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Veep: “Running”

The second season of Veep has raised some fascinating questions that the first season, busy with defining its characters, could not. As I noted last week, there is the mystery of whether Vice President Selina Meyer has any real substance or passion behind her posturing for TV cameras. At the very beginning of the series, “no” seemed to be the likely answer, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s ability to play oblivious without looking stupid made it possible for Veep to glide into a second year with Selina taking a more “proactive” role (more on that below) instead of just suffering one disaster after another.

In “Running,” the penultimate episode of the second season, the veep acts more decisively than we’ve ever seen her in taking control of her own fate, which raises the question of whether her defiance of the president is naked opportunism or a principled break with a chief executive who, from what we know, doesn’t deserve her loyalty. There’s also a trickier question of whether Selina’s crusade for truth and transparency in the White House is a noble cause—even if she’s furthering that cause by flat-out lying to the American people.

These are all great topics for fan conversation, and I would not have predicted that Veep would rival Mad Men this year for Sunday-night puzzlers about character motivation. My hope is that the series doesn’t hit the reset button next week or in the third-season premiere, stranding all the regular characters in place despite their moves to break out of their respective boxes. One good sign is that “Running” doesn’t advance things too quickly. Between the “I’m not going to take this anymore” moments at the beginning and end of this episode is a long comic interlude with Selina hopped up on painkillers and getting too familiar with her staff (offering to buy Mike’s white elephant of a boat and begging for an invite to Gary’s parents’ wedding anniversary party). The middle of the episode both reassures us that Veep is primarily a comedy and shows us how far Louis-Dreyfus has come in creating a distinct character, as blitzed-out-of-her-mind Selina Meyer is very different from how Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes would act in the same situation.

“Running” picks up just after Selina saves a potentially disastrous TV interview by striking a leadership pose and apologizing for not telling Americans the truth during the hostage crisis that ran through the first half of this season. Selina’s deception was unintentional—since the president never told her that one of the American hostages was a CIA spy—but she figures that “coming clean” while the president continues to stonewall is better than admitting she was out of the loop. Selina has not yet figured out that her are in various stages of mutiny, but she’s savvy enough to know that the White House doesn’t have her best interest at heart.

There’s a great scene with gloomy White House chief of staff Ben Cafferty lying on his office couch and moaning to Selina, “Thank you very much for your help, but would you quit being so goddamn proactive? What are you going to do for an encore, blow the opening day pitch out of your ass?” Selina’s “I’ve had enough of this” facial expression foreshadows her shocker of a decision at the end of the episode.

The bad relations between the president’s staff and Selina are only made worse by the rumor that someone is planning to contest POTUS for the party’s nomination in two years. Selina is, in fact, gearing up to run in six years, but her plans to schmooze with potential campaign contributors (and “give them all donor boners,” as she puts it) are seen as treachery in the West Wing.

But before she can schmooze, Selina is felled by a freak accident—which is so surprising (and rewindable) that I hate to spoil it, other than to say it may be a pun on the “glass ceiling” that has so far kept a woman from occupying the Oval Office. The injury strands her in a hotel suite, where Gary’s prescription of St. John’s wort (“It’s herbal! It’s from the earth!”) creates a bad reaction with the anti-depressants that even Selina’s doctor doesn’t know she’s taking (no transparency there). She’s suddenly content to lie around in a hotel suite in a white robe and blow off all her duties, with various reactions by her staff. Gary and Mike are delighted not to be snapped at, Dan is appalled that he’s still professionally associated with someone who has mood swings (or any emotion at all), and Amy (Anna Chlumsky, who should win an Emmy for Best Reactions to a Lead Actress) is relatively calm compared with her freak-out last week, which may be a sign that she’s already decided to ditch the veep (on top of her sneaking out to see a speech by Selina’s rival Danny Chung, where she runs into Dan).

Selina recovers quickly enough to participate in a road race the next day (“I fully intend to run” is not something the White House is happy to hear from Selina, regardless of the context), where she insists on giving her best effort, despite her staff worrying about the optics of her finishing ahead of a disabled vet and just behind someone dressed as a banana. Then the press is on her for a reaction to Congress taking the first step toward impeaching the president, and she drops the hammer: “I have, of course, given my full account of what I knew. And, now, I’m sure, the president will do the same.”

That’s so far from the unqualified support that the West Wing is demanding from Selina that the reactions from the president’s men is bound to be one of the highlights of next week’s season finale. But the big question is whether Selina goes through with her declaration of independence, creating an even more tense and awkward atmosphere for Veep’s third year.

Stray observations:

  • Gary’s obsession with shoulder luggage adds to his growing passive-aggressiveness toward Selina. When she fantasizes about winning the presidency, he shouts gleefully, “We gonna need a bigger bag!” —a callback to his disappointment with the size of the bag Selina got him for his birthday in “The Vic Allen Dinner.” Later, when watching the ridiculously bloody Korean-animation (correction: Taiwanese) version of Selina’s accident, his only response is to grouse about how his bag is illustrated: “That doesn’t even look like a Leviathan.”
  • Dan (Reid Scott) continues to secretly help Danny Chung, coming up with a Spotify playlist for the governor to release to the press. “Some smart stuff on there,” he says to Selina. “Nas for the young folks, Dean Martin for the retirees…” Selina interrupts with, “He just got one of his butt droids to do it, which is why I want you to do it for me.” As she says this, Dan bites his lower lip and is clearly thinking that Chung doesn’t consider him a butt droid. Oh, Dan, that’s more adorably naïve than anything Gary has said or done on this show.
  • Mike (Matt Walsh) reassures Selina about her rival: “The way POTUS is going, he’ll probably stumble into a war sooner or later. Chung will re-enlist and hopefully get himself killed.”
  • The Secret Service reveals Selina’s code name: “Dutchess is down!”
  • Tony Hale briefly morphs into Jim Nabors-as-Gomer Pyle when he tells Selina he grew up in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Selina on hated presidential adviser Kent Davison: “I bet he doesn’t even have a cum face. Can you imagine fucking that guy?”
  • One joke that’s a bit too much: Selina saying, “There are going to be Sophie’s Choice choices. Except more important, because it’s going to be about me.” Even Louis-Dreyfus can’t deliver that line as anything other than a cartoonish villain.
  • Timothy Simons is just killing it as Jonah this season. His new comic note this episode is righteous indignation: “The V-P’s office can be very insubordinate. They insubordinate all the time. Do you know that they call me Jonad? That is tantamount to calling the president Jonad.” (Ben: “No, it’s not.”) His look of intense concentration is pretty awesome too, prompting Dan to say, “Jesus, look at his stupid gaping mouth. Let’s put stuff in it.”
  • Amy’s best barb to Jonah this episode: “Go up and screw a pillow. The room’s paid for.” There’s a merciful cutaway before we see whether Jonah actually does it.
  • The multiple overhead shots of Mike racing up and down the hotel stairs, presumably avoiding the elevator so as not to tip off the press, had me waiting for the Vertigo theme to kick in.
  • Which sounds more painful: Ben’s “Oh, that’s a fucking wire brush to my hemorrhoids,” or Jonah’s “Ugh, this zipper is like a cheese grater on my dick”?

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