Public Service Announcement 67 of 2019: Madam Secretary

Madam Secretary returns to British screens for its sixth and final season tomorrow. This means that, for the last time, I get to say that this notably smart and well-scripted political drama, with a great ensemble cast, is one of the most underrated shows around. It ploughs many of the same fields as The West Wing, of course, and probably suffers from that comparison, as would just about every TV show in the history of the medium.

Anyway, this final 10-episode run sees Elizabeth stepping into the Oval as the first female POTUS. (Although hardly the first fictional one, of course.) I’m a little ambivalent about this development, as I thought that much of the show’s strength derived from watching her negotiate the various relationships in the White House, at the same time as keeping the world from bursting into flames. But I can’t imagine the writers will get it wrong at this stage (Thursday 5 December, Sky Witness, 10pm).

Madam Secretary s5 ep 20

When this episode was being made, it looked quite possible that it would have to function as a series, as well as season, finale. (Mad Sec has, of course, since been renewed for a sixth and final ten-episode season.) With that in mind, the writers clearly decided to leave everything on the field.

We’re at the final stage of nailing down the treaty on climate change migration: Russia and China are holdouts, but brought back into line quickly enough. Elizabeth then officially tenders her resignation, but stays in post long enough to go before the Foreign Relations Committee and bitch-slap Senator Luke Wheeler out of Nashville, then twist the arm of another Senator into supporting the treaty. With that, POTUS has the numbers in the Senate as well; the deal is done.

And that. it appears, is pretty much Mad Sec’s job done as well, and all that’s left is for her formally to announce her candidature for the White House. In anticipation Mike B has Daisy and Blake vetting Elizabeth’s kids: Blake is a bit rough on Stevie, and takes her out for a drink to apologise. They’re getting on well, and then they’re standing outside the bar, perhaps a little closer together than necessary, and all of a sudden you know where this is going… and they TOTALLY KISS. This possibility hadn’t even been on my radar until this episode, and now I am HERE for it. (They wind back to “platonic” later. Hmph.)

But there’s one final foreign policy crisis to be handled, and it’s a big one: so big, in fact, that it… kind of gets underplayed a little? Anyway, the UN Security Council, including Ambassador Peter Harriman, is meeting in Geneva. But a white nationalist terrorist group murders the entire Security Council with sarin. The entire Security Council. I mean, that’s not the sort of thing you can just… move on from? Anyway, this starts to scare off some treaty signatories, with a view to their own domestic politics; particularly when Luke Wheeler basically says that the terrorists have a point and that he’ll cancel the treaty if elected.

Cometh the hour, though: Russian Foreign Secretary Avdonin clearly wants to do business with Elizabeth rather than Luke, and tips her off that the Wheeler campaign has been bought. One very quick investigation later there’s a money trail from Russian oligarchs to a Wheeler Super PAC; and, unlike in real life, evidence of Russian support for a campaign is enough to knock the candidate out. Elizabeth then tries to walk back her resignation – the country needs her, etc. – but POTUS tells her to get out there and secure their legacy. Which she does: or, at least, she declares, and presumably we’ll get to see the outcome in the final season.

It’s an excellent end to another good season; perhaps it sagged a little in the second half of the run, but Madam Secretary continues to be a reliable source of grown-up pleasure: a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted drama. The writers maybe wore their hearts on their sleeves more explicitly this time round, but these are not normal times, so I’ll forgive them that one.

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Although Elizabeth has not yet officially announced her Presidential run – a run which the show’s renewal for a sixth, ten-episode, season means we will see – she has started to assemble her campaign team. Unsurprisingly, her campaign team is more or less the same as her team in the State Department, plus Mike B and minus Nina, who in declining to work for her proposed new boss – a well-known groper – will eventually bring him down. Elizabeth is courted by Democrats and Republicans to seek their party’s nomination, although she decides to follow POTUS and run as an independent. And Luke Wheeler out of Nashville announces that he’s seeking the GOP nomination, running on a populist-nationalist platform.

There’s also a little State business to be handled. But, this week, only a little. China has broken an international embargo by selling a fighter jet to Myanmar, which is oppressing the Rohingya people. Elizabeth spars, more or less amiably, with her old foe Foreign Minister Ming, then tries to have the treatment of the Rohingya classified by the UN as genocide.

The main action, though, revolves around a newspaper story that Elizabeth and Conrad had an affair while working together at the CIA. Elizabeth denies it, and to start with Mike B thinks they should just ignore the story and make no comment. Since this advice is very evidently insane Elizabeth will, in due course, go on the record with her rebuttal. However, Henry wavers just a little – of course he believes Elizabeth, but would there be any, uh, evidence of this affair you definitely weren’t having? – and for a few delicious minutes I was prepared to consider the possibility that it  might have happened. However, Conrad also denies it, so I suppose that’s that. An entertaining episode, but it would have been even better if the final scene had been Elizabeth and Conrad in the Oval, with one of them saying to the other “Think we got away with it, then?”. That might have introduced an air of jeopardy to a show which is occasionally a little short on real tension.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 18

The episode starts with Elizabeth rehearsing an important, yet dull, speech on climate change and related migration. And after a string of important, yet dull, episodes of Madam Secretary, I’m afraid my heart didn’t leap with joy. I know I should be a better person, but in all honesty I come to this show to be entertained, and the second half of the season has been a little too didactic for my tastes.

Unexpectedly, though, the episode takes off from there. Poland starts to make noises about pulling out of Elizabeth’s climate migration deal, and other central and eastern European you tries threaten to follow suit. In an attempt to shore up her position she asks an old acquaintance, Lena, a Polish academic, to make a speech in support. However, Lena is then the subject of an assassination attempt, which appears to be a black-ops job ordered by Polish intelligence. The President wants sanctions on Poland, but the Foreign Relations Committee – chaired, of course, by future Presidential candidate Senator Luke Wheeler out of Nashville – says no.

Meantime Elizabeth is insistent that Lena – a Polish national, but an American resident – should be extracted from Poland. There are all sorts of problems with this; it’s one thing to rattle sabres with an enemy, but Poland is a fellow-member of NATO. In the face of Russell’s objections, POTUS gives the go-ahead. The extraction is successful, and the diplomatic shit hits the fan. And just to complicate things at home Alison, Elizabeth’s daughter, is dating Lucas, Morejon’s son. Henry and Morejon have a sit-down at which they agree that family is off-limits, and Henry tries to persuade Morejon to back away from Senator Luke Wheeler’s populism. Which he does; and, I say again, I can now totally see Morejon as Elizabeth’s running mate. 

Amazingly, Elizabeth pulls it all together, which prompts Russell to tell her that she’s ready for the Oval. So she tenders her resignation to Dalton in order that she can officially run. 

I was bored by the first five minutes of this episode, and thrilled by the rest. Even the C-plot – in which UN Ambassador Harriman gives Elizabeth’s assistant Nina a pep-talk about how working-class grafters like them always succeed, because they can’t afford to fail – looks unassuming to start with, but is solid gold.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 17

Elizabeth is off to Camp David to work on he speech she plans to give when announcing her Presidential run – in fact, she features so sparingly in this episode I thought Téa Leoni might be directing. (She isn’t.) Jay, then, is left in charge of an international roundtable on migration due to climate change, which is derailed by an outbreak of measles for which migrants are blamed. Divya from Royal Pains plays a Department of Health staffer, or maybe a CDC doctor.

And, meantime, the global is made personal when Daisy and daughter Joanna, returning to the States after a holiday, are suspected of carrying measles and detained at the airport. Joanna, in fact, does indeed have measles, and it’s a bad case; at one point, she needs to be intubated. Another family – who had decided, unlike Daisy, not to have their daughter vaccinated – is in the same position, which allows for the issues around vaccination, herd immunity, and so on, to be ventilated. 

It’s all a bit PSA. I mean, I agree entirely with the thrust of the pro-vaccination arguments — I might even go as far as Russell, and make vaccination compulsory; I’d certainly require proof of it before children could go to state schools – but I found this uncomfortably preachy, even by Mad Sec’s recent standards. Or perhaps it’s just that there’s no show without Secretary Punch.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 16

The most powerful storm in recorded history is heading for the Marshall Islands, an American protectorate. Then it swerves away, and instead hits Nauru. Its president and every single member of its parliament are killed. So who is Nauru’s, uh, designated survivor? Well, it’s David Akua, a 23-year-old consular assistant, who is currently living and studying in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth breaks the news to him.

Nauru’s bigger problem, though, is that it’s typhoon season, because of climate change the storms are worse than ever before, and there’s another cataclysmic one on the way. In short: the island needs to be evacuated. Of everyone.  The entire population. Whither the Nauruans, then? Resettling an entire people isn’t easy, but fortunately there’s a Johnny Depp-esque sleb, Bryce Manley, who owns an island and owes the IRS a fortune. He’s prevailed upon to hand over Bryce Manley Island: yes, that’s its name.

Meantime, as Elizabeth feels out her POTUS run, Mike B prevails upon her and Henry to make nice with some right-wing religious nutcases. They don’t do a good enough job, and Mike flounces out, although it turns out that his dog is terminally ill. Like I care. It should be noted that this storyline yields an intriguing performance from Lilli Kay, an actor who is new to me, as the daughter of the head nutcase. I think we’ll see more from her. Otherwise, this episode’s heart was so much in the right place that I feel bad about having found it a little boring. On the bright side, though, Mad Sec removed a whole country from the face of the Earth. That’s something.

Madam Secretary s5 ep 15

Sometimes it must really get to Madam Secretary, having to deal with crises which arise because people are just so effing stupid. She and the team are going to Afghanistan in order to shore up a previous deal (from season 4) under which the regime got billions of dollars in aid, brought the Taliban into government, and kept women out of office. And in return America got… not blown up, I guess? Not the perfect deal, Mad Sec concedes, but we are where we are.

Which is why Matt is on a plane to Kabul, sitting next to Farhana, a 17-year-old Afghan girl, who is heading home after heart surgery. Matt and Farhana chat a bit, but the whole thing is being filmed by Stupid Person #1, an American teen, who on landing edits the footage and uploads it to the internet, with a commentary implying that something romantic was going on.

This leads to Farhana turning up at the gate of the American embassy, fleeing for her life, because Stupid People #2, #3, and #4, her male relatives, are chasing her: unless Farhana is given sanctuary, she’s going to be the victim of an honour killing. Matt lets her in, but now we have a Mad Sec-level problem. For as long as Farhana is being kept within the compound, the deal is in jeopardy: the Afghan media is reporting that she’s being imprisoned. But if she’s kicked out, she’ll be killed. Becker, the Secretary of Defense (who I should probably mention more often, because he’s now in the show every week) tells Elizabeth that American lives are being jeopardised by her and her adherence to principle, a concept which he detectably has little truck with. Is there a solution…? There is, but to be honest it isn’t a great one, and Matt is incandescent with rage.

Back home, meantime, Elizabeth’s brother Will is having problems in his marriage. I thought this was going to annoy me, but it was actually quite well done. And the news that Elizabeth and Henry were, at one point, in counselling surprised Will almost as much as it surprised me. This, unexpectedly, made up for an A-plot which never quite took off.