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Madam Secretary - Something Better - Review

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Madam Secretary “Something Better” was written by Sara Ray (and this is her only credit on IMDb) and was directed by Charlotte Brandstrom. This was an interesting episode that at first glance seems to be a bit all over the place. However, at its core, the episode examines how history repeats itself but that doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistakes. It’s possible to step outside your comfort zone and forge a new path. This through line is made more obvious by the somewhat pedantic voiceover by Dalton (Keith Carradine) over the end scenes, but it is underscored by all the storylines.

The episode centers on conflict in Nicaragua with the action opening in a flashback to 1983. As two CIA agents watch, the Presidential Palace is bombed by the rebels that the CIA were working with – though not at US direction. President Sandino Sr (Raymond Cruz) and his eight year old son are injured, but Sandino’s wife is killed. I loved the music in this scene – on the nose or perfect? – “Burning Down the House!”

Jump forward to the present, and Jay (Sebastian Arcelus) is briefing Russell (Zeljko Ivanek), Elizabeth (Tea Leoni), and Dalton on the political situation in Nicaragua which is devolving into a civil war under the Presidency of Sandino Jr (Joseph Melendez). Dalton is oddly unresponsive in the meeting. Sandino Jr has not been responsive to them reaching out, so Elizabeth suggests a travel ban that would hurt the country economically or a coalition of countries, and Dalton wants a coalition with a plan.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth strikes out with Chen (Frances Jue) and Jay strikes out with Russia. Blake (Erich Bergen) gets some interest from some of the other South American countries, but Russia and China are the real problem as it’s clear that they want to take advantage of the situation to their own benefits. This week’s story isn’t obviously ripped from the headlines, but the jockeying of Russia, China, and the US is certainly a hot political topic just now.

Daisy (Patina Miller) interrupts the discussion of why POTUS seems to be reluctant to play hardball with news of a student protest gone wrong. Students and American missionaries are now holed up in a Church with wounded and no supplies and President Sandino Jr is calling them terrorists. One of those in the church – Bethany James (Laakan McHardy) posts videos that go viral.

Back in 1983, we see that the two CIA agents from the first scene report to a young Dalton (Robert Eli) who is furious with them and kicks them off the case. He tells them that they’ve ruined any chance of good relations between the US and Nicaragua and have likely sent the Nicaraguans into Russia’s arms. He’s also clearly furious that they allowed the bomb to go off at all.

In the next flashback, we get a chance to see how Dalton has really been following the same basic beliefs and goals for a long time. He allows himself to be bound and blindfolded to be taken to Sandino Sr. He goes to apologize for his own part and the US’s in the bombing. He pleads for a peaceful end to the conflict, but Sandino Sr is in no mood to negotiate – you can hardly blame him when his wife has just been killed. He tells Conrad that his soldiers want to kill Conrad, but that’s not the kind of President he wants to be. He sends Dalton back unharmed and tells him that he’ll always keep fighting for his country.

In the present, Dalton continues to listen to alternatives from Ephraim (Clifton Davis) and Gordon (Mike Pniewski), but Dalton refuses to deploy the US military to help those trapped in the Church. Dalton refuses to use the people of Nicaragua as their puppets – he won’t go back to the old CIA playbook! Elizabeth once again suggests the travel ban and Dalton agrees.

In one of the subplots this week, Jay is trying to see Annelies (Marissa Neitling) – the chess champion he met in the Irish airport who is in town. The on-going Nicaraguan crisis keeps interfering and he misses their big date to join Elizabeth on a call with Sandino Jr who finally agrees to talk to them. He continues to call the people in the church terrorists as Elizabeth continues to point out that they are scared kids. He tells Elizabeth that he refuses to be bullied and that he will handle his internal affairs. Jay finds out that China is sending in a hit squad, and Elizabeth decides she needs to see the CIA files from 1983.

I loved the call Elizabeth takes with Chen – it’s pretty hilarious that she simply throws a blazer over her pajamas to take the call! Chen tells her that China has determined that Sandino has now escalated to the level of unacceptable destabilization. Elizabeth still wants to negotiate with China together, but Chen tells her that either the US solves the problem or China will – but he’ll give her a little time.

After reading the files, Elizabeth goes to Dalton and tells him that she admires that he tried to talk to Sandino Sr – at his own great personal risk. In the end, Sandino Sr wasn’t a bad President. Dalton is clearly disturbed by the mistakes made by the CIA. Elizabeth understands second guessing the past, but they have to focus on the present. Dalton is resigned to having to resort to the CIA to stop Russia and China from rushing in – but Elizabeth has a plan.

As luck would have it, Sandino Sr is in the US, in Florida to have some shrapnel removed from his chest, and Dalton goes to see him personally. It’s another nice parallel. Sandino Sr tells Dalton that he always comes calling when it’s too late. Dalton reminds him that he said he’d never stop fighting for his country, and Dalton apologizes again. Dalton uses some good negotiation tactics by comparing his own ne’er-do-well son to Sandino’s. Sandino Sr admits that he’s not happy with how his son has turned out to be the kind of dictator Sr always strove not to be.

The next day, everyone has gathered in the office on a Saturday to continue to deal with the crisis. Jay even brings his daughter Chloe, who is now old enough to be precocious. As they get settled, the news is reporting that Sandino Sr has arrived in Nicaragua and is crossing the soldiers’ line to bring supplies to the church, effectively defusing the entire situation as he is still beloved by the people of Nicaragua.

In the final scene, Dalton and Elizabeth watch Chloe as she colors at his desk. Sandino Jr agreed to meet with the students with Sandino Sr acting as intermediary. Dalton is hopeful that it will lead to a thaw with US relations. He compliments Elizabeth with the idea of bringing in Sandino Sr, and she points out that Dalton did it first. In a somewhat on the nose voiceover, Dalton goes on to say that on a day like this, they can hope that just because history repeats itself, we don’t have to make the same mistakes – we can step outside our comfort zone and forge new paths. And this is clearly a comment on the current political climate that seems to be repeating the mistakes of the early twentieth century from WWII to the cold war. Elizabeth points out that the end result is almost always worth pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone.

I liked how the subplots in the episode picked up on this theme of pushing ourselves to forge a new path and make a difference. On the home front, Henry (Tim Daly) gets a call from his brother Shane (John Ellison Conlee) about Sarah (played by Tim Daly’s daughter Emelyn Daly!) who is deploying to Irag as a medic. Shane is worried Sarah isn’t ready and implores Henry to pull some strings. Henry tells his brother he can’t. He tries to reassure him that she isn’t being deployed near the front and is unlikely to be in any real danger, but Shane is still furious.

Henry isn’t really worried until Sarah blows up at Allison (Katherine Herzer) and Jason (Evan Roe) when they are discussing Bethany James being cool. She’s not cool – some of her friends might die! She quickly regains her composure and apologizes, but Henry is now worried. Henry isn’t sure what to say to her because when he was deployed he was going to kill people, not save them. He suggests to Elizabeth that he take her to talk to Elizabeth’s brother Will (Eric Stoltz). Elizabeth cautions Henry because of Will’s very strong worldview.

I loved the lunch with Will. Stoltz never disappoints, and Daly was great in this scene too. It looks like things are going well, until Will says that she will screw up. He quickly focuses in that her real fear about deployment is that she’s afraid for her patients, not herself. I loved the alarmed look on Henry’s face when it looks like Will is just making it worse! But Will then shifts the conversation to be about how Sarah sleeps – most mistakes happen when the nurse/doctor is tired. Sarah tells him that she can sleep anywhere, any time – and is comforted when he tells her that’s really the key to being successful.

Jay is also pushing himself out of his comfort zone to try to pursue a relationship with Annelies. When the first two attempts don’t work out, he starts obsessing over her Instagram – she’s having a great time in his city without him! Naturally Matt (Geoffrey Arend) has his back and tells him not to look at her feed! Jay’s last chance to see Annelies at all is on the Saturday. When the crisis is averted, everyone tells him to go to her even if her flight leaves in 2 hours. Jay had decided it just won’t work out: he can’t have a personal life with the job. In the end, everyone convinces him to try and Annelies is clearly happy to see him.

Finally, the subplot that I think I liked the best, dealt with Russell. Russell has basically been ordered to start using social media to “humanize” him in the eyes of the public after he came off as a bully with the protestor. Russell is far more interested in his actual job and the Health Care Bill that he’s trying to whip through the government, so he delegates his Twitter and Instagram and so on to Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood) – which is the common practice for those really too busy to do it. Naturally, Russell doesn’t really care what Stevie posts – though I adored him saying that the profile picture that they’d chosen for him made him look like J. Alfred Prufrock! Look it up…

When Stevie learns that Russell goes “off the grid” to relax by watching the pandas at the national zoo, she thinks it’s the perfect way to make Russell relatable. Stevie is thrilled to see Russell’s followers go through the roof, but Russell is furious when his office is suddenly filled with stuffed pandas of all shapes and sizes. He tells her that he needs people to be afraid of him so that he can actually do his job and whip votes. Many of the pandas are from those he’s trying to get to sign on to the Health Care Bill, and he accuses Stevie of ruining his chances with them by making him a joke. This is not a new path that Russell wants to forge! I loved him stuffing his face into the middle of a bunch of the pandas!

Russell then hosts a group sick kids in order to refocus attention on the Health Care Bill. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s become a celebrity to these kids who see him as Mr Panda! One little girl, Corra (Clara Stack) is thrilled to have her picture taken with him and a stuffed panda. I loved Russell trying to fake that he knew anything about how social media worked – but Stevie gets her tagged and the picture posted! Russell is clearly happy to make the kids happy – and give away all the pandas!

In the end, the new path that Russell has forged with the people through social media ends up with his followers exerting enough pressure on the hold outs on the Health Care Bill that it gets it signed – and renamed the P.A.N.D.A Act! Russell calls Stevie in on Saturday to thank her. He tells her that she has good instincts – and that can’t be taught. He also invites her to watch the floor vote on the Bill with him!

The final scene with the voiceover emphasizes the need to forge new paths – and the benefits to doing so as is shows Sarah deploying and saying goodbye to her father and Henry – looking confident now – and Jay with Annelies. This was another very tightly written episode. It was a bit of a different focus, but I think it worked very well. I’m always impressed by the strength of the cast who deliver week in and week out. What did you think of the episode? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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