‘Madam Secretary’ Bosses Reflect on 100 Episodes, Family Separation and Finding a ‘Positive’ Spin

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Family Separation Part 1,” the fifth midseason finale of “Madam Secretary.”

There are few shows on television that tackle sensitive topics such as nuclear power, climate change, or the 25th amendment with vigor in each episode, let alone one that also often opts for the most dramatic — but positive — outcome for its characters.

So taking on the ripped-from-the-headlines issue of family separation at U.S.-Mexico border was only a natural fit for the 100th episode of “Madam Secretary.” On Sunday night’s “Family Separation Part 1,” Elizabeth (Tea Leoni) and Henry (Tim Daly) plotted their vow renewals, while at the border a new senate policy of arresting those seeking asylum and separating them from their children came to light.

Although Elizabeth reached deep into her contact list to try and rectify the situation, by the end of the episode tensions reached a new high when she was arrested outside of a detention centre in a very public display. The conclusion to the dramatic storyline — including what it means for Elizabeth and Henry’s vow renewals — airs in the New Year.

“We thought it would be a very big deal for the Secretary of State to be arrested,” creator and executive producer Barbara Hall tells Variety. “We saw people getting arrested at these protests when family separation started happening. Remember when senators were trying to get into all of these detention centers and not being allowed in? If they’d really pushed the issue they could have been arrested for it.”

Here, Hall and showrunner Lori McCreary reflect on crafting the sensitive episode, keeping up with current events in a real and relevant way, and the path to 100 episodes.

Why write this particular episode with this timing?

Hall: It felt like a very current event. It’s something that is really in the forefront of the news and our reality, and it felt like ignoring something of that magnitude made our show feel a little like a fantasy, like we weren’t necessarily doing current events. It was difficult to find a way in because the family separation policy would never happen under our [show] president — he just wouldn’t support that policy. So we found a way to make that happen based on state law. We just feel like some of the bigger events of our time, we need to be able to address them so that our show feels current.

We had long wanted to do the vow renewal between Henry and Elizabeth for the 100th episode and we wanted to put that alongside some big event that would interfere and make her have to choose between the two — or at least make her think that she has to. And then when the family separation was happening, the imagery –or at least the little imagery you could see — felt like that was something really strong to pair with the more beautiful, happy imagery of their vow renewal. We wanted an event that was big enough to interfere with their plans.

How do you write that story so the vow renewal doesn’t seem frivolous when contrasted with such a heart-wrenching topic?

Hall: The show in a way is the celebration of family paired with the emergency of a tragic situation that’s happening with other families. So we just thought it was thematically good to show that our family, the McCord family, celebrate what that institution for lack of a better word, is all about. And felt it was a natural pairing to show what happens when families fall apart.

McCreary: One of the things that Barbara and I talk about is we all become somewhat desensitized to what’s happening in the news, where every day something new comes out. It’s our privilege to be able to present these stories in a dramatic way. It touches our hearts because it’s so hard in a news soundbite to really understand what’s going on. It’s also hard for us to do domestic issues because the Secretary of State works internationally on diplomacy, so this was a really great way to keep Elizabeth in the country for the vow renewal and also have something that was deeply, deeply important for us to shine a light on.

Did the importance of spotlighting family separation factor into constructing this as a two-parter?

Hall: Yes. David Grae and I wrote the episode together and we wrote different scenes…and when we put it all together we had an 80 page script, when an episode is usually 52 pages.

McCreary: I remember the phone call, Barbara called and said, “What do you think about making it a two-parter?”

Hall: Sometimes you joke about that, when you write a script that’s too long. But because it was the 100th episode, and because when we went through the script it all needed to be said, we said it all needs to be here. Then we thought of a few more things that needed to be there, and the next thing you know we had a two-parter.

McCreary: Amnesty International says there’s still nearly 200 kids separated from their parents from the crisis earlier this year.

What kind of research is involved in getting these big, sweeping stories right?

Hall: We worked with a media group to find a way into a family separation story, which was difficult because it’s hard to make it into a foreign policy story. We managed to do that by making it an issue with the Mexican ambassador and the president being concerned over how its citizens are treated. But we’ll say, “We want to do this story, what’s the foreign policy in it, and what happens when you go to court on this issue?” And they’ll talk us through all the legal steps. Like getting nuclear weapons off of a hair-trigger response, which we did in the season finale last year — talk us through that; what would that look like, who would have to be part pf the agreement, how you proceed.

After 100 episodes, what have you learned in terms of how much you can dig into those kinds of issues given the family storylines and time constraints?

Hall: You sort of get into a rhythm of how much story you can tell. The A-story usually being some big international crisis or problem, and we want to devote an equal amount of time to their personal lives, particularly the family. Really by the first season you get an idea of what the division of story is going to look like. Sometimes we do pare down the big, crisis story so that we can tell a more personal story. Sometimes we also do these really highly, heavily plotted process stories, what we call the “wonky policy” stories. And we’ll put those in there every now and then because people have the appetite for it. But then we give everybody room to breathe and go back to telling more personal stories. So we just do it by feel…and try to get it all done in less than an hour.

If you were to look back at the issues you’ve covered, is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now?

Hall: We’ve done a lot of episodes that either came true or came close to coming true. In a way, our approach is always that we play into what’s happening in current events and we try to game it out several steps in the future, to the most dramatic conclusion. Sometimes time moves quickly and that story moves right along with the headlines. That’s becoming more difficult to do now because things are moving so quickly. I can’t say that I feel like we missed the mark on anything. We were always trying to stay current and we’re still trying to do that; in fact we’re trying to stay ahead of it but that’s getting harder to do.

McCreary: When we’re looking at a certain topic I’ll think, “Oh man this is going to be hitting the news again in a really big way,” which happened with that Washington Post article about the gentleman who came across with his seven-year-old daughter through border protection, and we just heard that she died in custody recently. We’re in an alternate reality but our real reality is exceeding even what we’re putting in a dramatic series. And it’s happened a lot on this show. I remember we did the drone episode, an American drone strike, and I thought, “Ah that’s never going to happen.” And then it was in the headlines by the time the episode aired. Our writing team and Barbara have this crystal ball.

Hall: I really do think the reason it looks like we have a crystal ball sometimes is we look at what’s happening now and we try to project in the future where this could go. For example, when talks with Iran were beginning, we just gamed it all the way out to a full-on peace agreement. And then less than a year later the United States had a nuclear agreement with Iran.

McCreary: And we were accused of being complicit or something and it was just great storytelling.

Hall: When you think about it, when circumstances start to happen, you can game them out and there’s only three or four ways it could go. We always pick them most dramatic way and that sort of speaks to the time that it’s pretty dramatic right now, that these things are going to the most dramatic places.

McCreary: And I think the most hopeful way, right? The Washington Post story was not the most hopeful way. We go for the, “Oh if only it were this way in real life.”

Hall: Right. Here’s the solution to the terrible problem that’s right before us.