'Veep' Showrunner David Mandel Talks Series Finale Betrayals & Bombshells
This post contains major spoilers for the final season of Veep.
All hail Selina Meyer. The Veep series finale was equal parts hilarious, heart-rending, and, of course, depraved, as it showcased Julia Louis-Dreyfus' power-hungry politico claiming her throne in the Oval Office.
But in the end, Selina's best moment was also her worst. After all, she did everything she could to get there. She conspired with a foreign government, she torched her ex-lovers, and, worst of all, she did the D.C. equivalent of putting a bullet in the head of her most beloved devotee. It was a true emotional rollercoaster of a wrap-up -- even for showrunner David Mandel, who re-watched the episode over the weekend with much of the series' cast and crew. Despite having seen the final cut dozens of times, those at Mandel's watch party still gasped and cried. "We stopped shooting in December, but somehow it did feel like a real end," he told Thrillist, of the Sunday's viewing, "to the whole Veep experience."
Following the series finale, we called Mandel to talk Selina's greatest betrayal, his favorite show memories, and the megawatt cameo that never was.
Thrillist: Less than two weeks after a record-setting Emmy win, your star Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced she had breast cancer. How did Julia's treatment affect the concoction of the final season, and what was your reaction when you knew she would return?
David Mandel: What she went through was horrific, but at no point did I -- and I feel like the cast would admit this, too -- feel like cancer was going to get her. She was going to beat it because she's Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I don't know how else to say that. So when we started to get the news that things were going to be good -- that was about January, February -- I started to go, OK, we'll probably be back in like June, July, and we need to make some changes because so much had been changing in the world. So I started digging back into the show, at least unofficially -- because at that point, all I could really do was think about it. I didn't have writers yet.
Thrillist: What's your favorite Julia memory from this season?
Mandel: Week one, Julia was maybe a little more tired than she thought she'd be. But there's the big scene in episode 1, where she and Gary are trying to write her speech and she starts getting angry and goes, "You know what I would like to tell people, but obviously I can't. I should be president because it is my goddamn turn. I was the gamechanger, I took a dump on the glass ceiling, I shaved my muff in the sink of the Old Boys' Club." That was her first big return -- back in the wig -- on set, in scene. And I just remember her starting and saying, "blah, blah, blah, shaved my muff." And it was just like, OK! We're back! In a really great way. And, at the end of the day, I'll forever remember that ending White House scene.
You've hinted before that as soon as Selina becomes president again, the series is over. How much of the series finale did you already have figured out a couple years ago and how much changed as you were writing it?
Mandel: The original pre-cancer incarnation was basically everything you saw [in the series finale], except the difference was at the very end, when she goes to make Jonah Vice President and she and Uncle Jeff Yell at him. That would have taken place at the convention center, in her booth, but Jonah would have had a long list of crazy demands because he would have been worried she was going to treat him the way she was treated by [President Hughes, like in Season 1]. While this list was going on, Ben was going to run in, with the heart attack, and what he'd be trying to tell Selina is that Tom James is making his move. Jonah takes so long [with his list], though, the whole convention turns to Tom and he costs her the presidency.
But with the year break, a number of things started to occur to me. Number one was it did feel like we were doing another "Jonah costs her the presidency," and I'm not a big fan of repeating myself. Number two, you're right: I had always felt like you couldn't make her president. Yet there was something about the way politics had changed that made me start thinking about things differently. I started to wonder, Why is Selina Meyer the only politician on earth paying the price for her own brutality? In places all over the world, horrible people are being elected. And I do mean all over the world. I don't want to make this just about Trump. Why, all of a sudden, are these horrible guys being elected in places? We just had Brazil, we've got Venezuela, and the guy in the Philippines -- I mean, one after the other, what is going on in the world that their behavior during the campaign is so horrible and yet people are still voting for them?
So I started to think to myself that in some ways her not getting the presidency, yes, it's a punishment, but might the better punishment be like the old genie with the wishes kind of a thing? She gets exactly what she wanted, but it's horrible. And how do you make it horrible? She wins the presidency, but the cost is her soul.
That said, do you think Selina ever gets to enjoy her presidency?
Mandel: I guess the answer's yes and no. When she gets to be president, I think she's very happy. If someone's on the phone with her and there's a crisis, there's probably nothing better. She has the crisis to solve. But when she's alone or when she walks up the stairs to her living quarters, the horror comes back. It's her curse for the rest of her life; there are nights where she doesn't want people to leave. Like, Isn't there's something else we could be doing? Don't go. I always imagined, for whatever reason, that she was alone in an office somewhere when she died. My guess is she was thinking about Gary when she died -- about [how she sold him out to the feds].
In the funeral scene, it's mentioned Selina likely never visited Gary when he was locked up. What do you think she'd say if she ever saw him again?
Mandel: A couple years ago, we did a scene where Selina goes to Gary's birthday party in Birmingham. She treats him pretty horribly and steals his story. There's a little moment where they're in the car together, where he's not talking to her, and they end up in a barbecue restaurant. She never quite apologizes -- yet he sort of accepts the apology. Unfortunately, I don't think Selina's had a lot of growth. I think she would've hoped and expected that eventually Gary would have fallen into place. The worst part of their relationship is, on some level, I think he might have. That's the sickness. So I don't think she had the capacity to apologize, or it certainly would've been very half-assed.
Were there any alternate endings for Gary?
Mandel: There were never any alternate endings. To me, Season 7 started at the end of Season 6, when Selina throws away her relationship with [Ambassador Al Jaffar, played by Usman Ally]. And I will go to my grave arguing that was her chance for happiness. If she had just gotten on a plane with Jaffar to wherever, I feel like the two of them would be off solving international mysteries and looking fabulous. It would have been great, like a show unto itself. But she threw it all away for this.
That's your baseline -- so what else is she prepared to do? We had her do a lot of horrible things throughout the season: She gets in bed with the Chinese, [the Tibet reversal], all of these things. They're all terrible things, and they all add up to a lot of terribleness. But until -- and this is just a writing thing and a character thing -- you can make it personal, none of it hits the audience. We learned this lesson, oddly enough, years ago, during the tie, where part of the reason we made Jonah a congressman was so he could cast the final vote. The audience wasn't going to enjoy that vote story unless one of our characters was involved in it. That's why he became a congressman. So we could have one of our own there.
So at the end of the day, in this final episode, I could have had Selina make 10 other horrible plays. But none of it comes close to watching her throw Gary under the bus. I've said in my own notes that he's Fredo from The Godfather. It took a minute to get there, but it was always, What is the worst thing she can do? In terms of planting seeds and sign posts, there's that moment a couple episodes ago where Andrew Meyer [suggests Gary take the fall], and Selina doesn't go for it. I loved that she dismissed it because her first thoughts are, Yeah, no, I can't do that. Who will get me my lunch? Who will get me my tea? But she wanted that presidency more than anything. And when push came to shove, yikes.
Did anybody visit Gary when he was locked up?
Mandel: Richard is such a good guy. I can see him doing it. You wonder about the new Kent, if you will, because everything was so toxic to him that he went away. I do think one or two people might have -- I mean even Mike, maybe -- because I do think there were some decent characters buried in there.
Gary's end was crushing. The other moment that stung is I am, regrettably, a Dan and Amy shipper--
Mandel: So you hate me?
I guess the answer's yes and no. I cannot justifiably say it would have been nice if they were together.
Mandel: So you're at least a realistic Dan and Amy shipper? Good.
But it was still painful to see Amy finally muster up the courage to ask Dan for a drink this season -- only to meet Dan's new girlfriend, the gynecologist who performed her abortion.
Mandel: The moment of writing on our idea board, "Dan dates Amy's abortionist" was the most Dan Egan-y thing I've ever had the chance to write. And Anna [Chlumsky, who plays Amy] played the embarrassment and the horror -- and her own anger at herself for getting sucked in one more time -- so well it's just so painful and awkward. It's Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque.
But they were never going to be together. I enjoyed the unhealthiness of the relationship. I understand why she wanted the relationship to work, and I do think it's something he probably has considered, from time to time. He's not living in a bubble, but at the same time he's Dan Egan, and there's always another fish to fuck. When you see him at the end, you understand him. That's the thing about the jump to the future: You get to see the characters boiled down to a finer form. Like him as a real estate person in Laguna Beach, with a 20-year-old girlfriend -- boy, doesn't that seem a lot more right than any of the times he was a terrible campaign worker or a morning newsman? He found his calling. The other thing I always find funny is if you go back to episode 6, when Murman and Selina are talking about real estate and how real estate people are so horrible and evil, it's like, Yeah, that's Dan Egan!
And then for Amy, to have ended up with [Bill Ericsson, played by Diedrich Bader] who, in a way, is almost like a Dan replacement -- another scuzzy operator from DC, but one perhaps that was slightly more open to matrimony. Unfortunately there's poor Amy convincing herself that her greyhounds are her children. At the end of the day, and Anna gets this more than anybody, Amy was a staffer and she was solid sometimes and sometimes not, but she was just a staffer -- she was never going to be President of the United States. So there's something to a life of D.C. mediocrity for her.
Whose was the toughest ending to write?
Mandel: Figuring out the perfect job for Dan was tough. Just because we definitely were trying other things -- in that same vein of slick salesmen -- until we landed it exactly right. The rest, surprisingly, fell into place far more easily than I ever thought. The characters -- both in terms of how they were originally laid out, the seven-year journey, and the way the actors played them -- were so definitive they almost provided their own endings.
Other long-running shows have taken similar approaches with their endings, in terms of showing the future -- namely, Parks and Rec and Six Feet Under. Why was a flash-forward the right strategy for you?
Mandel: It was really important because Selina was President of the United States, and so much of being the President of United States is not just being the President of United States, but your legacy and how history judges you. The only way to do that was to jump to the future. The added bonus was all the character stuff -- that you get to catch up with everybody.
What was more important was getting the sense of how little she did during her presidency. That, to me, is the ultimate comment on the Selina Meyer presidency. It's one of the many reasons I called the final episode "Veep." Yes, she became president, but it's a one-term presidency of very little renown. I'm sure school children are taught she was the first female president, but that's about the only thing you'd learn about her. If I could have, I'd love to have jumped 200 years into the future after that and been in a classroom where you see what they're learning on Mars about Selina. Does anyone remember her in 200 years?
The Tom Hanks callback was beautiful -- even though, per Vulture, it sounded like there was a hiccup in getting his footage approved.
Mandel: Yeah, he had to personally approve his own appearances. We'd always heard through the grapevine he was a fan, but it's not like he and I meet for dinner every week. (Although if Tom Hanks is reading this, I'm open to anything.) So Julia reached out and then we heard back and it was great.
Do you know if he's watched the finale yet?
Mandel: I believe he watched it and sent Julia another email having enjoyed it -- but I don't want to put words in his mouth.
It was also nice seeing Sue again. Was that always the plan?
Mandel: Sufe [Bradshaw, who plays Sue] went through the ringer, illness-wise. Once upon a time, before she got sick, Sue would have been working for President Montez, and we would have seen her in Season 6. That would have been the joke -- it would have been a runner. She would have not let Selina into the office. She would have not put Selina's calls through; it would have been Selina on the other side. None of that was possible. It was sad. So when [we were drafting Season 7], I will admit I kind of wrote [Sue] up there as wishful thinking. And then it went from wishful thinking to her getting to come back, tip her cap, and hit a home run.
Were there any other actors or characters you wanted to get back but couldn't?
Mandel: When we were overseas, Stephen Fry -- who had been Murman's rival and Minna's lover, if you remember from the Georgia episode -- was not available. I think we would have tried to work him in somewhere into [Season 7, Episode 6]. I will be very honest, in that same episode, but I guess in general, I would have loved to have found a spot for [Usman Ally] to come back as Jaffar. For a minute, he was in [Season 7, Episode 6] and maybe even was going to be the one to sort of save Selina on the jet. But it just felt fake. His forgiveness of her didn't feel right. I would have loved to have found a way to see him somehow, but I never quite figured out what it was.
Zooming out, were there any guest stars you really wanted for the series at some point in general?
Mandel: James Marsden was our dream cousin Ezra, Jonah's handsome, more successful cousin. Ezra was in this season at one point -- there was a Ezra-Uncle Jeff thing -- but it wasn't meant to be.
Is Ezra Uncle Jeff's son?
Mandel: It's very unclear. I don't think he's his son. I think it's just another sibling's kid who Jeff likes more.
Had you brainstormed terrible things for James Marsden to say to Jonah?
Mandel: We never got that far. The basic gist of it was he would have been a congressman, and the second the two of them get together, they're 11-year-old boys again, fighting with each other. Except, of course, Ezra also slept with Beth back in the day.
What's your favorite Jonah put-down of all time?
Mandel: It's not anything anyone said about him -- although I certainly do enjoy all of those -- but I will forever be in love with, from the "Kissing Your Sister" episode, where you find him on the phone and he's saying, "I've been eating so much pussy I'm shittin' clits." And then Uncle Jeff smacks the phone out of his hands because they're in an elementary school.
Were there any other James Marsdens? People who stayed on the wishlist and never came off?
Mandel: Jennifer Lawrence is a huge fan of Veep, and we reached out to her to play Richard Splett's First Lady. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, she couldn't do it, but we had this dream of Richard walking [into Selina's funeral] with a very stately Jennifer Lawrence. She would have just been a glorified extra, but it made me laugh tremendously.
For obvious reasons, Trump has made political comedy and, specifically, satire tougher. What was your strategy in dealing with that going into this season?
Mandel: Obviously, this is a very different season of our show than others. The show and the characters had to react to Trump, even though Trump doesn't exist in our world -- because let's stay agnostic: If you like him, if you hate him, whichever it is, you have to agree he has changed a lot of things. He's changed the way campaigns go, the way the president behaves, the use of Twitter, a lot of what we considered to be the norms of the presidency.
So sometimes when you go back and watch earlier seasons of Veep -- and by the way, by earlier seasons, I mean even Season 5 when she's the President -- they seem old and quaint. They're not bad in any way, shape, or form, but they might as well be from the 1800s. It just seems like a different era -- where Selina Meyer tries to do something, she publicly screws up, she pays the price. She's constantly, as they say in the first episode, "hoisted by her own retard," and yet with Trump he's constantly victorious. I mean, he gets accused -- I won't say of tax fraud, but certainly, he hasn't paid taxes in 10 years -- and pats himself on the back.
So I think that's the real reflection you are seeing in this final season -- trying not to do Trump, but trying to do the symptoms that led to Trump and the results of Trump. I kept trying to imagine how one would look back on this time of Trump, and then, if this is what people are going to think about this time, how do I embrace that to put that into Selina Meyer's world?
Speaking of Trump, I was really loving the "kill her" runner this season. I could've done without Trump saying it for real about immigrants down in Florida. But that was a true fave [Veep joke] of mine.
Would you ever do a Veep spin-off?
Mandel: There's been no talk of anything, but ask us again in five years when nobody's successful. Part of what made Veep great was that the characters were all like really wonderful spices, so to speak. They came in and out. Things get very different when, all of a sudden, it's The Jonah Show or The Richard Show. We like the show too much to risk an AfterMASH. Although I am interested in remaking AfterMASH.
How was it ending your run alongside Game of Thrones? I think some people found it hard not to compare the two this weekend.
Mandel: One of the things I've learned about Veep, over the years, is the weird coincidences don't stop. Like with the chicken pox, we wrote that two years ago, and now there's a measles epidemic. We've made Iron Throne jokes all along, but the fact that Sunday, during our finale, Selina was making her moves and Daenerys was doing her thing, I can't help but smile. I could do without any of the "one show is better than the other show." And I mean that in both directions. The truth of the matter is one's a comedy and one's a fantasy drama. So you don't think of them meeting.
Although I will tell you that years ago, when Julia hosted Saturday Night Live, a few years ago, and I went back with her, we pitched a "Game of Veep" sketch. It was going to be almost like a [trailer parody] -- a lot of quick scenes and whatnot, walk-and-talks through the castle. Very Veep-y, but very much in their world. That was something we wanted to do, but there were too many pre-tapes [that episode] to mount an epic like that. So it's been on my mind, too, but only in the fun sort of fan way because I'm such a huge fan of that show and everything that those guys have done.
You've written for many big-name comedies over the years, including Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Who would the characters in those shows vote for in Veep?
Mandel: Are we talking about in the primary -- against Kemi and Jonah? To really get to the heart of the matter, I could see Elaine as more of a Kemi gal. Not that she wouldn't be happy about Selina, but I feel like she'd be there on the forefront of the Kemi stuff. I don't think Kramer's registered. Jerry and George, hard to say. But I see Larry as a Kemi Girl, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed.