It’s appropriate that I didn’t get to see “Helsinki” until after the bewitching hour because this is the goddamned weirdest episode of Veep so far. It’s full of risky comedy decisions, like casting Dave Foley as the husband of the prime minister of Finland, that pay off because the series is now firm enough to go crazy. “Helsinki” is not an episode I’d recommend to someone who’s never seen Veep before, but if you know the characters, it’s exhilarating to see them out of their usual surroundings. I’m sure that fans squealed at Sue Wilson, personal assistant extraordinaire, at home in bed but as authoritative as ever on her laptop and cellphone.
“Helsinki” starts with with Selina and part of her staff arriving in Finland for trade negotiations and having to deal with the fallout from the comic song, a parody of “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” she performed at “The Vic Allen Dinner.” Last week, I thought the supposed foreign outrage to such innocuous lyrics as “Don’t be European, Ian” was too much to be believable, but things turn out to be more subtle in this episode. The prime minister of Finland takes offense at the idea of her taking offense at the song, gravely insisting that the Finns are famous for their sense of humor.
“We should keep this causing offense and then apology cycle going,” the prime minister (a disconcertingly deadpan Sally Phillips) tells Selina at a cocktail reception. “You could step on my dress, I could sneeze in your drink. Funny.”
The inscrutability of the prime minister is contrasted to the boorishness of her husband, played with sleepy-eyed sleaziness — and what I suspect is a ridiculous accent — by Foley. “Helsinki” goes from cringe humor to escalating surrealism when Foley’s character, chatting with Selina during a covert cigarette break, suddenly cops a feel. A disbelieving Selina escapes to tell Gary, “I’m the vice-president of the United States, and he just squeezed my boob.”
In the midst of this awkwardness, Selina learns that one of the captives freed by a military operation in “Hostages” was actually an American spy – something the president kept her in the dark about. Rushing home to deal with the fallout, Selina finds her political capital as hard to measure as ever. The foreign-policy portfolio dumped on her desk after she demanded a bigger role in the administration at the start of the season has been nothing but trouble. The perception that she’s been out of the loop only makes her seem more ineffectual. Still, she may come out ahead for not being part of the president’s tainted inner circle. And when there’s talk of a presidential impeachment, it may not be so bad to be second in line…
Though there’s a lot of plot development here, the pleasures of “Helsinki” come mostly from seeing everyone rattled by insecurity. Dan discovers that his confidence and aggressive style is a bad fit for his temporary role as communications director. (The revelation that Mike’s bad jokes and groveling manner are effective in taming the press corps is a nice one, similar to our gradual realization that Michael Scott had some good traits for a salesman in the early seasons of The Office.) Gary loses his control over Selina’s health habits once they leave the country and she demands her cigarettes, coded as “my flaming redheads.” Once she’s got one in her mouth, Selina snaps, “Don’t give me that Quaker-in-a-tittie-bar look.”
Back in Washington, Mike is trying to bluff his way through “math prison,” after presidential advisor Ken stupidly put him on his voting-analysis project. He calls for help from Jonah, whom we see at home, curled up on his couch and wearing what may be the longest pair of sweatpants in Washington. Even Jonah is off his game in this episode, his cockiness not yet restored after Selina threw him off Air Force Two last week.
Everyone is still in a bad place at the end of the episode, relieved that the day is over but dreading what will come next. We’re halfway through the second season of Veep, and there are now plenty of story elements to play around with. (Is Gary’s girlfriend coming back? Amy’s dad?) “Helsinki” moves a lot of narrative machinery in a graceful fashion; now let’s see where all the parts end up when the whole thing collapses.
- Dan asks Mike how to do “Fozzie Bear, happy guy, wocka-wocka bullshit.” It does not come naturally to him, which makes me wonder how long he’ll last as Mike’s deputy.
- Selina to Dan: “Don’t attempt to make any jokes. Because with your face, when you attempt to be charming, it really does come off as evil.” He can’t argue with that.
- Mike’s cellphone recognizes the voice command “call dickhead” as referring to Jonah.
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus physical comedy showcase of the week: Selina struggling to make small talk while holding a huge clock with an Angry Bird face, a gift from the Finnish prime minister that may, possibly, be some kind of insult.
- Timothy Simons physical comedy showcase of the week: Jonah running down a White House corridor to get away from Kent. This show needs more reasons to have Jonah run like a madman.
- Stressed-out White House chief of Staff Ben Cafferty (Peter Dunn) on the spy scandal: “For the next six months, we’re going to play ‘Who knew what when?’” Without commenting on the validity of Benghazi as a real scandal, I have to say that Veep has good timing, relevance-wise.
- Dan: “More apologizing, really? I apologized less after banging my brother’s fiancée.” Selina: “What are you bitching about? Get it together, lady!”
- Dan, in confusion: “POTUS groped you?” Selina: “No, POTUS wouldn’t have the balls to grope me.” Selina is never shaken up enough to pass on an opportunity to put down the president.
- Amy realizes that the groping incident must be kept secret: “Your tit being fondled by a Finn? It would be all you’re remembered for.” I wonder if this episode was written backward from those lines.
- As a gay man, I’ve never been more turned on by Julia Louis-Dreyfus than when she lounges in a tight black dress, drags on a cigarette, and proclaims, “This is a man’s world we live in. Because of the axis of dick.”
- Dan: “I’m sorry that I ever set foot in that fucking, fish-eating, indie-film fucking hellhole.” Now that’s something for a prime minister to be insulted about.