Veep’s Final Season Ponders a Horrifying Thought

Might these characters have feelings after all?

A scene from Season 7 of 'Veep.'

This article contains minor plot details for the first three episodes of Veep, Season 7.

It’s no spoiler to say that the once and possibly future President Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds herself in a colossally embarrassing situation early in the seventh season of Veep. Her life is generally a parade of mortification and mishaps, interrupted by moments of power-grabbing glory that are almost always brought on by accident (who can forget those immortal words: reform, reaffirm … repel!). But this particular low point—at an Aspen ideas festival (not that one) held by a record exec turned political kingmaker (not that one)—is, well, particularly low. “That was the most humiliating experience of my entire life,” she spits afterward, “and I have been vice president!” To the frenemy who caused her screwup through a wild feat of manipulation, she asks this: “What are you, some sort of sociopath?”

Some sort of sociopath—it’s a line she delivers with even more venom than usually accompanies her insults. It’s, in a way, more withering than her reference to a campaign worker as “Frigid von Pole-up-her-ass,” or a rival politician as a “triracial twat,” or her pregnant chief of staff, Amy, as “that Fatty McFatty.” Who is she to call anyone a sociopath anyway? In Season 7, she treats a mass shooting as good news because it distracts from her latest failure. She shows utter disinterest in her baby grandson except when using him as a PR prop. This is a woman who appears to be without a conscience.

And Veep has, always, been chock-full of other apparent sociopaths—which is what makes the show’s resemblance to America’s actual political reality so troubling. For the HBO comedy’s exceptionally devilish final season, Selina enters a presidential primary that looks a lot like the nascent 2020 Democratic race: an exponentially expanding field of candidates, a simmering generational feud over identity politics, and even hints that candidates might declare a running mate before winning the nomination. A shiver that might be called “anticipatory déjà vu” comes from watching Selina glad-hand at Iowa county fairs and trade jabs on a crowded debate stage just as Kamala, Bernie, et al. are gearing up for the same. At this point in the show’s run and our democracy’s wobbles, Veep doesn’t simply evoke real life. Real life inevitably evokes Veep.

One can only hope that real-life players are a smidgen less horrible than Veep’s are, but again, certain resemblances are uncanny. Jonah Ryan, the moronic intern turned presidential candidate, proves a font of hateful jokes that culminates in the mocking imitation of intellectually disabled people. Ben, the veteran campaign manager, says that if Selina’s bid fizzles, he has a gig lined up getting a neo-Nazi elected in Sweden. Dan, the slickest hack in Washington, has no compunction about pressuring Amy to get an abortion. More than ever, the show’s quest for laughs overlaps with a quest for offense; it sometimes seems like the show’s ticking through a list of sensitive topics to riff on. If you’re wondering whether it’s okay to laugh, that’s probably healthy—and another way in which the show evokes the queasiness of simply watching the news these days.

The yet creepier implication of the three Season 7 episodes I’ve seen, though, is that these characters are not completely without humanity. Rather, they’ve been repressing it, and cracks are starting to show. You see this in Amy, who toys with the idea—preposterous to everyone around her—of keeping her baby. You see it when Dan, rebuffed in his attempts to seduce a power broker, wonders whether there’s more to life than sex. You see it in the psychodrama between Selina and her former running mate Tom James, who relentlessly betray each other but—in brief flashes—seem to wish they could just settle down together. What if they weren’t always doomed to be awful people? What if politics did this to them? What if it could do the same to you?

More than anything else, the sense of moral vertigo comes through in Louis-Dreyfus’s performance. After Season 6’s depressive spiral—Selina tried and failed to conceive of a life after politics—the return to the campaign trail means a return to Louis-Dreyfus’s greatest mode: eager bullshitting. She flicks from cruel to chipper in a millisecond; she marbles her smiles with sneers. But it’s a blank, tight-lipped panic that greets each reminder of mortality or hints that her horribleness might have consequences—both of which seem to be mounting in quantity. There’s an investigation into the Meyer fund; there’s her own eventual state funeral to plan; there are reminders of the random acts of violence that mark America, and hints that the Secret Service isn’t totally awake. Comeuppance must lie in wait. Or at least, as with Tony Soprano at the end of his run, her punishment might simply be that she’s left fearing so.

Which is not to say she and her team are experiencing reckonings of the soul—not yet. But the characters are, like the show itself, being forced to consider the notion of an end point. Selina ran for president and lost, then gained the presidency by a fluke, then ran for reelection and lost, and now is trying to regain the office. If she fails—and it seems perfectly likely that she will, given that, say, her campaign staff mixes up the Iowa cities of Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls—what then? When this series closes for good, the most fitting feeling will not be one of culmination or climax. It’ll be one of free fall into a void.