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Veep: “Hostages”

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Veep

“Hostages”

Season 2, Episode 3

Selina Meyer still has a conscience after all, as we find out in the unusually meditative ending of “Hostages.” She’s scored a political victory, but this time, she can’t join the locker-room-like celebration because her actions have indirectly caused terrible consequences for someone.

This is a daring move for the resolutely cynical Veep. Fortunately, both the story (by Sean Gray and Armando Iannucci) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance go just far enough to break through the show’s glibness without becoming maudlin. Veep shows no sign of becoming The West Wing or M*A*S*H, and “Hostages” is about as funny as the show has ever been. Even if you don’t like the slight detour into drama, it’s hard to resist an episode that makes Sue Wilson (Sufe Bradshaw) key to the plot and casts Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire’s Clay Davis) as a pouty secretary of defense who clashes with Selina during a joint photo op at the Quantico Marine Base.

Sue is a fan favorite, judging from reader comments, and she’s a perfect example of a character who’s funny because she seems incapable of cracking a smile. “I don’t have a sense of humor, and neither should you,” the veep’s personal assistant tells her temporary replacement in this episode—who is, of course, a doofus fond of making terrible jokes. When she’s behind her desk, Sue is invincible, but in “Hostages,” she’s called to testify before a congressional hearing on waste in government, and things don’t go so well.

On the stand, Sue gets off a couple of zingers, telling a congressman, “Your efficiency hearing isn’t very efficient.” But she’s flummoxed when the grandstanding politician asks why the veep and secretary of defense have taken different motorcades instead of carpooling to Quantico. Sue’s shaky answer—“Sir, we have a system that I believe to be… robust?”—and her repeated clutching of the word “robust” as a life preserver is problematic because Selina is minutes away from using the same word in her key applause line at Quantico.

Sue’s loss of composure foreshadows Selina’s less comic discombobulation at the end of this episode, which is dominated by Gary and Dan competing for the vice-president’s ear. And I mean that literally, as they spend much of the time appearing over her shoulders like the angel and devil of so many cartoons and movies.

Dan, who’s more soulless than satanic, first impresses Selina by coming up with the “robust” line. The veep gets excited about overshadowing the defense secretary by talking tougher about the hostage situation that’s been in the background for the past few episodes: “He knows I’ve got a bigger role in the White House now, which means I’ve got a bigger dick, which means he can suck it.” I remember Dan being dismissive of Selina last season, but his face when she claims the “bigger dick” is that of pure devotion.  Suddenly, he wants to be the most important, and certainly the most present, person in her life. “Gary-oke is done, my friend,” he later tells Selina’s hapless personal aide. “It’s time for Danny-oke.”

At Quantico, both Dan and Gary keep bending down to whisper bits of information in Selina’s ear, seemingly unaware that they’re making it painfully obvious to everyone on the base that she can’t come up with small talk on her own. As Dan tells Selina, “Marines like to be called—,” Gary cuts him off with “Devil dogs!” (But Dan trumps Gary by knowing that Marines don’t salute while indoors.) The low point comes when Selina stops to shake a Marine’s hand and Gary leans in to practically shout, “He has a nice face.” Selina dutifully tells the young man, “You have a nice face.” (At least she doesn’t call him the best-looking Marine on base.)

Selina is invited to try her luck on the Quantico firing range, and when she blurts, “Jesus fucking Christ!” after firing a gun, Dan smiles so hard his face looks about to split open. In contrast, when Selina later says, “I feel like that porn star who had to do 200 men in one day,” Gary looks like he’s just seen Bambi’s mother and father rutting in the woods.

The rivalry between Dan and Gary is about more than bragging rights, as Dan enables the newly aggressive Selina to push for military action in order to rescue some American hostages in an unnamed (but apparently hostile) country. The veep and the defense secretary are in an unfriendly alliance against Kent, the president’s political guru, who holds them off with cover-your-ass truisms like, “Inaction becomes untenable only when more than 65 percent of Americans support military intervention, even with casualties.”

When Kent finally decides that it’s OK to move, the secretary of defense offers two dates for a rescue mission, and Selina successfully lobbies for the earlier one—which happens to coincide with Sue’s return appearance before the congressional committee on efficiency, something Selina would love to overshadow with a bigger news story. Too bad that Sue’s replacement neglects to tell the veep that she’s got another commitment that will keep her out of the White House Situation Room that day.

Most sitcom episodes end with a reset, and “Hostages” concludes with Gary reclaiming his primacy as Selina’s shadow, as a bit of bad news from the rescue mission has the veep reconsidering Dan’s take-no-prisoners advice. Disconcerted by the thought she may have rushed the military action, Selina retreats into her office and into the care of her most loyal assistant. (This means that Gary is the most direct beneficiary of another person’s misfortune, but he’s too busy pampering Selina to notice.) It’s a downbeat ending for Veep, leavened by Mike’s usual tactlessness and Gary’s joy at being the alpha lapdog. Rest assured that this moment of sobriety does nothing to reduce the pettiness displayed in next week’s episode.

Stray observations:

  • Dan: “I need the vice president’s ear.” Gary: “Get your own ear, Van Gogh!”
  • It turns out that Defense Secretary Maddox wanted to use the word “robust” in his speech too. I would have liked to hear him draw it out to five or six syllables.
  • Mike’s suggested replacement for “robust” in the veep’s speech: “crunchy.” I’m compelled to remind readers every week that Mike is the director of communications.
  • Selina sarcastically refers to the president as “the great and powerful Oz.” Awesome. I must have missed the news about James Franco joining the show.
  • This week’s most-improvised scene may be Selina trying to swear in a “shitload of senators” as quickly as possible. She doesn’t exactly have Joe Biden’s knack for friendly chatter. Selina greets one female senator with, “What in the living… Lord… of Christ are you doing here?” God, she really must be in the political party that doesn’t depend on the Bible Belt vote.
  • Just about every regular Veep character gets tongue-tied only in public situations where it’s inappropriate to swear. Selina often hesitates, collects her thoughts, then goes ahead and swears anyway.
  • Best confused reaction by a bit player: The senator who tells Selina he was skiing in Vermont over the holidays, to which she shrugs and says sympathetically, “Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.” (I’d say the same about the beach.)
  • Will scenes of characters attempting small talk replace the talking heads of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family as improv showcases on sitcoms?
  • Gender politics: Amy and Sue are the most level-headed people on Selina’s staff, and the males all bring to mind female stereotypes. Gary is emotionally fragile, Mike is a ditz, and Dan is a gossipy social climber. At the climax of “Hostages,” Selina goes into a national-security meeting with Amy and barks, “No, no, you’re not needed here, Gary. This is man’s work. Same goes for you, Dan.” (Mike doesn’t even try to get in.)
  • Next week, Selina calls someone “jolly green jizzface.”