Madam Secretary: The Happy Family in Time of War
When I first took note of the television series Madam Secretary (2014-), I assumed it was a sort of promotional piece for Hillary Clinton. It may indeed be this, but its connection to the real world is more substantial and significant, telling us a great deal, if the series is representative (I think it is), about what qualifies as entertainment – and what we are supposed to accept as American ideology – in the current moment of unbridled aggression against nations of the world, and retaliation as the international civil order disintegrates.
Roland Barthes’s notion of inoculation is very applicable to this show, as it is to so much cultural production. The audience’s critical faculties are acknowledged, the better to retain its acquiescence in basic assumptions of power. Sure the CIA carries out cold-blooded murder, but that’s the way we defend our country, especially in the age of ISIS and other killer groups. Sure the police kill innocent suspects, but that’s the way it is if we want our safety. An example of the issue on a TV show with concerns more local than global is Chicago P.D. (2014-), with its sadistic and corrupt police chief Hank Voight (Jason Beghe). Voight tortures suspects (all guilty of course) in a cage under the police station. This portrayal of the police was inevitable in an era of massive, systemic police violence, based mainly on race. Sure we have bad cops (only a few aberrations to be sure), but they’re still our cops, and we need them to protect us (us being a mostly white, middle-class audience – it is possible that minorities watch and enjoy this show, but in this instance the imbibing of the dominant ideology seems mind-boggling). What is happening in film, television, video games, and the rest of popular culture is the militarization of U.S. society as an elite few possess and administer most of our wealth, as racism increases with minorities on the verge of becoming the majority, and the U.S. colonial domain decreases, the remains held steady with overwhelming military force. Given such a social predicament, the worship of the military and police is a necessity, but concessions are made to a barely-extant human rationality.
Madam Secretary asks us to accept that its heroine was a CIA interrogator/torturer; that her college professor husband bombed Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and currently works part-time for the National Security Agency; that high-ranking state officials plan and carry out assassinations here and around the world. After Vietnam/Watergate, and the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama epoch, should we bat an eye? We aren’t so naïve, after all, to expect less, and should we not demand an aggressive state posture in the wake of the attacks of September 2001?
Madam Secretary was created by Barbara Hall and Lori McCreary, and by the distinguished actor Morgan Freeman, a co-executive producer. The supplements to the first season’s DVDs inform us that the creators wanted to create more characters who are “strong women.” I need to pause here.
I want to state first that I consider myself a radical (in the sense of going to root causes) feminist who would be happy to see women replace men in all positions of authority, major and minor, throughout the world. Aside from this being a redress of grievance, I believe that this would simply put the world on a safer footing, given that few women in history authorized genocide, neglected issues basic to human survival, and have, on the whole, proved themselves better human beings than most men. There are of course women who imbibe patriarchal ideology – the Queen Victorias of history are on the side of death and domination, but they are in the minority, and if the majority of women have their way, I think that they would rapidly erase patriarchal capitalist ideology.
That said, the popular expression “strong women” needs to be approached with caution. What kind of strength are we talking about? In the current civilization, strength is defined by the willingness to compete rather than cooperate, and to show moral strength by enforcing the accepted ideology. In the last thirty years or so, the strong woman has been defined as the woman who wishes to be a man, or at least think like one: to enforce male rules and protect male privilege while ostensibly getting a seat at the table. Therefore we have the big-bosomed superwoman, the ninja fighter, the athletic assassin, the nasty executive – all fantasies playing to males of whatever age.
But Madam Secretary’s producers may be concerned with celebrating more than women of “strength.” In his DVD comments, Morgan Freeman notes that it is high time that the media celebrate the female in high public office, especially secretaries of state, since the last three secretaries have been women, all of them “outstanding.” Freeman’s statement is remarkable; if he has any input into the show’s ongoing storytelling, his remark needs close examination. Exactly how does Freeman define the word “outstanding?” One of the former secretaries of state to whom he refers is Madeline Albright, who served the Clinton government. Her crimes against humanity are several, but she is perhaps most noted for a remark on the CBS television news program Sixty Minutes, during which journalist Leslie Stahl told her that sanctions imposed on Iraq following Operation Desert Storm resulted in the deaths of over a half-million children (“more than died at Hiroshima”). Stahl asked if the price is “worth it.” Albright responded: “We think the price is worth it.” (The interview is available on YouTube). So we are able to suffer the loss of a half-million children in order to punish an unruly client regime.
Another “outstanding” female secretary of state to whom Freeman refers is Condoleeza Rice, who served President George W. Bush. A Sovietologist whose studies would seem obsolete in the current international situation, Rice made use of her education by fostering the Cold War Us vs. Them outlook. As the U.S. state apparatus prepared its plan to invade, colonize, and ultimately annihilate Iraq, Rice and her colleagues appeared regularly in the media to stoke fear that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction” that would be used by Saddam Hussein to destroy America. She cautioned that we cannot wait for the “smoking gun” of evidence to be a “mushroom cloud.” She was assisted in this mental terrorism by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who appeared at the United Nations armed with a vile of baking powder and obsolete newsreels of aircraft to bolster the idea that the U.S. military needs to invade Iraq, and fast. Powell and other state figures at the time (2002-2003) later said that they did what they did based on a “failure of intelligence.” This malarkey is now recognized by most as the worst lie of all, since Rice, Powell, and their ilk were informed by the CIA that there was no evidence of Iraqi WMDs whatsoever. Rice continued banging the panic drum in the orchestra of the Bush criminals.
As for Hillary Clinton, that other “outstanding” woman who served the State Department, we face serious difficulties. She will, I hope, become the next president of the United States. I hope this simply because there is no other option. Socialist candidate Bernie Sanders has not a chance in hell, and it goes without saying that the group of louts and thugs making up the current gaggle of Republican candidates merely represents the profound decline of that party. Hillary Clinton is and always has been an outspoken warhawk (although at the moment she “tilts left” to appeal to the disaffected sectors of the populace who compose her “base”) who also voted for the Iraq War, later backpedaling with the familiar perverse excuses. Perhaps her greatest crime is her support, with her husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, of NAFTA and other phases of neoliberal “free trade” policies that seriously deindustrialized America and other nations, turning major U.S. cities like Detroit into decaying, impoverished wastelands. The Clinton policies, which aided Wall St. finance capital, curtailed and privatized public services, shifted manufacture to impoverished Third World nations with underpaid labor forces, ended health and safety protection for workers here and abroad, and crushed most trade unions, the builders of middle-class life in America after World War II.
I present all this as a way of understanding the word “outstanding” by one of Madam Secretary’s key producers, and appreciating the politics driving this very popular show.
While the show has a ripped-from-the-headlines content (“9/11” and the Iraq invasion are in the background, along with terrorist acts caused by the Middle East, etc.), it exists in a parallel universe, mostly, I suppose, to avoid lawsuits. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other recent state figures don’t exist. Instead, we have characters who embody some of the characteristics of these people, while tweaking the politics of the current epoch, admitting to contemporary awfulness while assuring us that things will turn out fine.
Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is a wealthy woman from the horsey set (the family owns a horse farm, a subject of concerns about excess spending) who hobnobs in circles of power. In the pilot show, she is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia with a background in the CIA – with knowledge of “interrogation” techniques that she wants (she says) to forget. What she wants to forget was meant to “save lives” (which it did – torture works). Tea Leoni is the one saving grace of the show, playing Liz (her nickname) with some humor and the sense of exhaustion of an overworked TV housewife.
One of Liz’s friends is Conrad Dalton (Keith Carradine), a reptilian figure who heads the CIA. He becomes President of the U.S., then appoints Liz his secretary of state when the sitting secretary dies in a plane crash – Liz suspects it was an assassination carried out by Dalton. It wasn’t, although the intelligence agencies were involved, giving the audience a helping of mea culpa, since we know how terrible state power actually is – Barthes’s formula almost screams out at some points. Since the 1960s, we know that assassinations are a fact of life to be taken for granted. Why not live with it and go on?
Liz has warm, personal contacts with important figures, like Yussef, the Prince of Bahrain – Liz calls him “Joey” (they went to the same pricey boarding school), begging him to implement Western ideas of democracy, with which he agrees. But he’s murdered upon going home, leaving as a principle question whether Liz should attend his funeral – she does, wearing a pantsuit as she visits with the king. We have on the show a good, if sugary, portrayal of the international ruling elite. There is the sense that U.S.-style democracy will eventually prevail in benighted parts of the world thanks to the good will of people like Liz. The show has a very simple premise: if people would just listen to a nice lady like Liz, things would be fine. Liz is outside of ideology, even though she is perfectly comfortable working for rats like Dalton. We have the age-old idea of woman as emotional nurturer who should be allowed her say, but only within a patriarchal setting. As an episode ends on a dangerous note, we often see a close-up of a frowning, nervous Liz.
Liz is married to Henry McCord (Tim Daly – I find the actor and character very off-putting), a Ph.D. in religious studies tenured at Georgetown; he is a square-jawed male who flew Hornet jets during Operation Desert Storm. His frequent thoughts on the ethics of Thomas Aquinas, often peppered with jokes (why, after all, should we take this nonsense seriously?) seem to assure his students – and the audience – that power has a conscience, that the church can still provide comfort (we see him entering empty churches – who needs degenerate priests? – but not praying, which would undercut his sophistication) even as we face serious questions about “faith,” are all part of the show’s ideological framework. Henry is asked by the National War College to change jobs; he shuffles about, but agrees to help Naval War College students think about something cosmic as they enter the state apparatus. Henry also moonlights as an operative for the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency. His young Russian student Dimitri is recruited by NSA/DIA to spy on the Russian regime of Maria Ostrov, an attractive dragon lady and obvious stand-in for Putin, but with a helping of gynophobia (she has a past in show business with some shady aspects, playing off the idea that female heads of state are either sexual degenerates or nincompoops). Ostrov murdered her husband while both were in bed (the castrating she-devil), facilitating her rise to power as she brandishes an ardent nationalism. Before he throws Dimitri in the game, Henry has him tortured to toughen him up. As I write this, the Fall season has ended with a cliff-hanger suggesting Dimitri might have been killed by Russian intelligence agents, as the forces of evil descend on Liz.
Henry’s religious studies Ph.D. is crucial to the show’s outlook. He is supposed to be meditative, therefore a person who weighs his (a)moral decisions carefully. He knows the Koran as well as the Bible, a mark of the universal man, and in many ways the key index of the show’s liberalism. Henry has an expansive worldview, one not shared by U.S. enemies, or even friends, almost invariably mean-looking, swarthy, and threatening, unless they are friends of Liz.
The nonsense of the show’s basic framework worsens as we see the McCord family and Liz’s staff. Liz and Henry have a full house; the eldest child Stephanie drops out of college, has an affair with the drug-addled son of President Dalton, and works as a waitress. She is the finding-her-way child. The middle child Alison (Kathrine Herzer) is a remarkably undeveloped character, something the series notices in season two. The youngest is son Jason (Evan Roe), termed an “anarchist” for making the occasional smart-ass remark that raises parental eyebrows; he is kicked out of a posh school for clouting a kid. Henry and Liz take the day off to help Jason make nice with his principal. He is mostly a spoiled little snot who plays the Call of Duty videogame, sometimes accompanied by dad. In one episode he has to write an essay about one of his parents. Since mom is too obvious a choice, Jason interviews dad, who tells him about his fun adventures in Operation Desert Storm bombing people from his Hornet jet. Jason asks if he ever killed anyone. Dad answers that his instruments told him he never missed his target. Jason nods without comment or disapproval. Aside from occasional mention of drugs and sex (unavoidable if the show is to have any credibility) the goings-on in the McCord household differ little from those of the 1950s sitcom, especially in the image of the well-appointed upper middle-class white home, immaculate and unruffled.
The show is about having it all, the constant fantasy offered to women and the general public. Mom comes home exhausted, but still ready for some household antics. The family is often shown making meals together (this TV mother isn’t locked in the kitchen), having tiny food fights, arguing about the most nutritious meals, revealing little secrets. Liz tends to slump against furniture while tough-guy Henry remains the unfazed straight arrow. Everything considered, there is little to distinguish this image of the family from that of Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), made over a half-century ago. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that Tim Daly’s dad is more tight-assed (and certainly more dangerous and dislikable) than Hugh Beaumont’s Ward Cleaver, if slightly more developed as a character. The show’s ideological retrogression is capped by the appearance of Henry’s dad Patrick (Tom Skerritt), a steel worker and lifetime union organizer. He turns out to be a deluded nut, living a lie and giving the kids bad advice. Henry feels bad, but doesn’t mind putting dad on the bus to home.
The show’s formulaic silliness is extended to Liz’s staff, a bumptious, baby-faced, mostly male group, all of whom have neuroses meant to distinguish each as a character. There is a token black woman, PR agent Daisy Grant (Patina Miller) who often “reads white” in her devotion to her boss, her mixing with the boys (she has a short affair with speechwriter Matt Mahoney [Geoffrey Arend]) the liberal assertion that color doesn’t exist. (We should note that the only other major black character in the show is Juliet Humphrey [Nalija Sun], one of Liz’s friends in the CIA who turns out to be a traitor, joining a CIA-sponsored coup attempt in Iran – the racial other as fly in the white ointment.) Liz’s chief of staff, Nadine Tolliver (Bebe Neuwirth), is a haggard, embittered woman who was in love with Liz’s predecessor Vincent Marsh, the victim of assassination. Nadine has a love-hate relationship with state power, although she is a martinet marginally aware of her own feelings. The effect of watching Liz and her staff recalls the experience of Snow White and her Seven Dwarfs, with the sour-faced, demanding Nadine something like the Evil Queen.
The woes of the world are represented in Liz’s knitted brow, a characteristic of Tea Leoni mentioned in an episode. She is worried, but not so worried that she is unable to soldier on. Even when she suspects that President Dalton may have assassinated her predecessor, she bravely walks into the White House Situation Room, approaching Dalton as the camera shares her point of view. The moment is instructive. Dalton/Carradine’s face looks threatening, even outright ugly as she walks to him; this is the admitted ugliness of U.S. state power, yet, since this is the type of commodity called series television, we also know that Dalton will almost certainly be a nice guy, if a bit of a tough asshole, as is his chief of staff, Russell Jackson (Zelijko Ivanek), who is the type of bullying hatchet man we expect in that position (Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman is the archetype), but even he has a touching history that wins Liz’s heart: he was traumatized by his brother’s sudden death after returning from Vietnam.
Why bother with this tripe (which may walk away with awards this coming year)? It might be said to be a current model of explanation for demystifying Orwell’s doublethink. We are asked to hold two valid but contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time: the state is evil but good, its operatives vicious but kind-hearted. We might focus on Madam Secretary as the presidential election looms, during which we will continue to hear similar absurd contradictions, offered less artfully than Madam Secretary.
It is worthwhile noting that while Madam Secretary engages in all sorts of tired tomfoolery to retain faith in our political-economic system while acknowledging our skepticism, The Good Wife (2009-), another show on the CBS television network, invites us merely to enjoy our cynicism as it informs us that we have a hopelessly poisoned system, which Madam Secretary at least pretends has some grace notes. The Good Wife, in its seventh season of production, is without question the superior series: it is better crafted, better thought-through, better cast. It has won regular critical accolades (or I should say praise from reviewers). It, like Madam Secretary, argues for the “strong woman” idea, but in Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) there is the similar refusal to question the rules of the game – instead the female is merely bothered by them as she makes scads of money as a lawyer. The show is so named because Alicia stands by her man, or pretends to, as her husband Peter (Chris Noth), a political animal whose ambitions know no bounds (he is currently Governor of Illinois) demands to keep intact his public façade, an absolute. When Peter was state’s attorney, he was caught in a sex scandal, shortly preceding Alicia’s affair with her colleague Will Gardner (Josh Charles), who is shot dead in the courtroom by a crazed young client in a surprising elimination of a cast member that offers a comment on today’s gun landscape. Peter needs his wife’s support, and despite her outrage behind the scenes at his consorting with prostitutes, Alicia bolsters her husband’s public persona as PR people – like the smarmy Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) – craft his populist image, itself a sham.
There are several problems with this show of deep consequence to our culture. Its central idea was influenced by the Bill Clinton sex scandal, but more proximately by former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s fall from grace when caught enjoying a prostitution service, much like Peter Florreck. Spitzer, while a prosecutor, was known as an enemy of white-collar crime, particularly the activities of Wall St.; the crimes that interested him most were those central to our financialized economy and the very survival of the currently accepted form of capitalism. The Good Wife, like the Spitzer case, fails to ask pertinent questions. Is one’s sex life relevant to public service, provided it is not the indicator of a larger mendacity, one suggesting a serious pathology? I have many problems with prostitution (I cannot imagine having sex with someone who doesn’t give a hoot about me beyond my money); it has been a subject of controversy among women’s groups for decades. But, despite its current illegality and social proscription (although we know but can’t say why it is still the “oldest profession”), it is a matter of adult mutual consent. There are issues, of course, involving the parasitical aspects of prostitution, the exploitation of women by pimps and men in general, the function of prostitution as index of extreme poverty (aside from “high end” prostitutes), but all this considered, if a woman (or man) wishes to engage in prostitution, should s/he be persecuted? Feminism, or parts of it, has long argued (sensibly for the most part) that marriage is legalized prostitution – and perhaps of a more degrading form than the one that women can enter and leave at their volition.
Eliot Spitzer was cast out of public life for sexual transgression and the mendacity surrounding same (there may be other issues, but I can’t find them) when he could still do us a public service, if in a limited way. The Good Wife merely comments on the false front of such situations, and of public life. Alicia is the expected “good wife” to keep in play her husband’s “brand” and her own, another form of doublethink imposed on a public that can’t even see it, but instead depends on focus groups, advertising, and the lot to make its decisions on state policy and those who enact it. The show wants us to enjoy its penetrating observation of the obvious, to wallow in our false consciousness, while it refuses at any level to suggest a way forward. The best series endings for both Madam Secretary and The Good Wife would be for Liz and Alicia simply to walk away – or they could commit suicide, a sensible path for an unsalvageable system refused by the women of Thelma and Louise (1991), a mediocre but often thoughtful film by Ridley Scott, who is now producer of The Good Wife. We continue to keep plummeting.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International. His recent essay on H. P. Lovecraft and horror cinema appears in the recent Cineaste. He is currently listening to three remarkable piano variations performed by Igor Levit. They are Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Bach in the Goldberg offers us what might be called the story of a life; he reminds us, as Robin Wood remarked of Mozart, of what we have lost and will not be recovered in the current epoch. The Beethoven shows the presence of Bach, but in a surprisingly light-hearted work with a minimum of the Beethoven pomposity. The Rzewski responds to Bach, telling us exactly where we are, his variations a call for revolution as well as a commemorative piece for the people of Chile, who suffered so terribly under the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup against the democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende. These variations are often atonal, discordant, and aggressively eerie, modernist with its most challenging associations, punctuated with various melodies and anthems, as the human spirit fights the chaos caused by the capitalist world. In the liner notes, Rzewski asks necessary questions: “Am I allowed to live in my ivory tower? What, in fact, am I doing? And what sort of life am I living?”