After taking Memorial Day Weekend off, Veep comes back strong with one of the best episodes of what has been an incredibly consistent season. From character beats to structure to laugh out loud humor, “Debate” delivers on all fronts, pushing the campaign forward and building momentum to the season finale next week. Chris Meloni may be gone, but Sarah Sutherland is back as Catherine and joining her are fellow returnees Dan Bakkedahl (Congressman Furlong), Kathy Najimy (Mike’s reporter wife Wendy), and Phil Reeves (Senator Andrew Doyle), helping to round out this already fantastic ensemble cast.
Expanding the ensemble even further than usual allows for more traded barbs and tossed off one-liners, giving vitality to what could have been a rather predictable affair. Between The West Wing, Parks And Recreation, and The Newsroom, audiences have seen more than their fair share of debate episodes (not to mention their nonfictional brethren); at this point, it’s difficult to make a fictional debate both interesting and believable, so rather than fight against this, “Debate” spends most of its time around the corners of Selina’s big day, focusing on the team’s prep and behind the scenes wrangling.
Dan may have crashed and burned, but Amy hits the ground running this week in her first episode as campaign manager. She’s surprisingly effective in the role, demonstrating poise and focus while prepping Selina and on the whole, not screwing up. The easy camaraderie of the beginning of the season is present and unsurprisingly, Amy’s status quo is an improvement over Dan’s verbal abuse-driven approach. Whether she can keep this up remains to be seen, but Amy’s certainly off to a promising start. It’s nice to see everyone working together this fluidly—self-destruction can be hilarious (see “Special Relationship”), but the group’s energy as they work toward their common goal is infectious, particularly with the previously odious Congressman Furlong pitching in.
As Furlong, Bakkedahl delivers many of the episode’s best lines. His early interactions with Sutherland’s Catherine and new staff writer Jackson, played by Andrew Leeds, are delightful and his running commentary with Reeves on Selina’s improvised third R is fantastic. With primaries come endorsements and with endorsements come strange bedfellows, and bringing Furlong and Doyle squarely onto Team Veep makes both narrative and comedic sense. Team Maddox, on the other hand, isn’t looking too happy by the end of the episode. Maddox’s implosion is surprising, given the emphasis he received earlier in the season, but these early flameouts are common in campaigns and with the much-touted Bill Ericsson backing Thornhill, he’s clearly the candidate to watch.
The patter between the candidates leading up to and following the debate feels natural and adds a few more beats of verbal jousting to the proceedings. It’s also our only opportunity to get a sense of Thornhill, who will hopefully grow beyond the caricature he’s been presented as thus far. The writers give Thornhill a few savvy moments this week that may hint at hidden depths: his ability to keep up with Selina before the debate, his boxing her out of frame during his assertion that she’s lost focus, and his handling of his affair. Folksy, undereducated, and under-qualified opponents are popular choices for main antagonists to lead character candidates (The West Wing’s Governor Ritchie comes immediately to mind, as does Parks And Recreation’s Bobby Newport). At the moment, Thornhill looks like the uninteresting latest entry in this trend—with any luck, next week’s final two episodes will prove this fear unfounded.
This episode may be clearly structured around Selina’s debate, but the most entertaining journey of the episode has little to do with it. Reid Scott’s wonderfully paced progression of Dan from relaxed Zen master back to his usual, unpleasant self is fabulous. He goes from serenely sipping coffee, perched crossed legged atop a file cabinet to, “Go fuck yourself, Jack and the Giant Freakstalk” in 30 minutes (three days, in-show), in a supremely enjoyable condemnation of politics and the ill effects these people have on one other. We also see the first rift in Mike’s marriage to Wendy, as Mike tries to manipulate rather than support his wife, though this may say more about him and his perception of marriage than the toxic effect politics has on our leads.
Then there’s the one-two punch of Selina’s new haircut and twitching eye. The team’s reaction to her new ‘do is spot on, with Mike getting the best line out of it, “It’s the worst use of scissors since my failed vasectomy.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus is excellent throughout, selling Selina’s early hair-inspired excitement, her pre-debate anxiety, and her supreme confidence and competence while she’s on camera. She may be malleable behind the scenes with her love interests and her daughter, but when challenged, Selina has a will of iron and it’s fun to see that come out here. Her tic is also used to great effect and is a nice bit of physicality, adding variety and an element of unpredictability to this consistently funny, but very dialogue-driven episode.
With its tight pacing, clear structure, and dense, entertaining script, “Debate” continues Veep’s season-long hot streak, pushing the show towards next week’s finale with renewed vigor and laughs to spare.
- Speaking of hot streak, how great is Amy’s final line, “It’s not enough. We have to win and if you can’t stand the heat, buy asbestos panties,” both as a demonstration of her (seeming) fitness as campaign manager/general badassery and as a rallying cry for next week’s final two episodes? Like everyone else this episode, Anna Chlumsky gets some great moments, between this and her giddy reaction to Dan’s confirmation of “Joe’s ho.” Her line of the week, though? “You’re naïve. Welcome to politics.”
- This episode has too many fantastic quotes to try to list them all. A few favorites: Dan and Kent’s exchange about faces, Catherine’s , “They’re jokes, right?,” Ben’s affinity for necks, Selina’s warning to Dan not to, “go schizo-titso” again, Jackson’s desperate, “Everybody here doesn’t hate me, right?” and the long pause afterward, Gary’s, “She does not say nay to Ray,” and Mike’s, “FLOTUS is a No-Gotus.” There are so many more—I look forward to reading your picks in the comments.
- Jonah has less to do this week, but what he does get is pretty great. It’s a nice touch to show him next to a few other Maddox staffers as they enjoy Selina’s stumble over her third R. Of course that victory immediately fades upon Maddox’s “hole” digression, but even briefly showing him as part of a larger group helps make Maddox and Jonah’s role in his campaign feel more developed. Another fun detail is the bajillion notes in front of Owen Pierce, in contrast to the small notebook of each of the other candidates.
- In an example of the episode mimicking the callous characters upon which it centers, we cut away from Angela mid-question and her audio fades down as Furlong and Doyle comment on Selina and Maddox. Not only do the candidates not really care about this voter’s problems, the show doesn’t either.