It’s a parable made famous by David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College–one so resonant it eventually become a small grad-giftable book. Two young fish are swimming along when an older fish asks them, “How’s the water today?” The more junior fish are puzzled by the question. “What is water?” they ask. Although today it would probably be more like, “Literally, what even is water? Deadass.”
According to Wallace, water is the stuff around us that is so obvious, overwhelming, or common that one might not ever have occasion to even know what it is–or that it’s there.
But as the latest episode of Veep suggests, as does reality itself lately, sometimes it’s the younger ones who know better than their elders that what they thought was water is actually fish piss.
When the show’s antihero, former president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), greets younger senator Kemi Talbot (Toks Olagundoye), the two women have the following exchange about Talbot’s experience on the campaign trail:
Selina Meyer: “Did Senator Isles try to grab your ass?”
Kemi Talbot: “Oh yeah.”
Meyer: “He used to say mine was like a candy apple. ” [laughs]
Talbot: “Actually, Senator Isles is under investigation right now, so . . .”
Meyer: [surprised] “For what?”
Talbot: [even more surprised] “For the inappropriate, the . . . .”
Meyer: “Oh yeah, that’s right. Cuz that’s bad now.”
Meyer sees her question as a chance to bond over having both shared what she assumes is a rite of passage for young, attractive women politicians, an unfortunate speed bump on the road to success. Her generation viewed this kind of harassment as a standard-issue inconvenience you just sort of had to let roll off you like, well, like water.
The more junior senator, Talbot, who looks poised to play a big role this season, clearly recognizes expected ass-grabs as the fish-piss situation they’ve always been, but probably also recognizes that she might not be able to convince her elder it’s not just something that’s become “bad” recently. She doesn’t try to turn it into a teachable moment.
Veep’s writers have prided themselves on being relevant and timely without ever being too topical or specific. The show has actually predicted more Trumpian realities than it’s reflected over the years. Since Veep has been on hiatus since summer 2017, the #MeToo movement sprouted up in between seasons, and last night’s episode–“Discovery Weekend”–is the first to address workplace harassment since. It speaks to the writers’ Nostradamus-ness, though, that an episode containing both the exchange above and a Jonah Ryan #MeToo storyline would come out the same week as Joe Biden brought inappropriate workplace behavior to the forefront again.
After a week of soft apologies and bogus sparring with the president, Biden announced last Friday that he is not sorry for anything that he has ever done. He even went a step further and joked multiple times during a speech about having secured permission to hug the various people he hugged during the speech. (Do you get it? The punchline is that consent is hilarious and people are too touchy about people who are too touchy.) Biden wasn’t out there grabbing asses necessarily, but he is the product of an era where boundaries with women were so ill-defined that many men didn’t know they existed. The way that Biden goes through the motions of performing repentant lip service about his penchant for handsiness carries more than a whiff of, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Cuz that’s bad now.”
Elsewhere in the episode is an even more direct nod to the #MeToo movement, one involving someone who doesn’t even have Selina Meyer’s or Joe Biden’s excuse of having grown up in a different culture. There’s a rumor going around online that alpha buffoon congressman Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) recently made inappropriate advances on a staffer. The rumor arrives as an anonymous online post about a “dead-eyed, lantern-jawed, one-and-done congresstard,” so everyone naturally assumes it’s Jonah.
Ryan is forced to apologize through clenched teeth to Amanda White (Saturday Night Live’s Heidi Garner), but when he goes to give her an NDA, she surprises both him and advisor Teddy Sykes (Patton Oswalt) with an NDA of her own. It turns out that it wasn’t Jonah’s advances that were inappropriate, but rather the rumor that those advances even found an intimate opportunity to transpire. Amanda deeply dreads people (including her boyfriend) thinking Jonah got too aggressive during a date when all that really happened was a working lunch that they went dutch on.
“It was strictly professional!” Amanda says of their lunch.
“There was NOTHING professional about it,” Jonah roars back.
The situation culminates in a perfectly bizarre inversion of the Gloria Allred-style press conferences we’ve seen all too often at this point. As Amanda White tearfully explains during a newscast that nothing happened with the congressman, a chyron on screen reads “Lyin’ Ryan: Candidate accused of appropriate behavior.”
“For too long, women have been silent in the face of rumors they went out with Congressman Ryan,” White’s lawyer says. “But now people are starting to believe women. And I believe Amanda when she says . . . not me.”
It’s a funhouse mirror version of our current moment. #NotMe is a twist on the #MeToo movement that illuminates another, lesser form of harassment–men who lie or exaggerate about women. Jonah is too dumb to take the Joe Biden approach of mocking the mere suggestion of impropriety and leaning on his ostensibly good intentions. Instead, he doubles down, insisting even after the fact that the rumor is true. Better to be thought of as bold and handsy than someone who didn’t even try. Despite this season of Veep existing in a world where something like the #MeToo movement has definitely happened, the idea that subordinate staffers are fair game for dating is still a foregone conclusion. (Indeed, another male politician in this episode is revealed to be sleeping with his assistant.)
This is water.