A year ago, the idea of an election culminating in a presidency that no one saw coming seemed, to me, like pretty good television, but also a story that had little to do with American democracy as we knew it. Veep’s fifth season hinged on a series of unprecedented reversals, beginning when President Selina Meyer’s bid for reelection ended in a tie in the Electoral College. That triggered a House vote between the two candidates—a process that also resulted in a tie and ultimately forced Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to cede the Oval Office to Laura Montez (Andrea Savage), her opponent’s running mate. In its need to keep pushing its characters into one unpredictable situation after another, it seemed at the time, Veep had depicted an alternate version of the 2016 election that was far too outlandish for reality ever to keep up with.
What a difference an election makes. By November, the emotions we saw in Veep’s fifth season looked a lot like the real outrage that Hillary Clinton’s supporters felt at her defeat. As Selina’s fate hung in the balance, she was forced to watch every senator and staffer she had intimidated, manipulated, and then forgotten in her bid for the presidency remember the promises she had made to them and then reneged on. The election of a brand-new—prettier! younger! allegedly Hispanic!—woman in her place amounted to a communal backstabbing, with Selina in the role of Caesar. To add insult to injury, Selina’s bid to free Tibet, meant to be her October surprise, came to fruition minutes into Laura Montez’s inauguration. So now, at the start of season six, Selina has also had to watch her successor undeservedly claim the Nobel Peace Prize that Selina hoped to claim (undeservedly) for herself.
This final blow, however, is about as close as the new season comes to portraying the workings of the democratic process. Instead of following the victor back into the chaos of the White House, Veep sticks with Selina in her loss. Facing the end of her political career, she hates Washington, hates America, and hates D.C. insiders maybe slightly more than she hates “regular Americans,” whatever they are. Wrenched out of a world that, despite her misery in it, was still the only world she really understood—the only game she knew the rules to, even if it was one she could never win—Selina doesn’t know how to function as a regular person, greeting her ex-husband (who is also her current lover) as if he’s an anonymous caucus-goer. (“Well, I know you!” she chirps when she sees him on the street.)
Selina is figuring out how to be human, and she doesn’t like it much. Watching that struggle—and the struggle of those around her not only to find their own footing in this brave new world, but to aid her journey in whatever ways they can—is the most captivating part of the new season of Veep, just as Selina Meyer’s troubled relationship with her own humanity has always been the most surprising and revealing aspect of the show. It is the story that many of the post-election photographs of Hillary Clinton walking in the woods of Chappaqua tried to piece together—the picture of a life long shaped around politics, suddenly absent its animating force.
Taking Selina out of the White House is a wise move on showrunner David Mandel’s part, though perhaps as disappointing to some viewers as it is to Selina herself. When Veep premiered in 2012, critics hailed it as a mordant satire that was, if anything, just a bit too broad and nihilistic to adequately reflect the complexity of American politics. Along with shows like House of Cards, its appeal lay in identifying the Washington archetypes of our time, however crudely sketched. Veep, Carina Chocano wrote in The New York Times, captured “our post-Reagan, post-Clinton, post-Bush, 24-hour tabloid news and internet-haterade dystopia.”
Like its creator Armando Iannucci’s previous comedies The Thick of It and In the Loop, Veep painted a grim world where no one ever accomplished anything, where all power was illusory, where every promise of progress was used cynically to manipulate voters or (worse) was rendered impossible to execute by a hopeless political system. “We all know the White House would work so much better if there wasn’t a president,” Ben Cafferty (Kevin Dunn), the White House chief of staff, wearily reminds Selina in season two. “But there is, so we work around that.”
While this sensibility proved a rich seam for satire in the Obama years, White House politics as usual have now yielded to something altogether more chaotic. With the real-world targets of Veep’s first five seasons ushered off the stage, the show reckons with the disappointed personal ambitions of those who surrounded Meyer. Her staffers are all dramatically worse off than they were when we saw them last, forced to weather the kind of disorder and humiliation that generates the most riveting character drama. Amy (Anna Chlumsky) is managing a gubernatorial campaign for her Nevadan fiancé, for whom she exhibits almost as much open contempt as she does for his constituents; Dan (Reid Scott) is co-hosting a CBS morning show, limited to terrorizing his rivals through puff pieces instead of attack ads; Ben is hired, then quickly ousted, by the millennials at Uber. But there is good news for the Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) fans out there: Jonah, who began the series as a powerless underling, is now a freshman congressman—the sole political survivor of the Meyer era.
In the year since she left office, Selina herself has spent some time at the spa (a Meyerism for a psychiatric facility), launched an obligatory foundation, and started work on her memoir. Only her body man, Gary (Tony Hale), and former Ryan staffer Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) remain by her side—the two Fools left to care for their exiled Lear. They do their best, which doesn’t count for much, because all Selina really wants is to be president again. Before the season premiere is over, she announces her plans for another run, then scraps them just as quickly. One thing seems certain as we embark on Veep’s sixth season: Selina Meyer will remain, at least for now, a private citizen.
Which leaves us to confront what is, by now, the only reason for watching the show: not to spy on the imagined (and authentically filthy) inner workings of our nation’s capital, but to follow the characters and relationships we already know so well. In this shift, Veep reminds us that it has always been about the human fears and anxieties and desires that are the smallest but most recognizable unit of any political system. Relieved of its original, insidery focus, Veep feels not like it has drifted away from its center, but as though it has stripped away everything but its core.
During Veep’s run, we’ve been given the tools to understand Selina as a power-hungry, capricious, and ultimately sympathetic character—in no small part due to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s nuanced portrayal. Dreyfus may have taken home five Emmys for her work in what the awards define as a comedy series, but her performance evokes the darkness at the heart of all dramatic tales of the deaths of kings: laying claim to all the power you can dream of; discovering that it isn’t enough to make you whole; and then, even more painfully, losing it. This kind of role is, simply put, not one that women often have the chance to play—either in prime time, or in the ongoing 24-hour reality series we know as the presidency—and Veep is a reminder that women don’t need equal power to be equally corrupted.
Most gratifying of all is what Julia Louis-Dreyfus does with the material. Selina’s finely-honed political persona, the shards of which painfully work their way even into the moments when she is actually trying to be genuine, is a performance within a performance—one that, by now, viewers probably understand better than Selina herself does. That’s partly because Tony Hale’s performance as Gary, Selina’s emotional punching bag, is no less stunning than Dreyfus’s. His, by necessity, is a quieter role; as in pairs figure skating, he’s the stem that holds the flower. Selina projects her persona so relentlessly that her interior life sometimes seems like a void, but Gary has the opposite problem: After years of delivering his most meaningful communications in a manner inaudible to anyone but Selina (“Wife, not his daughter! Wife not daughter!” he croons in her ear as she greets a party guest in a first-season episode), Gary struggles to speak in a way the rest of the world can hear.
Hale communicates his character in large part through a masterful array of inarticulate sounds. His repertoire includes the groan of half-concealed disgust, elicited when he’s shocked by Selina’s vulgarity; the grunt of repressed nay-saying; the whinny of apprehension, which Selina seems to register almost subconsciously when she’s about to embark on a disastrous track while speaking to someone, and occasionally uses to her advantage; and the mortified laugh of theatrical indignation, always on Selina’s behalf, but called off in a split second if Selina doesn’t require his outrage after all.
It’s in these relationships that Veep’s new season offers the defeated some small redemption. Maybe Jonah will get a heart, maybe Mike will get a brain, maybe Gary will grow in courage, and maybe Selina will do something more than simply returning to her electoral roots in Kansas, as she did in a particularly arresting moment last season. In that episode, Selina wandered out of the Oval Office and into the path of a White House tour, soaking up the opportunity to be surrounded by people who adore her—a vivid reminder that a persona developed over many years can still mean something to voters.
“I love you!” a Kansan woman tells Selina, and the tour group applauds, and Selina drinks it in, looking at her people—are these the American people?—with a combination of gratitude and despair. Because after decades of training herself to connect with the public, she knows this is as good as it gets.