Madam Secretary Review: “The Operative”

(Episode 1.03)

TV Reviews Madam Secretary
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<i>Madam Secretary</i> Review: &#8220;The Operative&#8221;

While two “ripped from the headlines” episodes in a row might not qualify as a trend, it does qualify as a worrisome feature of a nascent TV drama. Whereas last week’s episode was titled (rather on-the-nosey) “Another Benghazi,” this one is no-less derivative of the real world. It’s the Snowden episode. Not only is it obviously the Snowden episode, when it becomes clear that a former State Department employee is releasing classified information, Elizabeth mutters “Oh great. Our very own Snowden.” Just in case we didn’t get it, I guess.

The episode opens in the West African nation of Guinea, where an American named Gina Fisher is looking for her contact, code-named Viper. She finds him and he warns, “What I got is gonna bring the United States to its knees.” We fear the worst.

Back in the US, Elizabeth is holding a ceremony and press conference with French Foreign Minister Du Bois and the first question happens to come from none other than… Gina Fisher (revealed to be a reporter from the Washington Chronicle) who points out that while Elizabeth speaks about the French as longtime friends of the US, her very own senior policy advisor Jay Whitman (Sebastian Arcelus) has referred to the Minister as “an empty crepe with a Napoleon complex” in an email.

How does she know this? Well, she proceeds to inform the assembled press and State department personnel that her paper is at that moment publishing the details of thousands of private emails that expose rampant spying by the US on friendly foreign governments, speaking ill of their officials, etc. If you caught the Snowden and WikiLeaks incidents, you know what’s coming. Much like (exactly like?) some of the early WikiLeaks releases, Viper reveals some minor, but embarrassing emails and cables, causing a diplomatic kerfuffle, but not exactly the sort of thing that cripples nations.

On the home front, Henry’s been invited to lunch by the Russian Foreign Minister, ostensibly to discuss the former’s article on the Russian Orthodox Church. Except, not so much. It turns out that the minister’s daughter is in one of Henry’s classes and is unhappy with her grades. The Russian tells Henry that if his daughter doesn’t get an A, he will make things very tough for Elizabeth. Of course Henry tells him where to stick it. Unfortunately, this exchange happens off camera, and instead we learn about it much later from Henry, around the dining room table. Missed opportunity, there.

Now, right there is where I should have turned off the episode and never gone back. The sheer absurdity of this scenario boggles the mind, and is yet another clear indication that the people writing this show know nothing about politics. The very idea that a high-ranking Russian official would threaten to destabilize relations with the US (more than they already are) over his kid’s grades, is laughable. The show is going to have to try much harder to come up with a plausible “work/home” overlap for the McCords. But I stuck with it for you, gentle readers! And for the cast, in the hopes that the show will improve.

Later, Elizabeth calls Fisher into her office and “tricks” her into revealing that her source has Top Secret SCI clearance and that round two of the leaks is going to include the identity of every US covert operative currently in the field, leading to panic time at the White House.

Elizabeth convinces POTUS that Fisher is likely telling the truth, and the US quickly moves to call in all of their covert assets. All except one, who’s been spying on Pakistan. He’s captured by the Pakistani military just outside the US embassy gates and hauled off to prison. In short order, he’s convicted and sentenced to death, leaving Elizabeth with a “second front,” as it were. Already beset by a former high-ranking state department official releasing sensitive information, she now has to effect the release of a captured CIA operative.

Thanks to a suggestion from Jay (which manages to go a long way towards saving his job, after “crepe gate”), Elizabeth manages to come up with the following solution: Pakistan wants a defensive weapons system that India has, and while the US can’t sell it to them, the Russians will, in exchange for… wait for it… Henry giving the foreign minister’s daughter an A. No, really.

Henry is understandably furious, pointing out that he’s teaching a course in ethics, and how dare Elizabeth put her work ahead of his? His entire life’s work would be ruined if it got out. He refuses and Elizabeth backs off. Cut to commercial…. Immediately after the break, Elizabeth comes back with the idea that if Henry gives the minister’s daughter an Incomplete, the deal still goes through and Henry grudgingly agrees.

Viper, on the other hand, has contracted Schistosomiasis in Guinea and without treatment, will die. Not only that, the government of Guinea refuses to release him, saying that his knowledge is too valuable. Somehow the Russians manage to put a little diplomatic pressure on the Guinea government and Viper is released.

This show really needs to cut down on the patently absurd situations. Why on earth would the Russians help to free an American whistleblower, so that he could be flown back to the US and tried for espionage? I mean, the show directly refers to Snowden! It also can’t seem to make up its mind as to how much of the real world it inhabits. Clearly the world of Madam Secretary has Benghazi and Edward Snowden, but then conveniently ignores that Guinea is basically ground zero for the Ebola outbreak.

Also, and I know I have said this before, but this show would be better served if Tim Daly’s Henry and their kids had more of a part to play. While this episode does try for more balance, it’s not enough. Daly’s a fantastic actor who’s given very little to do most of the time, and their son Jason (Evan Roe) is a budding anarchist and has massive scene-stealing potential.

While the dialog is generally above par and the quips and bon mots flow freely, the story development is stagnant and unrealistic—and Zeljko Ivanek’s White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson is a cartoon villain.

Mark Rabinowitz is a Nashville-based freelance writer, film producer, and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and really likes cheese. You can follow him on Twitter.