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Veep goes broad as Selina tries her hand at international politics

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Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (HBO)

Veep

"Camp David"

Season 5 , Episode 8

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Veep has had an incredibly strong fifth season so far, maintaining the show’s distinct voice and rhythms despite its change in showrunner. Unfortunately, the season hits its first tonal speedbump with “Camp David,” as Selina heads off to the famed retreat for a family getaway, her vacation a cover for secret negotiations with the Chinese. We follow Selina as she juggles familial responsibilities with her duties as president, but the clandestine nature of the negotiations leaves her senior staff isolated, hidden away in cabins and waiting to react to the actions of the guest cast. This holding pattern extends to Jonah’s campaign, as Dan, Jeff, and new addition Amy all but throw in the towel after Jonah literally shoots himself in the foot, until the NRA unexpectedly swoops in and saves the day. Coming after the vicious and pointed “Congressional Ball,” the broad tone of this episode is particularly jarring, its mistaken identities and compounding lies tending toward farce without fully embracing the genre. Despite a number of strong scenes and its solid premise, “Camp David” leaves too many of its characters inactive, sacrificing the series’ traditional high energy and ensemble feel.

This cast is one of the best on television and they work incredibly well together, constantly reacting to the action of each scene even when they’re left in the background. Different characters come to the fore in each episode, but most of the time, the writers find ways to have each staffer actively contribute to the story. Here, not only is Sue around for little discernable reason, Sufe Bradshaw once again present but underserved as she has been much of the season, Kent only manages a few lines of dialogue. While his correction of Ben over the formation of the Diaoyu islands is delightfully Kent, whittling feels oddly out of character for this fastidious pollster. It’s hard to imagine him getting his hands grubby and leaving a pile of wood shavings around as he lets the wood tell him what it wants to be.

Then there’s Ben, who may get one of the best moments of the episode—his hilarious reaction to Jonah shooting himself in the foot—but is also saddled with some unfortunate dialogue. It’s not surprising to hear Ben make racist comments; it is surprising for them to not be failed attempts at humor. Kevin Dunn plays these lines very straight, not as pathetic stabs at racially-based comedy, and in an episode that gives him so little to do, this makes some of Ben’s most memorable moments random, tired repetitions of racial stereotyping. It’s disappointing, if only because of the lack of creativity. Over in New Hampshire, Amy and Dan spend the episode half-heartedly yelling at Jonah and reacting to the NRA’s ad push against the widow. Nothing they do in “Camp David” is specific to their characters, aside from Dan’s treatment of his hotel guest, which gives the New Hampshire scenes a rote feeling; we’re checking in with them not because they’re doing anything of interest, but to forward the plot and reveal the result of the special election. At least one staffer gets a solid runner, and that’s Mike, who discovers over the course of the weekend that he’s about to be a father of three infants, rather than the one he’d been expecting. Matt Walsh makes the most of his scenes, and his goofy reaction as Mike finds out he’s been chewing nicotine gum is a highlight of the episode.

While much of the main cast is sidelined, there is plenty of great material for the guest cast, particularly Selina’s family. Sarah Sutherland and Clea Duvall continue to have a lot of fun with Catherine and Marjorie’s relationship and David Pasquesi is terrific as ever as the slimy Andrew. Selina’s mother’s massive estate has passed to Catherine, so of course Andrew is sniffing around, looking for money for his Brazilian resort scheme. Selina may spend the episode ignoring Catherine and callously re-gifting the pen she gave her, but she’s very protective of Catherine when it comes to Andrew. The layers in the Meyer family relationships are complicated and fascinating to watch. Who is the worse parent: Andrew, who pays attention to Catherine then uses the information he’s garnered to manipulate and fleece her, or Selina, who ignores and lies to Catherine constantly, but does genuinely care for her somewhere deep in the recesses of her heart. Monny and her popcorniments only get a couple lines, but as the only adult in the Meyer family who seems to genuinely like Catherine, hopefully she’ll be back before too long.

Minna Häkkinen, previously of “Helsinki” and “Detroit,” is another welcome returnee, giving Selina something between an ally and peer to talk with. From greeting Selina by complimenting her plastic surgery to discussing menopause to reacting to intimate moments, real and imagined, between Selina and Catherine, Sally Phillips is a blast throughout. The Chinese delegation doesn’t fare quite as well, but the episode earns the entire subplot with the gift sequence alone. The scene opens with the beautiful cacophony of Minna introducing the delegation and Gary giving Selina intel on each of them, while she’s greeting them, and it only improves as Selina and her team discover the Chinese delegation has substantially out-gifted them. It’s an easy joke, but one that works thanks to the execution, Minna’s history with Selina’s terrible gift giving, and the gut-punch that ends the scene, with Selina giving away Catherine’s pen. Bringing the Chinese plot full circle, with the Chinese president confirming they’ve hacked the president’s email, is a satisfying way to end, or at least continue, what has been a strong thread all season.

Less satisfying is the conclusion of Jonah’s Congressional campaign, primarily because it occurs almost entirely offscreen and is determined not by anything the characters do, but by the NRA. The closing sequence, as Jonah is sworn in and Jeff and Dan take credit for getting him elected, feels hollow, and not because they’ve done a terrible thing: Because they haven’t. They aren’t culpable at all. Veep is making a statement here on the buying and selling of elections by special interests and the relative power of even highly connected campaigns compared to groups like the NRA, but in doing so, it sacrifices the competence of Jeff, Dan, Amy, and even Bill Ericsson. Jonah failing upwards, getting elected by shooting himself in the foot, is a fantastic development. Him doing so despite his team, rather than at least partially because of them, is frustrating. With the runoff resolved and Jonah officially a Congressman, Dan and Amy will be headed back to Washington where they, along with the rest of the supporting cast, should be able to contribute more fully. As entertaining as Selina’s family squabbles can be, Veep is at its best when it takes advantage of the full range of comedic voices at its disposal, and hopefully, that’s exactly what the final two episodes of the season will do.

Stray observations

  • The costume department is the MVP of this episode. Between Minna’s outfits, Amy’s pajamas, and Gary’s suit tucked into his fuzzy boots, it’s impossible to pick a favorite.
  • Selina speaks for every woman who’s been on the receiving end of an unwanted neck rub when she tells Andrew, “How about you touch neither of us.”
  • Of course Jonah fails at Richard’s apple bit. You are many things, Jon H. Ryan, but you, sir, are no Splett.
  • My Pride And Prejudice-loving brain says to give Minna the line of the episode for her description of the Chinese president as, “stupid, also like a Chinese Mr. Bingley,” but my Richard-loving heart says I must give it to Sam Richardson for his delivery as Richard wonders out loud, about Jonah, “I hope he votes for himself.”