Elizabeth McCord Struggles With Work-Life Balance on ‘Madam Secretary’

Jonathan Wenk/CBS

Yeah, the world needs saving. But can’t it wait just a minute? The Season 4 premiere of Madam Secretary finds U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) just getting home from a shopping trip to Bed Bath & Beyond. She is accompanied by her middle child, Alison (Kathrine Herzer), who is about to go away to college, a rite of passage that has Elizabeth feeling frazzled and old and off her game—all the things she’s not when tracking terrorists in the Middle East or going toe-to-toe with China. And she’s way too obsessed with the virtues of the super-duper, turbo-charged wet-dry hand vac she just bought for her daughter. This woman really needs to feel like a good mom right now, one who sends her kid off to school with all the proper dorm essentials. The scene, it turns out, is a dress rehearsal for life.

“Just weeks after we shot it, I was also at Bed Bath & Beyond getting my own daughter [18-year-old Madelaine] ready for college—and, just like Elizabeth, I’ve been freaking out,” Leoni says. “One minute you’re looking into your child’s face—a reflection of all you’ve done as a parent. The next, you’re staring into an empty bedroom. It’s a shattering experience to see your kid leave the nest and so hard to give them space. I literally have to sit on my hands to keep from phoning my daughter. It’s agony.”

Madam Secretary - Wallis Currie-Wood

But that, in a nutshell, is why Leoni agreed to star in Madam Secretary. “I went into this series to play a strong woman who tackles global problems by thinking outside the box,” she says. “But it was equally important for the audience to see that woman at home—raising a family, being a wife, having a life—and then watch her bring all that humanity to her job.” Women in government, Leoni notes, “have to put on such a tough, all-business front, as if we don’t want to think of them as having personal lives. But who wants HAL [the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey] running the country? Living a full, rich, experienced life helps leaders like Elizabeth understand what citizens need, what they believe in, what they fight for.”

Madam Secretary - Chris Petrovski

So while there’s certainly no dearth of hot topics this season—a fake-news story posted on a crackpot website will get Elizabeth in hot water with the public, and there’s a complete government shutdown when Congress can’t pass a budget—there’s also a renewed emphasis on the home front. Causing fresh angst is Elizabeth’s husband, Henry (Tim Daly), a professor of religious theology and former undercover NSA agent who has just signed up for a top job with the CIA.

“It’s the kind of work that takes a toll on your soul,” Daly says. “At first, Elizabeth didn’t want Henry anywhere near the CIA, because it can require doing things that are ethically dubious—things that might be bad for a few people but best for the greater good. But he’s passionate about the opportunity, so they will have to navigate these murky waters together.

Expect lots of pillow talk.”And romantic confusion. In the Season 3 finale, the McCords’ eldest daughter, Stevie (Wallis Currie-Wood), an intern at the White House, caught the eye of Russian counterespionage agent Dmitri Petrov (Chris Petrovski), who was just released from witness protection. This could be double trouble: Not only is Stevie engaged to tweedy Brit Jareth Glover (Christopher O’Shea), but Dmitri is now working under Dad at the CIA.

“Stevie’s worlds are colliding,” says Currie-Wood. “This flirtation with Dmitri could well lead to something, and she doesn’t even know what that entails. The guy’s a spy! Stevie’s really not thinking. And I don’t know if her parents can handle this. Henry has a lot of love and respect for Dmitri…but there are limits.”

Then there’s postpubescent video gamer Jason (Evan Roe), the McCords’ youngest spawn. “He’s an incredibly smart kid, but an a–hole every now and again and a bit of an anarchist,” says Leoni, who has a 15-year-old son, Kyd, at home. “Henry and Elizabeth can’t see Jason ever becoming an independent being, and isn’t that relatable? Just ask any parent which they’d rather negotiate with—a difficult teenager or a difficult world leader. And they will all say the same thing: ‘Give me North Korea—any day!’”

Madam Secretary, Season Premiere, Sunday, Oct. 8, 10/9c, CBS