Veep: Season 6 (2017)
Few series have launched into late work as vertiginously as Veep, which in its sixth season almost feels like an entirely new entity, despite the recent announcement that it will conclude with its seventh. Across the first five seasons, the characters were more or less uniformly horrible, but were at least still unified under the aspirational trajectory of promoting Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as the first female president of the United States, and managing her as the first female vice-president. This time around, that’s all in the past, since Selina’s brief interim presidency is over, and the characters have gone their separate ways after the sombre conclusion to the fifth season, whose final tableau offered Louis-Dreyfus her single greatest dramatic moment to date. As Selina wandered across the National Mall away from the inauguration ceremony that was supposed to be hers, and the members of her retinue dropped away one by one, it was almost like seeing the series dissociate before our eyes from a dramedy into a straight drama, shedding all its manic buoyancy along the way. Indeed, for a comedy whose comic signature had been so inextricable from the various configurations of Selina’s convoy and chain of command, this final image of unspeakable isolation – only enhanced by the monumental spaciousness of the Mall – felt as if it could have no proper sequel in the series as it currently stood.
In that sense, “Inauguration” seemed to decisively mark the break between the first, “classic” phase of Veep, which was helmed by Armando Iannucci and framed as a kind of American sequel to The Thick of It, and what might be described as the “late” phase of Veep, which had appeared from time to time throughout the fifth season, but only emphatically announced itself in these closing scenes. While the sixth season may have returned us to a semblance of normality, its intensity can’t be understood without the trauma of that conclusion to the fifth season, which all the characters spend most of these ten episodes processing, in one way or another, now that Selina’s brief interim presidency is over. To make matters worse, the United States is now enjoying its first elected female president in the form of Laura Montez who, to all appearances, has far more integrity than anyone in the Meyer campaign, racking up a Nobel Peace Prize early into her first term. All that Selina has to focus on is her legacy, and especially her commemorative library, which commands the same amount of attention as all the official policy work of the first five seasons, and sees her calling on many of her previous colleagues and advisors to get her plans off the ground.
While the political machinations of the classic phase of the show were nearly always self-serving, this library takes Selina’s egoism to a new level, as she throws everyone and everything under the bus to cement her legacy, even as she finds her site of choice progressively downgraded from Yale to Smith College (her alma mater) to American University and, finally, to the barn at her family home in the Midwest, which she promptly destroys after discovering that it was used by her beloved father for assignations with his mistress. Along the way, she engages in a veritable campaign on behalf of the library, which includes trying to conceal a possible slave burial site at Yale to ensure that her legacy is constructed on Ivy League soil, disavowing the feminist legacy of Smith as soon as it fails to serve her purpose, and forming an alliance with a Georgian perpetrator of crimes against humanity for the sake of generating additional funding. Throughout these scenes, I was reminded of just how strenuously Veep has resisted equating femininity with feminism, or with democratic liberalism, as if to challenge the ways in which female “representation” – in both politics and television – tends to be saddled with an exemplary or normative function, rather than being allowed to indulge in the kinds of free-flowing, self-serving and pleasure-laden charisma reserved for male protagonists.
As a result, it perhaps make sense to call the sixth season of Veep an intensification as much as a transformation of the original premise, and nowhere is that clearer than in the screenwriting, which is more Swiftian and scataological than ever before. Laced with lascivious profanity, flamboyant invective and endless expletive chains, it often feels as if the showrunners are trying to create a nihilistic intensity that exceeds the first five seasons combined. While Louis-Dreyfus may have been the only actor to really escape the Seinfeld Curse, Elaine Benes is and always will be a point of reference for her subsequent creations, and yet in this sixth season it finally feels as if Selina has reached a point at which she has left even Elaine far behind, just as the core characters of Seinfeld seem like like moral philosophers in comparison to Selina’s rotation of advisors and lackeys. While unlikeable characters may have become par for the course in “quality” comedy, it’s quite bracing to see a series in which the characters all find each other so unlikeable, since this is a season in which – with the exception of Selina’s daughter Catherine and her partner Marjorie – it becomes brutally clear that none of the main players can stand to be in the same space for any length of time without a campaign to distract them from each other.
So solipsistic and self-sustaining have these scatological diatribes become that they quickly lose any real reference to their purported targets, as the characters retreat into their own private obsessions and neurotic fixations at the same pace at which they retreat from public office. By about halfway through, they are are barely registering each other any more, or even engaging in regular dialogue, since what ensues is more a series of self-contained monologues that only register other minds and mannerisms as a way of contouring and intensifying their own insatiable self-loathing. Nowhere is that clearer than in the case of Congressman Roger Furlong, who has always been the vitriolic coal face of the series, but is taken to new levels of invective here, as he provides his aide Will with ever more perverse, convoluted and ingenious one-liners to relay at his instruction, most of which are tinged with homoeroticism in some way. Yet this sixth season is also the first time we get a glimpse of Furlong’s backstory, by way of a dinner party in which he alternates between performing the role of good Christian husband to his wife and amping up his call-and-response performances with Will whenever she leaves the table to attend to things in the kitchen.
If Furlong’s expletive genius is more intense this season, then it is at its most intense during this sequence, in which he has to cram everything in before his wife returns. What’s curious, though, is that his wife has a tendency to repeat his phrases in much the same way as his aide, despite the fact that his phrases around her are considerably different in their tone and content. As a result, the net effect of the sequence is to converge Furlong’s two main receptacles into an echo chamber that exists only to allow him to hear his words relayed back to him, which is perhaps why even his most brutal diatribes reach a horizon of impotence this season at which they finally crash back upon themselves and reveal that he was the real object of all his homoerotic hated all along. Above and beyond the actual substance of his dialogue, there was always something perverse about the way in which Furlong engaged with Will, and yet that mode of engagement becomes a more general principle of the interaction between characters in this fifth season, with virtually all the main players treating their peers and colleagues as so many masturbatory aides, bouncing “dialogue” off each other in the service of some act of self-stimulation so unspeakable that it requires a ever greater torrent of words to conceal themselves and each other from it.
Indeed, this is a series in which self-loathing and self-pleasure are so closely aligned that it’s hard to say whether I ever “enjoyed” it as a viewer, or whether I merely felt queasily complicit in it. Again, while “unpleasant” characters may be a staple of quality comedy, it’s rare to see a series in which the characters find themselves so uniformly unpleasant as they do here, as even the most apparently sacrosanct and sentimental of relationships is subsumed into a strange oneiric intensity whereby each character is continually trying to get closer to themselves, but also remain sufficiently alienated from themselves that this increasing proximity has something to measure itself against. In effect, the characters render themselves repulsive enough that they can never quite pleasure themselves, or give themselves over to self-pleasure, even if that paradoxically distends and intensifies their pleasure in the process. The result is to imbue even the most public pronouncements with an abject, masturbatory vulnerability, a spectacle that was once mainly the province of Mike McLintock, Selina’s long-suffering press advisor, but which is now a general feature of all the characters, most of whom find themselves stuck at some unbearable nexus of public and private life – Dan is a co-host on CBS This Morning and finds himself compelled to pretend he is dating his colleague to preserve ratings; Jonah seems to have consolidated his position in Congress only for the media to discover his testicular cancer was a fraud; and Ben and Kent find themselves joining Jonah’s team when he makes a new bid at political leadership.
Only Amy is exempt from this situation, having wound up managing her fiancée Buddy Calhoun’s campaign for governor of Nevada. On the face of it, she’s also the only character who has managed to preserve some continuity with the first five seasons – at least she’s still campaigning – and yet what eventually drives a wedge between her and Calhoun is the fact that his electioneering doesn’t force her into this unbearably pleasurable junction between public and private life, inducing her to artificially inject scandal into her fiancee’s campaign until he finally, literally, gets caught with his pants down. Part of the pathos of the first five seasons came from the sense that Amy could really flourish – romantically, personally, professionally – if she could only manage to escape from Selina’s grasp, but the cynical revelation of this sixth season is that she was just as indebted to this oneiric economy as everyone around her. For almost the first time in the series, in her conversations with Calhoun, it feels as if we’re witnessing genuine dialogue, so it’s doubly shocking when Amy abruptly parts ways with her decent, handsome, upstanding fiancée and rejoins Selina’s orbit, rekindling her on-again-off-again rapport with Dan for good measure. In another kind of series this might feel like a reboot, or like a desperate attempt to return to the “classic” phase of the story, but in this case the effect is more to clarify just how voracious this will to oneiric self-annihilation has been, to the point where it eventually exceeds all the character arcs that were originally used to contour and contain it.
Of course, no character occupied that abject nexus between private and public space quite like Gary, Selina’s assistant, who enjoys a special role in the second part of this season, thanks to an episode in which Selina and her retinue visit his home in Birmingham, Alabama. On one level, it almost goes without saying that this plays as a parodic riff upon House of Cards, and specifically upon Frank Underwood’s relationship with his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, especially because both series position this return to the South as a closet epistemology, with the insular urbanity of their respective Washington D.C. and New York backdrops framing everything below the Mason-Dixon Line as a repository for those forms of knowledge that can’t be directly or explicitly articulated. Yet to say that Veep is parodic is perhaps to underestimate how wryly House of Cards already anticipates this kind of parody, with Spacey’s direct address to camera already precluding any genuinely “knowing” convergence of the series with his own sexual orientation, as well as any subsequent speculation on the genesis of Frank’s playful queerness in Spacey’s own offscreen self.
A similar thing occurs in Veep, in which Gary’s home visit concludes with a displaced outing narrative – not, indeed, from Gary himself, but from his macho father, whose snarky comments about Gary’s effeminism gradually give way to his own inchoate coming-out to Selina and her companions. In a series in which every piece of invective converges on a homosocial horizon, it’s quite remarkable that Gary has never been called out on his orientation before this, and quite startling to see his father do it now. Yet in a brilliant twist, the very moment at which Gary’s father outs his son not only backfires and turns into a self-outing, but reveals that Gary has, perhaps, been straight all along, and that his apparent queerness has stemmed more from the privileged space he occupies in the series’ shifting nexus between public and private disclosure, rather than from any inherent attraction to men on his own part. In that displacement lies the crux of this whole sixth season, since the logical conclusion of such oneirically self-regarding dialogue is that each person becomes their own object of attraction, and even the most apparently extroverted gestures of heterosexuality inevitably circuit back to the gender of the personal articulating them.
What the fifth season of Veep clarifies as never before, then, is that the intensely solipsistic milieu of Washington D.C. requires something like a closet epistemology to conceal its true nature and intention from itself, as if the city were founded on an open secret that had to both remain open and remain secret in order for politics to remain functional. The result is a narrative space in which every major character is continually on the cusp of outing themselves as self-attracted, rather than other-attracted, but just as continually forced to subsume those sentiments back into chains of increasingly baroque vulgarity that nevertheless grow more self-referential and self-defeating as they proceed. In a strange way, that creates a comic milieu in which every character almost seems to yearn to be queer, if only because that will offer the most authentic platform from which to enact this performative closet epistemology. No surprise, then, that the sixth season sees Selina’s daughter Catherine, and her partner Marjorie, graduating into about the most powerful people in the series – Marjorie, because she is now administering Selina’s legacy project; and Catherine, because she is now controlling Selina’s finances, thanks to Selina’s mother unexpectedly deciding to pass the entirety of her fortune and property straight to her granddaughter, displacing Selina from the family name, status and legacy in the process.
Of course, Catherine and Marjorie aren’t closeted in a literal sense – they’re an openly gay couple, living together and awaiting the birth of their first child. Yet in Selina’s continual prevarication about how to refer to them – and, perhaps more importantly, her ambivalence about how Marjorie should refer to her – their relationship often feels as if it is perpetually on the cusp of the closet, especially as the surprise of having a lesbian daughter, let alone a lesbian daughter whose lifestyle is so much more functional than her own, never seems to diminish for Selina, who remains as mildly incredulous as the first day Catherine came out to her. That’s not to say, either, that Catherine and Marjorie are some kind of heroic queer couple, or exemption from the sixth season’s aesthetic – if anything, Catherine is more of a punching-bag than ever before. But she’s only a punching-bag because she identifies with the libidinal substrate of D.C. normality more than any other character in the series can, with the result that the more she identifies with her lesbian relationship, and the longer Selina’s incredulity lasts, the dowdier and more normcore she appears, effortlessly and obliviously occupying the effervescent space between public and private disclosure that all the other characters are scrambling so frantically to occupy and turn into their own.
For that reason, I can’t help but think that the seventh and final season must focus even more on the triangulation of Selina, Catherine and Marjorie, even if a last-minute shift in Montes’ fortunes means that the presidency suddenly becomes a viable option for Selina again. That in itself raises fascinating formal possibilities – how to deal with a renewed election effort in the final season of a series? – but the more immediate import of this sixth season is that any bid for political credibility must now go through Catherine, not merely because having a devoted daughter is good for optics, but because the great twist of the sixth season is that, despite her perennial sulk on the fringes of Selina’s spotlight, Catherine was somehow always more attuned to Washington D.C. I’d almost go so far as to say that it would be something of a logical conclusion for Catherine to run for president next season, and for Gary to seamlessly take over the role as her advisor, regardless of the presidential race between Selina and Jonah that seems to be established at the end of the final episode here. Only time will tell whether that’s a red herring or not, but for now it’s exciting to contemplate just how much more the series may compress, intensify and exceed the first five seasons in the second and final iteration of this strange and bracing late phase when it comes out next year.
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