Farewell to Veep: Inside the final days of TV's smartest, filthiest comedy
Or, you know, Selina could just smack Jonah.
For reasons best left unrevealed, presidential hopeful and hopeless egotist Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her wearied accomplices are holding a clandestine hotel-room meeting with B-list, D-bag congressman Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) and his team of misfit toys. She makes Jonah an offer he can't refuse, so… he does. "Shut up, you gum-recessed face-anus! You harelipped diarrhea golem!!!" yells Jonah's power-playing uncle Jeff (Peter MacNicol). "No! You shut up!" Jonah snaps back at Jeff. "I'm not going to let anyone talk to me like that!"
It's a rare display of spine — and a fleeting one. Selina slaps Jonah across the head and joins Jeff in brutally berating him in surround sound. "You c—less cockroach! You brainless taint-stain!" Selina shouts, while Jeff simultaneously roars, "You pile of failure shaped like a rapist!" Jonah wheels around, futilely trying to deflect insults ("What the —!" "I'm not shaped like a rapist!"). Now Jeff is screaming something about intentionally hitting Jonah with his car when he was in kindergarten, while Selina shouts, "I'm giving you a chance to be remembered for something other than the syndrome they name after you when they cut your f—ing corpse open and figure out what the f— you were!!!" ("I got hit with spit from both sides," Simons notes good-naturedly after the scene. "Just taking it from all directions.")
Louis-Dreyfus approaches this riotously toxic scene like any other — with meticulous precision and obsessive care. She and showrunner-director David Mandel are concerned with syncing up her insults with MacNicol's so the funniest parts break through at the right time. She's trying to find the perfect part of Simons' head to smack (verdict: forehead) without hurting him (she expresses motherly concern after slapping his glasses into his head). She suggests that Tony Hale, who plays Selina's tragically dedicated bagman Gary, take over a "cha-ching" punchline at the end of the scene. "It's an audition, Tony," she deadpans. "We'll see if you can make it work. Good luck."
After one take, she and Mandel rework her entrance. After another pass, she self-reports: "I f—ed up the last take! I turned my head away from camera." And after another, she questions her delivery system: "Does it matter which hand I hit him with? Is one hand better for camera? Right or left? Does anyone have an opinion?"
Right or left, whichever way Selina leans, brace for maximum comedic impact. Mixing petty power grabs and flop-sweaty failures with eviscerating one-liners that mock the line, HBO's Beltway-bashing satire resonates as one of the decade's smartest, savviest, and filthiest comedies. It's also one of the most revered, dazzling critics and winning the comedy Emmy trophy three years in a row, nominated all six. Along the way, Louis-Dreyfus carved a spot for herself on the Mt. Rushmore of Comedy, scoring six best actress Emmys for the role (which pair nicely with the two acting Emmys she won for Seinfeld and The New Adventures of Old Christine, as well as that freshly awarded Mark Twain Prize for American Humor).
But all good things about bad people must come to an end: Veep begins its seven-episode final season on March 31, tying up the story of the narcissistic, opportunistic vice president who bumbled and bullied her way into the Oval Office, lost her re-election, tried to cement her legacy with a vagina-shaped library, and then decided that she needed to be president again so she passed up true love with a Middle Eastern ambassador. Now Selina hits the campaign trail once more, with renewed contempt for the American people. And she'll go to alarmingly great lengths to rock the vote. "Selina reaches into the depths — or the bowels — of her soul to mine her essence in an effort to get what she wants," hints Louis-Dreyfus. "It's a sort of soul-searching without even realizing she's doing it."
As Veep prepares to enter the TV history books, questions loom like Gary over Selina: Will Madam Meyer conclude her journey in triumph or trouble? Is Jonah a legitimate contender for commander-in-chief? Did Louis-Dreyfus think that she'd be able to film a final season after her breast cancer diagnosis? Will Veep burnish its unimpeachable record with a satisfying send-off? (Cut to Kent, running all the scenarios.) And can Veep distract us from our real-life unrelenting political horror show? Oh, and what did happen on Labor Day?
No, it's not his fault that Veep is signing off. Well, it's not solely Donald Trump's fault. In summer 2017, Mandel began plotting out the show's seventh season and future, knowing that HBO was open to two more seasons, or one and a movie. But as he delved in deeper, he realized: This is it. After lengthy conversations with Louis-Dreyfus, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, they decided that the end was indeed nigh. "The storytelling dictated the end of the show," she sums up. "It felt right."
What also felt right was to end Veep with the audience wanting more, something Mandel and Louis-Dreyfus learned from their old boss, Jerry Seinfeld, on Seinfeld. And sure, the devolving, reality-is-crazier-than-fiction state of politics factored in, too. "Donald Trump is not the reason we're ending Veep, but it didn't hurt," says Mandel. "It got hard. The things that the show prided itself on — miscues, missteps, misspeaks, incompetent staff — they are hourly now." And don't forget about creative burnout. "It gets to a point of, 'Have we already called Jonah 'Godzilla's taint?' 'Well, we once referred to him as some other kind of taint, and we once did a Godzilla joke about something else,' " chuckles Mandel. "When you can't think of any more Jonah jokes is when you really have to hang it up." (As you saw above, they had a few good ones in reserve.)
While many cast members imagined that Veep would run for eight seasons, they supported the decision. It just took a moment. "When they gave us that news, at first I was like, "Oh s—, I'm out of a job,'" says Reid Scott, a.k.a. perpetually fired, always-arrogant Dan. "And within five minutes and probably a glass of whiskey later, I was like, "No, you know what? This the right thing to do. We've created something so beautiful. Don't cheapen it."
Shortly after, in September 2017, Veep won another best comedy Emmy, and Louis-Dreyfus stood onstage, joyfully accepting another Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy. Deep down, though, uncertainty reigned. Two days prior, a doctor performed a biopsy on a lump in her breast and warned her to prepare for bad news. "At the Emmy party, she was holding an Emmy as best actress," notes Mandel, "but her best acting was done that night."
The day after the Emmys, Louis-Dreyfus was diagnosed with breast cancer. "There was this impending sense of doom about the next day for me, so I was kind of on auto-pilot, albeit a happy auto-pilot," recalls Louis-Dreyfus of Emmy night. "Then we won, and that was very nice. But everything changed the next day. I will admit to you it was almost cartoonish in the "good news/bad news" area that it actually became hysterical laughing before it became hysterical crying. And that's the truth. I mean, it was hilarious. But then we were in the trenches, and it was warfare. It was like, game on."
Mandel was working in Veep's Paramount-lot production office with his writers on the first few season 7 scripts when he received a phone call from Louis-Dreyfus. "I remember her voice, how it was breaking," he says. "It was a voice from her I've never quite heard before. Also, just this sense of two Emmys in a row where she won — one, her dad [Gerard Louis-Dreyfus died two days before 2016's Emmys], and then two, cancer. We just were like, "Can somebody just leave this woman alone?"
The issue of whether a final season of Veep would be filmed wasn't important at the time, but it never seemed in doubt, certainly not to Louis-Dreyfus. At first, she proposed filming during her treatment. "I was never going to walk away from this, under any circumstances," explains the actress, 58, who used the public announcement of her illness to advocate for universal healthcare. "For a couple of days — not knowing this road I was about to walk down, not fully understanding, and possibly in a sort of state of denial, too — I was thinking, 'Well, we'll shoot around chemo. We'll figure it out.' I had that idea, which is, of course, absurd. But I didn't think of it as such until reality came crashing in."
Even then, she remained committed to Veep, trying to figure out new start dates after her procedures and participating in several table reads of scripts; they were scheduled on the day before treatment, when she was at her strongest. (The cast also filmed videos of support that were shown to her on her car rides to chemo.) "It was just nice to see her physically laughing, smiling, and it gave me the sense and this hope that it was all going to be just fine," says Simons. "To see somebody who's going through treatment and still be able to f—ing crush a table read — she's in chemotherapy and she's still the best f—ing actor in the world. It's unbelievable. But to all that know her, absolutely not surprising."
Louis-Dreyfus was grateful for the show, and the show of support. "I welcomed the distraction," she says, adding, "It was weird, though, because my immune system was compromised to a certain extent. I couldn't hug anybody or touch anybody. That was a very strange feeling because I'm a hugger, I'm a toucher…. I mean, in a good sense, not the bad sense."
She successfully finished treatment in early 2018, and as she regained strength, Veep remained on hiatus. The break afforded Mandel the chance to reexamine season 7 in light of the shifting, increasingly noxious political landscape."As we entered the second year of [Trump's] presidency, the lies per day went higher," he recalls. "It felt like the things that we used to be parodying — the things that were Veep — were out the window…. So much of the show which had survived on, 'Isn't it shocking that a president might talk that way behind closed doors?' Well, now we have a president talking that way during a press conference."
While Veep has never aimed for topical SNL-esque parody, it reflects reality (the Nevada recount winked at the Florida recount) and even occasionally foreshadowed it (see: Jonah's government shutdown). As the writers reconvened in July, Mandel mined not Trump's follies but the corrosive tribalism, extreme partisanship, and war on science and facts. (Prepare to see Jonah court the anti-vax vote, which takes on new relevance given recent outbreaks.) "It is quite uncanny how the story line unfolds," says Louis-Dreyfus. "I mean, quite uncanny."
When it finally came time to film this final season, the first day began on an understandably emotional note: Louis-Dreyfus thanked the crew for sticking with her through the hiatus. "It's one of those moments where you're like, 'I think the teamsters are weeping,'" says Mandel. "It's sort of like, [in macho voice] 'Yeah, no, I'm fine. I'm gonna go move a truck.'… It hit all of us. We'd been through table reads, but I'm sure somewhere in all our brains there was a little bit of, 'Is she going to be the same? Did it affect her?' The next thing you know, Selina is screaming about shaving her muff in the old boys' club, and it's just like, 'We're back!'"
Her recovery was indeed swift and impressive, yet also on-brand for the actress. "If there are 10 things an actor can have in [his/her] arsenal, most people who are really great have five of them. She has 15 of them," praises Gary Cole, before adding Kent-like, "even though the list stops at 10." What she's able to put on screen is even more admirable, considering that sniper team of Veep writers prosper on last-second rewrites of last-minute revisions, says Kevin Dunn, who plays heart attack-and-divorce-prone Ben. "You get new pages when you walk in in the morning, by the time you're on the stage you get new pages, and by the time you finish rehearsing, you get another [stack]," he explains. "The show is all in her lap. It was pretty incredible watching her make the changes that they threw at her."
And yet, that may not be her biggest feat. "She can make these bold, broad choices and play these over-the-top characters, yet they never feel inhuman," says Sarah Sutherland, who plays Selina's precious, neglected daughter, Catherine. "Somehow she managed to play arguably the most unlikable person on television, and you feel for her. And that's coming from someone who plays a character who is a dumping ground for all of her venom. And I still root for Selina."
There is a "New. Selina. Now." What exactly that slogan means — this is a woman who once promised "Continuity With Change"— she'll figure out later. But she begins the season kissing babies and courting billionaires on the campaign trail across an America that has changed since her last whistle-stop. "Just because she's running for president again and just because she feels entitled to it," says Mandel, "doesn't mean people want her back."
While she tries to unshackle herself from unscrupulous ex-husband Andrew (David Pasquesi), she'll face a field of candidates that includes new blood and an unwelcome surprise, as well as Buddy Calhoun (Matt Oberg), the ex-boyfriend of intense staffer Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky) who's positioning himself as the religious candidate, and…the upward-failing Jonah. Selina may pay Jonah no mind — always a mistake — but he pays her plenty. "It's like Batman and the Joker, except in this case it's like Batman and a f—ing low-rent petty thief that Batman doesn't give a s— about at all," analogizes Simons. "He's chasing the Joker and that s—ty thief is going, 'We've had this date since the beginning,' and Batman's like, 'What are you…? No, I'm chasing after the half-melted face guy!'"
Speaking of those desperate for attention she refuses to give… "The first season, when Selina asks Gary to break up with her boyfriend, I remember thinking, 'Wow, that is a level of codependency I don't think I've ever [seen],'" says Hale. "And as the seasons grew, I was like, 'Whoa. This is real sickness.' Then things happen this season and you're like, 'Okay, this has got to stop, because the woundedness in his soul is just deep.' " (Also, a juicy clue will be dropped about the mysterious Labor Day event in which Gary did something for Selina. "It's chilling," hints Hale. "It was nothing I expected. Because I had a framework for Labor Day, and then I read this [script] and I was like, "Oh, that wasn't even in the ballpark.")
Gary also gets a high-chair at the table when he is tasked with running Selina's faith-based initiative, but when stone-faced ex–Secret Service agent-turned-Meyer-Fund-head Marjorie (Clea DuVall) fills in on bag duties, territory battles ensue. "It brings out a side of Marjorie that is not very good for her relationship with Catherine," teases DuVall. As for Catherine, she's navigating the pitfalls of motherhood. "Catherine is going through post-partum depression and no one can tell," quips Sutherland, "which was sort of a bit that never got old."
In other baby news, Amy revealed to Dan in season 6's finale that she was pregnant, and the un-couple will process the fallout in dramatically different ways. "Dan is so egotistical that he just assumes it's all going to work out the way he wants it to, which is incredibly aggravating to Amy," says Scott. "She realizes the obvious magnitude of the situation, and he just doesn't give a s—. He's also just a dick." But denial only may work for so long. "It requires them both to actually examine one another and themselves in ways that they had been trying to avoid all series," says Chlumsky. "That was really gratifying to play with Reid."
While Ben serves as a father figure of sorts to Selina ("maybe a bad stepfather," redirects Dunn) and robo-statman Kent has fallen for SHIELA (Strategic Hypermetric Electoral Interactive Logistical Algorithm), fired press secretary Mike (Matt Walsh) becomes a reporter at Buzzfeed, trying to fit into a culture he doesn't understand. "Mike is rocking a lot of Air Jordan high-tops this season," warns Walsh, "maybe a sideways hat once in a while." And Richard (Sam Richardson) is diligently dividing his time between Jonah's and Selina's campaigns. Yep, Splett is split. "He legitimately feels that both of them would make amazing leaders," says Richardson. "In reality, they're maybe two of the worst people in the world, but he's just got rose-colored friendship glasses on. Richard is in over his head, because he's trying to be two people at once."
This season also returns notable characters such as: foul-tongued congressman Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl), who elevates to party chairman; blunt ex–Finland PM Minna (Sally Phillips), who re-enters when Selina becomes entangled in international intrigue; and walking HR violation Teddy (Patton Oswalt), who has been "chemically castrated, which is the only reason that Jonah allows Teddy near him," explains Mandel. In addition, you will meet: a tense, Amy-esque chief of staff (Rhea Seehorn) for a rival campaign; a cheery campaign manager (Andy Daly) who joins Selina's team ("When things start to go wrong on her campaign, this is the guy Selena thinks she wants," hints Mandel); a two-faced Governor of Iowa (Michael McKean) who aims to leverage his political capital during this election cycle; and an influential reverend in Charleston (Keegan-Michael Key) whose support Selina desperately wants. Plus, more of Jonah's family! "Jonah's family tree is a complicated one," warns Mandel.
Season 7 is rooted in a go-for-morally-broken spirit, as viewers discover how far Selina is willing to go in her quest to claim her prize. "We would walk away from certain table reads just not knowing even what to say to each other," notes DuVall, "because we're laughing but also crying." And while recalibrating for the times, the series and its decidedly un-PC jokes did not go PG-13. "I think they even played it up more," says Dunn. "That's not why you're getting a laugh — it's because these people really have no conscience." Scott even opines that season 7 may be the show's best: "It moves faster, it covers more ground. I hate to use the word wacky, but it's more absurdist than our other seasons. And it's a fitting climax that this thing pitched to this place of absolute mania, which is really where it ends up."
RELATED: The cast of Veep reflect on the final season
Where it ends up is a question of absolute importance, as a finale informs or even defines a show's legacy more than ever. "There was enormous pressure," says Louis-Dreyfus. "Everyone felt it. We had to stick this landing on every level. Every level." Mandel stressed his way to the finish line, problem-solving through sleep that didn't begin until 2 a.m. The genial, gifted joke machine — he boasts an endless reserve of hilarious alternate one-liners that he calls out during filming — has thrived as the steward of Veep since taking over from respected creator Armando Iannucci after season 4. ("Impossible task, remarkable job," sums up Walsh.) And Mandel believes that this time-spanning finale will satisfy. "I hate to use words like epic, but I do think it's epic in size and scope," he says. "It's sad in places. But it's also very happy in places. And it's fitting."
"It is the perfect bookend to the series," agrees Louis-Dreyfus. "It makes sense on so many levels for every single character. A lot of tender loving care was put in. By the way, it's as dark as it could possibly be while, I hope, remaining very funny. But it's incredibly dark."
And how will viewers react as the credits roll? Simons has a prediction: "It will probably fit into that thing of, 'This really made laugh. I loved spending time all those people. And holy s—, they are the worst group of people that I've ever seen.'"
"You here for the tsunami of emotion?" is how Tony Hale greets you on the final day of filming. Wistful dread has been building for two weeks. It started with a table read of the finale that ruined tear ducts, and almost every day this week — each sadder than the previous one — more actors would film their last scene, the moment would be commemorated, and production would barrel forward, leaving behind memories like roadkill.
On the plus side, there's lobster and filet mignon for lunch today. Hugs are swapped, gifts are exchanged. Although Hale and Louis-Dreyfus have been encouraging each other to keep it together, they are faltering early and often; Hale loses it again before rehearsing his final scene in a hospital, and Louis-Dreyfus informs Mandel, "Well, Tony already started." After he finishes the scene — the series! — he tightly, tearfully clutches Gary's bag, his extra appendage for all these years. Simons tries to wrest it from him while quipping, "Can I take that from you?" ("It's in my closet right now at home," recalls Hale, who won two Emmys for his role. "Even touching the leather, it's like a sense-memory thing. I remember the many times he just clung to that like Linus' blanket. And it brings me back to many, many, many happy memories….")
The crowd by the monitors slowly balloons as cast, crew, and family — including proud picture-taking Veep director/Louis-Dreyfus husband Brad Hall — brace for the grand goodbye. It's finally time for Louis-Dreyfus' last scene, which requires a nuanced moment of introspection. After several takes, Mandel coaches: "Take it right to the edge. Start to fall apart." "That'll be fun," she deadpans. When all camera angles are covered, Mandel has no choice but to call "Cut." "You sure you don't want to do another one?" Louis-Dreyfus asks, clinging to her final seconds as Selina. "Another 10?" he returns. She reaches into Selina's desk drawer for an emergency Kleenex. "It felt like the elephant in the room, which was: We have to say goodbye now," reflects Louis-Dreyfus later. "It was like, One last hug, one last kiss before you go."
After 40 seconds of applause, Louis-Dreyfus addresses the crowd. "Thank everybody here so much for all of this just agonizing and exquisite joy for so many years," she says, straining to compose herself. "And not to get too maudlin, you should know that this was a great, in fact, lifesaver for me during my illness. And the idea of coming back here to do this glorious thing was a tonic, to say the least." After the cast swarms her for an overwhelming group hug, Mandel yells: "Oh my God, we killed Julia Louis-Dreyfus!"
Cake and champagne are wheeled into the room, and memories are popped open. "I actually poured one out for Amy, and it was really therapeutic," shares Chlumsky. Louis-Dreyfus sits on a nearby couch with Mandel to decompress and process. "I'd taken the wig off and I had my hair all pulled back because it's got all this gunk in it, and Dave and I had our heads together, and I felt like we'd just been through labor and delivery," she recalls. "I felt like we, as a group, had just given birth to this wonderful, ginormous baby. We were exhausted, physically and emotionally spent, but incredibly happy. It was a happy depletion and… letting go."
The celebration spilled into the writers' office, where everyone continued to reminisce and drink tequila into the wee hours. It felt like the old days in Baltimore, where the first four seasons were filmed, where the cast (which also included Sufe Bradshaw — as Sue, Selina's assistant/Jonah defense system — for the first five seasons) lived, ate, and drank together. "Having us all up in that room sharing the final moments and telling stories or remembering things from years past," says Richardson, "it felt like a time capsule, going back in a really nice, sweet way to have those last moments."
It's a bittersweet farewell to an eight-year journey that was "the pinnacle in terms of my work on television," says Louis-Dreyfus, who recently filmed the big-screen comedy Downhill with Will Ferrell. "It's a pinnacle thus far, shall we say." While she won't miss the deceptively long hours or the crushing anxiety attached to the pursuit of perfection — "It was certainly a labor of love, but it was actually quite a labor" — she will miss channeling Selina's oversized ego. She'll miss blaming Selina's mistakes on her staff. She'll miss hurling abuse northerly at Simons. "I remember very vividly, thinking, 'Oh my god, this guy's so tall, I'm so short. We can make hay with that, pointing up at him.' And she'll dearly miss her daily routine with Hale; together they mined comedic gold beneath the intersection of sadistic and sad. "I had an immediate sense of simpatico with him that was undeniable," she says. "It was kind of love at first sight. We got ready in the mornings together in the hair-and-makeup trailer. And we used that time [to] go over material. We would talk. We would bond. And on the final day, he said, 'Oh my god, this is our last day doing this…" — she pauses here to collect herself — "I'm getting choked up even saying that. It was like this gem that we were sitting on, in a weird way, without even realizing it."
She's not ready yet to entertain the idea of revisiting this bunch of caustic goofs someday. "It's too fresh," she says. But is she open to returning to television? A pause. "Why, you got a script?"