Madam Secretary, Season 1 Episode 21: “The Kill List”

Henry: I think we have officially gone through the looking glass.

The Madam Secretary writers have done their research. Ironically, their episodes seem much more ripped from the headlines as they air in Australia than they would have however many weeks ago when they were broadcast on CBS. A few weeks ago it was Greece, and this week sees President Dalton signing a nuclear peace treaty with Iran. The main complaint I have about this storyline is that there are no members of Congress protesting the bill (As John Oliver said, it’s going to be a long 60 days), and the only real opposition on the side of the United States is Juliette’s attempt to assassinate President Shiraz. There’s the protest as well, but that fits into the broader themes of an episode and what it means to work in government and make a decision that benefits the most people.

Foreign policy isn’t black and white, and one of Madam Secretary‘s greatest strengths has been its ability to convey this, and “The Kill List” is one of the best episodes of the season. The Iranian government has scheduled the execution of a gay man by stoning at the same time the signing of the peace treaty is supposed to take place. If this was The West Wing, they probably would have solved it, or made some rousing patriotic speech to music. As much as I complained about “Spartan Figures”, Madam Secretary is a much more pragmatic show than The West Wing. Everything that has happened – the failed coup, the execution, and Juliette’s betrayal – has caused Elizabeth to question whether this thing she has been working on for months is inherently a good thing. Does she want to be making deals with the Iranians? What I like about Madam Secretary is that it doesn’t seek to answer these questions, just ask them. It is wrong to execute a person for being gay, but The President of the United States’ first duty is to his people, not those of Iran. There is no perfect solution, and that’s how politics works, it’s a series of compromises.

The pair of scenes that bookend the episode (aside from the middle child’s driving lessons) are of Elizabeth talking to her psychiatrist. This isn’t a new narrative technique, but it works here, because Elizabeth has so much going on in her life. Juliette didn’t just betray her country, she killed George. What has to happen to a person that they suddenly think it’s a good idea to stage a coup in Iran and kill a friend of over 20 years? Juliette is back in focus this week because of the Iran deal; and also because she led the authorities right to her doorstep in Algeria. I like this part of the show, because we learn just a little of how the tradecraft works. Juliette hacked into her ex-husband’s webcam to see her children, but it pinged a server, and the DoD got a location. Dalton wanted to bomb her, and Elizabeth wasn’t able to negotiate a drone strike with the Algerians. It causes a bit of a wrinkle in her relationship with President Keith Carradine, but it all works out in the end, because Juliette had already left Algeria by the time she set up that trap. She wanted them to bomb the location.

After the failed coup, Juliette flew back to DC to assassinate President Shiraz. There was some DC Metro cop she had in her pocket. They met when they were in Iraq – he was a soldier, and she was CIA Station Chief. It was the beginning of a beautiful romance. The Algeria situation was just a diversion to distract the DoD so they didn’t find out she was back in the States. The only reason Elizabeth figures it out is because she went to Juliette’s daughter’s birthday party, where the little girl says “Mommy has a golden halo”, and Juliette is wearing a gold headscarf in some security footage. They stop the assassination attempt in time, and the FBI arrest Juliette as she walks up to her house to see her children one last time.

I’m glad this wasn’t the season finale, because some important things still need to happen, namely Elizabeth’s interrogation of her old friend. After everything that’s gone on, Elizabeth is now questioning the principles behind this nuclear treaty. It’s one thing to sign a treaty, it’s another thing to abide by it. When it came to the gay man, it was a calculated move on the part of Iran to demonstrate their power. In foreign policy, to dictate what another country should be doing is violating its sovereignty. These deals happen in the grey areas, which is one of the reasons Elizabeth is uncertain whether this treaty is a good idea. But she serves at the pleasure of the President, and the President sets the agenda. I’m looking forward to seeing how the fictional US and Iran continue their diplomatic relations in season two, and I’m glad we have another episode before we get there.

Other thoughts:

  • I started re-watching the first season of Fargo yesterday because some television critics in New York and Los Angeles have seen the season two premiere, and I kind of wish that President Dalton was actually Lou Solverson. Also Alison Tolman should be in everything, she’s amazing.
  • Elizabeth, to her therapist: “Oh, you want to know how I feel about it.”
  • Elizabeth, to her daughter: “You cannot just have a fighter pilot teach you how to drive”
  • I love Elizabeth and Henry teaching their children how to get past the Secret Service, it’s delightful
  • I had more thoughts, but I can’t remember them. Oh wait, it was about poor Juliette’s ex-husband, who keeps getting questioned by the FBI when he hasn’t seen her in over two months. Elizabeth and Henry really want to tell him what’s going on, but they can’t, and also they will break his and his children’s hearts if they do.
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