Madam Secretary: “The Whisper of the Ax”

(Episode 1.14)

TV Reviews Madam Secretary
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Madam Secretary: “The Whisper of the Ax”

Wow. Madame Secretary just kicked things up a notch and this first installment of the “Spring Event” three-parter was, by far, the best episode of the season. It was tightly paced by director Eric Stoltz (yes, that Eric Stoltz) and writer (and show creator) Barbara Hall, and was jam-packed with skullduggery.

While the episode didn’t have the level of Henry that I prefer (I want more NSA Henry. Or at least more Bess-Henry-Isabelle Scooby gang), it was chock-a-block with everything else we’ve come to love about this show, and pretty much consisted of two A plots: Bess’ testimony before Senator Burke’s subcommittee, the resulting fallout and recovery, and the continuing investigation into the death (assassination, really) of Secretary Marsh.

Let’s deal with the more straightforward plot first. Senator Everard Burke (John Bradford Lloyd) has apparently been gunning for Bess ever since she hit that mammoth tee shot in episode 2 (“Another Benghazi”) and because she’s apparently out-polling the president. He’s got what he thinks is an ace up his sleeve, and is determined to embarrass Bess on national TV. It works, too.

Bess’s staff really screwed the pooch in allowing her to get blindsided like that. And, to be honest, someone’s head should have rolled immediately. The fact is, it’s pretty much unheard of for an incoming cabinet official to retain many of the previous secretary’s staff, much less all of them—and while I like the cast, it wouldn’t be out of line for someone to move on. Bess ripping the entire staff a new one and bringing in Mike B. (and his Blue Heeler, Gordon) as a fixer is a good first step. Besides, I’m a fan of Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm.

Not only that, but the staff are showing signs of stress, especially Jay, whom you might remember as the guy who almost got fired back in episode three. The clever resolution to the Burke issue notwithstanding, the fact that Mike B. is sticking around seems to indicate that someone’s leaving. While I figured out the move with Jay almost immediately, it doesn’t make it any less of a brilliant move by Bess and Mike B.

As for Burke’s vendetta against Bess, here’s where we run into a little conflict with reality, which has been a recurring issue with this series: We have no idea which political party anyone belongs to, and that makes parsing the relationships and encounters occasionally problematic. In DC, party affiliation makes a difference (all the difference?). If Senator Burke is of the same party as the president, it’s unlikely he’d go after the Secretary of State like he does. If he wasn’t in the president’s party, he likely wouldn’t care that Bess was out-polling POTUS. It was a neat dramatic device at the beginning, but 14 episodes in, they really do have to address this.

As for the spy games, they’re certainly getting interesting. It was pretty obvious that the Istanbul operation was doomed to failure (never once did a decent TV show refer to a covert op as easy, and then have it go off without a hitch) and it’s clear a mole hunt was around the corner. The obvious choices were Isabelle (Marin Hinkle), Juliet (Nilaja Sun) and Munsey (Patrick Breen), but Bess eliminated Munsey immediately, while Isabelle dismissed Juliet, since the latter wanted nothing to do with the investigation, thus leaving herself as the only viable suspect. Alas, it came down to Occam’s Razor: Among competing theories, the one with the fewest assumptions is the more likely.

Of course in drama, the simplest option is rarely the correct solution and there’s almost always a last-minute twist. Occam’s Razor doesn’t account for listening devices planted by moles!

So Juliet’s on the run and George is posthumously implicated in the cover-up of the Dubai crash. Does that mean that Juliet killed him, because she knew George could trace the cause of Secretary Marsh’s murder back to the Dubai crash? Was George involved in the murder of Secretary Marsh? How much of Juliet’s story about her kids was true, and where are they, really? Clearly this isn’t a two-person operation and the Iranians have already been implicated, but who else is involved? The mind spins!

Some further thoughts:

• Jason’s joining the debate team (“Do we really want him to get better at it?”) Like I said… Jason for President!

• Bess doesn’t know how long the budget is? Seriously?

• In addition to the above quote, this episode was jammed with good uns:
“We agreed, I cook one night a week and we all just get through it.”
“The PR on this is a nightmare with a hair stuck to it.”
“That was a sack full of mangled kittens in the hot sun, 2 weeks old.”

• Finally, Maisy is born!

Mark Rabinowitz is a Louisville-based freelance writer, film producer, and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and a former film critic for CNN.com. He loves Wombles, The Bay City Rollers and liverwurst. One of those is a lie. You can follow him on Twitter.