Madam Secretary s5 ep 5

Henry is in Thailand for some conference or other, also being attended by his college girlfriend Rochana. Elizabeth, left back in D.C., is visibly just a little bit jealous, and she hasn’t even seen Henry and Rochana – still attractive, there’s no doubt about that – having dinner. With Rochana TAKING HENRY’S HAND. Hey-ho, I thought; I don’t actually want M-Sec’s marriage to hit the rocks, but would a little what-happens-in-Thailand-etc. be so bad?

Then Rochana disses the Thai King at the conference and, as she intended, she’s arrested and faces 60 years in jail. Elizabeth does her best to sound disappointed when Henry phones her with the news. “She did violate the law”, she murmurs. “We can’t interfere…” this being something that flies in the face of the subject of pretty much every episode ever of this show, which is essentially predicated on America interfering. Henry successfully asks the King for a Royal pardon, which at first Rochana is unaccountably peevish about: can’t she just stay in prison to make a point, or something? Nuh-uh, says Henry; we’re leaving. But as they’re driving out of Thailand the King dies, which invalidates the pardon; Rochana is recaptured and faces the death penalty; and Henry himself is in jail as well. Suddenly – what do you know? – interfering is OK again, and an exfiltration operation is put in motion.

Back home, meantime, Elizabeth is about to officially announce her candidacy for the Oval, and meeting with a Mike B-appointed ghost writer who is going to write a book for her. Matt is worried that M-Sec no longer likes him. And Jason is pissing about with his college applications. The show appears to be determined to put Elizabeth and her family through a run for the Presidency, and I’m in two minds about that, because I quite like the focus on foreign affairs, even if this week’s foreign affair wasn’t quite the one I was hoping for. Never mind. A good episode.


Madam Secretary s5 ep 4

The remains of some World War 2 fighter pilots have been found in the Philippines, but the Filipino government is being uncooperative about their return, and is holding out for a nice big dollop of military aid. Meantime, a campaign group led by the daughter of one of the deceased is putting pressure on Dalton and his administration to get a result, a problem he doesn’t need in the run-up to the midterms. POTUS takes the problem away from the Department of Defense and gives it to State instead, which is a vote of confidence in Elizabeth, but potentially problematic given that the last time she met the idiot Filipino president, Andrada, he sexually assaulted her and she punched him on the nose. And Henry and Stevie are refused service in a DC restaurant by the ex-serviceman who owns the premises.

It presumably takes most of M-Sec’s diplomatic savvy to prevent her from ordering the carpet-bombing of the Phillipines, and having someone smash the pissy little restaurant up as well. Instead she tries to break the logjam. She starts in America, where authorisation of the military aid package is being held up by one “Senator Callister”, who turns out in fact to be Luke Wheeler out of Nashville. I was hoping that at some point she would offer to start wheelin’ and dealin’ with him, but I was sorely disappointed. Anyway, Senator Wheeler declines to change his position, which he dresses up as a principled stance on the human rights record of Andrada; but which instead, on investigation, turns out instead to have been motivated by a nasty little collision between his xenophobia and his ambition: he is considering a run for the White House himself and sees Elizabeth as a potential rival. President Luke Wheeler! Wheels up on Air Force One! I could go for that, particularly if, say, Juliette Barnes were made his Chief of Staff.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Returning to Mad Sec as presently written: Elizabeth, having struck out with Wheeler, decides to fly to Manila to tackle Andrada on his home patch. She is ultimately successful in bringing the boys home, but another problem then presents itself: one of the deceased might not be eligible for a military funeral because he had deserted before returning and dying in battle. So which is more important: the desertion or his death? Send for Mr Ethics himself, Henry, whose advice the Commander-in-Chief listens to and ignores. Meantime, M-Sec’s younger daughter Alison is working for the campaign of a charismatic young candidate for Congress, but when he compromises on a key policy she’s so appalled she decides not to vote. Quite rightly, Elizabeth tells her to get the hell over herself already and go and vote. (Personally, I’d not only make it easier to vote, I’d make it compulsory. That’s how you ensure that politicians take more account of the needs of the presently disenfranchised.) The show draws a line linking deaths in battle and the right to vote: it’s about as subtle as, well, having your plane blown out of the sky by artillery fire, but that’s very much par for the course with this show at the moment. Like last week, this episode was no more or less than Mad Sec doing its thing, which it does very well.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 3

It’s Fashion Week in Milan, M-Sec has been invited by the Italian prime minister, and Blake is desperate for an excuse to go. But none presents itself until a factory fire in Italy kills a number of undocumented Chinese workers, and throws a spotlight on dubious labour practices in the fashion industry, in particular the overpriced part of it. President Dalton and Elizabeth rattle China’s cage about this, resulting in China raising tariffs on American goods and threatening a trade war, so Elizabeth files out to Milan, knowing that her old frenemy Ming Chen, the Chinese foreign minister, will be there, and hoping that she can shame China into endorsing an international agreement on the treatment of workers.

What she doesn’t know, though, is that Chen is in the running to be appointed as the new President of China, and that the last thing he needs right at that moment is any suggestion that he’s going soft on America. It leads to the sort of episode that Madam Secretary does well: a delicate dance of diplomacy, with Elizabeth leaning heavily on her personal connection to a foreign diplomat to achieve something that looks like progress. Chen, in the end, isn’t successful in becoming President, and there are signs that he’s becoming restless with his government’s direction of travel.

Will Elizabeth be more successful in her own run for office? She finally confirms to advisor Mike (as ever, a lovely turn from Kevin Rahm) that she’s going to be a candidate to be POTUS, but Mike thinks she needs a big issue on which to hang her hat. She finds it when she’s at a courthouse to find out if she’s being selected for jury duty, and she bumps into a young woman facing imprisonment because of bad luck and poor representation. She arranges for Mike – an “avenging angel of justice”, in his own words – to represent the woman, then decides that criminal justice reform will be her thing. Good luck with that, Mad Sec: it’s a worthy cause, but not much of a vote-winner. Henry, meantime, has decided to accept appointment as Dalton’s ethics advisor – conflicts of interest clearly being something on which his own ethics are malleable – and Daisy is fretting about her daughter’s future, but cheered by the visit of a party of schoolkids to the White House, enabling her to remind herself how far she’s come, and to deliver a be-proud-and-work-hard message to the kids.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 2

Compared to last week’s season opener, this episode has to go down as solid rather than spectacular. The FBI has a fascist, Nathan Cleminger, in custody who they think might be linked to the attack on the Oval Office. There’s a bit of ethical to-ing and fro-ing about whether he can be treated as an enemy combatant, which would restrict his civil rights. More pressingly, though, a quick check of his online activity reveals a link to a far-right member of the Polish parliament, one Alek Starowolski. America demands that Poland hands him over for questioning, and it’s quite sweet to see how baffled President Dalton and his staff are that the Polish PM is reluctant to surrender to the US justice system a citizen, an elected member of its parliament no less, who hasn’t been accused of any crime and who has, at best, been tenuously connected to an American who might have done something. 

The hell with it, POTUS concludes, let’s just send a snatch squad onto Polish soil and drag Starowolski back to America. Uh… says Elizabeth, are you quite sure about that, Mr President? He is, which means that Madam Secretary and her team have a day or so to actually come up with the sort of evidence which might persuade Poland to deal with the situation without having its sovereignty violated. Meantime, because ethics are involved somewhere, Henry is stripped for action and, conflicts of interest notwithstanding – it was, after all, an attack on his wife’s place of work, as a result of which his daughter was hospitalised – he interviews Cleminger, who admits involvement with the Aryan terrorist group but not with the attack itself.

As with last week’s episode, though, there’s a Message here, and it’s that America is at its best when it defends liberal values. So the Confederate flag is used by Polish fascists as a proxy for the swastika. Henry persuades everyone that Cleminger’s constitutional rights should be respected. Starowolski ends up “suicided” by Russia, which has been funding him and his fellow idiots with the intent of destabilising Poland, NATO, and the EU. I mean, I kind of agree with the show’s stance, and God knows these are values which need to be defended in these times, but I’d like my drama with a few more grey areas, and the news that Henry has been offered a job as, essentially, the White House’s Ethics Guy doesn’t fill me with hope that we’re going to get them.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 1

Madam Secretary clearly felt the need to come back with a literal and metaphorical bang. And so, as Indian and Pakistani government ministers wait in the White House to sign a peace deal, the actual Oval Office actually blows up. Cui bono? Well, Elizabeth McCord is “running late”, we are told, so isn’t actually there when the Oval goes boom: it would be nice to think that Bess is breaking bad and, rather than waiting until Dalton runs the clock down on his term in office, has decided to assassinate him.

But it seems pretty unlikely and, sure enough, we go back a week to the President’s beachside house where Elizabeth and Russell and their spouses have joined the First Couple for a BBQ and some staged photo-ops, at which they discuss tensions in India and, for no obvious reason (except that it’s a totally obvious reason), some gang of Aryan white supremacists. 

Oh, and Elizabeth will indeed be running to succeed Dalton. This is skilfully threaded through the episode: while she’s frantically using backchannels to try and secure a nuclear treaty between India and Pakistan, she’s also toning down criticism of India for violence against a minority, much to the ill-disguised surprise of her staff, and the equally ill-disguised disappointment of Henry, still in office as the Conscience of Madam Secretary. Is she, everyone wonders, trying to look a little more… Presidential? Well, Henry blows that right out of the water at an academic conference where he disses India, leading to the talks breaking down. Frankly, he’s going to have to be reined in if Elizabeth has any chance of inheriting the Oval.

Back in the White House, meantime, Russell’s personal assistant is on leave, so her predecessor June has taken over for a few days. June is played quite beautifully by Linda Lavin as the walking embodiment of moxie, and has to put up with the indignity of being lectured about feminism by Stevie. Who gets what’s coming to her when the Oval finally blows up – it’s a missile attack, as it happens – and she’s taken to hospital for emergency surgery.

Stevie survives, as does everyone apart from June. Amazingly, the attack isn’t the responsibility of Indian or Pakistani agitators. (Yes, the throwaway reference to the Aryans wan’t so throwaway.) The peace deal is signed. Elizabeth wonders about what to say at the signing ceremony, so takes advice from her predecessors Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, all played by themselves. She then delivers a speech in which she unequivocally identifies nationalism as the greatest current threat to democracy, which ends with a pan to the American flag. In normal times I’d say it was a bit too on-the-nose, but these are far from normal times. ‘E Pluribus Unum’ is not only a cracking start to the season, it (I’m guessing) puts in a bit of the groundwork for what’s to come.

Public Service Announcement 45 of 2018: Madam Secretary, The Clinton Affair

Some politics, imagined and real. The really-very-good Madam Secretary returns this week for its fifth season, although it’s worth remembering that, when it started in September 2014, Barack Obama was POTUS; Britain wasn’t preparing – well, it isn’t actually preparing, but you know what I mean – to leave the EU; and a show about decent, well-intentioned politicians in the White House trying to do their very best didn’t look like some kind of fantasy. But since real life has proved to be infinitely more deranged than anything the Mad Sec scriptwriters could come up with, it now looks even more old-fashioned than when it started: network TV for grown-ups, with a great cast, sound writing, and interesting plots. I keep saying that I should review it. Maybe this season (Thursday 13 December, 9pm, Sky Witness).

As for things that actually happened: like thousands of others, I’m a huge fan of Leon Neyfakh’s compelling podcast Slow Burn, which in its recently-completed second season unpicked the impeachment of Bill Clinton. What Slow Burn didn’t have, though, was Monica Lewinsky’s version of events. Well, A&E’s The Clinton Affair does, and on the evidence of the excellent first episode Ms Lewinsky is going to be front and centre, allowing her, one assumes, to reclaim the narrative. It’s a story which, as Slow Burn convincingly demonstrated, looks rather different post-#MeToo. The History Channel is showing it in the UK on Saturdays, with repeats on Tuesday nights, and it’s available on demand. 

Public Service Announcement 14 of 2018: Timeless, The Crossing, The Americans, Madam Secretary, Silicon Valley, Deep State

Unpopcult is very excited by the news that ludicrous-but-fun time-travelling drama Timeless is returning to UK screens this week. There’s a lot to be said for Timeless: it has a highly likeable cast; its Cases of the Week are generally entertaining, even if the Big Conspiracy isn’t the most diverting; and, to its credit, it follows through on its casting of an African American (the excellent Malcolm Barrett) in one of the lead roles by exploring what it might mean for a black man to drop in on, say, America in 1954, when he needs treated for a gunshot wound but the hospitals are segregated. And the costumes are great.

But – let’s be honest – we’re excited because we’re shipping Lucy and Wyatt VERY HARD INDEED, and if Wyatt has finally managed to get his STUPID DEAD WIFE out of his system and realise WHAT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF HIM, we could be in for a treat. After its first season Timeless was cancelled and then un-cancelled, so we should probably appreciate it while we’ve got it (tonight, E4, 9pm).

ABC’s new Lost-wannabe thriller, The Crossing, started in the US yesterday, so it’s very much to Amazon Prime’s credit that it’s already available here. The premise is that a group of war-fleeing refugees turn up in America seeking asylum, claiming to be from 180 years in the future. Critical response has been lukewarm, and I don’t have access to Amazon Prime anyway, so if you try it let us know what it’s like.

On the subject of shows that I can’t legitimately watch, the sixth and final season of The Americans is starting tonight at 10pm. This annoys me because, despite regarding the show as a genuine best-thing-on-TV contender, the last couple of seasons were shown first on ITV Encore, a channel to which not everyone has access. And now it’s going out on ITV4, a more widely available channel, but I’ve lost touch with it so won’t be watching. (I think at least one of the past two seasons might have been repeated on ITV4, but I only know that because I stumbled across it halfway through.) Shame.

Also starting: the post-hiatus rest of season 4 of Madam Secretary (5 April, Sky Living, 9pm); season 5 of Silicon Valley (5 April, Sky Atlantic, 10.15pm); season 2 of Star (tonight, 5star, 10pm); and Fox UK’s new spy thriller Deep State, in which Mark Strong plays a retired hitman who has to deal with an MI6 cell gone rogue in the Middle East. Might be OK (5 April, Fox UK, 9pm).