Madam Secretary, Season 1 Episode 20: “The Necessary Act”

“The Necessary Act” is an episode of television I’ve seen before. The West Wing did it several times. There was a crisis, everyone spent the day in the situation room, and it was solved. Madam Secretary is a show that is placed right in the middle of my wheelhouse, but “The Necessary Act” feels unneccessary. At this stage of the first season, with only two episodes left, there are still some ongoing storylines that haven’t been resolved, and haven’t been mentioned for a few weeks. The White House is still dealing with a scandal in which its own intelligence agency and former Secretary of State were planning a coup in Iran; last week President Keith Carradine went to Brussels for a victory lap on the Greek debt deal, because it would be good for post-scandal optics. This week, he obviously has a little more on his mind with a Russian submarine in US waters, but what’s happening with everything else? There are two episodes left, so I’m sure it will be addressed, but all I’m saying is that this episode would have felt much more appropriate earlier in the season instead of that terrible faux-Edward Snowden episode where they namechecked Snowden. That was weird.

A rundown of this week’s events: There’s a Russian nuclear submarine in US waters. It has stealth technology. Elizabeth argues with military personnel about what to do with it for a good 70% of the episode. Why would they just sit there? As it happens, Henry has a new job with the Department of Defence, and he’s giving a lecture on military ethics in Russia. The Russian President shows up, invites Henry to go hunting with him, and then threatens Henry to send a message to Elizabeth and Keith Carradine. Elizabeth tries to clear her schedule, but she couldn’t get out of the retirement party for a man who worked for the Department for 60 years. As it happens, he worked at State during the Cold War, so they chat a bit about knowing your enemy and military tactics. The US vessel fires at the submarine, which fires back. Henry and the Russian President go to a church and talk about Saint Nicholas. The US Navy communicates with the submarine, which has already lost 45 crew members due to oxygen depletion. They come up with a solution and get Henry to sell it for them.

There’s nothing bad about “The Necessary Act”, it’s just that there’s nothing particularly interesting, either. This could have been an episode of any procedural on television, and Madam Secretary has proven its skill with serialised storylines. Although this week we did have the Russian Ambassador who tried to blackmail Henry into giving his daughter an A, which was another stupid storyline, quite possibly from that fake-Snowden episode. At its best, Madam Secretary reminds me of the first season of The Good Wife, which had the same blend of procedural and serialised elements. I realise I’m criticising this show quite harshly, but that’s because I think it could be really good. The questions I have about this episode being towards the end of the season have to do with the way the overall season was structured: would Madam Secretary benefit from a shortened order in future seasons? Probably. Given that it airs on CBS, where 22 episode seasons are the norm, it’s going to need to have a few of these types of episodes up its sleeve each season. I have no idea how long this show is expected to run, but the serialised stuff is much more interesting. Maybe this show needs to be on cable, I don’t know. All I’m saying is that after I’ve seen what Madam Secretary can do, I want to see more of that and less of this.

Other thoughts:

  • Stevie breaks up with Arthur, who is her boss, after her younger sister posts a photo of Stevie and Harrison on Instagram. Daisy goes over for damage control and tells Stevie to shut it down. Eh.
  • I really want the retiring State Department official to come back, he was great:
    Elizabeth: “You know how to read the signs”
    Him: “You should tell that to the DMV, they took my damn licence!”
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