Veep’s Dark Take on ‘Thoughts and Prayers’
The premiere episode of the HBO show’s seventh and final season explored the most caustic of satires: an environment in which gun violence is so common as to become unremarkable.
This post contains light spoilers through Veep Season 7, Episode 1.
“If I ever needed a miracle, it is right now.”
Selina Meyer had bungled things again. Or, as the former president and current primary participant would probably point out, her team had bungled things again. First there was the formal announcement of her presidential run, an event that had been carefully staged at an airport in Iowa and had gone quickly and horribly awry (her staff had confused Cedar Rapids with Cedar Falls, and … yeah). Then there was the do-over event staged at Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace—a setting chosen, the hopeful executive put it, because it “has feminine symbolism spurting out of its dick hole.” This event was similarly disastrous. And so, as is often the case with Selina Meyer and her team of loyal-ish deputies, the fledgling campaign found itself in desperate need of a distraction. Or, indeed, of a miracle. And then … one, in the worst way, came.
“Ma’am, there’s been a mass shooting,” Richard, her chief of staff, tells her, reading from his phone as his fellow staffers look on. “At a mall in Phoenix. Twenty-seven people have been killed.”
Meyer and her team look at one another, mumbling ohs and oh my Gods and exchanging uncomfortable glances. And then the former president’s face distorts, Grinch-like, from a grimace into a slow, stretching grin. “This can … work for us?” she ventures, as her team members, ashamed of themselves but not as much as they should be, agree.
It’s a scene—it came near the end of Sunday’s premiere of the show’s seventh and final season, on HBO—that suggests a newly low nadir for Meyer and her staff. These are objectively terrible people; they have been from the show’s beginning. But this was a mass shooting, an event that is, as horrifically common as it might have become, a profound tragedy. And here is a collection of powerful people, using that tragedy for their own gain—assuming it, indeed, to be a miracle sent on their behalf. (“Praise the rational equivalent of Jesus, what Bonhoeffer would call the ‘spirit of beloved community,’” Kent, the campaign’s pollster, says of the shooting. Meyer herself is blunter: “Halle-fucking-lujah!” she exclaims as she reacts to the mass murder.)
This is satire of the darkest order, and it serves as a ratcheted-up version of something that has been a common theme in Veep: The show has long used its characters’ callous reactions to deaths as a way to telegraph their moral vacuity. It’s not only that these people are craven, the show has suggested, as they gleefully treat the deaths of fellow politicians as opportunities instead of tragedies; it’s that they are constitutionally unable to understand death in the way most other people do. Early in Season 1, Selina makes a racist comment about Danny Chung, a political opponent, that is caught on a hot mic; she and her team rejoice in a crane-collapse disaster as a means of shifting public attention from the incident. In the second episode of the series, Selina gets news that the president is having chest pains; she tries to stifle a smile as she considers what a heart attack could mean for her political future. In Season 3, the death of Representative Rick Cowgill becomes an opportunity for her (she delivers a rousing speech, full of metaphors about fishing, at his funeral). In Season 5, Selina’s mother is dying; her team discusses the loss in the context of favorability numbers, awaiting the “death bump” Selina expects to benefit from as she mourns. And so on.
Through all that, in Veep, death and tragedy have been plot points that double as insights into Meyer’s very specific strain of sociopathy. She is, in Season 7, capable of interpreting a mass shooting as an answer to her prayers because those prayers, without fail, have had only one beneficiary. But Meyer is not the only one in Veep to come in for censure for that attitude. The disdain here, instead, is expansive. One of the striking elements of Veep’s “Iowa” episode is that, within its universe, mass shootings seem to have become fully normalized. Viewers hear several references to various shootings, leading to, for example, exchanges such as this one:
“Ma’am, FYI, we’re tracking a school shooting in Spokane, Washington,” Dan tells her.
“Oh,” she replies. “Muslim or white guy?”
“Don’t know yet,” Dan says.
“Which is better for me?”
“White guy,” Kent chimes in.
“Fingers crossed,” Selina says.
It’s an exchange with a profoundly uncomfortable amount of relevance to the present moment—a scene whose casualness chafes against the very real truths that lurk beyond the comfortable confines of the television screen. (It will be followed up by another one, in which Dan explains that Selina’s body man, Gary, is late delivering the smoothie she has been craving because of a shooting at a Home Depot that led law enforcement to shut down the interstate. “Ugh, Jesus, Mary, and Jamba Juice, I really wanted that smoothie,” Selina replies.)
One of the darkest jokes in Veep’s satire is a structural one: how often “the American people” are talked about by these consummate Washington power players, and how rarely those people actually become part of the show’s action. Here is politics as pageant, and as sport, and as gamesmanship; almost never, however, is politics portrayed in the way most members of the American public actually experience it: as a matter of life and death. Politics, instead, in this cold environment, is notional. It is theoretical. It is the stuff of thoughts and prayers. In Veep’s fifth season, the congressional candidate Judy Sherman—she is seeking the seat the death of her husband, Harry, left vacant—publicly acknowledges that “guns can be dangerous.” Stating reality with such little apology angers the NRA and thus helps to crush the widow’s campaign.
In the new season, the idea is further sharpened. “Leon!” Selina shouts to her comms man. “I need a statement! Spokane.”
“Standard ‘thoughts and prayers’?” he asks.
“Bull’s-eye,” she replies, failing to see the sad irony.
Later, a Wall Street Journal reporter asks during a press gaggle, “Madam President, how do you respond to people sick and tired of politicians offering nothing but thoughts and prayers when it comes to mass shootings?”
The candidate who has spent much of the episode trying to answer the question of why she wants to run for president in the first place also lacks a reply to this extremely predictable query. “Um. Well. Uh,” Selina stammers. “My heart goes out to the families of the victims. And I want to offer them my, uh—mindfulness? And, uh, meditations unto the Lord on their behalf.”
The exchange serves as an indictment not just of Selina Meyer, but also of a political status quo that so often seems unable to see beyond—and to think beyond, and to act beyond—the rote familiarity of thoughts and prayers. Veep, on its surface, satirizes Washington; at its best, though, it stretches to accuse an entire political infrastructure of the kind of apathy that can culminate in tragedy. The day Veep’s new season premiered brought another American shooting: On Sunday, the rapper and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle was murdered outside Marathon Clothing, the store he owned in L.A. There were two other victims of the shooting, as yet anonymous, their prognoses not yet known. No suspects have been named. But thoughts and prayers have been offered.