The Beauty of the Husband: What makes 'Madam Secretary' so compelling to watch?

MANILA, Philippines – I survived a particularly bad work week in the middle of August by binge-watching Madam Secretary on Netflix. I’m a part-time teacher, and it was hell week, and my students were giving me hell. I had qualms about watching a show that some critics had written up as soft propaganda for the Hillary Clinton campaign, but there were no pantsuits, no layered bobs spritzed to perfection, and no smooth-talking former presidents from Arkansas linking arms with a female Secretary of State. Instead we have Téa Leoni starring as Elizabeth McCord, a college professor and erstwhile CIA operative, dodging millennial students who ask for extensions on their term paper because their “needy” parents are in town. Is that what I needed to see right there and then? Yes. I choked down an FML and watched on. Elizabeth is soon approached by POTUS to act as his Secretary of State and she returns to Washington, husband and children in tow, to become the next poster girl for women empowerment. She’s hired not because she thinks out of the box, but because she “isn’t aware that there is a box.”


We can’t proclaim that there is no box, without talking about the box: how does a devoted mother and wife put out fires in Washington without sacrificing her work ethic or her domestic duties? How does an ethical woman make unethical moral choices to serve a greater good? How is a woman able to flip her hair in a situation room?

It’s been 3 weeks since I started watching the show, devoting each week to one season of the series. This week, I’m in Season 3, episode 9. Elizabeth is doing her damnedest to prevent an Israel-Iran war. Iran has been suspected of nuclear activities and Elizabeth wants to make sure Israel won’t take military action against them. More work than any of us do in a year, but for Elizabeth, it’s just another day at the office. When Elizabeth circumvents political Armageddon with her wily, out of the box tricks, the soft feminist in me applauds. She does it so easily, with nary a slip knot on her neck ribbon, and without a second cup of coffee. Until, of course, the other shoe falls, and the crisis averted with so much soft power comes undone by an unforeseen retaliation. It seemed so easy at first, but nothing in Washington is ever easy. Elizabeth wins the moment but not the larger story.  

I’ll tell you what Elizabeth wins at: sometimes Washington, seldom her children, and always her marriage. You see, Elizabeth has married Henry McCord (played by Tim Daly), an ex-marine and Philosophy professor. Henry also does covert missions for the NSA, has dodged death twice in Season 2, and is still available enough to his children to check their SAT essays for relevance and gut-punches. He also tells his wife Tomas Aquinas jokes at bedtime. And Henry is handsome. Very, very handsome. He runs the household, gives the kids the pep talk, and protects his family from stalkers. When her eldest daughter drops out of college, Elizabeth tells him, “I just wish she came to me.” But Elizabeth is seldom there to go to; Henry is.

And this is where the thinking goes out of the box: Henry is the modern housewife. Where women were the “other” in a patriarchal storyline, Henry is the other in the age of modern feminism. He is defined by his functional role in Elizabeth’s storyline. Henry keeps the kids out of trouble while Elizabeth saves the world.

Madam Secretary isn’t about how powerful women can sustain a perfect work/life balance, it’s about how there is no such thing. Madam Secretary succeeds in putting out Washington fires, but can’t be counted on to cook scrambled eggs for the kids before they go to school in the morning. The triumph of modern feminism in mainstream TV is how there can even be a Henry McCord who thrives as a man while maintaining a kind of wifely decorum.

All mainstream TV is aspirational, just ask the Kardashians. When POTUS tells Elizabeth to take the job so she can “affect real change in the world,” the music swells, and his nostrils flare the way nostrils should when the heart tells a man his deepest convictions. That’s all well and good. I’ll save an aspirational America for Americans who need to believe in their nation as the world’s moral compass. I’ll claim this win, however, for women who dream of empowerment, but fear domestic failure.  No one in real life has a Henry McCord (except me because my husband is reading this, Hi). But women can be in such positions of power, they can aspire towards having a Henry McCord. Needless to say, I’ll be counting the days until Season 4 drops in October. Until then, I have 13 episodes of Season 3 to watch, a t-shirt with “Elizabeth McCord 2020” emblazoned on a cushy, cotton front to look forward to (thanks Redbubble), and much more of Henry McCord.  

Bill Clinton has gone on record as saying he watches Madam Secretary to “know how to behave.” Glib as the statement may sound, it’s a sweet win for those of us with big dreams, a school form to sign, and a bento box to style for our 6-year-old in the morning. –

Note: The title of this essay is taken from Ann Carson’s book of the same name.