‘Veep’ Mixes Claustrophobia with the Law in Their Regimented Bottle Episode, “Testimony”
‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined
“Do you solemnly swear that the testimony that you’re about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Absolutely. Yessir, I do.”
Let’s just get it out of the way that “Testimony” is not only one of Veep’s strongest entries (and might be the episode that Ianucci is most remembered for now that his era of the show has ended and he’s stepped down), but is also a staggering accomplishment in comedic television in general. It’s like all of the jokes and humor from the series have been distilled into a long line of Adderall that you start snorting at the beginning of the episode and then, well, never really quite stop. The episode is that relentless.
Veep’s fourth season took some risks in the narrative sense by lifting Selena from her Vice President status and crowning her the title of President, thus “breaking” the show’s name in the process. The year also saw them taking some stylistic leaps, most notably in the form of their penultimate episode, which looks at the fallout that the Meyer administration is facing in relation to the Families First Bill. The president’s use of child mortality data to target certain parents with one of her initiatives ends up coming to light, and the episode relishes in the Meyer administration’s warts beginning to show.
“Testimony” is a necessary housecleaning episode before heading into the election-centric finale. These are all slimy characters that are the superlatives of Washington D.C. who are experts in weaseling out of situations and avoiding blame. The rigors of the bottle episode structure are felt this time by Meyer’s team literally being subpoenaed into this bottle and unable to leave it until the board is satisfied. It’s almost like a “This Is Your Life” with a more specific end goal, as everyone is dragged through their own baggage. Forcing everyone together to get so publicly dressed down is the necessary step needed to move forward in the season, and a deposition is the only realistic way to pull this off. Selena is only able to briefly escape, and even then, she has to use the president of South Africa as a scapegoat to briefly pull herself out of the crossfire.
The episode very nicely acts as a culmination of the year’s roving storylines and dysfunctions. Basically everyone’s actions have led up to them having to deal with these consequences here — this is purely everyone’s own fault, and they’re the first to know that, but they all either got accustomed to thinking that they were invincible, or were just grimly oblivious to everything around them. A meal is made out of the board knocking Amy, Dan, and Jonah down a few notches and them having to take it and be honest through it all — with one of the best examples of this being the opening of “The Jonad Files,” wherein Jonah is eloquently put to task by Dan (with “The Cloud Botherer” being a personal favorite).
The claustrophobic bottle format works particularly well here, as characters like Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) and Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) become increasingly frazzled by the tightening vise-like situation they’ve found themselves in. All of these set pieces are elevated higher than how they’d typically function due to the light being shone on these characters and them being unable to shake it.
There are some sharp editing tricks used to augment the lengthy process that depositions can be known to take. Some humor is managed to be mined out of this, particularly in the case of Selena discussing her daughter’s (increasingly deteriorating) relationship with a lobbyist/consultant, and an even better example when Catherine starts to push the buttons of the woman that’s interviewing her. The edit break takes us back into the middle of a quasi-apology, implying the interviewer lost her cool with the president’s daughter, maybe even having struck her. We see the situation beginning to get to everyone.
There are minor escapes where we’re taken out of the courtroom, but even then the context is still people being trapped as they’re interviewed for the deposition. It feels more like a convention of being optimal with time and a smart way of staggering several depositions at once, rather than needing to move in such an orderly manner.
The episode ends with everyone collectively deciding to use Bill Ericsson as the whipping boy and throw him under the bus for the damage that’s been done. It’s a conniving, manipulative move that sends a (relatively) innocent man to his doom, and a prime example of what all of these people are capable of when they’re held above a flame. They all manage to get out of this debacle (relatively) unscathed, but a lack of true consequences for Selena and her crew surely only mean they might all be facing this committee again.
Let’s just hope that the Jonad File has grown healthily in size by then.