Comedy, Policy, and the Language of Casual Intimacy
HBO’s Veep, based on Seasons 1–5, is currently one of the best shows on TV. When Season 6 premiered this April, it was a shakeup from the typical format of the show, but still very successful. The first episode picks up a year after Selina Meyer’s (Julie Louis-Dreyfus’) departure from office, during which time she did another stint at a spa (psychiatric institution), a fact which is forcefully glossed over. According to Catherine, Selina’s daughter, Selina has been spending a lot of time “just sitting in the house in [her] bathrobe with Gary.” Gary Walsh (Tony Hale), her steadfast “bag man,” is quick to add that they play “backgammon,” but the loss of Selina Meyer’s political power is palpable, even to viewers.
In a New York Times interview with politically motivated series’ showrunners and creators, Veep’s current showrunner David Mendel said, “The show has never been about current politics; it’s about politics in general. It’s about power.” As for the recent shift from being a government official to a private citizen, Mendel said that the show “was based on five years of screw-ups that constantly, for lack of a better word, whacked [Selina] back down.” He later added, “And now we have entered a world where these things happen and have no effect. And in some cases pushed him [Trump] further along.”
The general rhetoric of the show had me, and many other adoring viewers, worried going into Season 6, since Selina wouldn’t be wielding any particular political power, but the show is already shaping up to be a continued success, mainly because the series isn’t just about politics and power. The heart of Veep is the characters and their relationships, the dysfunctional family dynamic that drives the show.
While the group is currently split up, they’re slowly coming back together, and—most importantly—Gary and Selina are still joined at the hip. A New York Times supercut titled “Selina and Gary’s awkward, nonromantic romance” summarizes what the former vice president and her bag man have. The article that the video was created to accompany was a Sam Anderson profile of Louis-Dreyfus and Hale from 2015. Anderson described the opening scene of the pilot episode of Veep, focusing on the way that Gary helps Selina into her coat without her even paying attention. Anderson writes, “Watch the man’s hands. The vice president reaches back, unconsciously, to put her bare arm through the coat’s open sleeve, but she takes too high an angle — so the man reaches down and, with a pinch of his long delicate fingers, steers the woman’s forearm a few degrees lower. He tucks her arm into the sleeve like a letter into an envelope. It is the gesture — all at once — of a mother, a lover, a caretaker, a servant.” Anderson calls their relationship, and Veep as a whole, “a study in intimacy,” and concludes, “That first interaction — the putting on of the sleeve — lasts approximately two seconds, but it contains the entire relationship: a profound intimacy that is also, somehow, no intimacy at all.”
This profound, complicated intimacy is still there, most recently towards the end of last night’s episode. While on the plane back from Georgia (the country), Selina is delivering one of her classic rants when she notes that her back is killing her. She continues complaining, but leans forward a bit, allowing Gary, who doesn’t miss a beat, to press his hand to her back in concern. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s there.
Moments after the back pain, once the group learns that the default president of Georgia following an arrest is the group’s tour guide, Selina says, “That’s like Gary becoming president!”
“From the Tea Party,” Gary says as he mimes drinking tea.
“No,” Selina says, in all seriousness, before thinking through the joke and laughing. “Oh, yeah. That is funny.”
At the heart of the show are two people who are the loves of each other’s lives, but there’s nothing necessarily sexual about it.
While their dynamic is usually Gary adhering to Selina, there’s an iconic scene in which he fights back. It comes right after Selina becomes president, and the two are separated more than usual. Gary even watches her in the Oval Office from a White House window that is often used by first ladies for the same purpose.
“Most of the time you don’t even know that I exist, but I am fucking everything to you!” Gary shouts. “Can you find somebody else who did what I did?” This knocks the wind out of both of them. Selina asks if he meant “Labor Day,” something which audiences are still in the dark about, since the duo had vowed never to bring the event up again. They both apologize and share some cake. Hale told TVLine that Gary feels like Selina’s first lady and that those first few days of her presidency, when they were separated, really took a tole on him, on both of them. “After this [fight], they’re close again,” Hale said. “He’s around her again.”
It’s unclear exactly how long the two have worked together, but when Catherine shows a clip of Selina winning a congress seat in 1998, Gary is right behind her celebrating. The show currently takes place in 2018, according to Richard Splett’s blog, so Gary and Selina have been together for at least twenty years. It shows. Gary is the only one that she tells about her miscarriage and Selina is the one that he (theoretically) has stand up to his (now ex) girlfriend. They fight about the toxicity of her ex-husband, Andrew, and in the second episode of Season 6, Gary beats him up for cheating on her. Selina is later shown pajama-clad while moping in her bed drinking Gary’s family’s scotch, while Gary sits nearby barely holding in the “I-told-you-so.”
In the same episode, after Catherine and her girlfriend Marjorie announce that they’re going to try to have a baby, Selina suggests having Gary be the sperm donor. He seems flattered and even says that if it came to that, he’d go along with it. As of now, Catherine and Marjorie have picked Dan, but I’m predicting that he’ll turn out to be infertile, so it’ll be interesting to see if Gary ends up inextricably linked to the Meyer family more than he already is.
One of the most revealing slip-ups comes in Season 2, when Gary says, “You need to be really careful, sweetie.”
“Gary, you just called me sweetie,” Selina says, laughing.
“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” Gary says. “That’s what I call Dana [his girlfriend].”
“Did you ever call Dana, ma’am?” Selina asks.
“I did once and it was awful,” Gary says.
Both of them laugh before Selina asks, “If I were drunk right now would you kiss me?”
Gary pauses, emotionally sobers up, and admits with a brutal honesty, “Yeah.”
There’s a beat. “No, Gary,” Selina says, mildly alarmed. “I’m kidding.”
Then, of course, there’s the time that they accidentally kissed after learning that the former president wouldn’t be running for a second term, but the relationship is never meant to be more than that. Rather than grand romantic gestures, it’s the physical and verbal language of casual intimacy that makes up a life together.
She’s technically a horrible person and he’s technically pathetic, but they’re each other’s best friend. Gary once joked that they were soulmates, but the fact that he seemed hopeful and she was scared proves just how true the statement was. This is epitomized in a scene from the penultimate episode of Season 3, and arguably the most hilarious two minutes in the entirety of Veep, when Selina finds out that the president is resigning before his term is up, meaning that she’ll be commander-in-chief in a matter of days. Of course, Gary is the person that she tells first, since he naturally follows her to the grubby bathroom of the place her campaign is doing a photo op at, where she’s waiting for him. He immediately tears up and gets a nosebleed out of excitement, prompting Selina to dig through “The Bag” after seeing that there’s no toilet paper. She finds a spyglass, some tampons, and a book about bicycles, before finally locating the tissues. The two are giddy and practically sobbing with laughter by the time Kent walks in on them.
“The bathroom scene with Tony and Julia… I felt like that was one of the best scenes ever shot on television,” Anna Chlumsky told the Los Angeles Times. Many shared her sentiments, as this wound up being the episode that won Louis-Dreyfus the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Emmy Award for Veep’s third season (she has received this award for the past five years in a row), adding to her nine total Emmys, for both acting and producing. Her acceptance speeches are always highlights of the night, either hilarious or heartbreaking, but her 2013 win for Veep produced one of the best things to ever happen at the Emmys. Everything about it was perfect: Louis-Dreyfus waiting for Hale to come take her clutch while she held the Emmy, Hale whispering whom she should thank into her ear, Chlumsky pointedly on her phone while also watching the speech, and Louis-Dreyfus “forgetting” to thank Hale.
Veep has always felt like the sitcom version of Mad Men. Both shows are some of the highest quality productions in their respective workplace genres, but it’s also something more. It’s a half hour politically motivated comedy, but the defining relationship in the show, Selina and Gary’s, is very similar to that of Don Draper and Peggy Olsen. Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, said that Peggy and Don’s relationship “has the structure of a romantic relationship,” but noted that it’s not that at all. She’s interested in men and he’s interested in women, but it’s so much more than that. From the pilot episode, Don made it clear that Peggy being his secretary didn’t come with the expectation of a sexual relationship. This precedent is similar to Veep, as there’s no major, unresolved sexual tension, but there’s still a massive amount of codependence.
Veep works for the same reason that Mad Men did: at the heart of the show are two people who are the loves of each other’s lives, but there’s nothing necessarily sexual about it. There’s no “endgame” for them. It’s just the perpetual game, and they’re the only two players in it.