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‘Veep’ Transitioned Along With the Times From Finesse to Force

Sunday’s series finale capped a seven-year journey in which the show went from a depiction of abrasive but benign figures to something crueler

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer in ‘Veep’ HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Veep began as a show about powerlessness. Named after an office notorious for ceremony over substance, the show trapped a competent, shrewd politician in a gilded cage and let the comedy play out from there. An entire episode hinged on Vice President Selina Meyer’s choice of frozen yogurt flavor; creator Armando Iannucci’s signature profanity, honed on his previous sitcom The Thick of It, became a means for Selina to take out her pent-up frustrations on her underlings. (“That’s like using a croissant as a fucking dildo … it doesn’t do the job, and it makes a fucking mess!”) In creating Selina, Iannucci’s writing and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s comic talents became the successful partnership that Selina’s fictional presidential ticket was not.

Over seven seasons, a real-life regime change, and a record-breaking number of Emmys for Louis-Dreyfus, Veep evolved into something different—harsher, bigger, and bleaker. Sunday’s eponymous series finale completed Selina’s journey from frustrated, if self-interested, idealist to a monster of American politics’ own making, not so much broken bad as simply broken. The woman who once betrayed her pro-choice beliefs with a waffling, nonsensical statement now has no beliefs at all. In just 45 minutes, Selina sold out her own daughter by promising to overturn gay marriage for a key endorsement, her devoted companion Gary by using him as a fall guy for a scandal, and her country by putting Jonah Ryan next in line for the presidency. New and old Selina may be separated by a mere matter of degree, but they could and did feel like separate entities.

These shifts in Veep’s central character were accompanied by shifts in the show itself. There’s a chicken-and-egg relationship between Selina and her series. As Selina hardened into a more bitter and caustic version of herself, did Veep follow suit by leaning into the vitriol? Or did the writers, perhaps influenced by the ever-grimmer outlook on politics provided by current events, shape the character by channeling their own mind-sets?

Whatever the (unknowable) answer, the results were apparent. They also had a more tangible cause than just the zeitgeist: Between seasons 4 and 5, Iannucci departed as showrunner, replaced by David Mandel of Louis-Dreyfus alma mater Seinfeld. Late-period Veep has a distinct set of trademarks that separate it from its predecessor—so much so that the two sometimes felt like different, if related, shows. Not all these trademarks equated directly to fluctuations in quality. More often, they spoke to the challenges of pushing a show forward while maintaining its essential qualities, and of preserving those qualities when so much about Veep’s source material had changed.

Veep begins and ends with Selina, and its fundamental arc could be traced from Selina’s total lack of power to her possession of a qualified but nonetheless real form of it. First, at the end of Season 3, she gained the presidency, briefly and by default when the president resigned with mere months left in his term. Then, at the end of Season 5, she lost it in an objective defeat that ironically restored her to the center of her self-contained universe, a bubble populated by sycophants without the everyday realities of governing to puncture it. Predictably, achieving a diminished form of her ultimate goal only made Selina more venal, exacting, and oblivious. Early-season Selina urged her aide Amy to visit her father, who’d just suffered a stroke; the gesture may have been disingenuous, though Selina at least felt the need to keep up appearances by making it. Late-season Selina responded to news of Amy’s pregnancy by scoffing, “I should’ve had you fixed years ago.” The closer one gets to real authority, the tighter one clings to what they already have.

Some of this evolution helped Veep make light of an institution that’s never looked darker. Veep would never backslide into sanctimony, but the show wisely turned its cast of benignly incompetent goons into a group of actively malevolent ones. Selina’s gaffes used to involve offending minor European countries and overspending on crates; at the end, they were literal war crimes, as Selina traded away Tibet and faced backlash for a drone strike. What was once a story about the emptiness and futility of politics became a story about the frightening flippancy with which politicians would ruin lives for personal gain—and also, dick jokes.

Veep’s more overt attempts to echo the news were less successful. Many subplots in the final season were ripped directly from the headlines: Selina openly courting election interference from a foreign power; a scandal involving an eponymous nonprofit; Jonah’s blatantly Trumpian fearmongering against Muslims and math teachers alike. Arriving as they did in Veep’s surreal political universe, where Congress breaks ties in elections and where members of the same party advocate against gay marriage and for green jobs, such explicit links to reality felt jarring. On a show that already skewered D.C.’s craven callousness without the crutch of verisimilitude, they were also gratuitous.

A riskier late-Veep touchstone was the apparent choice to value comic potential over internal logic. Many players in Veep’s endgame would be unrecognizable to their former selves. Hugh Laurie’s Tom James went from Selina’s levelheaded foil to her backbiting peer, while Amy went full Kellyanne Conway in the space of just a few episodes. As with Selina, some of these transitions—like Jonah learning to harness his toxic masculinity and turn it into an electoral advantage—could be explained as a lesson in politics’ corrupting influence. At just seven episodes, the abbreviation of Veep’s final season also encouraged some positively Thrones-ian plot compression. Jonah’s wife-slash-stepsister developed a pill addiction and entered rehab in the space of mere minutes; the primary story line rushed from Selina’s announcement to the Iowa caucus in just a week of real time.

Other twists felt like forced setups to (admittedly excellent) punch lines. To spend her final episodes running for president, Selina had to become a believable contender for national office, past scandals and disgraces be damned. Small aesthetic choices like removing the fictional news items from the opening titles came to stand for something more: The less precisely Selina was situated within her political universe, the greater poetic license writers could take with her trajectory. Whether the tradeoff was worth it ultimately came down to the viewer. Yes, Selina’s comeback strained credulity, but it was undeniably better for the show than wallowing in a directionless post-presidency.

The contrast between new and old Veep was heightened by a distinct shift in rhythm. Mandel’s influence could be felt not just at the structural level, but in the line-by-line beats, which became much denser with one-liners than Iannucci’s comparatively grounded scripts. Reflecting Veep’s escalation from pig roasts and political dinners to offhand assassinations, the actual jokes grew both more frequent and, often, more on-the-nose—like when Amy offered a campaign postmortem in the Season 7 premiere, only for Selina to embody every flaw as Amy listed them. As its pace quickened, Veep also lost some of the slower-burn gags that marked its earlier entries. Latter-day Veep would never have Selina awkwardly juggle an Angry Birds clock for minutes on end, letting the laugh build slowly instead of delivering it through brute force.

As much as Veep altered itself over the years, however, its core messaging remained consistent. Selina’s bedrock was never ideology, but the unshakable conviction that she deserved to be president, and that any failure to accomplish her goals necessarily fell to someone else. The most haunting moment of the finale comes after Selina has already sold her soul several times over. From her new perch of power, she echoes one of the show’s most iconic lines: “The level of incompetence in this office is st…” She trails off, realizing that the office she’s referring to is the Oval she’s spent decades fighting her way into. In its clear-eyed portrait of an oblivious elite, Veep maintained the kind of principled stance Selina Meyer never could.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.