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Designated Survivor wanders through the woods in more ways than one

“Can we please dispense with the dramatic pause?”

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Designated Survivor

"The Ninth Seat"

Season 1 , Episode 17

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Designated Survivor has a Peter MacLeish problem.

It’s not unexpected for a show that’s at least part intelligence thriller to throw a big rise-from-the-dead twist in at the eleventh hour (and with only two episodes left in its first season, that’s exactly the hour). It’s not even a bad twist, really—a familiar face needed to step out of that helicopter to achieve one of the gasp-worthy moments that DS is so clearly chasing. Still, the return of the supposedly dead Nestor Lozano isn’t exactly a shot of pure adrenaline, either, and there’s a simple explanation for that: he’s actually not a familiar face, and this isn’t a show that can get by without a villain.

That’s the MacLeish problem. In “The End of the Beginning,” the best episode of the series to date, Designated Survivor offed the two most visible conspirators in the plot to take over (or take down) the government of the United States. As Handlen put it in his review of that standout episode (and its shocking final sequence), “Shit, as they say, is getting real.” It was a hell of a moment, and one made so surprising largely because MacLeish and Lady MacLeish were the only villains with whom we’d spent any real time. They weren’t the masterminds, and a reveal of some kind was always promised, but the capture of MacLeish seemed to be the event to which the show was driving, until it suddenly and violently became a non-issue.

So here we are, two episodes from the big finish and without any particular figure of menace having filled the MacLeish void. With every episode since MacLeish’s death, it’s become clearer that this isn’t a series that can sustain a good guys vs. bad guys arc without a face for the latter. That’s clearly what the show’s attempting to do with the resurrection of Lazano (sure to be the focus of next week’s episode, aptly titled “Lazarus”). Yet he’s nearly as unknown to us as any of the nameless terrorists blocking the roads in North Dakota, a cypher with a familiar name in whom the audience has invested nothing. He steps off of a helicopter, and while the writers may have been going for the big gasp, they’re likely to have gotten nothing more than an “oh, OK.”

It’s possible that another version of this show, one more interested in complexity, could sustain momentum without a specific bad guy to take down. The influence ofThe West Wing looms large over Designated Survivor, subbing out Jed Bartlet’s aw-shucks-grandpa-meets-tortured-Nobel-laureate vibe for Kirkman’s aw-shucks-dad-meets-softspoken-independent-thinker schtick and making a catastrophic the inciting incident that gets Mr. Smith to Washington, rather than a plain old election. There are some shared strengths between the two shows—while I would never put Emily, Seth, Aaron, or Kimble on the same level as characters like C.J. Cregg and Toby Ziegler, both Designated Survivor and its predecessor prioritize flawed characters who genuinely want to serve and whose intentions are (usually) pure. Still, when Designated Survivor dives into the waters of governance, the stories quite often feel thin, and the similarities of The West Wing, intentional or otherwise, can’t help but make the show feel much, much smaller.

Last week’s gun control story played better than the Supreme Court appointment plot of “The Ninth Seat,” though this isn’t so bad either, but both share the same little shortcoming: this simply isn’t a series equipped to tackle big, complicated issues in a compelling way. Kirkman and company always find the perfect unconventional solution, while the series’ writers make a fuss all the while about how difficult governance is. These victories feel convenient, not earned, and any sacrifices made rarely seem to come with much of a cost. It’s engaging enough, and the Kirkman administration is easy to root for, but a story about unconventional thinking and compromise really only works if we actually see those things, understand from where they come, and recognize the cost involved. Otherwise, it’s just office work.

Elsewhere, Rob Morrow’s Abe Leonard returns, now tracking down leads on Lazano for a publication that isn’t Teen Mode. This too feels familiar, but try putting a reporter in a political drama without getting something that’s not totally fresh. The show is aided by Morrow’s performance, which is just silly enough to match the show’s level of cheese, but which is also surprisingly engaging, largely because Leonard seems pretty terrible. As was the case with Kimble early on, Leonard manages to both be right and sort of an asshole, a balance that’s almost always more engaging than fitting someone for a back hat or a halo with no in-between. There’s a lot of implausible stuff in this story, but it’s got forward momentum and some complexities of both ethics and character, so it’s a big part of what makes “The Ninth Seat” succesful.

Still, it feels as though the bulk of this episode sees Hannah and Jason wandering around North Dakota in a plot that seems to do a lot of wandering itself. A twist a minute isn’t always a bad thing, but this feels neither suspenseful nor mysterious. Wells and Atwood are simply uncovering plot points, one at a time, and while a checklist may be necessary to get one to a season finale, it isn’t the stuff of gasps, either. Let’s hope that in the last two installments of its first season, Designated Survivor can get some of that gasp-worthiness back.

Stray observations

  • I hope Alex is on vacation somewhere.
  • While the Supreme Court plot may not have been entirely successful, Linda Purl makes for a great guest star. The revelation of her illness would likely have felt cheap had she not done such great work in that scene.
  • “I can wait you out, Mr. President” would have been an infuriating moment even if Mark Deklin weren’t serving grade-A slimeball.
  • “I’m sorry for losing my temper but I have lost my temper.” Great line. (Also, very Bartlet, as were pretty much all the Kirkman speeches this week, albeit much slower and with a lot less Latin.)
  • For those unconvinced about the influence of The West Wing, check out “Separation of Powers,” “Shutdown,” and “The Supremes,” all from the show’s fifth season. For that matter, the same is true for the Danny Concannon arc in season four.
  • There’s no way a skilled reporter clicks on a link in a random pop-up window, right?
  • Speaking of... “Lazano conspiracy theories”? Really?
  • Thanks to Zack for letting me fill in again!