If the first two episodes of the second season of "Veep" left us wanting for sharper humor, richer characterization and plots tackling some higher stakes, then tonight's effort is the one we've been waiting for. While the show has a tendency to get bogged down in subplots that often feel saggy, "Hostages" is an example of lean, efficient writing that comes together in a tight knot of fast jokes, and story threads that pay off. It's certainly one of the better entries in the season so far, and it's probably the only show you'll watch this year where the word "robust" plays such a central role.
As things kick off, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) is trying to convince the President to send in troops to rescue some Marines being held hostage in Uzbekistan, and she's hoping a publicity stop with some soldiers will help boost public support for armed intervention. To that end, Dan (Reid Scott) is constructing the perfect speech that will stay respectful of POTUS' decision not to intercede (yet) while still showing support for military action, and the key word that will do that? Robust. The phrase "robust response" gets well received around the office: "I like it, it makes me think of wine. It's actually how I like my reds," Mike (Matt Walsh) opines while wearing a donut stain on his suit (one of the nice, slyer gags of the show). But of course, nothing is quite so simple.
In addition to rallying public support, Selina still has to get over the hurdle that is Kent Davidson (Gary Cole), the strategist whose decision making by pure hard numbers, and his influence over the President, makes him a uniquely powerful figure. "Inaction only becomes untenable when more than 65% of Americans support intervention, even with casualties," he coldly concludes. But that declaration comes in the midst of the episode's bravura scene, wherein Kent uses the "noodle analogy" to explain how the decision to send a rescue mission for the hostages, needs to be made precisely. Yes, he compares foreign policy to microwaving noodles, but it's a great little mini-monologue and when the timer rings at the end of his little speech (yes, he was making the noodles at the same time) you almost want to applaud.
Even with Kent staying cagey on advising action, Selina presses on and heads to the base ready to "robust" her way up the polls, but she gets unexpectedly blindsided. Called to testify at a hearing about government efficiency, Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) is advised to keep it dull and boring to stay out of any difficult line of questioning, while also allowing the Veep's office show they are fine with being transparent. But as we know, Sue doesn't suffer fools easily, and it isn't long before she's being needled by the hearing, and when the door gets opened to some tougher questions, and stymied to find an answer, she leans on the word "robust" -- twice. Unfortunately, this gaffe happens before Selina can drop the r-bomb when speaking to the Marines, and then she gets trumped by Secretary of Defense Isiah Whitlock Jr., who calles for an "aggressive response." Even worse, the media picks up on Selina/Sue robust-gate and runs with it, once again putting the veep on the defensive.
But, even through all of that, support increases for rescuing the hostages and Kent announces that the President has okayed action. White House Chief of Staff Ben Caffrey (Kevin Dunn) advises both Selina and the Secretary Of Defense that they better move fast before the President "procrasturbates" (nice) and changes his mind again. Selina knows this is a major coup for her, so before locking down a date for the mission, she makes sure her calendar is clear, but because Sue is at the hearing, she has to rely on the replacement Cliff (a perfectly dorky Craig Cackowski) to make sure she has nothing that can't be moved on the day they plan to strike. But of course, he fucks it up and gets it wrong. So, on the day when everyone is gathered in the Situation Room watching the mission unfold, Selina will be swearing in new senators, but damned if she'll miss one of the big moments of her legacy.
Arranging for a video conference into the Situation Room, Selina races through the swearing in ceremonies, much to the befuddlement of her staff, all of whom are kept in the dark about the classified mission. Once she's done fumbling her way through the gladhanding, she races to a small room to watch the events unfold, and is there to witness the successful extraction of the hostages. It's a big win for Selina politically, not just for her involvement. but also because the headlines will distract the media from Sue's second appearance at the efficiency hearings. But in a rare moment of levity on the show, Selina learns that one of the Marines lost a leg during the mission, giving the finale a bit of dark note, and while it's nice to see Armando Ianucci and co. embrace some real consequences for these characters, they are still figuring out how to handle it as the episode peters out a bit from there. The standard extra credits material doesn't quite work, as the team discusses the Marine and try to comfort Selina, but the tone is a bit uncertain, trying not to offend but also still trying to find some kind of humor.
But overall, "Veep" delivers a solid outing that keeps a core central story and runs with it, while nicely overlapping with a seemingly innocuous second string plot. (There is a brief third thread involving a rivalry for Selina's attention between Dan and Gary (Tony Hale) but it's too minor bother with here). And this is really the template the show should keep, as the focus gives the one-liners a better edge and more potency, and when the plot climaxes comedically and narratively, its truly satisfying. [B]