Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale (HBO)
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Television loves a black tie event, an opportunity for the cast of a given series to dress to the nines and mingle, dancing or escaping the hubbub for a quick word in private. Given its setting, Veep has shown surprisingly few galas and state dinners, but those it has—season two’s “Helsinki” and season four’s “East Wing”—have been memorable. “Congressional Ball” is no exception, taking advantage of its central event to let Selina corner and confront Tom over his scheming. While the breaks, however fleeting, from Selina’s campaign in “Mother,” “Thanksgiving,” and especially “C**tgate” have been appreciated, with only three episodes left this season, this episode wisely focuses back in on the election. The action is limited to the ball and Jonah’s campaign headquarters, and this streamlines the episode, keeping the D.C. and New Hampshire-set characters together for most of the runtime and letting them ping off of each other to maximum effect.

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Selina is in full campaign mode in D.C., glad-handing with congresspeople and making promises left and right to secure her position. “Congressional Ball” makes a point of showing how significant an operation this is; Selina is the one making the deals, but she needs several staffers backing her up to keep everything straight and run interference. It’s easy to forget how good Selina is at this aspect of her career, but juxtaposing Selina’s political maneuvering with Jonah’s campaign shows how accomplished a schmoozer she is. Opening with Selina in pleaser mode, winning over Congresswoman Knickerson, sets a baseline the end of the episode joyfully contrasts. When Selina drops the gloves and starts swinging, it’s something to see, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has a blast with every word of Selina’s threats to her former supporters.

The highlight of this, of course, is Selina’s confrontation with Tom. When the episode begins, Mike has already reported back about Tom’s dinner with Sidney Purcell and Jim Marwood and it’s great to see the show push forward with this storyline, rather than stretching out the mystery of Tom’s plan for another episode or two. The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution dictates what happens in the case of an Electoral tie in a presidential election: The House determines the president and the Senate determines the vice president, with each state getting one vote in both runoff elections. If the House can’t pick a president (through a tie or lack of majority vote for one candidate), the vice president then acts as president, just as if the president were incapacitated or killed. Exploiting Tom’s popularity in the Senate to try to snag the presidency, even temporarily while the House continues deliberating, is a bold move from Tom and one that fits with his growing disenchantment with Selina. Tying that frustration, at least partially, to Tom and Selina’s romantic history is a thornier question.

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At least initially, the decision to cloud Tom’s motivation in scheming against Selina with a lingering sexual attraction works like gangbusters. Louis-Dreyfus and Hugh Laurie are great in their scenes together, first dancing at the Congressional ball and then shouting—and much more—in the Green Room. Setting their dustup at a formal function allows the fun of Selina trapping Tom mid-dance, a delightful power play, and likely precipitates their hate-sex afterward. Who knows how Tom would have directed their exchange in the Green Room if Selina wasn’t looking so amazing, sparking his jealousy over her relationship with Charlie. Selina’s been looking for closure on their near miss for years and bringing things back to the night of the green shoes here is surprisingly satisfying. There is still significant potential for this development to go awry, should their hookup magically resolve the conflict between Selina and Tom, however based on the bewildered expression on Laurie’s face as Tom rejoins the party, he’s as surprised as the audience at what just happened, and certainly not happy or relieved. Tom has plenty of non-romantic reasons to plot against Selina. Throwing in a healthy dose of self-hate, as Tom struggles to understand why he’s attracted to someone he actively dislikes, could make their future exchanges even more entertaining.

Tom may be thrown by their rendezvous, but Selina emerges reenergized. She feels validated and empowered, and ready to take on the world, or in this case, Congresswoman Knickerson. Selina’s conversation with Congressman Jaeger after he withdraws his support is spectacular, but her diatribe pulling Knickerson back in line is even better, harsh enough to prompt a few involuntary responses from Gary. Tony Hale has a great episode thanks to Gary’s accidental placement on The Hill’s hot list, but the highlight is absolutely his reaction to walking in on Selina and Tom. Hale’s traumatized stumbling is hilarious, his poor timing putting him in a strong second for having the worst luck of the evening. That distinction, however, goes to Mike, who must be having his hardest season ever. Each episode, Matt Walsh shows Mike’s soul crumbling just a bit more and if the very end of “Congressional Ball” is any indication, losing the NHL job may be the straw that finally breaks him.

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Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Dan is already being out-played by Bill Ericsson, who proves himself quite the evil bastard by bringing Teddy in to stage a video of Jonah berating a woman with Down syndrome, his actual target (Teddy) just out of frame. It’s neat to see Lauren Potter pop up as Polly, and while the bowling alley should absolutely have security footage that exonerates Jonah, Bill’s stunt is an effective way of underlining just how out of his league Dan is. It certainly doesn’t help that Richard is back to being a lovable screwup rather than a savant, despite Jeff’s initial read of his potential. This foursome are great together, and Bill’s opening salvo being so despicable throws the doors wide open, challenging Dan, Jonah, and Jeff to meet Bill in the mud and find an even dirtier trick to use against the widow. With each campaign rally and each promise from Jonah that he’ll stand firm against Selina, his inevitable fall from grace becomes all the more tantalizing. Many have speculated at Jonah casting the deciding vote in the House’s presidential election, and particularly after this episode, it’s hard to think of a Selina/Jonah conversation with the presidency on the line that wouldn’t be fantastic. A lot can change in three episodes, but the writers have laid tremendous groundwork with Jonah, and with Tom, and if they can keep building on it, season five’s finale has the potential to be Veep’s most anticipated yet.

Stray observations

  • The Veep marketing team is killing it this season, as is whoever’s writing their copy. Splettnet.net keeps getting updated—and promises a new look coming soon—and Jonah’s campaign has its own website too, where supporters can among other things, watch his campaign ads. And for those who prefer a local touch to their news, Veep took out a full-page ad for Jonah in the New Hampshire Union Leader.
  • Catherine and Marjorie remain a brilliant pairing. Of course Marjorie goes with a basic black suit for her formal wear.
  • I have to give some love to the guest cast this episode: Stephnie Weir and Seth Morris are great as Congresswoman Knickerson and Congressman Jaeger, it’s nice to see Matt Oberg pop back up as the Nevada Secretary of State—hopefully his desired fling with Amy pans out, at least for a while—and while he may not qualify as a guest at this point, Peter MacNicol screeching at Jonah has lost none of its appeal.
  • Apparently Amy at least was listening to Kent, as she corrects Candi Caruso on the pronunciation of Nevada.
  • I wouldn’t put it past Marwood and Purcell to be playing Tom. If I understand correctly—and that’s a big if—should the House and Senate both become deadlocked in their presidential and vice presidential votes, the Speaker of the House (Marwood) becomes the acting president.
  • Will actually loving his job, if he’s being sincere, is horrifying.
  • There are plenty of great lines in this episode—Dan’s “Thank you, Satan,” for one—but the line of the episode has to go to Louis-Dreyfus for how Selina tears into Congresswoman Knickerson, from, “I’m gonna shut down those factories faster than you can bedazzle a fucking sweatshirt” all the way to the M&M’s.

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