Veep is the oft-forgot member of HBO’s scripted Sunday night trinity, although Julia Louis-Dreyfus does at least get her due with Emmy voters. Each week as Vice President — and now acting President — Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus is both funny and profane as the largely incompetent and entirely self-interested politician. That last part is key because Veep, now in its fifth season, is a series that shows Washington as being filled with self-important narcissists with pathological needs to be nasty (except for Richard Splett, who is a national treasure). No episode before has ever gone quite so dark into those recesses, though, as “Mother” dared.
This is where Louis-Dreyfus comes in. Selina is not exactly an empathetic character — perhaps no one on the show is (maybe Mike, you just kinda naturally feel bad for him), but that doesn’t matter. Veep is all about biting satire and acidic one-liners. Yet, the callousness with which Selina seems to treat the news of her dying mother was still jarring. It plays a little for laughs and a little for awkwardness, and a little for shock value, but Louis-Dreyfus’ nuanced performance here is what keeps it from toppling over into something too dark and soulless.
Selina’s relationship with her mother is set up, from the start, as being a largely antagonistic one (one that, as we see later, Catherine might feel some kinship with in her own relationship with Selina). Yet, Selina is worried immediately that her mother’s finger nails aren’t done up properly, and while Catherine dismisses it as unimportant, Selina is stuck on the idea, knowing how deeply her mother cared about it. If Selina didn’t care about her at all, she wouldn’t have bothered.
Again, it’s such a fine line here between the show being dark and being maudlin with this storyline, but it walks that tightrope perfectly. When Selina sits with her mother quietly without anyone else in the room, Louis-Dreyfus’ eyes well with tears, but she’s holding so much back. Eventually she says, “Well, Mother …” The moment could not be more fully layered with emotion and things unsaid — the good, the bad, love, hate — but just when you think it’s all going to come out, she fights it back into its box, and instead quotes the platitudes Ben said to her moments earlier, pats her hand, and exits the room.
Later, when the ventilator is removed, Selina is holding herself together, yet afterwards she instructs Ben and Kent to answer their phones. After learning the fate of the recount, they celebrate, until Catherine rushes in, at first hopeful and then horrified at the scene. When Selina embraces her though and tells her the “good news” and laughs, it’s unhinged. It’s not pure ecstasy, there’s grief in there, too. She doesn’t know how to process that grief, so she pours it all into the excitement, and the result is an incredibly charged moment.
All of this culminates, of course, in the funeral scene at the end of the episode, where Selina is completely calm until she gets the news from Ben and Kent that she not only lost the vote in Nevada, but the popular vote as well. Her case for President with Congress is now exceptionally tenuous, and when she gets up on the podium for the eulogy she’s overcome with grief. She weeps and even sways to the sounds of Tim McGraw which she had banned earlier. “I have lost … so much,” she says, breaking down.
Is it all about her Presidential bid? I think it’s fair to say that it largely is. And yet earlier at her mother’s house she yelled at her staff to stop the recount, hit Gary on the arm, and shouted “I am tired of losing things!” Like the scene with Catherine at the hospital, there’s a lot mixed in there. Selina did cautiously inquire about “the death bump” with Kent if she pulled the plug on her mother, so to speak, but she also has a lot repressed about that relationship, and what her success means in regards to it. There aren’t many comedies, or maybe any, that could convey all of that without stating it, and there aren’t many actresses who could pull it off so flawlessly.
Louis-Dreyfus has always played Selina with a nervous energy, neuroticism, and a strangely likable (or at least occasionally relatable) kind of narcissism. But what she did in “Mother,” and the way she was able to balance what was an exceptionally difficult episode, tonally-speaking, shows how exceptionally good she is at her craft. In this episode, both Veep and Selina stayed true to their roots (it was dark, self-involved — Selina’s prayers for her mother morphing into “and let her daughter become President” was a perfect example), but they also explored new facets of the story and character in a way that could have gone very wrong. Instead, it went very, very right. Louis-Dreyfus held it all together perfectly.
Veep airs Sunday nights on HBO; you can read more about previous TV Performers of the Week here.