Madam Secretary‘s first season has been built on the backbone of the mysterious murder of the former Secretary of State and the question of what he was involved in that would cause him to be murdered. The answers have been coming in slowly throughout the season, as Elizabeth McCord’s list of suspects are cut shorter and shorter. One of the main suspects that McCord had under investigation in the first half of the season was White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson, whom she confronted with her suspicions in the mid season finale “Game On”, concluding that arc in away that fell in line with the tone of the series.
The show’s return has seen Russell Jackson brought into the loop, but not the President himself, as they all agree not to involve him until they have something more concrete, a decision that gets resolved with substantial consequences. This has been a continuing dilemma for the series, dealing with when to keep secrets and when to be honest and the blurred lines in between. The show has been very good at playing with this theme and maintaining an ongoing plot for McCord and her family that feels appropriately episodic as the serialized narrative plays out. Lies like projecting a lighthearted spirit to protect a family member from learning about a serious situation, or a subterfuge to turn the tables on a difficult political opponent, are handled very well on this show.
Madam Secretary has also been consistently entertaining in these recent episodes, particularly in the last three episodes, which involve the revelation of a mole within Elizabeth’s investigation team. No one from the main supporting cast, of course, as that would be too risky and the writers of this series are not inclined to shake things up to that high a degree. Although the mole is not one the audience is familiar with, the writing is strong enough that the betrayal is still deeply felt and Tea Leoni’s portrayal of Elizabeth McCord is a big part of what makes the narrative work . Leoni is very much at the center of every episode and she shows a lot of range in a performance that is likable and, most importantly, believable. The character is constantly making decisions and trying to do what she believes is right and Leoni plays those struggles impressively well each time. She is certainly holding up as the series’ lead as well as she has since the pilot.
The McCord household subplots have had some interesting developments that are very well integrated into the main plot, particularly in “The Ninth Circle”, which worked out a plot that featured the son, Jason (Evan Roe), and his problems going to a private school. In this single episode, the writers were able to feature Roe, giving him the most screen time he’s had in a while and also building on the ongoing murder investigation plot with seamless integration. Elizabeth’s husband, Henry, also gets a fair amount of narrative in these episodes, as he faces a dilemma with his father and a bit of fallout from his time working in the NSA. Tim Daly gives Henry a charm that sustains when he is in his own storyline or when he is with Elizabeth. The chemistry between both Leoni and Daly is always enjoyable to watch, whether they are discussing concerns about their kids, their sex life, or political issues. The daughter Stevie remains the single most annoying character on the series, but the writers may be on the brink of remedying her by ending her floundering with a new job, which could give her some much-needed purpose.
The Secretary’s staff is also very well represented on the show, with witty dialogue and great character arcs that let the cast shine. Bebe Neuwirth is given a love interest and an arc that finds her moving past her feelings about the recently deceased former Secretary Marsh, as she is now able to admit her affair openly to the staff. It is rare when the staff go against something that Elizabeth McCord does, as often on the show McCord ultimately knows the right thing to do, but in “The Ninth Circle” the press coordinator, Daisy Grant, finds herself not being able to spin in favor of McCord’s decision to not fully disclose information about a covert operation. Of course in the end, the truth does comes out and McCord and Daisy hash out their issue, but this may be the most critical of McCord’s actions that the show has been. Now that Zeljko Ivanek’s Russell Jackson is no longer the main source of suspicion for an extant conflict, the character has been cooperative in investigations and has been more of a voice of counter position reasoning for McCord. Usually Jackson has the unpopular opinion on how to handle a particularly delicate issue and it’s up to Ivanek to not make it sound like the worst idea in the world, which he does fairly well. One of the most fun recent additions to the cast has been Kevin Rahm as Michael ‘Mike B’ Barnow, a PR consultant who is known for firing staff members, putting everyone in McCord’s staff on edge. Rahm fits right in with the rest of the cast, with good comic timing that is in tone with the series.
Overall the second half of the first season has remained entertaining and compelling, with its most dramatic and finest episodes being “Tamerlane”, which satisfyingly concludes aspects of the former Secretary’s murder investigation and features a very emotional turn for Elizabeth and her family, as some members dread her recent mission to defuse a coup in Turkey. Although the danger of losing McCord is never really in question, the episode does a good job creating drama and comedy at the possibility of her demise- Elizabeth gives Henry permission to remarry if she were to be killed in action, with the caveat that he heeds a list of women that are off the table. The production values on that particular episode are also really high, with special effects and injury make-up on Leoni that are all very effective. McCord sits in the backseat of a car in the aftermath of the coup attempt, her face staring out at the many strung up dead bodies reflected on her window, a very powerful image.
Madam Secretary may not yet be the kind of show that explores the higher complexities of the political arena, but it’s still building and there may be a time down the line where the creative team will be more inclined to explore those types of ideas. For now, Madam Secretary is a comfortable, well-structured series with a very strong cast and focused writing.