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TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 2, “Another Benghazi”

The story we’ve all been expecting shows up in the second episode of the series.

Zeljko Ivanek, Keith Carradine, and Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary. Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn for CBS.

Madam Secretary the television show, much like Madam Secretary the Téa Leoni character, apparently will not be pulling any punches this season. With Hillary Clinton rumored to be among the female politicians who inspired the character of Elizabeth McCord—and the showrunners citing Clinton’s Benghazi testimony as one of the major influences behind the coneption of the series—it was pretty much inevitable that at some point the situation would be addressed in the fictional world. Still, it was a bit unexpected to see it tackled in just the second episode. Let’s get to the recap. 

Much like the pilot, this episode opens in a foreign land—this time Yemen, where an American diplomat is sitting down for a meal with his family. Suddenly they’re interrupted by gunfire outside, and the diplomat (who’s mostly referred to as Paul), peeks outside to see armed crowds rioting in the streets. Across the world, Beth McCord gets woken up by the persistent ringing of her phone. On the other end is Bebe Neuwirth—sorry, Nadine—who tells her about the situation. “On a scale of one to ten, how far away are we from another Benghazi?” Elizabeth asks. It’s about a seven, Nadine says. 

At the office, Beth learns the group responsible for the gunfire has given itself the catchy name of Death to America. Ambassador Paul refuses to abandon his post, so Beth wants to beef up his security—but in order to get the resources, she has to deal with Everard Burke, the chair of the appropriations committee, who Jay (Sebastian Arcelus) describes as “slow, methodical, and cheap.” Beth wants to know what Everard’s weakness is (and whether flirting might get her anywhere), but luckily is able to settle for meeting him on the golf course. Burke (John Bedford Lloyd, a poor man’s JK Simmons), of course refuses to give her the funds but does give her the chance to dazzle him with her drive. Then she goes to the President, who tells her to resolve it without the appearance of military action, so she decides to hire a private security firm called Vesuvian, despite a couple of years ago referring to said firm in a well-publicized article as “the latest guise of Satan.” 

She also has another problem: She’s managed somehow to give birth to a fully grown daughter who’s deep into her teen-rebellion-activist phase and has been detained by campus security at her college for leading a protest. Why haven’t we heard about this daughter before? Because, as Beth helpfully explains, Stephanie (or “Stevie,” as she’s called at home) agreed to her mom taking the Secretary of State position only if she was left out of all the press coverage. As television teenagers are wont to do, Stevue decides her recent semi-arrest is cause for her to drop out of college and come home, because all teenagers prefer being under the roof and supervision of their parents rather than at school. Except it turns out the real problem is that having a famous mom is making Stevie’s life at school miserable, a sob story she spins for her more sympathetic dad. 

Beth meets with Isaac Bishop, the head of Vesuvian, who’s still peeved at her remarks about him being Satan. She refuses to apologize, he makes some more devil jokes, and they agree he’ll send his men to Yemen. Beth gets Paul on Skype, and he jokes that he’s now better protected than Kate Middleton; then all of a sudden, gunfire erupts and the screen goes black. Early reports say the American security forces fired into a peaceful crowd, leading to retaliation, and Chief of Staff Russell Jackson says that politically speaking, the situation is “a lot worse” than Benghazi. They can’t get ahold of the Vesuvian team, and Beth assumes they ran off, only in it for the paycheck. But it turns out the soldiers of Satan were just following protocol, which says they shouldn’t get in touch until they’d secured the ambassador in their safe house. Paul’s alive, the reports about the Vesuvian team firing first were false, and there was only one American casualty—a member of the Vesuvian team. Russell says they “got lucky,” so Beth knows he still hasn’t forgiven her for sidestepping his authority, but the President seems pleased enough with her. Beth apologizes to Isaac Bishop, and he finally tells her that her criticism of Vesuvian inspired the company to make a lot of changes in their training. Everybody wins—except, of course, for the man who was killed, though his wife and child do get a personal visit from Beth. 

Speaking of children, Beth is employing some good old reverse psychology on her wayward daughter—she tells Stevie she can take a year off college, but she has to get a job, rather than “work on her novel” as she says she was planning to. So Stevie applies at a nonprofit, but the interviewer says the position requires a four-year degree. Stevie is thisclose to using her mom’s position to get what she wants, going so far as to drop “Secretary of State,” before having an unexplained change of heart. 

In the bigger season story arc, Beth is still suspicious about the death of her friend George; she quizzes the CIA director about whether the investigation was handled properly, and he says George’s body was too damaged to do any real testing, but he was “hitting the bottle pretty hard toward the end.” At home, Stevie sees George’s picture and asks her mom about the funeral. They laugh at how he used to be able to put together whole covert ops but tried—and failed—to learn simple magic tricks, and then Stevie asks what happened to him. “It was an accident,” says Beth, as she stares at George’s picture and ominous music plays. 

A few thoughts: 

The scenes with Beth’s staff are leaning too hard on “quirky”—the humor’s a bit weak, and they didn’t have much to do in this episode besides a couple of group scenes, so it may take longer for them to distinguish themselves as fleshed-out characters. 

“May I call you Elizabeth?” “No.” Leoni is pretty good at selling Beth’s approachable-yet-authoritative vibe, and her diction has gotten a bit crisper since the pilot episode. 

I’m curious to see how the younger two children fare as characters with the arrival of Stevie, who is set up immediately as more involved in the action. 

This episode felt a little wheel-spinny, with almost no forward motion on the conspiracy-theory plot introduced in the pilot. Here’s hoping that comes into play soon. 

“You would defend Mom if she stood over a bloody corpse with a knife.” If only Tim Daly were that devoted to all of us. 

What did you think of last night’s Madam Secretary? Let us know in the comments, and tune in next week for another recap. 

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