It’s preferable when Madam Secretary doesn’t use familiar incidents as opportunities to pontificate but instead focuses on ongoing relationships, such as in “Blame Canada.” In depicting America’s relationship with Iran, the show was able to dramatized the dialectic between the realist security ideas of the previous Secretary of State — whose appointed chief negotiator, Allen Bollings, is most interested in military action — and Secretary McCord’s liberalism, which hopes to find a peaceful solution. The episode ties the US’s relationships with Iran and Canada together in a way that reminded me slightly of Argo. Still, I found the president’s idealism in terms of becoming independent from foreign oil and bringing peace to the Middle East slightly suspect, as it reflected such a wide swing from his eagerness for military action earlier in the episode.
Madam Secretary has only featured a made-up nation once so far, in a storyline where the fictional Republic of West Africa puts the State Department in the middle of a genocide crisis. No doubt the story was meant to echo the situations in Sudan and Rwanda, which is why the country had to be fictionalized, in the same way that made-up countries are used in the movie The Interpreter or on shows like The West Wing. I can appreciate the story the writers want to tell, but it contributes to the same narrative we’ve seen several times before about African nations, often conflating them into one vague idea of “war-torn Africa.” This can be especially frustrating when real stories specific to certain nations could be told instead: entrepreneurship (Rwanda), the cultural market (Nigeria — the RWA characters even speak Igbo! Come on!), and healthcare (Botswana) would all be surprising, preferable options.
When the show gets specific in depicting the other aspects of diplomacy, outside of individual nations and specific relationships, it really shines. One of my favorite episodes featured the country of Nauru. Their multi-talented president/prime minister/foreign minister/etc. was a motif of levity throughout the episode, and the country’s importance incorporated a unique bit of science diplomacy, involving the placement of NASA’s new telescope.
Yet Madam Secretary‘s midseason finale, which aired Sunday, was a great example of how the show could — and should — incorporate individual countries. Its plot focused on the current political situation in Venezuela, using celebrity and sports diplomacy to ease the relations between Venezuela and the US. As Germany’s aforementioned popularity (and anyone who’s seen the Olympics) can attest, sports diplomacy really can be effective in changing the way nations relate to each other. Although Venezuela isn’t one of the major players on the international diplomatic stage that we’re always hearing about in the news, Madam Secretary‘s treatment of the country actually illuminated viewers’ understanding of its role in the world. And now that the show’s main mystery has taken on an international aspect, I’m hoping future episodes will bring more of these nuanced, specific portraits real nations.