Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episodes 18-22
Created by Barbara Hall
Airs Sundays at 8pm (ET) on CBS
The final few episodes leading up to the season finale have been very episodic, with the season finale tying up all loose ends into a very satisfying conclusion. Each episode delivers an interesting and clear standalone crisis situation that is interwoven well with the ongoing narrative. The series as a whole has been one of the finest and consistently entertaining shows from last year’s fall lineup. Madam Secretary manages to keep interest by presenting honest and relateable characters in situations that are compelling and diverse, and has a strong perspective. This political procedural drama has truly grown into an impressive and worthy television staple that has earned its second season order.
The main thread that has been lingering in the background since the pilot has been Elizabeth McCord’s suspicion of foul play in the death of the former Secretary of State, and her ongoing investigation to uncover all of the sordid details and implications of the conspiracy. Throughout the season, McCord has had to make decisions and keep secrets in order to maintain the covertness of her exploration, only allowing people she can trust in on her theories, and sometimes going against bureaucratic restraints. One of the things that is clear about the character of Elizabeth is that she has her principles set in idealism, but is practical in her decision making. Her principles are carried with her in a setting where she is constantly pushed to make decisions, and she does so objectively. The show portrays this well, and creates these conflicts of personal and professional challenges, making them feel real and natural to the stories throughout the series, and the season finale capitalizes on many of those moments, and addresses them with a very strong and assured conclusion that makes a great case for keeping Elizabeth in office and the series on the air.
In the finale, Elizabeth is faced with a subpoena to appear in court to address possible indiscretions in her investigation that can put her, and by extension the administration, in a bad light. This is a very clever way to reflect on the season as a whole, and also to get a little backstory on Elizabeth and how she ended up ex-CIA Analyst family woman, where viewers found her in the beginning of the series. There are moments in this finale that make the pilot episode stronger in many ways, as it makes it clear why the current POTUS would seek her out for her ability to “think out of the box.” The title of the episode, “There But For the Grace of God”, is also very appropriate to Elizabeth’s narrative, with her former CIA friend, who took Elizabeth’s role when she retired, ending up as a traitor in the conspiracy that caused the death of the former Secretary and a fellow friend. This has Elizabeth wondering whether or not she would’ve fallen down the same path if she had taken the job offer instead, but she is assured by POTUS Dalton that he believes she wouldn’t have followed the same dark path.
At the core of this series is Elizabeth McCord, who is a very well-defined character with a sense of responsibility and empathy, which makes her very likable and easy to identify with. A huge part of that charm comes from the Téa Leoni’s consistently enjoyable performance, especially when she is given witty and clever dialogue. In the season finale, viewers are privy to a range of emotions for Elizabeth, and Leoni mines those moments extremely well. Her finest moment in the finale is when she faces the Senate Investigative Committee and addresses the claim against her, which involves “the Espionage act”, which she violated for consulting her husband Henry in her investigation into the death of the former secretary. After she makes her case, she stands up, ready to leave, saying “Thank You. No, let me rephrase that…You’re Welcome!” in her best ‘drop the mic’ moment highlight of the season. As confident as she is played in that moment, it’s interesting to contrast it with the comic moment earlier in the episode that has Elizabeth going on a rant of why she wants to decline “executive privilege”, and is deflated when she is told directly from the POTUS that he insists that she use it.
The politics of home life and work life is also a balanced and important structure of the series that is always handled well. In these final episodes leading to the season finale, there isn’t that much done with the kids, but they are, at least, always addressed via Henry McCord. There is plenty that the show does with Henry, as they have him travel to give speeches or to speak to cult leaders. These are all good ways the show utilizes Henry, but where he is strongest is in scenes where he’s just talking to Elizabeth about what’s going on, and bouncing ideas or just quipping with each other about their kids. Tim Daly is a valued asset to the series, as much as Leoni is, and they work very well together. The kids aren’t used as much, but their presence is felt, and their issues do come into play at times. In the season finale, they rally to have Elizabeth quit office, which is reflective of their ongoing issues with being in the limelight. The only one of the kids that had the most screen time in recent episodes, and the clearest turn from against Elizabeth to being her biggest fan, is Stevie, played by Wallis Currie-Wood. Her arc has led her from floundering young adult to someone with a goal in helping people through her internship in the micro loan office. The result of this new venture does take Stevie on a pretty obvious and uninteresting romance with her boss though, which is resolved by the season finale, but it appears that she’s switching one scandalous romance for another, but with higher stakes, when she starts up a relationship with POTUS’s son.
In the Secretary’s office, things are kept interesting by the entertaining antics and firm competency of Elizabeth’s staff. Early on in the series, there had been a fair amount of screen time given to Matt (Geoffrey Arend) and Daisy’s (Pattina Miller) romance, and in recent episodes, their conflict has been dropped, since they have worked things out, with no further progression, other than they are sort of together. But they are still often used in the main plot, with good lines and delivery. Zeljko Ivanek’s Russell Jackson gets more play in these final episodes as well, but he’s still playing the same role he has always played since the beginning, which is that of an antagonistic figure that has the duty of challenging Elizabeth, even though he admits he admires her spirit and principles, but would prefer that she serve it out in moderation.
There is a very good spotlight for Elizabeth’s policy adviser Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, in Episode 21, “The Kill List,” where he is presented with a moral dilemma involving his duty of trying to diffuse a protest that would reflect poorly on the optics of an upcoming deal the administration is having with Iran, a country whose leaders would celebrate a man being stoned to death along with their treaty signing. This brings Whitman to question whether or not they are making the right choice in signing the agreement with these Iranian leaders, and he says as much to Elizabeth. Although Elizabeth is adamant about her position in her decision, the question does resonate with her, and may be something that will come into play next season on whether or not they made the right choices.
The season has been very well crafted throughout, and the season finale resolves the narrative of the season’s arc in stride. The show continues to be one of quality as it allows for its more complex themes to build from character. Next season holds a lot of promise.