what she is when she’s not in office. She’s working on her memoirs, if you define “work” as occasionally ordering an underling to do research. She’s running her foundation out of the South Bronx, or at least she will be once she figures out what it’s actually trying to do. (As of Episode 3, its resources are divided among adult literacy, AIDS, and spreading democracy.) She’s building her library, or trying to; she needs to find somewhere to actually host it first. And so she briefly latches onto the only goal she’s ever sustained — running for president. Again.
The closing minutes of the premiere see some of the most out-and-out cringeworthy material Veep has ever done, stripping the defense mechanisms from Selina’s ambition and leaving it naked and vulnerable so her inner circle can stab it in the heart. Gary, her loyal companion, can barely disguise his terror. Her family rejects the notion outright. And Ben methodically, patiently explains why she doesn’t have the support or appeal to make this work. Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts six consecutive Emmys’ worth of talent into showing Selina’s reaction. She can let go of her philandering ex-husband. She can let go of her pride. But she cannot let go of the presidency.
There’s nothing more desperate, or blackly comic, than an ego monster cut off from their fuel source. Selina’s core dysfunction has always trickled down to her de facto servants, and Veep’s sixth season is no exception. This is the darkest this show has ever been, which isn’t a reflection of its source material, but its creators’ commitment to following their premise to its logical conclusion. That means observing what happens to a diva in a true power vacuum, not just maddening proximity to power. When you put Selina Meyer, or any of the mini-mes she spawned, in a corner, she’ll fight like hell to get out. The fight being doomed from the start only makes it funnier to watch.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.