Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matt Walsh, Tony Hale (HBO)

Veep has one of the best ensembles on television. The show is incredibly dense, its rapid-fire dialogue ensuring that in most episodes, every regular is given at least one memorable line. Even when characters are silent, there’s plenty of nonverbal communication and comedy happening in the corners of the frame, each cast member reacting to the mayhem around them. Often in these reviews, it’s hard to decide which performances to focus on, as everyone is on their A game and there simply isn’t enough space to mention them all. Not so with “Mother,” which pulls the ensemble back and hands much of the episode to the fantastic Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina deals with her mother’s stroke and eventual death.

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Louis-Dreyfus, like the rest of the cast, never shies away from the unlikable aspects of her character, embracing Selina’s narcissism and cruelty and presenting them without apology. This is on full display in “Mother,” which cuts the joke-per-minute ratio to sit with Selina as she processes her mother’s death. There’s a lot of dark humor in the episode, but “Mother” doesn’t let Selina or the audience distract themselves with jokes, much as Selina may try. Her team has no idea how to behave around her or what to say, and Selina grappling with her complicated relationship with her mother—well, not that complicated: she hated her—feels very real. From frosty and defensive when Selina arrives at the hospital and realizes the severity of her mother’s condition to wistful and bitter after her death, Louis-Dreyfus shows Selina actively taking in the end of their relationship. She will never get closure, she will never feel she was good enough to please her mother, and this has left her empty.

“Mother” shows Selina at what on paper should be her worst. She doesn’t have a single kind word for her dying mother and she seems infinitely more concerned with her campaign than the decision to take her mother off life support. Yet Louis-Dreyfus finds layers within these actions. Her barbs feel like the practiced hand of someone used to giving as good as she gets, driven more by force of habit than malice. Selina wants to pretend this is business as usual and her mother will be back to criticizing her in no time. As for her strong reaction to Kent’s news of a “death bump” in her favorables, work is familiar territory when Selina feels lost, a distraction she uses to access her emotions. On its own, Selina’s loss of Nevada and the popular vote wouldn’t have triggered sobs, but this blow takes down the defenses she was clinging to in order to avoid dealing with her mother’s death. To be sure, a not insignificant part of her meltdown is her ricocheting from feeling confident the new ballots would win her the presidency to doubting that a win in Congress is even possible, but this is a cathartic moment and once the tears start pouring, the tension building within her all episode is released, allowing a drained, but focused Selina to move forward.

Selina’s stabs at humor at the hospital may be hollow, but the episode still finds plenty of opportunities to mine comedy from her situation. Selina and Gary’s scene in the hospital chapel is hilarious, as Selina finds herself at a loss of how to pray and Gary does what he does best, leaning over to feed her lines for God. Louis-Dreyfus does a great job keeping Selina open in this moment—she’s legitimately trying to pray, she’s just terrible at it. Once she gets going, particularly once she pivots over to praying for her political future, watching Tony Hale as Gary reacts to her prayers is a treat. Selina nearly gets tangled up in an “Ease On Down The Road” reference, and even Gary throws some side-eye as she references herself as, “thy humble servant,” but on the whole, she could have done worse. This unintentional comedy from Selina is a welcome break from the anxiety she exudes whenever she’s in the room with her mother and lets Louis-Dreyfus be a bit silly in an otherwise rather serious episode.

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From her closed off performance and precise physicality at the hospital to her unabashed ugly crying during the eulogy, Louis-Dreyfus runs the gamut in “Mother,” bringing new levels of unaware narcissism, but also surprising relatability to Selina. She’s not alone, however. Sarah Sutherland is excellent throughout, from Catherine’s straight-faced use of, “Monny” as a shortcut for Monica to her own stellar ugly crying to the warring impulses Sutherland shows within Catherine, who wants to believe Selina’s behavior is fueled by her grief and to give her a pass on it, but can’t shake the knowledge that Selina really is this horrible. Hale, Kevin Dunn, and Gary Cole ooze awkwardness at the hospital and before the funeral, reacting to Selina’s treatment of Catherine as well as their desire to be anywhere else, and the scenes in Nevada wrap up the recount nicely, balancing well with the rest of the episode. “Mother” gives a touch of humanity to Selina without sanding down any of her edges and in doing so, highlights the versatility of Veep and its tremendous cast.

Stray observations

  • The runner of Ben’s wife’s condolence card to Kent is great. The comedic exchange between Selina, Ben, and Kent is chuckle-worthy, but Louis-Dreyfus’ performance is potent as Selina looks at her mother’s hands, struggles for words, and upon feeling herself getting emotional, distances herself with the words from the card.
  • Andrew is as slimy as ever, and David Pasquesi continues to be fabulous in the role.
  • Words of wisdom from Karen: “Is the sky blue? Is water wet?”
  • I love Cliff’s cowboy hat almost as much as I love how ecstatic Will is to not be shadowing Furlong.
  • This episode, in Richard is delightful: “What do we want? To get the votes counted. When do we want it? Uh, hopefully before the deadline.”
  • Matt Walsh’s toothless smile is great, more than making Mike’s point that a toothy smile is not the worst smile to have. Also, Walsh nails the delivery of Mike’s, “I can turn around, Ma’am” after Selina’s, “Now what I need is a quiet place to think that doesn’t have Mike’s stupid face in it.”
  • Selina greeting her well-wishers in a pastel pink coat is a lovely bit of egotism, but also a reflection of how strongly she’s feeling her mother’s lingering disapproval.
  • I love that Sue and Tom are the two that seem to read Selina best.
  • Selina stumbling into a major international victory because of her tweet coverup is great. Waiting to see how her team will screw it up is even better.

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