SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about the season 5 finale of Madam Secretary.
Based on the events leading up to the season finale of CBS’ Madam Secretary, it seems like this episode would be, for the most part, smooth sailing for Tea Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord. It seems like the climate migration treaty is good to go and she is all set to make her announcement to run for President. All is good in the world, right? Not so fast. It wouldn’t be an episode of Madam Secretary without some peril to shake things up.
The episode titled “Better Angels” directed by John Murray and written by Matt Ward starts off with Peter Harriman (Skipp Sudduth) getting ready for the day as he puts his lucky vintage RFK presidential pin on his lapel. Cut to him walking in the street and — uh oh! — he drops his lucky pin through the sewer grate, lost forever. If this isn’t foreshadowing I don’t know what is.
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He goes off to meet with the UN security council in Geneva for the climate migration treaty while Elizabeth stays behind and announces her resignation as Secretary of State — don’t worry, we’ll get to her presidential bid eventually. In the meantime, Daisy (Patina Miller) and Blake (Erich Bergen) are tasked with making sure the McCords’ kids don’t have any major tabloid-worthy issues that would hinder her campaign. Everything is in the clear — except for Stevie’s (Wallis Currie-Wood) “checkered” dating past. That quickly fades to the background as she and Blake develop a little bit of a romance that barely bubbles, but is good enough to give the episode some levity because what’s coming up next is a doozy.
At Geneva, Peter is with the UN security council. As they are about to have dinner, they are all smiles as Peter gets ready to toast. He seems okay at first but then, something seems off. It looks like a heart attack but soon everyone in the room starts vomiting, bleeding from the mouth and coughing up lungs. It’s not a pretty sight. It’s pretty much the Red Wedding of Madam Secretary as everyone in the room dies — including Peter. We all should have thought something was going to happen as the waiters serving them looked very suspect. It turns out everyone in the room was poisoned with sarin by a white nationalist group called the Knights of Western Freedom. They are threatening countries that accept refugees. This is sounding all too familiar.
This throws things off course for Elizabeth as she was just about to announce her presidential bid. To make things even more perilous, Callister (Will Chase) suspends his presidential campaign when his campaign manager is arrested for soliciting illegal campaign funds from Russia. He uses this opportunity to throw shade at the Dalton administration and McCord and he calls “witch hunt” on all of them. Again, this is sounding way too familiar.
For Elizabeth, it doesn’t seem like a good time to be shaking hands and going on the campaign trail. She asks President Dalton (Keith Carradine) if she can rescind her resignation and he says “My fight is today, yours is tomorrow” which translates to: “No, girl…you gotta handle your business and get what’s yours.”
They attend Peter’s memorial where she meets his kids and they give her a little box. We don’t see what’s in the box, but it’s highly likely that it’s an RFK button. Fast forward two months later where Elizabeth is making an inspirational speech in front of a crowd holding “McCord” signs — and the whole gang is there. She rehashes a story about RFK that Peter told her at the beginning of the episode and then she finally does it. She officially announces her candidacy for President of the United States.
The ending leaves the door open for a sixth season that will show Elizabeth on the campaign trail which would certainly make for plenty of story. With the show on the bubble, fans wait with bated breath about the fate of the CBS political drama. We talked to show creator Barbara Hall and her fellow executive producer Lori McCreary and they helped unpacked that mass death scene and what the future has in story for the McCord presidential campaign.
DEADLINE: When you were writing this season, did you already know this is how you wanted it to end?
BARBARA HALL: We definitely knew we were moving towards a campaign with this season and we wanted to get either completely there or almost there — to make it clear that that’s gonna be the next step for Elizabeth. So, we had a moment of where we talked about the season starting with a few more upsets in the state department and then we just decided, “no…you know what? Let’s take everybody all the way to the next step!” So that’s what we did.
LORI MCCREARY: With 20 episodes, even though we end up where we expect, there’s lots of meandering along the way cause there are some interesting things that either happen in the world. While we know the general shape of the 20 episodes or 23 episodes depending on the year, we often branch out in ways that are somewhat surprising during the year.
DEADLINE: Speaking of world events…from refugees to Russian involvement with the election, there are a lot of parallels between this episode and what’s going on in real life. When you plan these episodes and then watch the news and see similarities, do you get weirded out?
HALL: I still get really weirded out — to borrow your phrase (laughs). And we didn’t do it just cause it’s a good season for doing that. You know what happens is we’ll pick up on something that’s sort of in the news or just starting to be talked about and then we’ll game it out for the most dramatic conclusion. So there’s an explanation to why sometimes we run up against the headlines but there’s really no explanation why these stories break the week that episode aired.
DEADLINE: Can we unpack that death scene? What was the conversation that went behind that and was it a tough decision to say goodbye to Peter?
HALL: We wanted a dramatic moment that came out of this nationalist union that really would dramatically affect the world but also a business world and we had the time with Pete Harriman this year so we felt like that would seem like a great loss. And then deciding to take the attack — the sarin attacks was basically something that has happened a long time ago — not too long ago, but it has happened and is possible. Then we just did research on how it could happen and so we just wanted to, again, derive from this point of how dramatic this climate in Elizabeth’s world and in the world of Madam Secretary is in terms of this issue — which is also being driven by climate change, immigration issues and all these things. We wanted to bring this all together and create a significant loss for Elizabeth which felt like a driving force behind her campaign.
MCCREARY: Being in diplomatic services is not for the faint of heart especially today.
DEADLINE: The show has had a loyal fanbase and continues to survive in a time when so many shows on the bubble. How did this factor into writing the season finale?
HALL: A lot of it is just instinct in terms of when you feel like you need to change the show and how much you need to change it because you need to keep the show the same show that people love but you have to take it in a bit of a different direction so that we can remain surprising and interesting and not let the audience get ahead of it. So I started to feel that season to season when we’re ready to take a leap and this is obviously the biggest leap we’ve taken but we all felt strongly that we had earned this week.
DEADLINE: Do you write the season finale with the thought that this might be the last episode of the series? Or do you just tend to write each finale as if you’re going to get a new one?
MCCREARY: That’s how we’ve been trending along all five seasons!
HALL: When shows decide to end, you know you’re ending and you can sort of create the ending of your show. But as long as you want to keep going and you don’t know, you always write to the people watching the next season so that’s what we did.
MCCREARY: …and we have so many stories left to tell so.
DEADLINE: If the series were to end now, would you be satisfied, feel bittersweet or just bitter?
MCCREARY: (laughs) We’d have to have madam president at some point!
HALL: Well you know I think that it would be bittersweet but I think everybody wants to see this happen. I know her fans want to see this happen and, of course, we want to go on this journey so hopefully, we’ll get the opportunity to do that.
DEADLINE: That said, what do you have envisioned for season 6?
I would really like to have a parallel primary race for a while alongside the one that’s happening in the real world and because when we had our election year running alongside the election year and I find that it’s interesting to be able to draft on the political vocabulary that people have because of what’s happening and so that would be a fun challenge to have our … at least part of the primary running along the actual primary and then probably celebrate times so we can get to an election but that’s part of what I think season six would be about and I think it would be fun.
DEADLINE: Madam Secretary is a female-fronted series that is inclusive and has a narrative that steers us in the direction of a female president. With all of this talk of diversity in the industry, was this something you purposely set out to do and how did you avoid the trap of tokenism?
HALL: I think, for one, because our show is an international show we already get different cultures and ideologies. [From the start], we already are embracing that idea. The whole point is to open up the world to diversity and a diplomat that is certain in her job. She’s taken all those different points of view and different cultures into account and so then it makes sense in our world. We talk a lot to people who have been through Washington and various jobs about what it really does look like on the inside and we tried to make that consistent. And finally, with so many changes in the world with things like the #MeToo movement — we really tried to keep a pace of all the changes and make our world look like the world we currently live in. We really did have that ambition.
MCCREARY: And I think, because of who we are, it’s where we look from anyway. We happen to be females in this business minus a partner, Morgan Freeman who’s African American, so it’s not something we have to think about. We look at the world a little differently. Like Barbara said, we’re just portraying the world as it is and perhaps our industry has skewed it a little differently so I think we’re able to just be more authentic with the way the world is in our show as opposed to manufacturing something.
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