“Honestly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the only human on Earth who could have played that.”
David Mandel, the showrunner of Veep, isn’t just giving a glowing employee review. He’s speaking a simple truth.
When President Selina Meyer ends life support for her mother and, moments after she’s dead, starts maniacally laughing with glee over promising election news, Julia Louis-Dreyfus probably is the only person who could pull off such a complicated shade of hysteria at such a tasteless moment and still make her character seem sympathetic.
Selina Meyer is a bad person. But she’s also relatable. Her candor in private and refusal to suffer fools, even if it is colored with narcissism and selfishness, is almost aspirational for some of us. The genius of the show is the way it acknowledges Selina’s lack of moral character as a catalyst to get the audience to root for her.
Sunday night’s episode of Veep, titled “Mother,” finds Selina emotionless—bothered even—by her mother’s death. It’s not a loss. It’s a nuisance. Yet she’s a basket case of feelings about her election chances, testing just how bad of a person Selina can be while still keeping the audience on her side.
Thanks to the nuance of Veep’s writers and Louis-Dreyfus’s carefully—and comedically—calibrated performance, the episode proved that the answer is pretty darned horrible.
“It was finding a balance,” Handel admits. “There were early drafts where it was very easy to fall into quip city. Versions of ‘I don’t care she’s dead.’ It was too much and too many.”
The episode begins with Selina groaning, “Again?” after learning ther her mother had a stroke. It’s not her instinct to flock to her bedside—her staffers force her to. “She’s been at death’s door like five times,” Selina says. “She always bounces back to life.”
Even after learning the gravity of the situation at the hospital—her mother is brain dead and Selina must make the decision to take her off life support—she is flippant, irritated, and nonplussed.
A ballot recount in Nevada could determine whether she becomes the first elected female president. At first, it seems that the stress of that situation might be distracting her from normal feelings one might have when faced with the death of a parent. (“I thought you were talking about the recount! Don’t ever, ever scare me like that again,” she yells at Amy when she calls and says “I’m so sorry”—about Selina’s mother, naturally.)
But it quickly becomes clear that her reaction is rooted in something deeper: a complicated history with her mother that renders her ambivalent about her death. “Thomas fucking Kinkade couldn’t paint Meemaw in a positive light,” Selina tells her daughter, Catherine, at one point.
Hating a mother to the point of shrugging off her death is something interesting to explore, especially through the prism of a public figure who is expected to grieve publicly about such things. But it’s jarring to see it explored so brutally, especially in the actual death scene.
Selina is annoyed when she learns it could take hours for her mother to actually pass once life support is ended. When it’s time to say goodbye, it’s not just that she can’t muster any tears. She can’t even muster anything to say.
When she learns, seconds later, that the ballot recount that could help her win Nevada was approved, she starts celebrating and crying tears of joy. The contrast between that elation and her indifference to her own mother’s death could make a character—the lead character or otherwise—irredeemable in the eyes of an audience.
But Louis-Dreyfus pulls it off.
“That mix of laugh, almost crying hysteria—name me another human that can play that,” Mandel says.
More precarious a performance, perhaps, is when Selina realizes that the public’s assumption that she’s grieving is actually doing wonders for her polling numbers. The “death bump,” it’s called. And so she begins to capitalize on it, using the well-wishers keeping vigil outside her mother’s house for a photo op.
It’s only seconds before Selina has to give the eulogy at the funeral, and she learns that she lost the Nevada recount and thus the popular vote in the election, that she begins crying. Weeping, even.
The whole episode reveals another layer to the extent that Selina Meyer isn’t, at least in the traditional sense, a good person. But is there ever a concern that she might be too bad of a person?
“Absolutely,” Mandel says. “But I think if we’re not concerned about that then we’re not doing our jobs. If we’re not willing to get to that line, then we’re pulling back somehow. When you watch that episode, she says some horrible things but you feel terrible for her because I think you understand why she’s saying them.”
Her behavior shows just how invested she is in her professional life. And it’s not that it’s at the expense of her personal life. It’s that her personal life is more complicated than we knew. If anything, Selina’s reaction to her mother’s death hints at how she became the way she is.
Especially in how Selina can’t stomach her daughter Catherine’s reaction to the news, mocking her sadness and avoiding comforting her, you see the full circle that may have begun with Selina’s own mother. She complains that her mother always either criticized or ignored her—just as she does the entire episode to Catherine.
“It’s Veep’s take on death, and hopefully it gives you everything you want out of Veep’s take on death,” Mandel says. “That it’s uncomfortable and funny as I wanted it to be.”