TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 4, “Just Another Normal Day”

We’re finally ready to talk about George.
TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 4, “Just Another Normal Day”
On the docket for Elizabeth this week: avoiding World War III. Photograph by Barbara Nitke/CBS.

A commenter informed me last week that Elizabeth McCord’s nickname is actually Bess, not Beth as I thought, so please pardon my poor hearing. Sunday’s episode had our heroine practically living at the office trying to solve yet another ethical dilemma; we also got some character development for her staffers, and Bao Bao the panda cub finally got a name-check. To the recap.

At Dulles Airport, a group of Chinese schoolchildren are getting ready to board a plane back to China. One of them, a girl with long hair and bangs, pulls a snow globe of the Lincoln Memorial out of her backpack and looks so nervous that I start wondering whether the snow globe is a bomb. When it’s her turn to board the plane, she refuses, saying she’ll be arrested if she goes back to China and she wants political asylum. She is Fu Xinpei, a “high school genius” who developed an eye-tracking technology to help quadriplegics use computers and in her spare time writes a blog criticizing the Chinese government. Why can’t Bess grant her asylum? Because she’s been up for four days straight “avoiding World War III,” a.k.a. brokering an agreement between Japan and China over uninhabited islands with natural gas deposits that both countries lay claim to. They finally agree to the treaty, until the Chinese ambassador hears about Xinpei and refuses to sign it until she’s returned to China.

Further complicating matters is the woman who shows up from Michigan with her young daughter in tow—a daughter who happens to be Xinpei’s sister, whom their mother had to give up for adoption 11 years before, thanks to China’s one-child rule. Bess’s staffers are in love with the story, but Bess still isn’t convinced Xinpei fits the requirements for political asylum. She visits Xinpei’s temporary home and plays Horse with her (in heels!), and doesn’t buy Xinpei’s canned line about fearing for her safety if she returns to China. Bess realizes Xinpei’s mother was the one who put her up to it and that she should deny asylum, which makes Daisy think she’s heartless. “Were you in the habit of questioning Secretary Marsh’s ethics?” Beth wants to know, name-checking her predecessor. “He never made me feel like I had to,” Daisy says.

Amid her staff’s crumbling faith in her, Bess learns that Xinpei’s mother was taken in for questioning by the Chinese secret police and died of a heart attack during the interrogation. She suspects foul play, but it turns out the mother had a preexisting heart condition—and a history of activism, which is why she sent her daughter to America. “She couldn’t have freedom, so she wanted it for you,” Beth says to Xinpei. She also says Xinpei now meets the requirements for asylum if she wants to stay. Cut to the next day, when Bess tells the Chinese ambassador she’ll send Xinpei back—but only after he signs the island treaty. The show lets us think Bess is heartless for about five seconds, until Daisy confronts her and Bess explains it was Xinpei’s choice to return to China. This is all too neat, but I appreciate that Bess sticks to her decisions without waffling (at least in front of her staff).

Bess also has two memorials to attend this week—one for her possibly murdered friend George, and the other for Secretary Marsh, at which she has to give a speech despite never having met him. Because of the China/Japan situation, Marsh’s memorial keeps getting postponed, which drives Nadine to a meltdown. She worked for Marsh ever since he was a senator, but that’s not why she’s so invested in his memory. In an unnecessary twist, she reveals to Bess that she and Marsh had been having an affair. Nadine also shares a nice anecdote about how Marsh had a habit of getting soccer balls shipped wherever he traveled, so he could hand them out to local kids, but always told the press not to write about it. Bess puts this in her speech when she finally gives it, and Russell Jackson says afterward that he’d never heard the story before, but he has an idea why Marsh didn’t want it in the news: because he had plans to run against President Dalton in the next election. “Stabbing his own President in the back,” Jackson says disdainfully, as Bess gets an Oh, crap expression.

Bess goes home to Henry and says she’s ready to talk about George’s death. He thought Marsh was dirty, and now Bess has proof Marsh was no saint. “Turns out he did have enemies: the White House chief of staff and the President of the United States,” she says. Maybe George was right about the conspiracy, after all.

A few thoughts:

This week in What Are the McCord Kids Up To? Stevie picks on Allie for not knowing as much about politics; Allie reminds Stevie she is no longer the homecoming queen but rather a college dropout who works as a restaurant hostess. And Jason just wants some lunch money.

Have we seen the last of the Texas senator with the truly enormous hair? Showing up to harass Stevie at work is pretty inappropriate, but Stevie’s impression of her was spot-on.

How does anyone who’s been in DC for more than a month not know about Bao Bao and the Panda Cam? Get it together, Blake. Also: More Blake plus the McCord family, please.

Nadine’s affair with Marsh seems like a silly complication—it enforces that he wasn’t the best guy in the world, but there are much more interesting ways to do that, and I don’t believe Nadine would be so unprofessional as to sleep with one boss and then cry about it in front of another.

All that build-up and we never even get to hear Henry’s “Thomas Aquinas walks into a bar” joke!

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