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Catherine takes over Veep as Selina awaits her fate

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky (HBO)
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All season, Veep has shown Catherine lurking in the background of scenes, filming Selina’s staff for her documentary. Catherine has caught a number of embarrassing or incriminating scenes on camera and fans have speculated all season whether she would leak the damning footage or whether the Chinese hackers would strike again, airing the Meyer team’s dirty laundry. Instead, neither comes to pass. Catherine presents her film without fanfare, avoiding the moments she was explicitly requested to leave out while still capturing the chaos, toxicity, and occasional humanity of the Meyer White House. “Kissing Your Sister” is fantastic, the writers taking advantage of the opportunities presented by this format to explore the characters in new ways while delivering a consistently hilarious episode.

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“Kissing Your Sister” is situated perfectly in the season. With Selina’s fate still hanging in the balance and little for her team to do while the vote is in progress, a standard episode of Veep would have been limited to Selina and her team’s anxious viewing of and color commentary on the House vote. Giving the episode over to Catherine’s documentary allows the show to jump around in time, include pointed interviews, and stray away from the vote whenever Catherine—or the viewer—begins to lose interest. It also lets the show reference some of the most significant moments of the past few seasons, particularly Amy’s job-ending rant at Selina from season four, and tie them to the current proceedings. Giving this sense of scope, showing one of Selina’s earliest days in office next to what may be one of her last, adds to the weightiness of the episode. Even on a pure plot level, having the documentary stand in as an episode gives the writers a convenient reason to spell out the basics of the vote for any viewers still confused about what’s happening. It’s frankly brilliant, and an incredibly satisfying payoff to Catherine’s season-long runner.

The talking heads sprinkled throughout the episode provide rare opportunities for the characters to show how they wish to be perceived. Much of Veep is focused on the grubby reality of politics and Selina frequently slips into her public persona, but the rest of the team rarely have occasion to do so. Mike decides he’ll be the lovable family man, insisting he loves his job despite his comments during “Congressional Ball” and maintaining a cheerful demeanor throughout. Amy, unsurprisingly, is very particular in how she references her age, hoping to cling to her status as a successful up-and-comer, rather than career political strategist. And of course Jonah, upon realizing he’s on camera, immediately dives in with a speech commemorating the import of the day, and by extension, himself. The staffers’ comments about each other feel more familiar—they’re not worried about making each other look good, just themselves—but these are still a lot of fun.

Then there are the glimpses of personal lives Veep would otherwise have no reason to reference. We meet Ben’s wife Joyce, Kent’s motorcycle club, and Selina’s mother. It’s wonderful to get this new context for these characters. The most revealing interviews are with Selina. The anecdote she tells about her father’s thoughts on President Nixon is fantastic, sad and incredibly telling of Selina’s childhood while still nostalgic and a warm memory for her. She has a terrific script to work with, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus also delivers this moment beautifully. Her open posture and happy demeanor are belied by a slight nervousness that comes over her; as she’s saying this, Selina can hear that it doesn’t sound good, that this shouldn’t be a story she tells proudly, but this is all she has, and even if it’s pathetic, it means a lot to her. Moments like these underline the humanity of these characters who are so frequently terrible to each other and terrible for the country they’re running. Selina’s impulse to throw the election to O’Brien rather than risk 12 years of Tom James is far easier to forgive, or at least understand, after learning how strongly Selina connects winning the presidency to her beloved father, and how little her ascension impressed her domineering mother.

“Kissing Your Sister” has plenty of great, personal character moments, but it also has Charlie Baird walking into frame naked and darting back behind a door jam. Welcome back, John Slattery! The sheer amount of visual humor and bits of physical comedy sprinkled throughout the episode is impressive, even for a show as dense as Veep. Each character gets at least one memorable, laugh-out-loud moment, from a young Catherine falling off the same stage twice to Dan’s hazy memory about whether his grandparents are still alive. Each actor in this large ensemble has a slightly different comedic tone to their performance, and this episode brings them all together in beautiful counterpoint. The only underserved character is once again Sue, who would never agree to be interviewed by Catherine, making her absence absolutely appropriate. Instead, we get to know Marjorie and are given our first glimpses of Fun Marjorie, who apparently does exist! The shots of Marjorie and Catherine in bed are sweet and a lovely inclusion. While Marjorie and Catherine’s relationship can’t not be weird, given Marjorie’s much-discussed resemblance to Selina, there’s clearly substance underneath Catherine’s mommy issues, and that’s wonderful to see. Marjorie’s return to Catherine overtakes the documentary at what should be Selina’s defining moment, and this is another clever decision, allowing the episode to neatly end without any resolution on Selina or the presidency. It’s only fitting that Catherine’s documentary winds up ignoring its premise and Selina’s fate, focusing on Catherine and Marjorie instead. Selina’s made just about every element of Catherine’s life about her; it’s Catherine’s turn to focus on herself.

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From its gut-busting dialogue and sight gags to its quieter character moments, “Kissing Your Sister” is Veep at its very best, highlighting the talents of its tremendous ensemble while still skewering the political process and those who thrive in that environment. It’s cringe-inducing, horrifying, and hilarious, making Selina’s potential loss of the presidency somehow one of its least notable elements. It’s unclear how the season will resolve, but regardless of where Selina finds herself after the Senate vote, the road there has been a blast.

Stray observations

  • I thought I couldn’t laugh harder than I did at the cutaway to Richard’s Gilbert and Sullivan society show, a moment I stopped and repeated at least four or five times, but then Ben ends the episode gleefully punching in the books on the bookshelf we’ve seen Kent meticulously arrange at least twice this episode. Kevin Dunn, comedic treasure.
  • Speaking of comedic treasures, I want to say that’s Randall Park next to Sam Richardson in the Gilbert and Sullivan cutaway. If so, Danny Chung joins the long list of TV characters entertainingly enamored with operetta, alongside David Lee from The Good Wife, Gunn (post brain upgrade) from Angel, and of course Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons.
  • The writers do a great job balancing moments we’ve seen previously, shot from different angles, with new content and exchanges that re-contextualize scenes from earlier in the season. The ultimate example of this, of course, is the reveal that there was a meeting about Mike after the secret meeting about Tom. Oh, Mike, you’re too good for this world. Just not at your job. You really aren’t very good at your job.
  • Poor, poor Catherine. If you’d just left your hair as you’d originally styled it, you wouldn’t have been stuck in that closet. Catherine’s horrified response to seeing her mother and Tom go at it is only barely bested by Gary’s dismissal of the offending couch, which he hopes to never ever see again.
  • It’s impossible to pick a favorite line or delivery in this episode; there are too many. The short list of contenders, for me: Timothy Simons’ delivery of “Oh motherfuck” when Jonah realizes Selina’s on the phone; Richard’s escalating description of the Jonah-at-security situation; Kent’s Karpov versus Kasparov line and Ben’s response; and of course, Jonah’s horrible phone greeting and the reveal he’s in an elementary school, surrounded by children.
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