Madam Secretary, Season 1 Episode 15: “The Ninth Circle”

I’ve never seen an episode of Madam Secretary, although it’s exactly the kind of television show I’d like: Borgen meets Homeland and some of The Good Wife. There were good reviews for the pilot, but the next two episodes were not seen as favourably, so I decided to see what critics were saying at the end of the season. The problem with that is that I live in Australia, and Channel Ten has a production deal with CBS Studios, so the Madam Secretary schedule is erratic at best. I finally got a chance to watch it tonight, and while it’s a pretty good show, it was much more serialised than I was expecting at this stage, so it took me a few minutes to catch up what was going on.

I’m going to get the one thing I didn’t like about Madam Secretary out of the way first, because it’s not a bad show, but the storyline with the kid dragged it down. So many shows about women in high powered positions are about balancing the work and family life, and it doesn’t always work, see The Good Wife. Some shows like The Americans and Mad Men are able to make it work; Sally Draper and Paige Jennings are some excellently written and acted television teenage daughters, but Mad Men is about Don Draper and The Americans is about spies who try to keep what they do from affecting their children. There were also some issues in Borgen in relation to Birgitte’s children, and while I came around on the story with Laura and her anxiety, that’s because I connected with it on a personal level. This week on Madam Secretary, Tea Leoni’s son (I don’t know any other characters’ names) punches a kid for calling his mother a liar, and gets expelled because it’s a Quaker school. No violence, you have to sincerely apologise to not get expelled. It turns out he wanted to get expelled because he doesn’t like the school. What kind of kid does that? And why should I care? The CIA ran a covert operation in Turkey without the government’s permission!

This is the ‘procedural’ story of the week, which is also connected to a bunch of other things that happened earlier in the season. An Iranian woman died in Turkey, and the Iranian government wants that laptop as much as Tea Leoni does. There’s evidence to suggest to the Iranians that the woman was a CIA asset, and their foreign minister threatens war. More on that later. At some point, the CIA ran a black ops mission in Turkey and their man died. Unfortunately the Turkish government had CCTV footage of the incident and release it to the press, and Elizabeth travels to Turkey to fix it all up. Oh yeah, and there was a CIA mole and someone named Secretary Marsh was murdered. Elizabeth thought it was a good friend of hers but then it was another good friend. This will be important later.

The most fascinating part of the show was Elizabeth negotiating with the Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Iran. I like that this show doesn’t back away from pointing out Elizabeth’s hypocrisy: she just violated another country’s sovereignty running an operation in which two of their citizens died, and all she cares about is that laptop. The Turkish Foreign Minister negotiates a deal for natural gas in exchange with the laptop and then flips and gives the laptop to the Iranians and accepts the United States’ apology for the operation. It’s not what Elizabeth negotiated, and I like it. For this show to be interesting, she can’t always get what she wants, but there’s a compromise.

Meanwhile, the public servants back in Washington DC aren’t happy. All Elizabeth has given her press secretary (or the Department’s press secretary) are the talking points on the Turkey thing, and she’s frustrated. Suddenly she’s developing a conscience because this whole Turkey business seems shady and she doesn’t want to be in legal trouble. Hasn’t she seen The West Wing? CJ was constantly kept in the dark because that way she had plausible deniability. Also she works for the State Department. Her Secretary is in the Middle East, and no matter how much the press is trying to get an angle on this thing, if there’s a leak Elizabeth could be in real danger. She has a couple of conversations with someone who is apparently Elizabeth’s Chief of Staff, even though she doesn’t see that much of him. They mention that maybe it’s just that things are done differently in DC. Really? Why are people with no experience of working in Washington DC working for the Secretary of State? Get some new staff! I’m sure Bebe Neuwirth will be all over it though, if anyone can sort that out it’s Lillith Crane.

Onto the stuff with the mole, which I don’t entirely understand because I had to intuit a lot of information I didn’t have, but I did manage to guess some things. Juliette was the name of the woman who was the mole. She left a note saying she did all of this because she was a patriot. From what we learn at the end, some man named Andrew (who was mentored by President Keith Carradine) has been working behind the scenes to organise a coup in Iran, and I’m guessing Juliette was working with him. When the Iranian Foreign Minister tells Elizabeth that laptop girl was a CIA asset she was surprised. Here is what I wrote in my notes: “If Elizabeth doesn’t know about this, she was probably working with the woman who was revealed to be the CIA mole”. After the ad break, Elizabeth had come to the same conclusion I did, even if Andrew was the one she was working for. The CIA is all a diversion from the real threat! I did like that the Iranian government looked at the laptop and when he saw what was on it he gave it to Elizabeth, knowing that they’re both trying to prevent war from breaking out. There’s a greater threat out there, so they need to put whatever issues they have behind them. I liked this episode of Madam Secretary, and I think I’m going to have to catch up on the previous episodes if only to learn other characters’ names and find out why Elizabeth has separate meetings with two different sets of staff.

Other thoughts:

  • “Something tells me that’s not a cat video”
  • Using The Good Wife method of showing the first act before the opening title card
  • An actual note I took: There’s a Chekhov’s laptop!
  • Things I learned from the ad break: I guess The Bachelor is starting soon. I thought we were doing The Bachelorette this year instead. It said “Real Romance,” we all know that’s a lie.
  • International relations in one line: “We’re both on the side of profit”
  • Elizabeth and her husband have matching glasses, I thought it was cute.
  • Tea Leoni looks concerned while looking at a laptop. Is there a “Tea Leoni looking at things” tumblr?
  • The promo for next week told me that it’s the episode I’ve been waiting for, which is impressive, since I’ve seen exactly one episode of this show.
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