(Photo: ABC/John Medland)

For its mid-season finale, Designated Survivor makes a bold choice: to spin its wheels a bit while it patiently waits for the moment when it can kill somebody off. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a great approach. It’s hard to earn any sort of catharsis when the big emotional moments — Alex’s death and Hannah’s shooting of Damien — are so undercooked. When a series prioritizes plot over character and relationship, that’s what happens. Plot happens, and it means almost nothing.

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It’s a shame, because the three stories that shape this hour — Alex attempting to wrap up the FBI investigation, Hannah trying to confirm Damien’s guilt or innocence, and Emily dealing with a mother who is refusing a potentially life-saving medical procedure for her daughter on religious grounds — all have some potential. In the first two plotlines, you can see hints of what “Line Of Fire” might have been in other hands, as Alex regains a small amount of control over her life through the use of her own skills and education and Hannah has to balance evidence against emotion. Emily’s story almost works, and it’s not a coincidence that hers is the one most centered on the people involved. Even the worst plot can be a little bit engaging if you care about the characters.

Emily’s storyline also benefits from the work of Italia Ricci, easily the MVP of the second season’s first half. Ricci gets some good writing and some that’s not so good, but whatever she’s handed she handles, making tonal shifts and small choices that help to sell even the most ridiculous stuff. This is actually the beginning of a really good idea, putting a woman in the position of acting as a representative of the government in a situation where her own faith is her most useful tool. Of course, Designated Survivor isn’t particularly interested in what any of that means or how it feels; instead, the show, like Kirkman, seems to want only to find a way to a happy ending without pissing anybody off. Still, watching Emily (and Ricci) navigate those waters, those of faith and religion and morality, is relatively compelling, as are her interactions with the young mother on whom the story centers. It ends up pretty much where you expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally ineffective.

For totally ineffective, we’ve got to look elsewhere. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that Designated Survivor spends the last ten minutes of this episode writing checks it can’t cash. The big conclusions to the two ongoing storylines — Damien the Mystery Spy and Alex the Framed First Lady — depend entirely on your investment in the characters and their relationships. These two stories are, it turns out, likely linked by whatever nefarious Russian business Damien is involved in, but they’re linked by that lack of emotional commitment as well. As silly as both ongoing plots are, there’s a world where they could work. Imagine an hour in which Maggie Q’s Hannah tries to do her job in spite of mounting shame or disgust about the signs she missed or the ways in which she was violated. Imagine a show in which we’d spent enough time with Damien to care about his betrayal, or where we knew enough about him to question, as Hannah does, whether or not it’s possible that he’s being set up. It would still be a silly, soapy story, but it would be one with real emotional stakes.

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Not a sign of those here. When Hannah shoots Damien, who’s reaching for something in his pocket (bet a nickel that’ll come up again), it’s just a thing that happens, and one that seems largely out of character. The scenes in The Good Place where Janet fake-pleads for her life carry more weight. More applicably, so does the scene in which Chuck tries to convince Hannah that Damien might not be a good guy. That’s because we know Chuck and Hannah. We know how they interact. We know the risks Chuck had to take to help Hannah in season one. We know from where his dislike of Damien stems, and we know that, in this case, dislike and suspicion are unrelated. In contrast, all we know about Damien is that he ran track at Oxford.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the mess Designated Survivor makes of Alex’s death. Are we supposed to assume this is an accident? A part of Lloyd’s plot? Are we meant to believe that the only issue in the Kirkman’s marriage was the tension over the FBI investigation, and that Alex finding a way to quash that investigation clears everything else up? Other than shocked and sad, it’s unclear what the show would like us to feel. When it comes to sadness, your mileage may vary, but it’s hard to believe anyone felt shocked. Previews started airing last week for this episode, and since the President’s fall to his knees was included, this is a death that was easy to see coming.

That wouldn’t matter, if the actual story worked. Sadly, it doesn’t. The end result is that all the time spent on watching Alex make inexplicably bad decisions about the investigation seems wasted. In the end, it didn’t matter at all, and while it’s fun watching Natascha McElhone and Zoe McClennan push Reed Diamond’s John Forstell around, it all seems like a big excuse to make sure the First Lady was in a car near the episode’s end. It feels a bit as though the writers said, “fuck it, whatever, let’s just have her do some lawyer stuff until she has to get hit by that truck.”

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McElhone’s Alex was one of the show’s most compelling characters in the first season. In the second, she’s either been underused or used badly. If the end of her story handled mostly poorly, there’s at least one upside: we don’t have to deal with it anymore.

Stray observations

  • Here’s what Natascha McElhone is up to next.
  • ...Um, what?: Hannah shoots a guy, the guy falls into the river, and she just leaves and goes to a bar, leaving him to swim to shore and pull the bullet off his bulletproof vest unobserved; Aaron is still doing whatever his job is actually supposed to be; Lyor, an alleged political savant, verbally abuses a bunch of kids touring the White House.
  • This week in The West Wing: There’s an episode where the President is told to let a wildfire burn naturally, which costs him politically; the First Lady gets caught up in a legal scandal and decides to play ball in hopes of putting it all to bed.
  • See you in 2018, when Designated Survivor brings on Danny freakin’ Concannon (Timothy Busfield) to bring the West Wing connection even closer to the surface.

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