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Madam Secretary - Proxy War - Review

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Madam Secretary “Proxy War” was written by Keith Eisner and was directed by Felix Alcala. Once again the show takes a hard look at political events ripped from the headlines. This time it’s the use of “proxies” by America and Russia to fight their actual battles. The episode also raises the issue of innocent non-combatants. And in a terrific side plot with Zeljko Ivanek (Russell), the episode also champions the right to free speech.

The episode begins with children playing soccer in a field in Aleppo, Syria. It’s clearly a war zone, but these are just kids being kids… until a cluster bomb is suddenly dropped on them.

There’s a great walk and talk scene with Elizabeth (Tea Leoni) and the entire team when it’s revealed that the bomb was made in America. Kat (Sara Ramirez) and Blake (Erich Bergen) get the very unenviable task of reaching out to the affected families. Elizabeth warns everyone – sympathy, but no responsibility – and everything else takes a backseat to dealing with it.

Russell ends up getting into an argument with a protestor – Maggie (Lisa Emery). The encounter riles Russell up more than several coffees would have, and I loved him coming into the meeting with Elizabeth and Dalton (Keith Carradine) ranting away with the others just staring at him! Eventually, Elizabeth steers them back on track – they can’t let their proxies drag them into a conflict with Russia. Dalton insists that there must be accountability for the dozens of dead children. He wants to reverse their policy on cluster bombs, but Gordon (Mike Pniewski) and Ellen (Johanna Day) both insist that the US policy not to limit the weapons at their disposal is clear.

Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood) is the one who ends up having to show Russell that his encounter with Maggie has gone viral on the Internet. Russell insists that it’s totally out of context and furthermore, it’s easy to criticize and very hard to govern. It’s also hilarious when Russell’s wife calls. We only get his side of the conversation – and his assurances that he wasn’t drinking caffeine!

Elizabeth meets with the Israeli ambassador – Natan Dworsky (Danny Burstein) and tells him that he needs to prove that he wasn’t involved or the US isn’t sending any more bombs. Dworsky accuses Elizabeth of helping Iran, and tells her that they will defend themselves if they have to.

Meanwhile, Ellen defends the use of cluster bombs because Russia uses them – it’s a classic logical fallacy. Gordon insists that they are a tool, and the problem lies with how they are used. Henry (Tim Daly) argues against the use of any weapons of mass destruction. I love how this show can have these discussions and intelligently present the various sides. Russell cuts through all the theory to point out that they really just need to find out what actually happened. Ephraim (Clifton Davis) does get the answers: it was a Syrian plane from a Russian base that dropped the bombs on what they thought was an empty lot. It wasn’t Iran – it was Russia and Syria. Russia is stepping up, and not through a proxy. It’s very much the discussion of what’s happening with the US pulling out of Syria now, leaving it all in Russia’s hands.

Dalton insists that if Russia is making a power play, they have to respond with force. Elizabeth once again begs for more time to work back channels. She meets with the Syrian representative – Adnan Moghadam (Nicholas Massouh). He completely denies any involvement, and Elizabeth calls him on scapegoating Israel. She tells him that she will seek additional sanctions on Syria, and he threatens her right back.

Henry meanwhile investigates the bomb itself which turns out to be a Russian knockoff of the American model. They still would have needed the plans from Dynometrix, the American manufacturer – which just happens to be owned by Leland Grafton (Grainger Hines), and old golfing buddy of Dalton’s.

When a Russian plane is shot down over Syria, Elizabeth remarks on the fact that proxies are now shooting down primaries. She wonders if this is an unstable situation or an opening? Elizabeth meets with Konstantin (Yasen Peyankov). She warns him that it’s too easy for the chaos to draw them into direct conflict. Konstantin points the finger at Israel.

Elizabeth meets with Dworsky again. He calls it poetic justice after they tried to frame Israel for the original bomb. Elizabeth stresses that they need to de-escalate, but Dworsky refuses to apologize. Konstantin moves to upgrade Syrian arms and Israel insists that they need to be made as strong as Syria.

Russell reports to Elizabeth that there was no malfeasance on the part of Dynamatrix but there was negligence. Russia hacked the Dynamatrix database, and Henry points out that the company was operating under “just legal” parameters.

There are a couple of great scenes between Henry and Russell in this episode. In the first, Russell asks Henry how his report is coming. Henry says it’s “evolving” – being invasive. Russell points out that there’s a lot at stake and seems to be pressuring Henry. He points out that after refusing to sign the cluster bomb treaty they could be seen as culpable for the tragedy. Henry insists that they could also look at it as an assumption of moral responsibility. Russell also points out that it will play badly for both Dalton – and Elizabeth.

The Russians send their Armada, and Russell points out that the whole thing was likely a set up for the Russians to get a port in the Mediterranean. Gordon advises sending a fleet to stop the Russians. Dalton points out that they don’t have a choice.

Henry meets with Russell again. He wants to tell Dalton about Leland. He also calls Russell about how he’s been pushing the investigation. Henry tells him that the tone of his report is important, and he won’t allow Russell to color his advice. Russell insists that it’s his job to protect the President. Henry finally delivers an ultimatum: Let him do his job, or he’s done.

Elizabeth finally calls both Syria and Israel. She tells them both if they don’t do as they’re told, she will tell the UN that Syria slaughtered their own kids. She’ll also rat out Israel for downing the Russian jet. She’s prepared to throw both sides to the wolves if they don’t stand down within the next 24 hours. In the end, they both agree.

Elizabeth meets with Henry before he meets with Dalton about his report on signing the anit-clusterbomb treaty. Dalton doesn’t see how he can sign the treaty with Russia having access to the bombs. Henry tells Dalton that Elizabeth has a plan to get Russia to sign. Henry also takes the chance to talk to Dalton about being pressured to rubber stamp policy, but Dalton assures him that he hired him to push back. Henry brings up Leland, and Dalton says that he can’t interfere in government contract bidding. Henry agrees but points out that Dalton can ask Leland to step down from his position.

Elizabeth talks to Konstantin and suggests that they set an example for their proxies. In point of fact, they are their proxies – they aren’t really a buffer anymore. Konstantin agrees that eventually, they will pull them into a war, but if the principals behave, the proxies will be forced to follow. This scene is beautifully shot from behind to emphasize how proxies work.

The agreement between Russia and the US also helps Kat and Blake to achieve their goal. They have no luck in trying to show sympathy – without culpability – to the Syrian mothers of the killed children. The mothers refuse offers of NGOs. They want justice and their children back. However, they are appeased when they are told that the US and Russia are both signing the anti-clusterbomb treaty.

Russell’s encounter with Maggie leads to her becoming a viral internet sensation. Russell tasks Stevie with dealing with it. Stevie discovers that Maggie is a failed academic. Stevie arranges for Maggie to have her own carol in the Library – and Maggie is both thrilled and suspicious. She asks Stevie if she’s trying to buy her silence. She freaks out and starts ranting – but is soon engrossed in the books. In fact, Maggie uses the carol to research for her protests!

In the end, Russell goes to see Maggie again where she is living on the street. He asks her how long she’s been there, and she tells him 18 years. He’s suitably impressed and tells her that at 6 years – that make him the newbie. Russell tells her that democracy is messy, and he thanks her for playing her part. He tells her that she matters. Her voice matters. It’s a nice parallel to the scenes with Henry – who is also playing his part by raising his voice.

On the home front, Jason (Evan Roe) tries his luck in the crypto-coin market to make a quick buck to replace the scholarship money he lost. Elizabeth and Henry discover this when Jason’s enterprise sucks all the bandwidth out of their Internet. He also runs up a huge electric bill – which Henry and Elizabeth tell him he’ll have to pay for. In the end, the market crashes and rather than make up for his lost scholarship, Jason is further in the hole. His next plan is a steady job as a busboy…

I liked how this episode explored the issue of using proxies in a war that is really between Russia and the US – pulling from the news about Syria from the headlines. It also examines the issue of mass destruction weapons and weapon proliferation. Balancing all of this is Russell’s acquiescence to the basic tenant of free speech. It was a terrific episode for Zeljko Ivanek. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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