Several characters enjoy moments of triumph in “Alicia,” but in the Veep universe, victory is always fleeting. All it gets you is the chance to move on to the next power play, where your hard-earned savviness may be outmatched by your opponents’ growing desire for revenge.
This review is starting to sound like it belongs to Game Of Thrones or House Of Cards, so I should reassure you that “Alicia” is one of the funniest episodes of Veep to date. Centered on Selina Meyer’s formal announcement that she’s running for president, it depicts a shitstorm of tiny squabbles that leaves our protagonist in a near-catatonic state moments before one of the biggest speeches of her life, and it would be a strong Emmy submission for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
What’s different about “Alicia” is that much of the episode takes the point of view of a “normal,” as Selina calls anyone who isn’t a political player or a journalist. It’s reminiscent of episodes of The Sopranos in which “civilians” become involved with Tony’s crew and lose their romantic notions about honor among thieves. No one is whacked this time, but the innocent’s belief in the competence of our national leaders, let alone their integrity, is rubbed out for good.
Alicia Bryce is not completely naïve even at the start of the episode. A single mother in Washington, D.C.’s blighted and segregated Anacostia neighborhood, she’s organizing a march to the White House to demand “universal child care” (presumably free or subsidized by the government). This kind of lobbying is hardly at the level of National Rifle Association, but it catches the attention of Jonah, who sees a chance to embarrass Selina through his political gossip blog. Unfortunately, he barely gets a chance to introduce himself (as a “storyteller” like John Steinbeck … or Denzel Washington) before Amy swoops in with an offer Alicia can’t refuse: appearing on-camera behind the vice-president as she announces her presidential campaign.
It seems like a slam-dunk situation for Selina. Who’s against child care?
Well, her political adviser Kent Davison doesn’t like it, claiming that the issue doesn’t poll well. (“Children are of no value,” he says, to which Selina responds, “We’re not all planning to die alone like you.”) He may have data to support his argument, but he’s also picking a good time for a battle of wills with Selina, who is still trying to assert her authority over him. Kent can’t allow her to have a successful announcement speech without his fingerprints all over it.
Selina stares down Kent, but the oily Sen. Andrew Doyle informs her the congressional leadership will boycott her speech if she doesn’t drop the reference to child care. This leads to one of Selina’s lowest moments in the series so far, telling her staff, “I’ve decided that I am going to let them dictate to me. Because that is my decision. Do you understand me? I am letting them do that.” (Like House Of Cards, another show with British roots, Veep arguably exaggerates the power of party leadership in the United States. It’s hard to imagine Hillary Clinton giving a crap whether Harry Reid shows up at her campaign announcement.)
It falls to Mike to dis-invite Alicia from her place of honor, and his clumsy attempts at making things right somehow ends with him yelling at her, “I am trying to help you, you stupid cow!”
This is probably Matt Walsh’s best episode as Mike. Shrewdly, Veep pushed him to the sidelines for this season’s first two episodes, showing him as a fundamentally decent human being at his wedding and during his honeymoon. This makes it all the funnier (and more tragic) when it’s Mike, not the more short-tempered Amy or Dan, who explodes in rudeness. The worst part is that Jonah witnesses everything and can’t wait to blog about it. Foolishly taking Ben’s advice to submit completely to Jonah — isn’t that Ben’s answer to everything? — Mike begs, gets on his knees, and follows Jonah’s orders to sing a song (the public domain “Goober Peas”) with a goofy twang. And Jonah still intends to ruin Mike’s career.
But things turn around for Selina and Mike. After capitulating to the suits and replacing Alicia onstage with a random old person, Selina sits alone and motionless until daughter Catherine delivers what passes as a pep talk on Veep. (“I have had a hard, lonely, miserable life. And the only thing that is going to make it worthwhile is if I become the daughter of the next president of the United States.”) The recharged Selina passes Alicia in the hall and impulsively promises to mention Alicia’s daughter in the speech as “a voice of the future,” to the great irritation of Sen. Doyle.
Alicia, in turn, decides it’s better to stay on the good side of a woman who may be the next president, and she denies hearing the “cow” remark, saving Mike’s ass and depriving Jonah of a chance to scoop the “legitimate” press corps. Alicia hasn’t actually won a commitment to child care, but she’s in a good position as a thorn in Selina’s side, and maybe the “cow” card will come in handy someday.
The episode ends with Selina getting kudos for her speech, which will allow her to face more attempts to knock her off her game. Sen. Doyle will be out for revenge, her opponents for the presidency will be looking for weaknesses, and Jonah is more determined than ever to torpedo the veep’s campaign. As for her staff, they’re still jockeying for influence (since Selina foolishly believes in asserting her authority by making them all insecure), and Dan, Amy, and Kent could always bolt for a rival campaign. “Alicia” perfectly executes the sitcom tradition of giving its heroes only short-lived victories, and it continues this season’s masterful build-up of what can only become more epic fuck-ups on the campaign trail.
- The B-story, which hits a nine on Ben’s “sphincter scale,” is about a Saturday Night Live sketch portraying Selina as a spoiled young girl with a horse. (Selina: “So what, I had a horse as a kid. Who didn’t? [Gary shakes his head.] I mean, have a pet, is what I meant.”)
- The shots of Selina through a glass wall bring to mind the “living in a fishbowl” metaphor. I don’t know if it’s deliberate that the horizontal stripes on the glass wall are an echo of the fencing around the horse pasture in the SNL skit.
- Alicia doesn’t need to be taught how to respond to Jonah, whom she calls a “curb-crawling asshole” at first sight.
- I love how Gary gets agitated (“whoa, wait, come on…”) by Catherine walking past him to talk to her own mother. He shouldn’t be so bossy after wrongly guessing that Alicia Keys was on the phone to talk to Selina.
- Political wonkery: My new theory is that Veep takes place in an alternative timeline established when Ross Perot won the presidency in 1992, and Selina is in his Reform Party. Perot’s “get off my lawn” constituency of senior suburbanites who just wanted the government to quit doing stuff would indeed get annoyed at the mention of child care and the sight of adorable little moppets. Plus, they’d like a woman who knows horses.
- The title of this episode got me fantasizing about a cross-over visit from The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, who would be so appalled by the disorganization of Selina’s campaign that she’d decide to run for president herself. But Tracie Thoms is pretty good as another Alicia, underplaying her growing realization that America is run by idiots.
- In the end, Selina gets a stupid little victory over know-it-all Kent by tweaking his carefully constructed array of normal people to stand behind Selina: “Get rid of this guy. He looks like Jeffrey Dahmer.”
- “Amy, what is this bushel of fuck talking about?”