TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 3, “The Operative”

Beth McCord gets her very own Snowden situation.
TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 3, “The Operative”
Beth gets some bad news from her staffers. Photograph by Patrick Harbron/CBS.

As I noted last week, Madam Secretary’s second episode seemed to spin its wheels a bit, doing the work of reestablishing the world laid out in the pilot without moving the overarching story forward. While the third installment didn’t mention the conspiracy plot at all, it did show another side of our heroine Elizabeth McCord: the side that’s not afraid to bend her own ethical rules to get the result she wants. To the recap.

We open on a dark street in Guinea, where a blonde woman with her head covered is rushing through the streets, following orders from a garbled voice on the other end of a burner phone. The voice in question belongs to “Viper,” an Edward Snowden type (right down to the impressively groomed facial hair), who greets the blonde as Gina Fisher and tells her, “What I got is gonna bring the United States to its knees.”

Over at the White House, Beth is being presented with a bottle of rare cognac by a French diplomat. She praises the US’s long partnership with France, and it’s all hunky-dory until the Q&A portion, when Gina stands up and asks Beth to explain why her staffer (Jay) in an e-mail referred to the diplomat as “an empty crepe with a Napoleon complex” (which is a joke I appreciate on many levels). Gina says she’s received a pile of confidential cables from Viper, which she’s posted on the Washington Chronicle website. Beth has to spend the rest of the day personally apologizing to all the other world leaders who were subject to insulting comments in the leaked cables, and tells Jay he’s only got his job until she can find a replacement for him. She also “Jedi mind tricks” Gina into revealing Viper’s security clearance, which turns out to be extremely high, meaning he has the capacity to blow the cover of field agents all over the world.

Beth suggests to the President and Russell Jackson that they bring in all the undercover agents, and POTUS for once agrees with her. Before the next batch of leaked documents hits the internet they manage to pull in all the agents except for one. In a scene that has more tension than Madam Secretary has shown so far, we see the agent via dashboard cam driving frantically to the US Embassy in Pakistan; he’s about a quarter mile away from the entrance when he gets captured. Beth has to tell the troops guarding the embassy not to forcibly retake him, and he’s carted off to prison pleading to the camera to tell his parents he loves them. This is the first time I think we’ve seen Elizabeth sacrifice an individual in favor of political appearances, and while it obviously pains her she doesn’t hesitate to make that call.

Back at Chez McCord, Henry has found out (via spying on her texts) that his youngest daughter has been broken up with. He and Beth try to convince themselves it’s okay to read their kids’ private correspondence—“We spy because we love,” says Elizabeth. “Like the US on France,” Henry answers. Also their wayward older daughter Stevie has gotten a job as a hostess at a steakhouse, which seems to have no bearing on the plot. In a neat, though farfetched, move to integrate the family and government storylines, Henry gets a call from the second most powerful guy in Russia, whose daughter happens to be in Henry’s ethics class and is currently earning a C. The Russian guy tries to use Beth’s current political snafu to blackmail Henry into raising his daughter’s grade, which Henry refuses. He apologizes to Beth for making her job more difficult, but she tells him she finds his morals “sexy.”

Not everything is sexy fun time, though: Beth is still trying to save the life of the secret agent, who’s being tortured in a Pakistani prison. She meets with the Pakistani ambassador and offers him a public apology, which doesn’t appease him. She tasks her staff with finding out what would change the government’s mind, and “dead man walking” Jay suggests a ballistics system that Pakistan wants because India has it. Beth has the creative but morally questionable idea of having Russia offer it to Pakistan—in exchange for Henry giving the Russian minister’s daughter a better grade. Henry, of course, is outraged and insulted that she would sacrifice his work for hers; and to make matters worse, their youngest daughter picks the middle of their argument to finally announce she’s been dumped, which Beth brushes off to her daughter’s dismay. She’s also trying to find a replacement for Jay, which Russell Jackson is suspiciously happy to help with: He personally recommends a candidate, and Beth worries that anyone Jackson suggests would always be Jackson’s guy. “Everyone is someone else’s guy until they’re your guy,” Nadine tells her.

Eventually, Beth manages to talk Henry into giving his student an incomplete so her GPA won’t suffer, Schaffer makes it back to the embassy, and the McCord marriage lives to see another day—though not without Beth worrying to Henry that her job is turning her into a morally compromised version of herself. They also decide together—after finding out their daughter has a new 17-year-old boyfriend—to stop reading her texts (which seems like the exact wrong time to stop, if you ask me).

The Viper storyline is resolved without much fanfare: He comes down with a rare infection overseas, and while Guinea initially refuses to let him leave, the Russians (who apparently have plenty of sway over many different countries) convince the government to send him back to America, where he will stand trial after being “dewormed.” Elizabeth shares out her French cognac with her staffers, including Jay, whom she refuses to fire. He’s surprised she’s willing to keep him on, and says he’d intended to stay with her predecessor all the way to the White House—and she tells him he’s welcome to go if an opportunity presents itself. “But while you’re here,” she stipulates, “you’re my guy.”

A few thoughts:

I don’t much care about the kids’ plot lines, but has anyone ever eaten an omelet as hilariously sadly as Allie did in this episode?

The relationship between Beth and Russell could use some more nuance—he’s almost cartoonishly ornery, in a way that seems incredibly unrealistic.

Beth’s communications managers: merely bad, or some of the least capable on TV? I’ll take more Nadine and Jay and less of…those other two, please.

“If you’re asking me to be the man beside the woman, I’m in.” Henry is great at playing Supportive Spouse, but I hope the toll of Beth’s job on their marriage (and the male/female dynamic) continues to be explored in the future.

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

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