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TV Recap: Madam Secretary, Season 1, Episode 5, “Blame Canada”

Bess juggles threats in the Middle East and our neighbors to the north.
Between the Middle East and Canada, Bess could use a break. Image via CBS.

I think part of Madam Secretary’s problem is that it has too many characters it tries to service in each episode. There’s a Bess-centered story, a home story, and, starting this week, an office romantic comedy all jockeying for screen time. Throw in that I’m having trouble keeping the names of the McCord kids and her staffers straight, and every episode feels a bit disjointed. On the plus side, there was plenty of humor (mostly at Canada’s expense) this week. Once you’ve managed to purge the South Park tune from your brain, let’s recap.

Poor Canada. Even though the Canadian Embassy is throwing Bess a party this week, she blows off the ambassador (played by Robert Klein) when he comes to see her because she’s dealing with the spoiled youngest child of geopolitics, the Middle East. Iran has refused to shut down production of a nuclear reactor, and Allen Bollings, the negotiator in charge of the peace talks, recommends a military solution, a.k.a. blowing the building sky-high. President Dalton asks Bess for another solution, and she recommends lifting the US ban on trade of commercial plane parts in exchange for Iran shutting down the reactor and agreeing to outside inspection. Bollings unenthusiastically agrees to try it, and Bess goes back to her office, where the Canadian ambassador is waiting, angrily “in a Canadian way.” Someone has blown up part of an under-construction oil pipeline in Canada, which the ambassador says is clearly an act of ecoterrorism. To go forward with the pipeline he needs Bess to approve a report that Secretary Marsh had commissioned, and tells her to push it through, but she insists on reading it first. And it’s a good thing she does: The report is a thousand pages of BS, and when Bess asks Nadine to bring in the authors, she finds out the report was actually written by oil lobbyists, who happened to be some of Marsh’s biggest supporters. Nadine protests that Marsh wasn’t in anyone’s pockets, he was just really into energy independence, and the report “says exactly what the White House wants it to”—but Bess refuses to put her name on something so misleading.

While all this is going on, Matt and Daisy seem to have impressively little work to do. Instead, they’re fulfilling the soap opera requirement: The time they “tongued in the supply closet” that Blake referenced in the pilot has become a full-blown plot point. In between trying to guess whether Blake is gay or straight (he never refers to his significant other by gender, only as “Chris”), they’re both cheating on their significant others thanks to too many late nights at the office and the twisted mistress known as tequila. They’re both absolutely terrible at covering it up, but luckily everyone on the show seems to care as little as I do.

And over at Casa McCord, the big issue this week is—no joke—that Henry has been named one of the hottest spouses of government officials. Anarchist son Jason decides this makes him the parent to write his school essay on, and he—and we—learn more about Henry’s background as a fighter pilot during Desert Storm. As they’re sitting in a restaurant talking about it, Henry gets heckled by a drunk airman and forcibly throws him out, which seems to scare Jason a bit. Later, Jason wants to know whether Henry killed anyone, and whether he still thinks about it. The young actor (Evan Roe) does a nice job selling Jason’s confusion, and it leads to a nice moment between father and son, but it’s unclear where (if anywhere) this is going to go.

Meanwhile, the peace talks are deteriorating rapidly—the Iranians walk out after hearing Bollings’s offer, and the President yells at Beth that she needs to fix the situation, speaking so harshly that even Russell Jackson steps in to defend her. Bess suggests to Bollings to meet one on one with a former UN ambassador named Zahed Javani, whom she knows from investigations during her CIA days and whom she thinks might be more receptive. When Bollings tells her that tactic failed, too, even Bess’s staff starts worrying about the possibility of nuclear war. She meets with the President, who tells her he wants to level the factory and that she needs to approve the pipeline report, because his vision is for the next generation of Americans to achieve energy independence. She points out that misinformation has led America into costly and deadly wars before, and asks him for six months to produce a new pipeline report, as well as one more day to fix the situation with Iran.

Her solution: She secretly invites Javani to the party at the Canadian Embassy, as he’s only allowed on US soil in one particular place in New York, and asks him why the peace talks fell apart. He tells her (no surprise) that Bollings never actually offered the plane parts, so she gives him a hard copy of the offer and he says he’ll throw is support behind it. Then he asks why people referred to him as her “boyfriend” during her CIA tenure, and she says she had her eye on him as someone who could help restore peace in the Middle East. Iran finally agreeds to shut down the reactor, and Bess gets the pleasure of firing Bollings, who tells her if Marsh had lived, “he’d be the next President and I’d have your job.” After Nadine shows him out, Bess tells her to send in Blake and asks how much she can trust him. (Answer: with her life—“and career, obviously.”) Bess tells him she wants him to spearhead an internal investigation into her seemingly loyal staffer/erstwhile paramour of Secretary Marsh, Nadine.

A few thoughts:

Beth knows how to hit Canada where it hurts: by going after the hockey players.

I was impressed with the plotting of the main story this week, but that plus the heavier family storyline made the Matt/Daisy stuff feel especially insubstantial.

“Sometimes you’ve gotta walk and chew gum.” Zeljko Ivanek continues to be excellently dry, while subtly moving away from being Bess’s outright enemy.

Robert Klein was in two places last night: the fictional Washington and the real one, to honor Jay Leno at the Kennedy Center.

Bess’s ballgown has pockets! Seems very fitting somehow.

Henry McCord: third hottest government spouse, behind two (female) supermodels.

A lesson from Matt and Daisy’s clumsy affair: When you’re cheating on your significant other with your coworker, make sure you decide which one of you is going to take the stairs the morning after.

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