Follow TV Tropes


Series / Madam Secretary

Go To

Madam Secretary is a CBS Government Procedural TV series (2014-2019) revolving, as the name implies, around a female US Secretary of State. The series is executive-produced by Lori Mc Creary and Morgan Freeman.

Dr. Elizabeth Adams McCord (Téa Leoni) is a retired CIA officer-turned-professor living a Happily Married life on a horse farm in Virginia when the president drops in for a visit. Seems the previous Secretary of State died an untimely death and the President had actually wanted her for the job from the beginning. She takes the job, even though it means uprooting her family to Washington D.C.

Then two months in, she learns that her predecessor's death may not have been accidental.

Like most of CBS's shows of The New '10s, the series is primarily episodic in nature, with the A-plot being geopolitical drama of some stripe, accompanied by various B-plots surrounding the lives of Liz's staff and family, and a season-long Story Arc dealing with major geopolitical events.

CBS announced in May 2019 that the series would end after a shortened season six.

Has a Recap page in dire need of Wiki Magic Love.

Madam Secretary provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ace Pilot: An Informed Attribute for Henry since he's retired now, but he flew ground-attack missions in Desert Storm and, according to him, always hit his target.
  • Actual Pacifist: The dean of the Quaker-run school the McCords send their children to. She soon expels their son for punching a student who bullied him and insulted his mother, as non-violence is a major principle in the Quaker faith. The fact that she punished the victim for fighting back against a bully is roundly condemned by Liz and Henry.
  • An Aesop:
    • In the season 4 premiere, Liz is in the room when a diplomat dies of a heart attack. It comes out he was poisoned and Liz suspects it was by his own people. But then a conspiracy site prints how Liz personally murdered the man. At first she brushes it off until, while interviewed, she's shown a senator saying it might be true and he wants her investigated. At the end of the episode, Liz fires out a speech that gives us the episode's moral: that how "fake news" undermines real news, destroys public trust, and covers up real crimes.
    • In season 5, Liz's daughter is working for a Congressional candidate but is jarred when he goes back on one policy. Liz is rocked to realize she's not voting for anyone, arguing "they're all the same." Liz gives her a speech on how vital voting is in any way and gets her to go out and do it and lo and behold, there's the episode's lesson.
    • An episode later in season 5 involves Daisy's daughter contracts measles due to an incomplete vaccination and two others getting sick due to being totally unvaccinated. Liz goes on to extol the virtues of vaccines as a lesson to the audience.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: Discussed. Russell refers to the Prime Directive in response to Liz's worries about the president of Angola trying to rig his reelection (arguing that it's not their concern, though he's more concerned that Liz's Plan A would cause a problem for President Dalton's own long-shot reelection campaign).
    Liz: (yelling after him) Really? A Star Trek reference?
  • All for Nothing: Even if the Tremelane plan had worked perfectly, it would have amounted to this. They had plotted to overthrow the current Iran government and have a hand-selected leader take over who would basically carry U.S. interests. Liz uncovers that the man has a terminal brain tumor and only six months left to live. Thus, the coup would barely even be settled before his death kicks off a civil war and more chaos in the region.
  • Alternate History: Starting at about the Turn of the Millennium. Conrad Dalton was high up in the CIA, possibly Director of Central Intelligence, under a preceding president (assumed to be George W. Bush since the details about the Iraq War are basically consistent with real life), but is a first-term president in 2014 (Barack Obama was in the middle of his second when the show premiered), implying there was another one-term president in between whom he replaced. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford are also confirmed to have been past presidents.
  • Armored Closet Gay: Ivan Kolashkov, a macho, nationalistic, stereotypically Russian officer whom Henry's boss at the NSA wants him to turn into a mole for US intelligence, is a closet homosexual, which means he can be blackmailed since the Russian government is actively pushing back against LGBT rights. Henry lampshades the irony of asking him to use blackmail while teaching a Military Ethics class, and pushes Dmitri Petrov as an alternative because he's smarter, is part-Georgian, and has counter-nationalist views, all of which means he's more likely to work with them willingly. Ivan is later recalled to Russia for trial, but commits suicide instead.
  • Artifact Title: Starting in Season 6, the on-screen title Madam Secretary morphs to Madam President
  • Artistic License – Medicine: In "North to the Future" it is suggested that smallpox has survived in the permafrost in Siberia. However, Smallpox is a virus that cannot survive outside a living host and it is unique to humans. Even a human body encased in permafrost would not serve as an adequate host capable of sustaining the virus for any length of time.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • In one episode, Henry, a retired Marine officer, tells off a pair of Air Force lieutenants for badmouthing Liz while drunk in uniform. Unlike what he tells them, however, officers cannot receive bad conduct discharges. A few episodes Later, when Jason is expelled from Quaker school, he and Henry recall the incident and misidentify the twoie-louies as Marines. The dress blues look nothing alike between the two services: Air Force (and Navy) blues resemble business suits, Marine blues are the famous ceremonial uniform often seen in USMC recruiting ads (the appropriate uniform in context would have been green-and-khaki Service "A").
    • Crossing over with Artistic License – Geography, switching the location of a US naval base from Bahrain to Tunisia in "Sea Change", while somewhat politically justified in the series (the Bahraini government has previously been a pain in the rear to Liz's department, whereas moving to Tunisia provides aid to a fledgling democracy), would be impractical on the military side: Bahrain is in the Persian Gulf whereas Tunisia is on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa (southwest of Italy) and therefore makes a considerably less convenient location to base ships from, at least if you're trying to operate near Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan.
    • The episode "The 9th Circle" involves the body of a dead Army Ranger. The problem is, a picture shown of the man is him wearing a Marine Corps desert utilities uniform.
    • Averted when Dalton prepares to order a nuclear strike. Rather than the fictional "football" which is a computer that can launch nukes easily, Dalton has to call up the Pentagon to recite a set of codes off a card which is confirmed by his Head of the Joint Cheifs and National Security Advisor. And then has to repeat the process when the general on the scene is forced to bow out due to a divorce creating a security clearance issue.
  • Artistic License – Politics:
    • Season three's election arc correctly portrays President Dalton losing a primary challenge from Pennsylvania Governor Sam Evans and running for reelection as an independent, forcing a no-majority outcome in the electoral college, and being elected by the House of Representatives (nothing similar has happened since 1824, but it's perfectly legal). However, to get Dalton on the ballot in Ohio, Liz had to get their state legislature to waive a "sore loser" law, and after the House vote, Evans sues Dalton in Ohio arguing that this violated an obscure anti-lobbying law. In essence, Evans is trying to get votes for Dalton in Ohio invalidated and overturn Ohio in his favor, therefore invalidating Dalton's electoral college votes to give Evans a majority, and thereby invalidate the punt to the House. This is uncharted legal territory to say the least: the only extant processes for overturning electoral college votes are under faithless elector laws (for cases where an elector voted for somebody other than the person they were supposed to), or by challenging electoral ballots in Congress. And in the event of a disputed electoral college outcome the House is really supposed to decide things anyway (see 1876note ).
    • "Family Separation" borrows its plot from the Trump Administration's real-life policy, but the policy wouldn't make much sense in the immigration-moderate Dalton Administration. So the show has a state governor enacting the policy, even though US states are not empowered to execute immigration law in any respect (it's a civil matter under the auspices of the President's power to execute foreign policy as enacted by Congress).
  • Artistic License – Ships: During a confrontation with a Russian ballistic missile sub in "The Necessary Art", a US minesweeper is torpedoed by the sub. Except the Stock Footage they used of the damaged ship depicts an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. Also, minesweepers aren't armed with depth charges.
  • As Himself:
    • Former real-life Secretary of State Madeline Albright (whose autobiography is titled Madam Secretary, which may have partially inspired the show's name) guest-stars as herself in season two's "The Doability Doctrine". The episode indicates that in-universe Elizabeth met Albright before.
    • A later episode reunites Bess and Albright, along with two other predecessors: Colin Powell and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • As You Know: The show will often exposit on the issue of the week by having it discussed by the secondary cast of Liz's staffers.
  • Badass Bookworm: Henry McCord is first introduced as a world-renowned religious scholar who teaches theology and ethics at Georgetown. We later learn that he's also a retired US Marine Corps Captain and F/A-18 Hornet pilot who flew combat missions in Desert Storm, as well as being a former operative for the NSA.
  • Bait-and-Switch: "Left of the Boom" has one near the ending, where they learn that a Hizb al-Shahid terrorist is about to attempt to perform a suicide bombing during Noura Al-Kitabi's speech. The camera lingers on an Arab woman being frisked and welcomed into the scene before the 22-year-old Caucasian girl behind her runs past security before detonating her bomb.
  • Bar Brawl: Matt and Jay get into one with some Islamophobic fans of Dalton's election opponent Fred Reynolds.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: In-Universe example. Henry's rant in "Waiting for Taleju" goes memetic on the Internet (possibly the first time that C-SPAN has ever produced a meme). Alison even discovers a GIF of it, subtitled with phrases that didn't actually appear in the rant, but would certainly have fit Henry's point.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: When Elizabeth attends the funeral for the President of Russia, she's on guard for the various power players in Moscow. What she's unready for is that the man's widow sets up her assistant to be photographed with a Nazi emblem, brings up secret meetings between Elizabeth and a Russian politician and at the man's funeral, openly tells her (and America) to get out. By the time Liz gets back home, the "quiet widow" has set herself up to become the next Russian President and everyone in Washington realizes they've been outplayed by a true master schemer. To sell it, a later flashback reveals she murdered her husband because of his "weak policies" with the West.
  • Blackmail:
    • Defied with Henry, who refuses to blackmail Russian Army officer Ivan Kolashkov over being Armored Closet Gay to turn him into a US mole. He also lampshades the irony of blackmailing somebody while teaching a Military Ethics class.
    • Liz wins her confrontation with Craig Sterling during the Russia arc with a Batman Gambit of this nature: She tricks him into erasing a page from his datebook to get out of a cronyism allegation related to the selection of the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then threatens to get him prosecuted for this under the Presidential Records Act.
    • How Russell Jackson finally shuts down Sam Evans. After Evans sues to try and get Dalton's election victory in Ohio overturned on a technicality, which would also overturn the election (see Artistic License – Law above), Russell goes behind Dalton's back and threatens to leak a DNA report on Evans that shows he has a gene predisposing him to Alzheimer's disease. Evans withdraws his suit.
    • Liz shuts down the President of the Philippines, who is threatening to tear up the alliance with the United States (not to mention grabbing her ass during a private meeting) by threatening to reveal that he's been taking multi-million dollar bribes from Chinese companies to get friendly with Beijing.
  • Blatant Lies: Russian Foreign Minister Anton Gorev claiming there are no Russian troops in Ukraine in "The Rusalka". His expression makes clear he's just repeating the party line and knows full well it's total BS, and Liz calls him on it with a sarcastic remark about how many coffins are being snuck back into Russia in the dead of night.
  • Bullying a Dragon: A grandstanding Texas governor refuses to hand over a Mexican drugrunner and Cop Killer to the FBI while Liz is on vacation. Once they cancel her vacation, she has the Mexican government issue an arrest warrant for Governor Lockwood for his involvement after the fact in a Texan militia kidnapping the criminal from a Mexican jail and also threatens to charge him with several felonies in federal court, which would rather thoroughly put the kibosh on his presidential ambitions. He about sets a land speed record for backpedaling.
  • Bulungi: The 'Republic of West Africa' in "The Call". It is described as being "wedged between Gabon and Cameroon", which is the location of the real-life nation of Equatorial Guinea. The RWA is ruled by a military junta, its eastern regions are controlled by drug-trafficking warlords, and the episode's plot revolves around an ethnic cleansing attempt by the government.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Michael "Mike B" Barnow, a dangerously competent political operative who works for Liz on occasion. Brings his dog everywhere with him and never fails to provide his absolutely unvarnished opinion on everything (his specialty is staff cuts). Also helps Liz close a couple major deals, such as getting a nonprofit to buy part of the Ecuadorian Amazon so that neither the Chinese nor an American Mega-Corp can get it.
  • Bury Your Gays: Averted with Blake, justified with Capt. Ivan Kolashkov, an Armored Closet Gay Russian Army officer. After Maria Ostrova becomes President of Russia, she enacts a Purge of "Western influences", and Kolashkov is recalled to Russia for trial. He shoots himself instead.
  • Busman's Holiday/Pulled from Your Day Off: In "Standoff" Henry and Liz go to New York City for their anniversary, only to have the whole thing blow up in their faces: the subject of Henry's investigation for the NSA approaches them at dinner trying to get Henry to help him, and then Liz gets called to Dallas to deal with a rogue governor.
  • The Cake Is a Lie: Trying to get a deceased Iranian spy's flash drive from Turkey after a CIA extraordinary rendition attempt on the Iranian blows up in their faces, Liz negotiates a deal for the Turks to buy US natural gas at discount prices. The Turkish foreign minister then gives the flash drive to the Iranians instead, which he can get away with because that part of the deal, naturally, wasn't written down. Fortunately the Iranian foreign minister, a moderate who wants to avoid war, then gives the drive to Liz anyway.
    Turkish foreign minister: Never. Violate our sovereignty. Again.
  • Canada, Eh?: "Blame Canada" from top to bottom, mostly Played for Laughs. Liz gets into a standoff with her Canadian counterpart over an environmental report, which she resolves by threatening to cancel the visas of every Canadian in the NHL. Also played more seriously when the Canadians provide a back room of their embassy as a Truce Zone so Liz can meet privately with Iranian Foreign Minister Zahed Javani and save the nuclear talks.
  • Canadian Equals Hockey Fan: When the Canadian government seizes American fishing boats in the "Blame Canada" episode in order to strong-arm the Americans into releasing an environmental report, Elizabeth threatens to cancel the visas of every Canadian national in the NHL.
    Elizabeth: Hockey season starts soon. That'll be a short season.
    Canadian Ambassador: I'm sure you wouldn't stoop to that.
  • Chekhov's Gun/Chekhov's Gunman: Many episodes' problems are solved by Elizabeth remembering and then somehow leveraging a piece of information or a character introduced earlier in the episode, usually to the ultimate benefit of all involved.
  • Code Name: Timur, better known as Tamerlane, was a 14th century warlord who conquered modern-day Iran among many other parts of south-central Asia. In season one, the plot to overthrow the Iranian government and install a US-friendly moderate is named after him.
  • Completely Unnecessary Translator:
    • Zig-Zagged in "Collateral Damage" when the (fictional) Iraqi prime minister pays a state visit. He uses a translator initially but then finds out that Secretary McCord speaks Arabic. She claims that his English is better than her Arabic, though later she seems to be able to understand him and one of his cabinet ministers perfectly when they start ranting at each other over a sectarian/political squabble.
    • Invoked in "Whisper of the Ax". Liz brings a Vietnamese recipient of a microloan to a congressional hearing to defend the microloan program after Congressman Burke reveals its manager to be corrupt, and has Jay plant the idea that the witness doesn't speak English. This allows her to surprise the committee for dramatic effect when the woman explains that she was able to send her son to school thanks to a microloan, who in turn taught her English.
  • Contrived Coincidence:
    • The season 2 premiere requires Liz to be sworn in as acting president after Air Force One goes comms-dead over the Pacific while returning from a state funeral in Australia. This would be extremely unlikely in real life, as the Secretary of State is fourth in line to the presidency: the vice president had been rushed to the hospital earlier in The Teaser for emergency gallbladder surgery, the Speaker of the House was also on Air Force One, and the President Pro Tem of the Senate turned out to have suffered brain damage from a series of mini-strokes and was deemed incompetent to take office.
    • In Season Five, Henry's ex-girlfriend Rochana Arak is imprisoned by the Thai government for publicly criticizing the king at a religious freedom conference. Henry, during his audience with the king, manages to secure a royal pardon for her. After convincing her to go along with it (Rochana originally intended to stay in prison as a martyr), they manage to get a taxi and are about to head to the airport... only to be taken into custody by the military, because the king died of cardiac arrest mere hours later, and the democratic movement in the country (emboldened by Rochana's words) is using it as an opportunity to try and overthrow the government.
  • The Coup: The ultimate objective of Tamerlane is to overthrow the government of Iran and install a US-friendly moderate as president. Even Liz admits that it could have worked out, but unfortunately the would-be leader has terminal brain cancer and the Dalton Administration sticks to Liz's original plan to blow the whistle on it to her Iranian counterpart. As a result, it fails, but not without casualties.
  • Cop Killer: "Standoff" revolves around the extradition to the United States of Carlos Ochoa, a Mexican drug runner who killed a Texas state trooper. The Mexican government insists on the US taking the death penalty off the table before they'll extradite him, angering the trooper's family and Texas Governor Caleb Lockwood.
  • Creator Cameo: Executive producer Morgan Freeman guest-stars as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in S 2 E 1 "The Show Must Go On" and S 3 E 1 "Sea Change".
  • Cunning Linguist: Liz speaks Arabic. She's not fluent, but she's good enough to translate Arabic-language news broadcasts on the fly and use it for dramatic effect when brokering a deal with the President of Iraq.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The US military and Ukrainians inflict two in a row on Russia when they invade Eastern Ukraine. First the Air Force takes out eleven MiGs with no losses while enforcing a no-fly zone, then, thanks to Henry having a mole in Ostrova's inner circle, the Ukrainian Ground Forces overrun a Russian Army invasion force.
  • Death Glare: Nadine levels an impressively terrifying one at Russell Jackson after he attempts to pressure Matt into making a statement denouncing a terrorist attack in Matt's hometown.
  • Diplomatic Back Channel: Elizabeth and Iranian Foreign Minister Zahed Javani meet secretly several times in season one out of a mutual desire to prevent war between the US and Iran, starting in "Blame Canada" when they use a back room of the Canadian embassy in D.C. as a Truce Zone.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: A first-season revolves around the Washington police discovering that an official from the Bahraini embassy has basically imprisoned his Indonesian housekeeper in his basement. It's in a legal gray area initially—because of the official's rank it's unclear whether the incident is covered—but then the Bahraini government promotes him to a level that has full diplomatic immunity and gets him out of the country. Elizabeth tries to get him extradited via her being old friends with the crown prince, that doesn't work, and then the prince announces the official will be tried in Bahrain... and is promptly assassinated on live TV. Understandably, Elizabeth retains a dramatically low opinion of Bahrain for the rest of the series.
  • Dirty Bomb: In "Left of the Boom", Hizb al-Shahid (a Daesh clone) steals spent uranium from Moldova and uses it in a suicide-bombing of an Muslim girls' education conference in Virginia. Henry McCord suffers radiation poisoning but survives. The rest of the season deals with the fallout from the attack, with Henry working on a task force to counter HS.
  • Don't Celebrate Just Yet: After losing in the primaries for re-election, Dalton runs as an independent, preventing either himself or his two opponents from reaching 270 electoral votes. It comes down to the House, who end up voting Dalton for a second term. Liz is happy when she meets Dalton's main opponent, Sam Evans...who informs her he's going to file a suit that Liz and Dalton used illegal moves to get Dalton on the ballot in Ohio. If the court rules in his favor, then Dalton's Ohio win is invalid and Evans wins the election. He jogs off as Liz sighs realizing it's not over.
  • Drop-In Character: White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson is constantly dropping by Secretary McCord's office unannounced (aside from a few seconds' warning provided by her staffers). Lampshaded a few times late in season 1: Liz at one point snarks they ought to post a Marine guard.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Her: Maria Ostrova is suddenly killed off half a season after her introduction by a Ukrainian ultranationalist who fires an RPG at her car.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-Universe example. "Catch and Release" has Jason come running down the stairs crowing about how the US "just lit up Jihadi Judd, BOOM!" Henry, knowing it was a Shoot the Dog call and that Liz had been asked by the guy's mother to save his life, is furious and sends him to his room.
  • Enemy Mine:
    • Dalton and his election opponents collaborate on a fake news broadcast to fool Francisco Suarez, Jr. into thinking Dalton has endorsed him as President of Venezuela after most of the Venezuelan government (including Suarez Sr., the not-Hugo Chavez president from a season 1 episode) is killed in an earthquake. This so he'll release American aid workers he's holding hostage, whom they then send to provide medical help to the seniormost surviving member of the National Assembly so Dalton can endorse him as president for realsies. The two opponents are clear that whatever issues they have with Dalton, they hate the idea of some "two-bit thug" blackmailing the U.S. even more.
    • "Render Safe" has China step in to help the US secure Pakistan's nuclear arsenal against theft by Hizb al-Shahid during a coup attempt, after the Russians pull out of the plan.note 
    • As in Real Life, the US and Russia are backing opposite sides in the Syrian Civil War, but in "Revelation" the protagonists discover an al-Qa'ida bioweapons lab in Syrian government territory, so they join forces to attack it. Goes Horribly Wrong when a US airstrike has a weapons malfunction and hits the Russian troops by mistake.
  • Enlightened Self-Interest: Liz often appeals to Enlightened Self-Interest as leverage to achieve policy goals that for her are altruistic.
    • In "The Call" she tries to get Dalton and Jackson on board with stopping a genocide in Africa with the idea that it protects a supply of bauxite (aluminum ore, for non-geologists). Subverted in that she's clearly grasping at straws,note  which Jackson lampshades.
    • In "Face the Nation" she and Mike B get a nonprofit to buy up a big chunk of the Ecuadorian Amazon so that the Chinese don't get it. What seals the deal is that it also lets the nonprofit's owner piss off a powerful oil magnate.
    • In a flashback in "There But for the Grace of God", she authors a memo to stop "enhanced interrogation" which focuses on torture's inefficiency rather than its immorality (the part she's more concerned about).
    • In the season 3 premiere Liz successfully advises President Dalton to close the Navy base in Bahrain after it's damaged by a global warming-influenced storm and move its assets to Tunisia. For her it's about supporting the new post-Arab Spring democracy there and screwing a government with a terrible human rights record whose hardliners killed one of her childhood friends (Crown Prince Yusuf). Meanwhile Dalton gets to flip the bird to a campaign donor who jumped ship to his primary opponent and had a no-bid contract on construction of the base in Bahrain.
    • Liz convinces the CEO of an Internet service provider to create a temporary wireless network in an African country so social media can foil its incumbent president's attempt to steal the election. She can't offer him any money or help him with African taxes in return, but she notes that the story would make for one hell of a Super Bowl ad.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: After losing the primaries for re-election in Season 3, Dalton is ready to endorse the new nominee, who already promises to undo everything Dalton has accomplished in office. When Dalton muses that he's more popular with moderates and the general public than in his own party, Liz hits on the idea of Dalton running for re-election as an independent.
    • Everyone assumes that Russia was behind a cyber-attack that nearly took out Air Force One. The U.S. launches its own cyber-attack with Russia countering by shutting off oil for the West. Tensions are rising but it's Henry who asks a key question: If Russia has a cyber-code so advanced it can penetrate Air Force One's firewalls, then why wouldn't they use that more rather than just shut off oil? This leads to Liz realizing someone else was behind the initial attack.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Russell Jackson is cheerfully amoral, but even he is utterly disgusted by Governor Barker's policy of separating children from their parents and keeping them in cages.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Numerous times, various politicians (both foreign and American) assume Liz is acting out to get her name out there and increase her clout in Washington. It doesn't occur to them she really is trying to do what's right and could not care less about her political standing.
    • After it's discovered he hired a guy to stalk Liz in hopes of getting her to quit, a millionaire arrogantly says there's nothing she can do because he's far more important with his clout. He then openly demands Dalton fire Liz on the spot or forget the man's support in re-election. The millionaire takes it for granted that Dalton will put his political survival above any loyalty. He's thus stunned when Dalton introduces the Attorney General to begin investigating the man's crimes.
  • The Extremist Was Right: The Conspiracy from season 1. Events in season 3 prove that they were right about the nuclear treaty with Iran. It collapses, partly because a faction within Iran breaks the treaty and partially because of Israeli distrust of the Iranians. At the same time, it's made clear that their plan would have also destabilized the Middle East due to the leader they'd chosen being terminally ill and being the only one who could hold post-coup Iran together. If anything, their plan would've made it worse since he would die before he could even fully consolidate his power over the country.
  • False Flag Operation:
    • In Season 2, the Ukrainian President frames Russia for the attack on Air Force One in the season premiere in order to shore up military support from the United States in preparation for a possible invasion from Russia.
    • In a Season 5 episode fittingly called "Proxy War", Syria and Russia collude together to frame Israel for the bombing of dozens of Syrian children, with the U.S. dragged into it due to the weapon used, a cluster bomb, being solely manufactured by them and sold to Israel. The intention was to unite Syria against Israel and, by extension, the United States. Ironically, Israel was able to quickly determine they were being framed, but thought Iran was the responsible party.
  • Fictional Counterpart:
    • When they're not using C-SPAN or giving one of CBS News's journalists a Newscaster Cameo, all the cast seem to watch a cable news network dubbed "DWN" (probably meant to stand in for CNN).
    • The Arabic news channels 'Al-Harun' and 'Al-Harun America' serve as a replacement for Al-Jazeera and its stateside affiliates.
    • Season 2 introduces the Libya-based Islamic terrorist group Hizb al-Shahid, seemingly a stand-in for Daesh.a.k.a.  They pointedly have a hard-on for pre-Islamic antiquities and infidel religious sites, vandalizing a museum and blowing up a historic monastery in Algeria in season three. They're even abbreviated with "HS", one letter off from "IS", and their season 2 leader Jibral Disah is said to have declared himself a caliph much like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Oddly, though, Daesh itself explicitly also exists, featuring in several one-episode plots (and absorbing remnants of HS after the core of the group is destroyed).
    • In "Tectonic Shift", a group of workers from the International Coalition of Doctors (a fictional version of Doctors Without Borders) are kidnapped in Venezuela.
  • Five-Token Band: Liz's staff. A Jewish white woman (Chief of Staff Nadine Tolliver), a bisexual white guy (Blake Moran), a black woman (Daisy Grant), a half-white half-Pakistani multireligious Christian and Muslim man (Matt Mahoney), and a white guy from Texas (Jay Whitman). Undersecretary Cushing is black.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: In a show mostly about political drama (with a little occasional espionage), the last several episodes of Season 2 feature considerably more physical action. Henry's anti-terrorism working group consists of highly-trained (though mostly retired) military and intelligence operatives who do much of their own field work, culminating in a sequence where they're trapped on the ground in hostile territory, and have to fight and sneak their way to an evac site. Downplayed in that these episodes still contain a lot of sequences in DC.
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: The season three finale is titled "Article 5" after the mutual defense clause of the NATO Treaty, which Bulgaria invokes when Russian Spetsnaz operators disrupt its government and media in preparation for an invasion. France unexpectedly vetoes the move, which Liz and Henry trace to the Russians having funded President Perrin's campaign, getting him impeached and forcing France to abstain in the second round of voting.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Basically, the entire plan of the President of Ukraine to make the U.S. believe Russia was behind a cyber-attack on Air Force One, in order to get American support. It works all much that the U.S. launches its own cyber-attack to black out Moscow, Russia retaliates by shutting down oil to Europe and Liz is ready to get the nations of the world on the U.S.' side. When they discover the truth, the President has no choice but to keep quiet, knowing that if the truth gets out, Russia will attack the Ukraine and kill millions and the U.S. will look weaker. Sadly, keeping up appearances means that when a Russian jet breaks the no-fly zone, the President orders it shot down, risking war.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: In episodes dealing more with domestic politics, Liz is sometimes caught seemingly uncharacteristically off-guard by how dirty her political opponents such as Senator Morejon are willing to play.
  • Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: A flashback to a decade before the series shows Dalton and Jackson first meeting with Jackson boasting a fuller head of hair. Played with as Dalton remarks on Jackson's speech to be himself with "it's hard to get schooled on authenticity by a guy with a bad combover."
  • Happily Married: The show makes it quite clear that Liz and Henry's marriage is passionate in every sense, even after three kids and decades of marriage.
  • Hauled Before a Senate Subcommittee: This being a Government Procedural, it happens every once in a while.
    • In "Whisper of the Ax", Liz has to defend her microloan program to a senator who uncovers that the head of the program is corrupt. She outwits him, first by blaming him not being caught on the senators party's own budget cuts to the agency that is supposed to look for these things, then dramatically bringing in a Vietnamese woman the loan program did its job for.
    • In "There But for the Grace of God", Liz is subpoenaed by Senator Caruthers regarding disclosing classified information to her husband (as part of the investigation into Marsh's death and the Tamerlane plot). There's a discussion of avoiding it via executive privilege but then Caruthers subpoenas Henry, who isn't covered. Liz goes ahead and testifies, successfully painting the situation as Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!.
  • Happily Married: Liz and Henry are clearly established as this from the word "go". Not only are they plainly crazy about each other, there's a wealth of trust between them and, though they do argue relatively frequently, they always work it out. They're estranged for a little while after the middle of season two because Liz and Dalton gave up Henry's mole Dmitri Petrov to Russian intelligence as part of the Ukrainian peace deal, but they make up in the end.
  • History Repeats: Defied. The season 1 arc involves a Renegade Splinter Faction in the CIA trying to foment pro-US regime change in Iran, because that worked so well last time. Liz et al. foil it. More generally the protagonists frequently buck the usual crisis responses with an attitude of "This plan made things worse the last time somebody tried it in X similar situation, so let's try this other wackier idea."
  • Honor Before Reason: Liz will often do things that are right, ignoring the obvious political fallout they create.
  • How We Got Here: Season 3 opens with the staff watching predictions from the primaries indicating Dalton will not be chosen for re-election after all. Jackson snaps to Elizabeth "this is your fault" as the show leaps back two months to show how this occurred.
  • Hurricane of Puns/Lame Pun Reaction: One of Liz's staffers writes a fisheries speech that seems like it consists of nothing but a string of fish jokes. The other staffers tell him to knock it off.
  • Hypocrite: Carlos Morejon, an anti-immigration senator from Arizona who attempts to stop Dalton from resettling a shipload of Libyan refugees. Liz calls him out on this, pointing out that Morejon's own parents were granted asylum when Castro took power in Cuba.
    • Hanson does a big speech on how he truly thinks he's doing everyone a favor for getting rid of Liz so "America can go back to the great country she used to be." Liz openly asks how Hanson can be fine referring to the country as "she" but not its leader.
  • I Have Your Wife: Well, daughter, but close enough. Anton Gorev and the McCords make this a Defied Trope in season 2. When Russian President Ostrova dies in "The Doability Doctrine", Gorev tells them to look after his daughter Olga, who was one of Henry's students at Georgetown. In "The Long Shot", Maria Ostrova tries to have her abducted by Russian Intelligence, but Henry, having been warned by his mole Captain Petrov, gets there first.
  • Imagine Spot: Played for laughs when Liz has to throw out the first pitch at a Mets game and dreams she accidentally beans the "Mr. Met" mascot which has the entire stadium booing her.
  • Insane Troll Logic: During Liz' impeachment hearings, Senator Canning argues that Henry convinced Liz to allow Dimitri to become a CIA asset and eventually date Liz's daughter to give herself a special agent in Russia and Henry pushing her to do it in order to further his own career by becoming First Gentleman and White House Ethics Counsel, all six years before Liz ever decided to run for office.
    Henry: Senator, if you were in my ethics class, I would give you an F because your "logic" is all over the map.
    • Later, Canning accuses Liz of cooking up an entire conflict with China (which cost the lives of two dozen U.S. sailors) all as a huge distraction from the hearings. A fellow Senator who had kept quiet finally explodes as to how anyone with a brain can actually believe a President would sacrifice American soldiers and could convince China to risk World War III over her political survival when she could have easily invoked executive privilige to avoid the hearings altogether.
  • Insult Backfire: "The Rusalka" is bookended with Mike B handing off his dog to Blake for a poop run. At the end of the episode, Blake, having spent the episode as the Butt-Monkey, irately tells Mike if he tries it, Blake will throw the poop on Mike's car. Mike is actually impressed and compliments him on growing a backbone.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Russell Jackson. He comes off as a fairly amoral jerkass initially, but he's devoted to President Dalton, and after Liz incurs a case of PTSD following the coup attempt in Iran, he displays genuine concern for her well-being, visiting her house and tells her about his own well-controlled PTSD over losing his brother to a Drunk Driver. He's also utterly disgusted by Governor Barker's policy of locking kids in cages.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Allen Bollings in "Blame Canada". His prediction about the nuclear deal with Iran comes true in Season 3.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope:
    • The conspirators behind a plan to overthrow Iran and put an American-friendly leader in as their belief it will help the U.S. leads them to massive lengths, including murder.
    • When Elizabeth travels to Myanmar to oversee a trade agreement, she finds that the U.S. ambassador to the region has not only become concerned over the effects "modernizing" the country will have on the farmers but has become a Buddhist with a shaved head. He defends his taking part in protests as best for the land but Elizabeth has him recalled. The ambassador then goes to the President of Myanmar to ask him to turn down the agreement. When he refuses, the ambassador pulls a gun to take the President hostage and demand the agreement be crushed or he'll shoot him.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Episode 8 of season 2, "Lights Out," has Elizabeth and Russel Jackson goading Sterling into endorsing a replacement for Ellen Hill, Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs. While Sterling suspected that Reeves might be corrupt because of how he is goaded to make the choice, the real plan was to trick him into shredding his records of his daily schedule in order to cover up his involvement with working against Dalton on the Cuba embargo. Unfortunately for Sterling, destroying those records violated the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which threatens him with a prison term unless he resigns from his position.
  • Karma Houdini: Many state department employees are caught up in a scandal when internal emails are leaked, showing the senders showed massive disrespect toward foreign dignitaries. No one is ever disciplined for this.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Secretary Marsh was killed by Juliet and Munsey over fears that he might blow Tamerlane. They then kill their former coworker George when he becomes suspicious about Marsh's death.
  • Knight Templar Parent: The Russian foreign minister's daughter is one of Henry's students at Georgetown, specifically in Ethics. The irony of him trying to get Henry to change his daughter's grade in "The Operative" is not lost on anyone. Henry flatly refuses to give her an A for C work, even when the foreign minister makes it a condition of helping Liz free a US operative from Pakistani death row. They eventually meet halfway with Henry giving her an incomplete so she can retake the course.
  • The Knights Who Say "Squee!": A blonde Army captain in "South China Sea" who seems to be jumping out of her skin trying to remain respectful to Liz. When Liz tells her she doesn't have to end every sentence with "ma'am", the captain says Liz is "kind of my hero."
  • Literary Allusion Title: "The Ninth Circle" is a reference to Dante's Inferno, wherein the ninth level of Hell is famously reserved for traitors. It partially revolves around a Mole Hunt after an operation in the Secretary Marsh investigation is blown. It turns out to be CIA Director Munsey.
  • Lower-Deck Episode: "The Seventh Floor", so named because it's where a lot of the State Department's workaday bureaucrats work. It focuses on the work done by Liz's staff, starting with Blake getting up early in the morning and doing prep work before seguing into an effort to get an American journalist released from Sudan.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • Liz is sure that her old CIA colleague George's death in a car accident wasn't an accident, based on timing. She's right: Juliet sabotaged the car's computer.
    • Also the death of Secretary Marsh. In "So It Goes" they investigate the plane crash that killed him and discover a startling similarity to another crash that killed an Iranian nuclear weapons expert, long suspected to have been a Mossad assassination. Liz gets off-the-record confirmation of this from the Israeli ambassador, a former Mossad operative who tells her the specifics of the sabotage.
  • May–December Romance: In "Whisper of the Ax", Stevie, the McCords' eldest, starts volunteering at a microloan program her mother administers, and in "The Time Is At Hand", Henry and Liz discover she's started dating her boss... who happens to be nineteen years older than her. Yeah, that went over well. She breaks up with him a few episodes later at Daisy's urging.
  • Metaphorgotten:
    • In "There But for the Grace of God", one of Liz's staffers says there are conspiracy theories developing around the Iran regime change attempt and that if it takes hold "you're gonna be spending way too much time talking the people off the ledge."
      Liz: Well, we'll cross that ledge when we get to it.
      Blake: Uh, Madam Secretary, I just got word that Senator Caruthers is on his way to your office. I told him you weren't available. He doesn't seem to care.
      Liz: (to her staff) This is not the ledge. This is a thing before you get to the ledge, which is still a long way from the ground. I'm officially retiring this metaphor.
    • Liz similarly mangles the idiom "elephant in the room" in "On the Clock".
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: Almost happens to a general at the Pentagon in the season 4 finale. He had decided to test the newly redone computer system with a realistic simulation of a massive Russian nuclear missile strike on America. But a snafu caused that simulation to be run on the main systems and treated as the real thing. The only thing that stopped the U.S. from a real first strike? A general couldn't enter the President's codes in because his clearance had been revoked due to his wife filing for divorce after an affair. That delays the strike long enough for the first general to enter the command center, realize what is happening and abort it. Needless to say, nearly causing the U.S. to start World War III due to his "simulation" has the guy fired within the hour.
  • Military Coup: How Liz solves the A-plot of "The Linchpin". After the ambassador who negotiated a peaceful transition of power in Algeria abruptly drops dead of a heart attack before the deal can go through, the Algerian president hangs his agreed-upon successor and marches to war. Liz convinces the more moderate head of the Algerian military to place him under arrest and take over, with a carrot of the rebels accepting a peace deal and promise of elections, and the stick of NATO using his ground forces for target practice.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: "You Say You Want a Revolution". A deal with Cuba is nearly derailed when a critical senator makes an issue of a black militant who escaped to Cuba in The '70s after being convicted of killing a cop, demanding she be extradited before he'll vote in favor. The Teaser, however, shows she wasn't the shooter (the actual shooter was killed when the officer returned fire), and in the third act Liz uncovers the Frame-Up and convinces her to turn herself in with assurances of a new trial.
  • Misguided Missile: In "Revelation", the US and Russia launch a joint operation against an al-Qa'ida bioweapons lab in Syrian government territory. During a firefight with the militants, the Marines call in an airstrike, but the bomb's guidance malfunctions and it hits the Russian position by mistake. Cue Mass "Oh, Crap!" from the Marines and everyone in the White House Situation Room.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: In "Passage", Stevie ends up seeing Henry talking with another, younger woman on her way to work and starts drinking, where she meets Daisy and tells her the worries about it. Henry is working with the NSA on a top secret mission, and the young woman is his handler.
  • Mole in Charge: CIA Director Munsey turns out to be working for a Renegade Splinter Faction that is trying to execute regime change in Iran rather than use diplomacy to keep them from getting the bomb.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: The former treasury secretary repossesses ancient Greek statues and attempts to have the United States take the fall for it because he wants to be repaid in full for the investment he made to Greece.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Liz's sole official act as acting president in the season 2 premiere is to pardon a journalist imprisoned for defying a court order to give up her source.
  • My God, You Are Serious!: After so long thinking that Hanson is going after her for a power play, Liz meets him in person and asks why he's doing this. Hanson goes on a massive tirade on how he's trying to "save the country from a falsely elected woman who rode in on the coattails of her predecessor" and calls her a "travesty and an aberration." That they're in Hanson's home, outside of anyone watching, makes Liz realize Hanson honestly believes all this and thus fueling his crusade.
  • Myth Arc: Done season-by-season instead of across the entire show.
    • Season One: Liz investigates the assassination of her predecessor Vincent Marsh, which leads into her foiling an attempted regime change in Iran.
    • Season Two: Liz investigates a cyberattack against Air Force One while dealing with increased tensions with Russia.
    • Season Three: Liz tries to head off war between Israel and Iran.
  • Naked Apron: On a call with Henry, Liz flirtatiously asks him to model his apron "au naturel" when she gets back from Iran.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer for "The French Revolution" makes it look like the scene is very emotional when the FBI ask Liz and Henry, "You want us to just let him go?", implying that their stalker is someone close to them. In reality, this is a matter-of-fact scene where they are discussing letting a patsy of their actual stalker go so that they can use him. And their actual stalker turns out not to have any connection to them, either.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Bob Schieffer from CBS' news show Face the Nation interviews Liz for the show in, well, "Face the Nation". Jane Pauley from CBS News Sunday Morning interviews her in "On the Clock" and "Sea Change".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • The obvious real-life comparison for Liz is Hillary Clinton (they even look a little alike), although she comes off as more personable and somewhat more populist policy-wise.
    • All world leaders are fictitious, though usually loosely based on the real ones: Francisco Suarez for Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Najid Sheraz for President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Frieda Schulz for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, etc.
      • An exception is President Perrin of France, who seems to be based more on French National Front leaders Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen than on anyone who actually won France's presidency.
      • President Datu Andrada of the Philippines in "Break in Diplomacy" seems to be a proxy for criticism of Donald Trump rather than one for Rodrigo Duterte, the real-life President of the Philippines at the time. However, many of his critics tend to claim both of them as the same, especially to their confrontational and rude behaviors.
    • Adam Fanning, an American-born ISIS member featured in "Catch and Release", is based directly on Mohammed "Jihadi John" Emwazi, a British Muslim who joined, right down to Fanning being nicknamed "Jihadi Judd". In a case of Life Imitates Art, invokedthey even both met the same explosive end, with Emwazi assassinated in a US-British drone attack four days after the episode aired.
    • In "Left of the Boom", Noura al-Kitabi is clearly meant to stand in for Malala Yousafzi, as a young Muslim advocate for girls' education who was attacked by extremists in her home country (with battery acid to the face and neck instead of being shot in the head).
    • Arizona Sen. Carlos Morejon in "Hijriyyah", the anti-immigration son of Cuban immigrants, is probably inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz.
    • Dalton's season 3 election opponent Sam Evans draws comparisons to Donald Trump. In "The Statement" he starts egging on a crowd with the chant "What's going on?" after a terrorist attack in Illinois, then later some of his supporters pick a fight with half-Pakistani supporting cast member Matt, basically accusing him of being a terrorist.
    • Fred Reynolds, the third competitor in the season 3 election is similar to Bernie Sanders, calling for a political "revolution" and attracting a large fanbase of young, liberal voters (including Jason McCord). He does however have a stronger libertarian streak also, calling for isolationist and non-interventionist foreign policies.
    • Polish politician Alek Starowalski is a parallel to Pawel Kukiz as both are national conservative populists with former careers as rock musicians.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: After the coup attempt in Iran, backed by rogue members of the Dalton Administration, President Dalton chooses not to cover it up and instead tell the real story. In "Spartan Figures" his approval ratings are said to have promptly plummeted, with people thinking him either weak for not seeing it coming, or guilty and trying to hide it, and his party's national committee suggested that he not run for reelection. Sure enough, when the election arc comes in season 3, he loses his party's primary.
  • No One Could Survive That!: Said by a Special Forces operator to Elizabeth after the embassy in Yemen is bombed. Fortunately, the ambassador had already been extracted by Private Military Contractors Liz hired earlier in the episode.
  • No Party Given:
    • Liz specifically identifies herself as unaffiliated in "Sea Change".
    • Dalton and his administration adhere to fairly center-left policies similar to those of the Democratic Party. However in "Sea Change", he participates in a Presidential primary debate where it is stated his party refuses to acknowledge climate change, a trait typically observed in the Republican Party. It is possible that Dalton is part of a small centrist section of the party, whereas Sam Evans aligns with the larger conservative section. Elizabeth later convinces him to run as an independent after he loses his party's nomination, and it's mentioned after he wins his second term that he's starting his own party.
    • Fred Reynolds's political ideology is comprised of both liberal Democratic (talks of "Revolution" similar to Bernie Sanders) and libertarian (strict isolationist and non-interventionist) policies.
    • Even when election coverage is shown in "Breakout Capacity", states are highlighted in purple (Evans), green (Reynolds) and orange (Dalton) as opposed to the traditional blue and red, continuing to leave party affiliations ambiguous. This contrasts with a whiteboard in season two's "You Say You Want a Revolution" that marks senators in blue and red (albeit mixing-and-matching them on an issue that proved significantly more partisan during the real life Obama Administration).
    • Finally subverted in "The Great Experiment", where the conservative governor of Massachusetts explicitly states he's a member of the Republican Party. Later in the same episode it's confirmed that the other party is the Democratic Party. However, the political landscape of America is clearly very different in the show, with both parties appearing to be closer to the center than in real-life 2019.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • Episode 18 of season 2, "On the Clock," gives a rather entertaining one over Elizabeth asking Henry to hire a repairman to fix their washing machine, rather than Henry fixing it himself.
    Elizabeth: I don't want to bring up the garage door.
    Henry: That was a total fluke.
    Elizabeth: A fluke that crushed two bicycles and nearly took out the UPS guy.
    • Also, Alison, Liz and Henry's younger daughter, is literally nicknamed "Noodle" for a reason or incident never explained.
  • No True Scotsman: Episode 16 of season 2, "Hijriyyah," has an Arizona Senator pulling this on Elizabeth, regarding the Libyan refugees she plans to bring to the US as part of the operations to hunt down Jibral Disah.
    Elizabeth: Senator, you know as well as I that only a fraction of the 1% of the nearly one million refugees admitted to the US since 9/11 have ever been arrested on terrorism charges.
    Senator Morejon: It only takes one. Look at the dirty bomb.
    Elizabeth: Which was perpetrated by a native-born American citizen.note 
    Senator Morejon: Good folks in my state know the difference between native-born and real.
  • Not Hyperbole: A few times, Liz assumes one of her staff is using some metaphor on things going bad only to find they mean it literally.
    • The series finale has her told that "the venue burned down" and thinks it's a meeting that went bad. It turns out the wedding chapel for her daughter's nuptials caught fire.
  • Office Romance:
    • At the start of the series Matt and Daisy are Friends with Benefits, despite Daisy dating another man. She and her fiancé break up after he learns about Matt, and they start dating full-time. They try to keep it on the down-low but Elizabeth, being former CIA, figures it out anyway and doesn't care.
    • In "Whisper of the Ax", Stevie, the McCords' eldest, starts volunteering at a microloan program her mother administers, and in "The Time Is At Hand", Henry and Liz discover she's started dating her boss... who happens to be nineteen years older than her. Yeah, that went over well. She breaks up with him a few episodes later at Daisy's urging.
  • Official Couple: Elizabeth and Henry are absolutely devoted to each other.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: In the season 1 finale Liz faces possible charges of violating the Espionage Act (for disclosing classified information to Henry so he could help her investigate Secretary Marsh's death). At the suggestion of getting a lawyer, she answers, "I don't want a lawyer. It'll make it look like I need a lawyer." Still legally wrong, but a justified attitude in this case due to the realities of politics: as she's the Secretary of State and a longtime friend and coworker of President Dalton, her looking guilty would reflect badly on him as well (and his standing has already been damaged by the Tamerlane scandal).
  • The Only One: According to the Presidential Succession Act it would be extremely rare for the Secretary of State to be sworn in as President (as Liz mentions in the first season, she's fourth in line), but in "The Show Must Go On", Liz ends up being Acting President for a few hours due to a series of coincidences: Air Force One has gone off the air over the Pacific due to a cyberattack that knocked out communications, the vice president had to have emergency gallbladder surgery, the Speaker of the House is also on Air Force One, and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate is non compos mentis because of a stroke his staff has been keeping secret until the end of his term.
  • Oppressive Immigration Enforcement:
    • "Hijriyyah" deals with Liz having to deal with Arizona Senator Carlos Morejo whose campaign runs heavily on an Anti-immigration platform, disrupting President Dalton's plans for the US to take in two hundred Libyan refugees, publicly arguing they could be terrorists. Liz confronts him over the fact that his own parents were refugees from Cuba which he dismisses, and falls into No True Scotsman when Liz points out that the terrorist attack he's using to justify his platform was committed by a natural-born citizen.
    • "Family Separation" parts 1 and 2 involve Liz having to deal with Governor Richard Barker, who has instigated a policy of separating the children from all undocumented immigrants who cross the border into his state. Even the cynical and politically apathetic Russel Jackson is disgusted by it.
  • Orphaned Setup:
    • In "Just Another Normal Day" Henry is writing a keynote address for a religious scholars' convention, starting with the joke "Thomas Aquinas walks into a bar," at which point he's interrupted by the kids. He later tries it on Liz over the phone, but the camera cuts to Liz's end and we just hear her reaction.
    • Finally revealed in the series finale, the punch line is a gawdawful pun.note 
  • Our Presidents Are Different: Conrad Dalton is primarily a President Personable, with shades of President Iron.
  • Pacifism Is Cowardice: "The Ninth Circle" seems to come to this conclusion. Jason McCord is expelled from a Quaker school after he breaks a school bully's nose for insulting his mother. He apologizes for lashing out physically, but flatly refuses to apologize for defending Liz, and the dean doesn't consider this sufficient.
  • Patriotic Fervor:
    • What drives the people behind the Tamerlane scheme as they believe that creating a coup in Iran to place a pro-American leader is worth breaking slews of laws (including murder) and defend their actions. Even after the scheme fails, one conspirator (who happens to be Liz's old friend) continue to believe they were in the right and it would have been a great thing for the U.S. This fervor, of course, ignores the tiny fact that the guy they figured was the perfect replacement had a terminal brain tumor and wouldn't have lived more than a few months so the coup would all be for nothing. Also that once he died Iran would have descended into anarchy and taken the Middle East with it.
    • Inverted in season 2. Part of what makes Captain Petrov so attractive to Henry as a mole for US intelligence is that he isn't totally thrilled to be a Russian military officer.
  • Private Military Contractors: Reconstruction. "Another Benghazi" has Vesuvian, a private security company whom Elizabeth previously publicly criticized for being trigger-happy. In the episode, she's forced to hire them as extra security for the embassy in Yemen when the Senate Appropriations Committee won't spring for Green Berets. Later the embassy is bombed and an al-Jazeera clone claims Vesuvian provoked it by shooting first. Except they didn't. They saved the ambassador's life from a terrorist attack with no civilian casualties, and the CEO tells Elizabeth that her article prompted him to make some internal policy changes.
  • Product Placement: There's a number of scenes in mid-season 1 of the McCords (even the adults) playing Titanfall on an Xbox One.
  • Protagonist Title: The show's title is the form of address for a female US Cabinet secretary, Liz McCord in this case.
  • Proxy War:
    • The United States briefly gets into one with Russia over Ukraine in season 2, loosely based on the real-life Ukrainian civil war. Moscow invades Ukraine, but the Air Force enforces a no-fly zone while Ukrainian ground forces aided by US advisors and intelligence stop the Russian Army cold. After this they reach a peace deal that grants major concessions to the Russians.
    • Another one nearly starts in Season 5 between Syria and Israel, after the Syrians and the Russians colluded together to frame Israel for a bombing of Syrian children using a U.S.-made weapon. Things quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in Israel destroying a Russian-made jet and covering it up, and nearly causing a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia which would've triggered World War III. A furious Elizabeth, now forced to work overtime in order to figure out a way to avert such a disaster, summoned both the Syrian and Israeli ambassadors to her office and threatened to throw both countries under the bus at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting if they didn't play ball, via providing irrefutable proof of both actions to the Council which would plunge Syria into further Civil War and force Israel to face the full wrath of Moscow.
  • Punny Name:
    • The name of the fictitious security company Vesuvian introduced in the second episode lends itself to a number of subtle puns alluding to a certain volcano.
    • Alison McCord's Affectionate Nickname "Noodle", which is just odd enough that you know there's a Noodle Incident behind it.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • In "The Kill List", Jay gives one to Liz for refusing to make the nuclear deal signing conditional on the Iranians freeing a gay man scheduled to be stoned to death at the same time as the signing ceremony (a deliberate snub to the Americans by the Iranian hardliners). Jay lists out in gory detail what stoning is like. Liz promptly rattles off half a dozen other human rights abuses commonly perpetrated by the Iranian regime and basically calls it a Shoot the Dog situation: sadly, preventing a war over the Iranian nuclear program outweighs an innocent man's life.
    • In "Waiting for Taleju", Henry does a talk show appearance talking about comparative theology. The first caller accuses him of hypocrisy in talking about morality when sexpics of his daughter Stevie and the President's son just turned up on the Internet (Harrison Dalton's phone was stolen by a disgruntled former Secret Service agent). Henry stops the host from pretending they have a bad connection and starts to calmly answer the question, then escalates into verbally ripping the caller limb from limb:
    "You ask an interesting question, Jeff. I'd like to start by making a distinction that I usually make on the very first day of my Morals and Ethics class. A lot of people say that morals are how we treat the people we know and ethics are how we treat the people we don't know. So morals are what make us a good parent, a good friend, a nice neighbor. But ethics are how we build a society. That's the true test of our higher self. But what happens, Jeff, when society is ruled by the subjective morals of, say, you and your family, and you choose to project that onto complete strangers is that we all end up with a society that's governed by self-aggrandizement. So, really, by calling in to make sure you're the first little pedant to jump off your chair and teach me a lesson with smug superiority about your own particular moral point of view when you know precisely nothing of the situation, you've done your part to contribute to the erosion of our entire social fabric. (Sarcastic Clapping) Pat yourself on the back. Bravo."
    • In "The Race" Juliet delivers a subdued, but very effective one to Elizabeth when she points out how obvious it was that the nuclear deal with Iran would inevitably lead to war between Iran and Israel.
  • Replacement Scrappy: In-universe example. In the pilot Elizabeth is this for Vincent Marsh according to many of her staff. She eventually wins them over, especially after Marsh's darker side comes to light.
  • Retired Badass: Dr. Henry McCord, Elizabeth's husband. He is a former USMC Captain, a combat veteran fighter pilot and NSA operative who is reactivated in episode seven. Liz herself as well: though she was primarily an analyst in the CIA, she also did field work.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Many episodes' A-plots are borrowed from real-life world events.
    • The second episode is literally called 'Another Benghazi', and deals with a dangerous situation outside the US Embassy in Yemen which Elizabeth fears may escalate to the same level.
    • Several season one episodes involve a fictionalized version of the talks on Iran's nuclear program that were being conducted by the Obama administration in real life at the time. It turns out in the end that Secretary Marsh's assassination was carried out by a CIA Renegade Splinter Faction that wanted to solve the problem with regime change instead of peace talks.
    • "Spartan Figures" deals with the Greek debt crisis. It also features Liz and President Dalton tracking down and gate-crashing the meeting when the European Union leaders try to cut them out of the negotiations, something then-Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama did when the Chinese pulled the same trick in real life.
    • The A-plot of "Catch and Release" deals with a fictionalized version of Jihadi John, an American and son of a State Department employee dubbed "Jihadi Judd".
    • The first half of season 2 has a Story Arc dealing with the then-current Russian Proxy War in Ukraine escalating into a full-scale invasion, which at time of airing was still only hypothetical.
    • In season 3, Henry has a Story Arc dealing with the destruction and theft of religious artifacts and sites by an Islamic terrorist group. Henry refers directly to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, though Daesh's handiwork in Palmyra is more recent.
    • The election arc in season 3, though a reelection for Dalton, obviously draws heavy inspiration from the 2015-2016 election. Dalton appears to be placed in the role of Hillary Clinton, running as an even-handed establishment centrist, while Sam Evans and Fred Reynolds are more populist and seem to swing right and left respectively (seemingly inspired by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). Isolationism versus globalism is also cited as an issue of the campaign.
    • Special forces infiltrate General Kolba's airbase by posing as him, including the use of a copy of his signature car, which is flown in for the purpose. This was the way Israeli soldiers infiltrated the airbase at Entebbe, Uganda, to liberate Israeli hostages [1].
  • Running Gag:
    • Presidential Chief of Staff Russell Jackson coming into Liz's office unannounced, with her aide Blake running after him to try and beat him there and announce him.
      • Lampshaded in "Spartan Figures": Liz snarks they should put a lock on the door and post a Marine guard.
      • Then given a Brick Joke in late season 2 when Liz barges into Russell's office unannounced and Russell mutters something along the lines of, "You know what, that really is kinda rude."
    • The fact that Liz has a higher approval rating than President Dalton.
    • The relative merits of kale.
    • In Season 4, Elizabeth's insistence on buying everyone a wet/dry vacuum which she promises they'll eventually need and thank her for, and which nobody ever has.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: The President Pro Tempore is this because of a stroke (when asked who the current president is, he answers Ronald Reagan), making him ineligible to become president during the opening episode of season 2.
  • Self-Sacrifice Scheme: After being offered to be Dalton's Vice-President when he runs for re-election, Liz is rocked when Dalton is defeated in the primaries. She urges him to run as an independent, but the only way he can win a key state (Pennsylvania) is by having a Senator from that state as his VP. Dalton refuses at first, as he wants Liz, but Liz makes it clear that it's best for him not to have her as a running mate.
  • Semper Fi: Henry is a retired Marine Corps Captain and an F/A-18 pilot who flew ground-attack missions in Desert Storm. In one episode he gives a pair of US Air Force 2nd Lieutenants (misidentified as Marines in a later episode) a nasty chewing-out for being drunk in uniform and badmouthing Liz. Which Jason McCord later cites as precedent after he punches out a bully for doing the same thing and gets expelled. President Dalton also served in the Marines in Vietnam.
  • Servile Snarker: Blake, while occasionally timid, is not afraid to (respectfully, of course) sass his charge (Elizabeth). For instance, when he's trying to get her out the door to take a vacation:
    Elizabeth: Why do I get the impression you're trying to get rid of me?
    Blake: [deadpan] Because I'm trying to get rid of you.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Russell Jackson makes a Prime Directive reference in response to Liz's concern about the President of Angola trying to steal an election.
    • Mike B starts quoting from the "Dead Parrot" sketch about Dalton's political life after he forces a draw in the electoral college only to have the Iranians get caught trying to circumvent the nuclear deal.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: In "Breakout Capacity" nuclear proliferation expert Walter Nowack is working with Liz trying to deal with a crisis that could derail both the Iran nuclear deal and Dalton's reelection. While trying to figure something out, Nowack starts quoting the "to be or not to be" speech from Hamlet, then remarks on an analysis that says Hamlet should've been asking "how to be", as a roundabout way of saying "we're asking the wrong question".
  • Show Some Leg/We Need a Distraction: In one episode, Liz calls up a rogue Moldovan general to distract him while Navy SEALs destroy his air force and rescue some hostages. While she's not wearing anything revealing, it counts as the latter as the general had previously declared on Twitter that he found her attractive. (This seems to have been inspired by the discovery during the Arab Spring that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had a thing for former Defense Secretary Condoleeza Rice, which she found as creepy as Liz found her own Hopeless Suitor.)
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: Liz's Chinese counterpart gets in a good one in "The Detour".
    Liz: The United States is trying very hard to turn the page [in Africa], and be a force for constructive engagement. Cleaner energy, economic diversification and greater transparency, educating and empowering women and girls.
    Chen Ming: Spare me your idealism. More importantly, spare Africa. I lived through the Cultural Revolution. My father was not so lucky. Idealism kills. Mutual interests save lives.
  • Significantly Delayed Title Card: Madam Secretary episodes routinely have title cards ten or fifteen minutes into the episode.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The season 4 finale shows a general at the Pentagon in bed with his mistress when his wife finds them and files for divorce. Hours later, when it looks like Russia has launched a huge missile strike, that general tries to input the President's codes for an American strike but is locked out because the divorce has caused his security clearance to be revoked. This delays the launch long enough for another general to arrive and reveal the whole thing is a computer simulation that's gotten out of hand. Lampshaded by Russell.
    Russell: So nuclear war is prevented thanks to one philandering general. Maybe we should give the mistress a medal.
  • Spanner in the Works: A common format for A-plots is to establish that Liz's department has worked for X amount of time to get a deal done, only for something wacky to come out of left field and threaten it.
    • "Just Another Normal Day" sees the signing of a US-mediated treaty between China and Japan get derailed when a Chinese exchange student requests political asylum in the United States.
    • Defied in "Tamerlane". Liz and Dalton consider actually letting the Tamerlane coup in Iran go forward, as it would install an exiled pro-US moderate as the new Iranian leader. Unfortunately, after interviewing the chosen successor Liz realizes he has a terminal brain tumor and wouldn't survive long enough to get his government stabilized, forcing them to back the devil they know and blow the whistle on Tamerlane.
    • "The Kill List": The US locates Juliet hiding out in Algeria and Dalton plans to take her out with a drone strike. However, the Algerians refuse to allow the US to deploy the drone, instead insisting on being part of a joint special forces operation to capture her... which leads to the discovery that Juliet wasn't actually there, having planted evidence to fake her own death in the drone strike.
    • A deal to reopen relations with Cuba and lift the US trade embargo is nearly scuttled when a senator who had previously agreed to vote "yes" threatens to withdraw support over an escaped Cop Killer living in Cuba (the cop's wife is from his state). Justified: National Security Advisor Craig Sterling opposes the deal and went behind the President's back to the senator to try and sabotage it.
    • The State Department goes through two in a row on the same issue in "The Linchpin". A US ambassador manages to negotiate a peaceful transition of power to avert a civil war in Algeria, but then threatens to resign and derail the peace deal over Dalton's decision to run for reelection as an independent (arguing that the he should have been loyal to his party). Liz and Russell twist his arm into staying on long enough for him to finish the deal, but then he works himself into a heart attack while ranting about it to his wife and drops dead.
    • A major trade deal with Sri Lanka is called out when it comes out that the President's chief advisor fancies himself a psychic and claiming "the spirits" don't want the deal to go down.
  • Spiritual Successor:
    • Very much appears to be one to The West Wing, albeit revolving around the State Department instead of the Oval Office.
    • One can also see elements of Borgen and Commander in Chief in its focus on the problems of a woman maintaining a high political position and a family.
  • Stock Footage: The show will often use it for videos of events in the situation room, and it doesn't always pass muster. A "torpedoed minesweeper" actually depicts an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and a sequence of Air Force jets firing on Russian jets to enforce a no-fly zone pretty obviously is of live-fire practice against remote-controlled targets as well as bombing runs against ground targets (which is not happening according to the show).
  • Straight Gay: Or rather, Straight Bisexual Blake. He acts somewhat timid but other than that, if it hadn't been made explicit in "Collateral Damage" one might not have noticed.
  • Strawman Political: Although no parties are directly mentioned, congressional conservatives don't come off particularly well in this series, usually portrayed as Obstructive Bureaucrats using Ad Hominem attacks to score political points against Liz and the Dalton Administration. It's sort of understandable since Liz McCord is a populist policymaker in a fairly liberal administration, so they're her natural political adversaries and politics really often does work this way.
  • Strawman U: Rafferty College in "Higher Learning". Liz, touring the place with Alison (and Stevie and Blake along for the ride) gets ambushed repeatedly by campus activists, one of whom sues after being pushed back by her bodyguard, and another of whom sets off a glitter cannon at them and gets tackled by her detail, and video of the whole thing gets posted on the Internet with the part where she tries to explain how the Issue of the Day isn't as simple as it looks edited out. Liz gets the lawsuit dropped by calling the kid's parents, who ream him out, but then she actually congratulates him on his passion and points out that his protest convinced her to take a closer look, uncovering malfeasance.
  • Suddenly Bilingual:
    • At one point Jay gets into a very loud argument with the French foreign minister that starts out in English, but by the time Liz gets there and breaks it up they're ranting at each other in French.
    • After getting an email in Arabic from a source, Henry starts to go to get a translator, but his teammate Jose just gets up and starts reading it off the screen in English without any foreshadowing (beyond a brief mention that he's former Special Forces).
  • Taking the Bullet: Fred Cole, one of Liz's security detail in Iran, true to their role, does this by shielding her with his body with fatal results.
  • Time Skip: The sixth (and final) season jumps two years ahead in time to Liz now president.
  • Title Drop: Used for episode titles as early as "Another Benghazi", a phrase used by Liz in The Teaser when she asks how far the situation outside the embassy in San'a is from turning into "another Benghazi". Almost every episode has at least one of them.
  • Torture Is Ineffective: Exploited by Liz in one of the flashbacks in "There But for the Grace of God". Liz, still a CIA officer, wants to put an end to the US use of torture for moral reasons, but in order to invoke Enlightened Self-Interest she writes a memo focusing on torture being inefficient instead of immoral.
  • Torture Technician: In a flashback to Liz's time in Iraq, she at one point hands a captured insurgent over to an Army interrogator. The shot cuts away and all you hear is the suspect screaming. In the present, Liz explains to her daughter what "stepping it up" meant, including stress positions and waterboarding (straight out of the mid-2000s "enhanced interrogation techniques" handbook). It's not stated whether they got any useful information from him.
  • The Unfavorite: When his sister Maureen comes for a visit, Henry is happy but they soon find themselves arguing over how Maureen always thought their dad financed Henry's college tour when he paid for it himself. He fires off that their father didn't say it because Maureen was always his favorite. This comes as a shock to Maureen as she's long held Henry was their dad's favorite and they realize this has been driving a wedge between them for too long.
  • Underestimating Badassery: What the U.S. intelligence communities do with Maria Ostrova. They think she's the quiet widow to the Russian President and are unprepared for her to lash out at the U.S. and become President herself. Even then, they believe she's just the face for generals and a puppet when in truth, she's a ruthless and brilliant power player who murdered her husband because he was too weak and has the Russian military wrapped around her finger.
  • Uptown Girl: Liz and Henry have some elements of this. She's indicated to be from a privileged background (for one thing, she went to boarding school with the crown prince of Bahrain), whereas Henry is the son of a steelworker and needed a Navy ROTC scholarship to afford college.
  • We Used to Be Friends: In-Universe, President Conrad Dalton was the Director of Central Intelligence under George W. Bush, and present-day DCI Andrew Munsey, as well as Liz, Juliet, Isabelle, and George, were senior operatives and close friends. By season's end, Munsey and Juliet have been revealed as ringleaders of a Renegade Splinter Faction trying to foment regime change in Iran, and Juliet confesses to having killed George and Secretary of State Vincent Marsh to keep the secret. Driven home by the closing scene of "There But for the Grace of God", which shows all six of them enjoying themselves at Liz's retirement party.
  • We Win, Because You Didn't: Liz and Jackson come up with this for President Dalton's reelection bid after Dalton loses to a challenger in the Democratic primary. Rather than endorse his opponent, whom he and Liz both hate, they decide to run as independents because Dalton is still considerably popular with moderates and swing voters. Jackson explains their strategy is not to win outright (they mathematically cannot), but rather to force a three-way draw in the electoral college, which punts the election to the House of Representatives where Dalton has a better chance. (See UsefulNotes.American Political System.)
  • Wham Line: The final one of season 4 as Liz tells Henry that "When the time comes I want to run for President."
  • Wham Shot: The Season 6 premiere shows Liz and Henry preparing for a fundraiser, presumably for her presidential campaign. Until we see her army of Secret Service agents.
    Caption: Day 97 of the Mc Cord Presidency.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Isabelle plays an important part in the first half of the first season, but disappears after she has been cleared of suspicion in The Conspiracy.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: "The Necessary Art" is basically one giant Shout-Out to Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, except in this version the captain of the sub really has gone nuts and the crew mutiny to stop him.
  • World of Snark: Deadpan humor is the rule of the day in the State Department, it seems, as you might expect from a building full of very smart and frequently very frustrated people. Everybody from Liz on down gets in a few good jabs.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: A common bit from Liz on how some major leaders will throw a wrench into things for what she sees as ridiculous reasons.
    • Just as a major trade agreement is about to be signed, the President of Sri Lanka calls it off...because his advisor claims that "the spirits have withdrawn their support" and Liz can't believe a world leader is making national decisions based off the word of a psychic.
  • You Have Failed Me: Dalton fires his second CIA director after he fails to prevent Hizb al-Shahid's dirty bomb attack, though in the same incident he refuses the resignation of the Director of National Intelligence.


Video Example(s):


"We'll Repossess You."

"Russian Roulette". Having become doubtful that Russia was not behind the cyberattack on Air Force One as previously suspected, Elizabeth interviews Chinese foreign minister Chen Ming to see if his country was involved. Chen refutes the accusation, saying that a war between the US and Russia is the last thing China needs: they have invested heavily in both countries and when they come to take over the world, they won't do it with guns and bombs--"We'll repossess you."

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / ChinaTakesOverTheWorld

Media sources: