Photo: Collen Hayes (HBO)
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Situated where it is, half-way through Veep’s final season, it follows that “South Carolina” would pivot the show from its familiar first half to the series’ endgame. What’s unexpected is how dramatic a turn the episode takes. Much of the first half of the season is wiped away, both characters and plot points, and the shift is jarring. Tom James is out of the running, Dan is off the campaign, Jonah is off the rails, and Amy is unrecognizable. Selina conspires with a foreign power to help secure the nomination of her party, and Keith Quinn is unmasked. This episode does a lot, and while some of it works well, the simplistic, ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling it sets up for the show’s final arc is disappointing.

“South Carolina” picks up months after “Pledge.” Selina’s “Man up” moment has buoyed her campaign, helping her place second in Iowa and win New Hampshire, while Jonah has managed to come in sixth in his home state. The beginning of the episode is more or less Veep as usual. Peter MacNicol makes his final season drop-by, delivering one more deliciously profane Uncle Jeff insult before bowing out. Selina does her best to sweet-talk an endorsement out of a community leader, and Jonah and Amy shop around, trying to trade Jonah’s endorsement for a Cabinet position before suspending his campaign.

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The episode shifts when Mike stops by the Meyer campaign to pass along a message from the Chinese consulate. Connecting the dots—which there’s no danger of Mike doing—Selina, Ben, and Kent realize President Lu is offering to interfere in the election, should Selina make certain overtures toward siding with the Chinese over the disputed sovereignty of a set of islands. After mostly eschewing direct commentary on recent political history, Veep dives in head first. Seeing how Selina handles this kind of blatantly illegal overture is interesting; she certainly reacts differently than she would have a few seasons ago. Inching Selina towards her worst, most power-hungry instincts while keeping her recognizably savvy and aware keeps the storyline grounded and Selina still feeling like the same character, albeit an increasingly grotesque version. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t stop with foreign electoral interference and racist dog-leaf blowers.

After failing to make any headway trading his endorsement for a future Cabinet position, Jonah gets called into mega-donor Sherman Tanz’s office. Tanz doesn’t want Jonah to drop out of the campaign; he wants Jonah to rile up as many fringe voters as possible so that he builds enough of a bloc to give Tanz some power at the nominating convention, allowing Tanz to shape the party platform to suit his business interests. Winning was never the point—no one ever believed Jonah could actually get the nomination. Previous seasons would have spent at least a moment with Jonah as he reacted to this news, disappointed and hurt that neither his uncle nor Tanz was honest with him. This season has different priorities. Instead of including a character beat to humanize Jonah and earn the pivot that’s about to happen, the episode barrels ahead, showing a newly spiteful and angry Jonah immediately back on the campaign trail. He’s positioned as a direct Trump analog, funneling the ire of his supporters towards his campaign staff and calling them out by name. Jonah has always been offensive, but his vile remarks have usually been the product of his ignorance and insecurity, rather than cruelty. With a bit more finesse, this transformation could work. Instead, this new Jonah feels like a caricature, a vehicle for political commentary rather than the far more interesting, but differently terrible, character he has been to this point.

Photo: Colleen Hayes (HBO)

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The most dramatic transformation happens in the final moments of the episode. Amy’s impulsive decision at the end of “Pledge” to leave Selina’s campaign in favor of Jonah’s felt arbitrary, a move driven much more by the needs of future episodes than Amy’s personality or recent experiences. That’s doubled and tripled here, as Amy declares, “God fuck America” and goes full Kellyanne Conway, embracing Jonah’s destructive rhetoric and new approach. There’s no attempt to show this as a progression; Amy’s physicality, vocal inflection, and look all change. She feels like a completely different character, and after six and a half seasons following Amy Brookheimer, the prospect of spending Veep’s final hours with KellyAmy instead is incredibly frustrating.

Veep has always been one hell of a balancing act, a pitch-black political comedy with a massive ensemble full of terrible characters who are somehow still dimensional, interesting, and a hell of a lot of fun to be around. That balance has wavered so far in season seven, with none of the episodes living up to the terrific season premiere. “South Carolina” is a clear statement of intent for the final run of the series, setting up a race to the bottom. Now that most of the pieces are in place and Selina, Jonah, and their aides committed, the only question left is just how dark the writers want to go.

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Stray observations

  • I may have had problems with parts of this episode, but a lot works too. Gary wanting to be promoted away from Selina doesn’t track, but Marjorie as Selina’s bag woman is great. It’s nice to see Keegan-Michael Key stop by, Jonah and Buddy’s parking garage exchange is delightful, and as always, everything Richard Splett is golden.
  • I love the reveal that Keith Quinn is a Paul Manafort-style diabolical international influence peddler, and cold as ice. This is an appropriate use of Andy Daly, and I can’t wait to see what they give him next.
  • Tom James is already out? If this is it for Tom, I would have rather spent less time with him and more on the time between “Pledge” and “South Carolina,” getting to know Kemi a bit and fleshing out Amy’s motivation for switching campaigns. Also, we did not get enough Rhea Seehorn.
  • I was under the impression that Bill, Teddy, and Amy are all supposed to be good at their jobs. Shouldn’t they know Jonah doesn’t have a prayer? Aren’t they just working on his campaign because of the ridiculous salaries Tanz is paying them?
  • Matt Walsh nails his “tock” versus “talk” shtick.
  • There are a few contenders, but the line/delivery of the episode has to go to Peter MacNicol’s return as Uncle Jeff: “Shut the fuck up, ‘when you’re president.’ I’ll jam my fist up my dickhole and pull out a 40-piece set of Danish cutlery when you’re president.”

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