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Madam Secretary’s Fall Finale gives interesting development to an underwhelming showdown

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Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episodes 8-11
Airs Sundays at 8pm ET on CBS

The first half of Madam Secretary Season one has come to a close with the fall finale, “Game On”, where we get some momentum in the investigation of the former Secretary of the State’s murder. The season has been very consistently well paced, offering interesting characters and political drama with the underlying intrigue of a murder conspiracy that has been building throughout the season. This included the possible involvement of White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson and the President of the United States, and was resolved in the last episode. The resolution is indicative of the type of series that Madam Secretary is trying to be, a show that addresses political issues with idealism rather than pessimism. This is working for the series in distinguishing itself from other political shows like House of Cards, which presents politics with Machiavellian power hungry characters, or VEEP, which display politicians as comically incompetent. Madam Secretary shows characters that are very capable in their jobs trying to resolve issues, and reaching resolutions that are far from hard hitting. As a network series, it really doesn’t have the option for delving into that kind of complex political drama, and considering that, the series is doing well.

The cast of characters of the series continue to develop within the last few episodes, as the writers integrate more subplots along with the main plot. At times, this makes some episodes appear to be busy with too many balls in the air, but overall, the focus is generally where it should be, and that is with Elizabeth McCord. The investigation into former Secretary Vincent Walsh’s murder has been fairly central in these past few episodes, and that is mainly because the season has been building to when Elizabeth confronts Russell Jackson about her suspicions of his involvement in the murder. We get that confrontation, and it’s a bit underwhelming, as it turns out that the government isn’t as corrupt as had been suspected, and the actual enemy is a more clean cut one. Although the conflict doesn’t appear to be as severe as it could’ve been, the performances are very well done, particularly in the scenes with Téa Leoni and Zeljko Ivanek addressing the investigation head on. Ivanek especially plays the scene impressively, as he shifts from being a viable villain to an ally that now accepts that Walsh may have been murdered.

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There has been an interesting arc for Henry in recent episodes, as he was called in to work for the NSA for a mission. The NSA storyline for Henry first presented itself as a possible conflict between him and his daughter, as she suspected him of infidelity, and then as a onetime deal assignment which went off without a hitch. The writers may be planting the seed for future NSA assignments for Henry, which could lead to some fun subplots for him, but based on how the episode ended, it doesn’t seem too likely. As it is, the writers tend to create easily disposable subplots which may serve the show well now, but in the future the show should develop longer and more effecting subplots. Tim Daly remains an asset to the supporting cast of the show, and he is often well utilized against Leoni, with great chemistry and interaction.

In the last few episodes, since the Walsh investigation has been taking up most of the screen time, the rest of the family has taken a bit of a back seat. All except Stephanie ‘Stevie’ McCord, who had been given some more to do, with a conflict between her and Elizabeth where she learned that her mother had allowed ‘investigative torture tactics’, which made Stevie look down on Elizabeth morally. This development has put a barrier between Stevie and Elizabeth, which has led to some poor decisions on Stevie’s part. In the most recent episode, as a way to get back at her mother, she intended to allow her younger sister the chance to spend the night with a boy, which is never a good idea. Luckily, the show pulled its punches yet again to make Stevie come off as just unlikable, rather than truly despicable.  The character of Stevie has been kind of floundering and still hasn’t quite found the right niche yet, although in episode ten, “Collateral Damage”, she did have some fun interplay against Blake, the secretary’s assistant. Wallis Currie-Wood is a decent enough actress, but the character isn’t coming through as likable, which is becoming an issue for the show. Hopefully in the second half the season will feature her less or figure out what to do with her.

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The subplot between Matt and Daisy has been built up, and reaches its zenith point in “Collateral Damage”, where they finally resolve the issue of Daisy’s love triangle between Matt and her fiancé. This subplot has been fun, with them bickering and bringing their tiffs to interplay in the office at times. What makes their story feel concrete is the strength of the performance of Geoffrey Arend as Matt, who is just so resolute about his feelings about Daisy. Arend and Pattina Miller have good chemistry together, not only in scenes of romance, but also in their banter. Aside from the Daisy plot, Matt has had a subplot wherein he played a spy for Jackson, which had some interesting development in revealing his character, as he proved his loyalty to Elizabeth by admitting his duplicity to her, which she was able to use to her advantage. Bebe Neuwirth’s Nadine has also had an arc centered on her realization that her former lover Vincent Walsh had been secretly using her for a scheme that she was not aware of. Nadine has been a key factor to the momentum of the murder investigation, which has done well in giving her character some depth while peeling back important narrative.

The show has improved greatly since its pilot, as has the production value of the episodes. The writing and characters remain strong, although some characters are given less attention from time to time. Although a character like Blake isn’t given much subplots, he is a very likable character, who in the most recent episode is given a nice C plot that effects the main story, and is not only interestingly played, but also character revealing. The fall finale didn’t leave the strongest of cliffhangers, but it does promise a direction and a clear villain to investigate in the murder of Walsh, which is enough for audiences to return to the show next year.

Madam Secretary is not a show that takes risks, nor is it a show that wants to challenge its audience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing right now, as the series is still establishing itself. The first half of season one is very good with characters and also in developing plot, and hopefully the series will continue in that vein with its second half.

Madam Secretary will be returning with new episodes beginning on Sunday January 4th, 2015 at 8pm EST on CBS.

-JP


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