I am watching American Drama "Madam Secretary" season 1, episode 14. And there are some dialogues I can't understand. I wonder what the meaning of last two sentences is. Please help me!

Russell:I'm sure it goes without saying that the president wants this microloan thing put to bed before it gets any bigger.

Elizabeth:We're in complete agreement about that.

Russell:I hear you're bringing Mike B. in to help clean up the mess.

Elizabeth:Nothing gets by you. Got it.

Russell:He's the right son of a bitch for the job. You know him?

Elizabeth:Yeah. We taught together at UVA.

Russell:I almost feel sorry for your staff.

Elizabeth: Well, a little cold terror over job security never hurt anyone.

Russell: You should have that embroidered on a pillow.

  • 2
    @Rathony Alas, I'm afraid you've missed the sarcasm in Russell's rejoinder. Embroidered pillow quotes are traditionally uplifting and positive to the point of being cloying. Go here: etsy.com/market/pillow_quote The stark and frightening quote about cold terror would hardly be appropriate on a pillow.
    – deadrat
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:50
  • 2
    @Rathony It's a comment on just how cold and ruthless Liz's remark is. Sarcasm if often effected by saying one thing and meaning the opposite. Liz's remark is the opposite of a an embroidered-pillow quote.
    – deadrat
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 5:58
  • @Rathony You don't think a boss who contemplates inflicting cold terror on her subordinates is that ruthless? Where have you been working?
    – deadrat
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 6:07
  • 2
    which part needs explaining ... the 'cold terror' or 'embroidered on a pillow'?
    – lbf
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 20:29

1 Answer 1


As deadrat's comments beneath the posted question indicate, the bolded lines spoken by Elizabeth and Russell contain fairly straightforward meanings, although both are used to darkly humorous (or at least sarcastic) effect.

Evidently Elizabeth is bringing an outsider named Mike B. into her office to prevent some sort of mini-scandal from getting larger and more politically damaging. Mike B. appears to have a reputation for taking ruthless measures to tamping down problems of this sort—presumably through such policies as terminating the employment of anyone who fails to cooperate with his guidelines to staff for controlling the situation. Those guidelines undoubtedly include such strictures as not to talk to the press or leaking information to anyone else.

Elizabeth's comment that "a little cold terror over job security never hurt anyone" refers to the effect on staffers of knowing that if Mike B. catches them disobeying his directives or finds out that they were in some way responsible for the mess that he is there to clean up, he will have them fired: their job security is in jeopardy because of Mike B.'s insistence on their complete obedience to his demands (and possibly also on their cooperation with his investigation, if any, into the underlying cause of the kerfuffle), and the cold terror they feel is due to their awareness that any slip-up on their part could cost them their jobs.

The way that Elizabeth frames this statement introduces a note of dark humor, because expressions of the form "a little X never hurt anyone" are common in English, where X may be replaced by a more or less benign (or at least tolerable) word such as "rain," "exercise," "nightcap," or "adversity"—the implication being that these things are not particularly dangerous or difficulty to bear. But in place of one of these typically nonthreatening words, she puts "cold terror," which is, of course, an extreme and potentially debilitating emotion.

Richard immediately picks up on the incongruousness of Elizabeth's remark and, in response, amplifies the darkness of the humor by saying that she should have the phrase embroidered on a pillow. This alludes to the longtime practice of embroidering pillows with heartwarming homilies such as "There's No Place Like Home" or "The Best Things in Life Are Free"—but Richard is instead ludicrously suggesting that Elizabeth should use "A Little Cold Terror Over Job Security Never Hurt Anyone" as an upbeat and reassuring pillow slogan.

There is really nothing more to the exchange than that.

  • Underpinning the exchange is Elizabeth's impeccable knack for gauging the correct tone for the occasion and the opponent. She adopts this bravado because it works with Russel, and not much does. The show won the award for the best edited one-hour tv program.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Mar 16 at 14:24

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