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Veep showrunner David Mandel on engineering Selina’s “worst nightmare”

(Photo: Veep/HBO)

Note: This interview discusses major plot points from the Veep season finale.

There was never a question in Veep showrunner David Mandel’s mind that Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was going to lose her bid for president. But Mandel dealt her an even bigger blow in the fifth-season finale. Though she would have reluctantly become vice president to her running mate, Tom James (Hugh Laurie), to hang on to some shred of power, the deciding Senate vote went in favor of his opponent, Laura Montez (Andrea Savage).


So why didn’t Mandel want to make Selina veep again? “I hate to say it, that sounds like a network note from NBC broadcast standards or something,” he told The A.V. Club in a phone conversation earlier Monday. “If you want to see her as veep, watch the first three seasons. It’s sort of been there, done that.” Mandel, however, is relishing the fact that he fooled a whole bunch of viewers into thinking that Selina was destined to once again become second in command. “I am sitting here today enjoying the fact that no one really figured it out,” he said.

Mandel accomplished a lot in his first year as showrunner after he took over from Armando Iannucci. Not only did he have Selina to face crushing defeat, he made Jonah (Timothy Simons) a congressman and Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) a lesbian. The A.V. Club asked him about what we can expect next season, in the wake of Selina’s worst nightmare.


The A.V. Club: Was there any consideration of actually making Selina veep—or even having her win?

David Mandel: Zero. Zero. Less than zero. My first instinct was she cannot be president of the United States. She needs to lose because it’s the thing she wants most on the planet Earth. Armando gave her the presidency but gave it to her so briefly. He gave her this caretaker presidency slash Gerald Ford-type thing. Yes, she’s president, but it’s not president the way she wanted it. I think if we had decided to let her win that’s the end of the show. What is she striving for if she’s president? A second term? Well, doesn’t that just sound warmed over? So right from the get-go she was never going to win the presidency. They had created this character of Montez, who was a woman and ostensibly somewhat younger. I started to realize that [Selina’s] worst nightmare would not be for Tom James, another white male, winning the presidency, but for some other woman to take over the iconic role of the first female elected president. Montez, in winning even the way she won it, technically is the winner of the 2016 election. She will serve a full four-year term, which is something Selina Meyer never did. Montez, in some ways, is our Susan B. Anthony. Selina—who wanted to be Susan B. Anthony—never gets to be Susan B. Anthony.


AVC: It puts you in this completely uncharted territory.

DM: Yes, I will also say the tie was uncharted territory, and in some ways, for the show Veep, when they made her president it was uncharted territory. I do think that’s one of the strengths of the show is every year there’s sort of the giant rock gets thrown into the stream and Selina has to figure out how to get around the rock. It’s in Veep’s DNA, whether anyone realized it or not, to constantly be changing. If you thought Selina Meyer dealing with the tie was funny and soul crushing for Selina Meyer, wait until you see her dealing with irrelevancy.


AVC: Have you been doing research? Obviously, no one’s been in quite the same situation Selina is in….

DM: I’m a little bit of a news political junkie, a little bit of a reader of history. I enjoy biographies and whatnot. I’m also a fan of presidential libraries. I’ve visited quite a few of them, especially the more modern ones. I was born in 1970 and I got to see a little bit of Nixon’s attempts at redefining himself. I saw Ford. I saw Reagan. I’ve watched Jimmy Carter and his selflessness, getting involved in things like votes in African countries, but also putting his foot right into the whole Israel-Palestine crisis. Sometimes into places where people are going, “Why are you doing that?” Certainly, I have been able to watch the Clintons and The Clinton Foundation; Al Gore and what he did post-losing the whole Florida thing. There’s a grand tradition of a lot of interesting stuff that happens to these post-presidents. Especially in this day and age where you leave office in your 50s and you can live another 40 years, easily. That’s a lot of time.

AVC: Can we expect to see all of the people who are usually in Selina’s orbit there once again?


DM: I think the fact that they all served under her as a president is a strong pull. Here’s a perfect example: George Stephanopoulos. He has a full on career in the media of his own, and yet on some days he’s still George Stephanopoulos who worked for the Clintons. As much as he’s done on his own, he’s still in the Clinton orbit and it comes back up all the time. Even people who go away are always going to be connected to [Selina]. I think a lot of roles are going to be redefined.

AVC: It is amusing that the person left in elected office is Jonah.

DM: [Selina] left office as Jonah somehow—as only Jonah can—sort of ascended. One of the few things I do know is he’s going to still be a Congressman. That’s not going away. It’s going to be interesting to see what he can make of it even on purpose or as Jonah is off to do by accident.


AVC: You’re leaving the show at a huge crossroads. You also had a lot of pressure coming into the season as the new showrunner. Does the great unknown of what the show is going to look like next year weigh on you more than taking over this season?

DM: No. It’s sort of oddly similar. If that had been my last show last night, you’d be talking to the new guy, asking the same questions that I got last June. You need these crossroads to keep the show evolving, to keep the characters interesting, to keep the show interesting. This one I sort of did to myself, as opposed to Armando doing it to me. But I did it to myself to allow us to come up with stuff so that people go, “Oh my God, it’s so funny.”


AVC: You really developed certain characters this season. Richard [Sam Richardson] got a great moment with Selina the night before the inauguration. Catherine is another one. Why were these characters that you wanted to draw out in your first as showrunner?

DM: I said this in the beginning when people talked to me a year ago. I was a real fan of the show. I just do think there were certain plots and characters that jumped out at me as a fan. I guess I picked up on some of those things. It wasn’t specifically, I’m going to develop this person instead of this other person. I just thought there was a real opportunity. I thought moving Richard forward and putting Jonah under him would create some really great comedy, and then allow the surprise when Jonah would be tipped to run for the Congressional seat. I just thought they were good stories to tell. Even if I can’t do a giant story for somebody I want to keep these characters moving and growing. For example, revealing a little bit more of [Ben’s] private life, which is sort of new but different. It’s this desire to keep everything moving forward.


AVC: There was a post-credits scene in the finale with Ben and his wife at Disney World.

DM: The idea that we always sort of had was [Selina] would lose the election, Montez would be president, and then Ben [Kevin Dunn] would be at Disney World very miserable. We got there one way or another.


AVC: Why did that idea come up?

DM: It would be the perfect representation of the man who never wanted to leave the Oval Office. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record. I like to think about these characters’ worst nightmares and then make them happen. And in some ways while Selina’s is losing the presidency to a more skilled woman, I think Ben’s nightmare is spending time with his family at the Happiest Place On Earth.


AVC: Another thing we learn in the finale is that the hard drive with Catherine’s documentary on it is missing.

DM: It’s a very strange thing, we’ve got a lot of tech people on it. The hard drive just seems to be missing, it’s very weird.


AVC: We saw the documentary as an audience, but, in the world of Veep, has anyone else seen this thing?

DM: In our mind, the only one who has seen it is probably Selina, maybe with Gary [Tony Hale]. However they were shown it—and then I don’t know what happened. Catherine and Marjorie [Clea Duvall] have a website for their film. They were getting ready. They were planning a lot of festivals. And now a lot of their plans are messed up. Again, don’t know what happened.


AVC: Is it just like Catherine not to have a backup copy anywhere?

DM: There are elements of Catherine that are sort of a little hapless. I think it’s a good lesson that you should always have two backups. I am big believer in the double backup. I’m a big believer in the backup hard drive and then the offsite backup. It’s a lesson to all of you reading this to always back up your files.


AVC: Do you know what the future of this plot is yet?

DM: Honestly, today’s the first day. Everybody just got here about 20 minutes ago. People are saying hello to each other and chatting as I’m on the phone. [We have] some vague little pieces of things. Or at least starting points. A lot of July’s going to be just talking.

Hugh Laurie, David Mandel, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Photo: Veep/HBO)

AVC: Back to the finale. What was it like watching Tony Hale do that speech in which Gary yells at everyone for failing Selina?


DM: I’m amazed that any of the cast made it through it, quite honestly. It was so funny to see. What I loved about it was language-wise it wasn’t that finely-tuned-perfect-insult-for-the-perfect-situation that sometimes we try and do on Veep. In a weird way, it was not particularly well thought out. It was much more emotion and anger and sadness. I think that’s part of what made it funnier. It was very much from Gary’s heart and to some extent from Tony’s heart.

AVC: What are we supposed to make of the fact that Mike [Matt Walsh] is recording Gary’s outburst?


DM: Honestly, it was just for fun. Make nothing of it—unless we think of something really great later.

AVC: There’s a new administration in the Oval Office. Do you expect to check in on Laura Montez next season?


DM: One hundred percent. I think the ex-president of the United States’ relationship with the current president of the United States is very important. I think there will be certain issues of Selina wanting to watch what she does and how she does it and being bothered by that. Also, I think there’s something really quite wonderful that Sue [Sufe Bradshaw] will now be the gatekeeper to this other president. If Selina wants to talks to the president of the United States she’s got to go through Sue, which is a flip of what it was. I’m not trying to sound like an a-hole, but you’re already giggling. You can see the possibilities.

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