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Madam Secretary - Family Separation: Part 1 - Review

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Madam Secretary “Family Separation: Part 1” was written by the creative team of Barbara Hall and David Grae and was directed by Rob Greenlea. I’m sure that this is one of those episodes that the creators really relish getting to write as they don’t pull any punches in addressing the topic of families separated at the Mexican border. This story is even more poignant considering that it aired just one day before a second child died in US custody due to negligence on the part of the government.

The episode begins with a mother – Elana (Andrea Suarez Paz) and her son – Daniel (Adrian Marrero) entering the US seeking asylum and thinking that the police who pick them up will help them. Instead, they separate the two under false pretenses, sending Daniel to a detention facility and arresting Elana for illegal entry into the country despite her telling them that it was impossible for her to apply for asylum before crossing because it was too dangerous to wait and the office was closed. Too often this is the case – would there currently be so many children in detention or families separated if these were not the people generally seeking asylum? If they were gangs of young men, where are they? If all asylum seekers were sick when they arrived, why haven’t more died in custody?

The show does blunt the message by having the douche-y Governor of Arizona, Richard Barker – brilliantly played by Lee Tergesen, one of those actors who always plays a bad guy it seems – be the one to institute this new policy. Of course, it was never going to be Dalton (Keith Carradine). In response, of course, the Mexican Foreign Minister tells Jay (Sebastian Arcelus) that Mexico is wavering on the current deal with the US on border security. Elizabeth (Tea Leoni) immediately denounces the practice of separating children from their families as an act against humanity and common human decency – and this fact is reiterated time and again throughout the episode – as if it needs to hammered home! Elizabeth also points out that it treads on federal jurisdiction – which is why the actual policy has come from the President. Maybe Tergesen will play him at some point…

Dalton calls Barker to rake him over the coals, calling the policy barbaric and un-American. Elizabeth chimes in to say forget about whether what Barker did was illegal, he’s endangering the federal deal on border security. She’s incredulous when Barker suggests that the policy is a good deterrent for people crossing the border illegally – taking kids from their parents as a deterrent??!!

In case you were missing who Barker is a stand in for, he insists that he wants lower immigration caps and higher thresholds for asylum seekers – and he wants Mexico to pay for a wall. Dalton tells him that he doesn’t get to call the shots, and Barker tells Dalton that he doesn’t call the shots in Arizona – right before hanging up on the President!

Attorney General Nolan (John Bolton) tells Dalton that it is a legal loophole and that Barker has found it. He does say that it’s a violation of due process and they could challenge it through the 14th Amendment. Russell (Zeljko Ivanek) agrees. The downside is that a legal challenge will take time, but they can try for a summary judgement.

Dalton wants more options, and Elizabeth suggests a legislative solution of cutting off funding to Arizona. She also suggests that she will reach out to her old nemesis Senator Morejon (Jose Zuniga). It’s a long shot that he will go against his own state, but Elizabeth is hopeful due to their recent d├ętente over the land mines. Dalton finishes the scene by once again calling the situation an affront to human dignity and adding that it is a national disgrace. This policy has done nothing but disparage Americans’ reputation around the world.

The motion for summary judgment goes to court and Russell accompanies the US attorney (Alton Fitzgerald White). Judge Mayfield (Philip Casnoff) has clearly made up his mind before entering the court room. He denies the Supremacy Clause is relevant and denies the merits for success, resulting in denying the injunction. He denies irreparable harm to the children based on the duration of the separation rather than the separation itself. He then accuses Russell of only being there as an intimidation tactic by the White House. Russell points out that he’s a lawyer.

Russell then takes a pretty big chance in visiting the Judge in his chambers. He establishes that he’s not there ex parte – he doesn’t want to talk the substance of the case, but he is there to accuse the Judge of short-circuiting justice. And this is another major issue in the news, especially since the Kavanaugh hearings – the partisanship shown by some Judges and their unwillingness to separate justice from politics as they must. The Judge fully admits that he has a bone to pick with the Dalton administration who blocked his advancement. Of course, he’s just demonstrated his unfitness for advancement – as Kavanaugh did in his hearing…

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jay meet with Morejon. Because the preliminary injunction has been denied, Congress needs to step up, and they want Morejon on board. But Morejon won’t block border security measures or undercut his own state’s regulation of the border. Elizabeth wants him – as a Senator – to think about the country and who they are as a country. She stresses again that everyone should oppose “this appalling human rights violation!” Morejon agrees that it is a moral outrage but he also refuses to let the Feds bully his home state. As he leaves, he spouts the fiction that he hears that the detention centers aren’t so bad – they are more like summer camp for kids.

Elizabeth and Henry (Tim Daly) meet Dalton for drinks in the residence. Dalton makes the point that the people of Arizona have been sold a bill of goods from a demi-god spouting about a fake, TRUMPED up crisis at the border and children are paying the price. The show doesn’t pull punches and I don’t think the criticism of the current situation in the US could be any more obvious.

Russell joins them and tells them about visiting Judge Mayfield – after his Spidey-sense went off in court. He tells them that Mayfield showed his true partisan colors – again, the show isn’t being subtle here. Russell has also found out that Mayfield owns property in Arizona and was fraternity brothers with the Governor at Arizona State. Russell is still concerned – even with all this evidence of a conflict of interest – about the optic of the White House going after a Judge. People will assume that they just don’t like his ruling. Dalton, however, points out that the US’s standing in the world is at stake. And Elizabeth also supports going after the Judge.

There’s an excellent scene between Morejon and Jay in an off the books meeting at a bar – just one Latino-American talking to another. Morejon’s own parents were immigrants who fled Cuba seeking asylum. Jay reminds us that he is a “stealth” Latino – he doesn’t look Latino. Jay is enraged by the blatant racism of the policy and suspected that Morejon was sympathetic in the meeting with Elizabeth. Morejon, however, is more interested in succeeding through hard work rather than identity politics. It’s a really excellent scene that presents both sides of this argument. If you get ahead because of your race, people will assume that is your only asset. But if racism is allowed to exist, you don’t get those chances to succeed.

Back in court, a new Judge – Pollard (Lisa Arrindell) – has been assigned to the case. She does recognize the prima facie showing of harm to the children and the likelihood of Bramble winning on the merits and is about to rule in favor of granting the preliminary injunction when she receives word of a judgment just handed down by the Ninth Circuit in which the ACLU lost a similar case. While the decision of the Ninth Circuit isn’t binding on them, she won’t go against their ruling. And I felt that the show fell down a bit here as District courts do this all the time, but they couldn’t have a solution here because that would have meant we didn’t get the ending we got…

Dalton takes a call from the Mexican President Mario Zaragoza (Castulo Guerra), who is furious. The border security deal is dead and he is demanding to see the children – which Barker is blocking. Trade deals are threatened and the US standing around the world is lowered – the show is pulling no punches.

Henry, Elizabeth, Dalton, and Russell discuss what to do. Henry quotes a proverb: “an ant on the move does more than a dozing ox” – in other words, if you can’t do everything at least do something. He suggests that Dalton go to Arizona and walk the Mexican Ambassador – Rafael Lopez (Teddy Canez) – into the detention center. Russell, of course, freaks out – Dalton can’t go because it would be the President infringing on state rights and could precipitate a Constitutional crisis. Elizabeth immediately steps up and says that she’ll do it. Just the Secretary of State working with their Mexican allies – totally in her job description. She’d be advocating for foreign citizens on American soil. Russell isn’t happy – it could mean that she’ll never become President, but Henry agrees that it sounds “Secretary of State-ish” to him.

Elizabeth takes Kat (Sara Ramirez) with her because she is of Mexican heritage. It’s one of very few appearances by Ramirez this season, and as always, I very much enjoyed her performance and the character. They meet Lopez at the Detention Center, and Elizabeth is polite and sympathetic with Officer Keegan (Andrew Breving) who has been assigned to keep them out. Kat shows him a copy of Title 22 which explains that Keegan must immediately let Lopez in to see his citizens. Keegan tells them to surrender their phones – which they do.

The show accurately recreates the horrific Detention Center that has been seen widely in the news. Crying children with warming blankets in cages on mattresses on the floor. Pretty much the farthest thing you can imagine from a summer camp. Elizabeth is appalled to find a child sitting in a puddle of their own urine. The officer standing with his back to the cage refuses to look at the child or let Elizabeth in to change him. He simply tells Elizabeth that the Child Aids make their rounds every three hours.

Meanwhile, Kat returns us to the beginning of the episode when she stops to speak to Daniel. He is certain his mother is dead because she would never break her promise to come back to him. Kat promises that he will see his mother again.

Naturally Barker arrives and declares that they are a long way from the Federal swamp – another call out to Trump. Elizabeth asks him if Washington is a swamp, what is this Detention Center? The Governor accuses her of staging a publicity stunt. He tells her that she has no authority there. The Ambassador demands the immediate release of his citizens and Elizabeth adds “on humanitarian grounds.” The Governor tells them to exit quietly out the back – away from the press – or “else.” I loved Leoni here as Elizabeth tells him “do you think you can intimidate me or shut me up?”

Naturally, Elizabeth exits via the front door – and the press to whom she makes another passionate speech. She tells them that she came to see for herself what was going on. She declares it an affront to decency and an assault on the country’s core values. “It is child abuse, plain and simple.” She tells them that no policy is worth lowering their moral standing in the world. “What he’s doing is immoral and un-American.”

Henry, Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood), Russell, Dalton, Jay, Blake (Erich Bergen), Matt (Geoffrey Arend), and Daisy (Patina Miller) all watch horrified as Governor Barker has Elizabeth arrested. I loved that she took the time to make sure that the arresting officer didn’t feel badly about having to follow his orders. Barker also has the protestors arrested. It’s a great cliffhanger! But I’m betting that this is actually going to be the “likeability” factor that Mike B (Kevin Rahm) has been worried that Elizabeth lacks. It’s actually ironic that the real life Elizabeth – Elizabeth Warren – who has just declared for a possible 2020 run for President is already running up against the sexist likeability test that all women candidates face.

The episode also has two subplots. In one, Henry and Elizabeth are taking Tango lessons in preparation for renewing their vows. They want to have the wedding they weren’t able to have the first time. They’ve chosen a time and date that is extremely meaningful to them – the exact time that they both independently realized that they’d be getting married. Stevie, Alison (Katherine Herzer), and Jason (Evan Roe) are helping to plan the wedding. The band drops out, sending Alison into a tizzy – but you have to know that Elizabeth being arrested is going to be the real thing that gets in the way of Henry and Elizabeth exchanging vows.

The second subplot involves Daisy’s old boyfriend, Win Barrington (Sam Daly) who is still an obnoxious lobbyist. First he injures Jay in a pick-up basketball game – and then he tries to get him to take a banned substance because he is a lobbyist for medical marijuana. I loved Jay finally just yelling at him to go away!

Win then tries a run around through Nina (Tracee Chimo Pallero). Matt gets wind of it and warns her about him. Then Blake fills her in on the history between Matt, Daisy, and Win. It’s another nice bonding moment for the two over the gossip – and that’s the only reason Blake shares it. He tells Nina that Win is an idiot – and not to let him in.

Finally, Win does manage a run around through Daisy. He proves once again what an idiot he is by bringing a baby gift and not knowing either the age or gender of Daisy’s child! He then leaves her with the apology basket for Jay – I thought Rogelio on Jane the Virgin was the only one who did that! LOL! Of course, there’s a banned substance – a sample from the group he’s lobbying for – in the basket! Daisy is appalled that he’d bring it into a government office and initially tells him to take it away – but he blackmails her by throwing the incident with Matt in her face. You just know that this all has to come back and cause more trouble, right?

I thought this was a very powerful episode. I love how this show is not pulling any punches in criticizing the outrages being perpetrated by the real life administration on innocent children. I can’t wait to see how this plays out – even as the US government remains shut down due to the President’s tantrum over his wall. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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