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Veep: “Catherine”

For all its insights into the particular dysfunctions of Washington, D.C., there’s also something instantly familiar about the world Veep depicts; it is both universal and specific at the same time. We may not have the responsibility that Selina does, but, sadly, we’ve all worked with a Jonah or a Dan before. Tonight’s episode, “Catherine,” adroitly balances these two seemingly contradictory traits. Yes, Selina is one of the most powerful women in the world and many of her problems are unique to her job, but plenty of them are not. After all, what parent hasn’t struggled to relate to his or her child?

“Catherine” follows essentially the same narrative trajectory as the episodes of Veep we’ve already seen: Selina tries to accomplish some modest goal relating to her clean-jobs task force, but complications arise, throwing her staff into a mad scramble to salvage some small scrap of their original agenda. There’s something ingeniously simple about structuring an entire season (or at least a large part of it) around a single legislative initiative like the clean jobs task force. It provides a nice through line from week to week, of course, but it also paints a vivid picture of Washington gridlock. Why does nothing ever get done in D.C.? Well, now you know.

Following Dan’s advice, Selina is about to name Chuck Furnam, ex-oil guy, to the task force. Unfortunately, as she discovers after floating his name at a dedication ceremony for a new aquatic center—as you do—neither the party nor the oil industry is happy with her pick. She’s in two Catch 22s—or a “Catch 44,” as Gary puts it—at the same time. Although the character of Selina isn’t based on any real-life figure, her predicament certainly reminds me of our current president's. She has some worthy ideals, but her attempts to find a middle ground succeed only in pissing off people from both sides of the aisle. Put another way, compromise is the only way to get anything done, and yet it makes everyone unhappy.

Politics aside, what makes “Catherine” so interesting and, I think, such a standout episode is that it actually delves into Selina’s personal life. Caught up in the latest clean-jobs kerfuffle, Selina is several hours late to a lunch date with her college-age daughter, Catherine. To make matters worse, Sue lets it slip that the vice president is in the process of adopting a dog, largely for political purposes, even though Catherine was never allowed to have one as a child. It’s a small detail, but one that says a great deal about their fraught relationship.

When Selina finally gets to her office, several hours late, the situation hardly improves. She instantly switches into “nervous mom” mode around Catherine, speaking in forced slang (e.g. “Step into my crib, we can hang”) and undermining Catherine’s choice in clothing (which, by the way, looks like it was borrowed from the Girls costume department). A few minutes later, she even makes fun of her daughter’s outfit and dog choices behind her back. It would be easy to dismiss Selina as unkind or cruel, except that her bitchiness stems at least in part from her own inability to relate to Catherine. She’s so uncomfortable with her daughter that she resorts to using one of the factoids Gary whispers in her ear to strike up conversation. It’s not even that Selina is naturally aloof or distant, necessarily, only that her job requires her to interact in such a perfunctory and unnatural way (“Triplets? Wow, that musta hurt!”), she’s forgotten the basics.

The episode builds up to a party celebrating Selina’s 20 years in Washington—an event that is toned down in order to counteract the “diva” narrative swirling about her in the media, but which hardly casts Selina in the most positive light. When Catherine learns that her mother has been trying to get “Selina” removed from the list of hurricane names—that she has, in effect, been trying to control the weather—she loses it. “You’re not fucking Thor, mom,” she says. Hoping to avoid a scene, Selina drags Catherine into a closet.

Unfortunately, the closet just so happens to be filled with life-sized cutouts of the vice president, a detail which lends urgency to Catherine’s admonishment that “not everything is always about you.” Again, Selina’s unchecked narcissism seems less like a personality defect than an unfortunate side effect of a job that allows—nay, demands—that she surround herself with sycophants like Gary. (“The First Lady hates you because you’re prettier,” he tells Selina. “Thank you,” she mouths back.) In the end, though, Catherine can claim a small victory over her mother: She knows about Mike’s fake dog before she does, and being the last to know is never a good thing—especially in Washington.

Stray observations:

  • Another thing this show illustrates so effectively is how every setting in D.C. becomes a forum for political maneuvering.
  • Jonah’s officious dialogue is so pitch-perfect: “FLOTUS is currently procuring a canine for herself—the first dog or ‘FDOTUS.’”
  • Also, the scene where he hits on Senator Hallows’ daughter, while refusing to get Reeves’ widow a glass of water, is amazing.
  • Gary as “human teleprompter for small talk” is a brilliant comedic conceit. More of this, please. (Best line: “Tell your brother I love his music!”)
  • I love the awkward exchange between Catherine and Dan: “Have you ever read Faulkner before?” “Umm… little bit?”
  • Senator Doyle: “Twenty years ago you had no power but you had balls. Now look at you.” Selina: “Yeah, now I’ve got a dick and balls.”
  • Catherine: “Are we seriously going to let the guy with the police sketch face of a rapist tell us what to do?”

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