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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

Madam Secretary: Aquinas meets the White House

Voices March 26, 2019

Madam Secretary, with Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, U.S. Secretary of State, and Tim Daly as her husband Henry McCord, is the smartest and most inspirational drama on television, writes C.S. Morrissey. (David Needleman/CBS)

Barbara Hall, an adult convert to Catholicism, is the creator, show-runner, and executive producer of Madam Secretary, currently in its fifth season on CBS.

In addition, the talented Hall (also a novelist and singer-songwriter) has served as writer for a number of episodes of Madam Secretary, the smartest and most inspirational drama on television.

To be sure, that’s a difficult claim for a critic to make, because streaming video on the Internet provides us with more programs than it’s humanly possible to watch.

But it’s a defensible one, since you’d be hard pressed not just to watch but even to name any other shows regularly exploring serious political and religious themes with the sure hand that Hall brings.

Téa Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a U.S. Secretary of State with reluctant presidential aspirations. Tim Daly plays her husband Henry McCord, a former fighter pilot, now a religious studies professor who specializes in analyzing ethical questions.

As a married couple, their interactions are one of the highlights

As a married couple, their interactions are one of the highlights of the show. Debating and discussing among themselves what the right thing to do is in every situation, the path they find through their struggles is always interesting and enlightening.

It’s hard to pick a favourite character when the dramatic ensemble has such an outstanding cast, but Henry is mine, because he is a cradle Catholic who likes to quote Thomas Aquinas. In a subtle and effective way, his faith has real impact on his daily conduct.

The range of the show’s dramatic themes is remarkable. It goes back and forth between the McCords’ family life (embracing storylines involving their three children and extended family) and political life in Washington and on the world stage.

For anyone sick of the debased practices of contemporary politics, Madam Secretary supplies an alternative universe with more satisfying realities. But it’s not fantasy.

Situations similar to real political life are still present. The show frequently develops storylines inspired by current headlines.

Characters navigate real difficulties in ethically exemplary fashion

Yet each episode shows us at least one character navigating these real difficulties in a principled and ethically exemplary fashion.

It’s hard to pick the best example, since the show is brilliant on a regular basis. But a recent episode illustrates how the show integrates political and religious themes in an elevated way.

In season five, Episode 16 (“The New Normal”), a super typhoon threatening a small island in the Pacific Ocean is what drives the ostensible storyline.

The storm becomes Elizabeth’s concern as the Secretary of State’s team seeks a way to relocate the island’s entire population before the typhoon wipes it out.

In lesser hands, the show would simply treat this scenario as a series of bureaucratic machinations unfolding as a race against the clock. The main dramatic interest would be in watching how a series of contrived obstacles are overcome to save an island full of people.

But in the way Madam Secretary handles it, the political reality of climate change denial becomes the main theme. The threat to the island is simply the occasion for engaging with the global reality of climate change and with the resistance to facing it.

“We have to define truth, and agree on a shared reality, before any real work can even begin,” says Elizabeth, as she tries to get climate change up for domestic discussion.

Her obstacle is a real-life one: the vicious polarization that avoids real deliberation and instead divides politics into two tribes with already-decided markers of political identity. Surprisingly, for Madam Secretary, the solution to the paralysis is a principled religious stance.

Christ is good news for the poor and vulnerable

“Christ is good news for the poor and vulnerable. We’re compelled to care for our neighbours,” says Henry, in a key scene where he builds a hopeful bridge across the political divide.

In another scene, Henry challenges a room full of conservative evangelicals on their climate change denial with a stirring speech: “It’s hard to claim you love the Creator if you’re ignoring the profound harm being done to his masterpiece. The longer we neglect our duty to God, the farther we stray from his purpose, and the closer we are to succumbing to an existential threat to humanity: climate change.”

Henry’s bold speech, and his principled reasons for giving it, inspires a younger conservative evangelical woman to make her own bold and principled stand: she’s a pastor’s daughter, Ruby Bragg (portrayed by Lilli Kay in a masterful and compelling performance).

Just as Henry serves as an inspiring example to Ruby, so too does Madam Secretary inspire any thoughtful person bewildered by today’s politics.

Yes, deep religious convictions are often found behind principled and prudent political action — and even behind the greatest television shows.