This review covers two episodes of Designated Survivor: “Family Ties,” which aired on 11/15, as well as “Home,” which aired tonight (11/29.)
When it’s time start working on a Designated Survivor review, there’s a trick I use. It helps me sort out my reaction to the episode by forcing me to discount, for better and worse, the shoehorned quips and twist addiction that seem ever-present in this series of late. It’s a simple one: I try to break down what happened in a single sentence. This being Designated Survivor, I usually fail, and that’s a decent sign that an episode isn’t particularly cohesive or smart. Not so with “Family Ties.” Here goes:
President Kirkman has a bad day, and he’s really tired of bad days.
The most important thing about that sentence is that it starts with a character and not a plot point. Better still, the character in question is the one that’s meant to be the show’s center. Kirkman’s spent a significant percentage of this season simply reacting to things, and while he’s remained a focal point for the series, it hasn’t been about his experiences. All plot, no character. With “Family Ties,” that’s not the case, and that makes this episode something of a breath of fresh air.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still entirely too much plot. Here we’ve got the continuation of the heart-transplant-bribe subplot and the conclusion of the who-killed-Charlotte-Thorne storyline, as well as a showdown with a rival world leader, a tussle between Leo Kirkman (Tanner Buchanan) and a protester, and the conspiracy that joins the last two. They’re all linked, however, by their connection to Tom Kirkman, who just absolutely hates each and every one of those threads. It seems as though he hates being President, to be honest, and that’s perhaps the most understandable response Kirkman has ever had to anything on this show. This isn’t a job he asked for or wanted; he’s doing it under incredibly difficult circumstances at great cost to himself and his family. Of course he hates it, just as he hates feeling his hands are tied. It’s deeply shitty, perks or no.
It’s not just that the plot focuses on Kirkman, though that all by itself is a solid step in the right direction. In addition to having emotional responses based on the decisions he makes and their potential consequences, he also has people to go up against. Whether he’s lightly manipulating a reporter, attempting to connect with his son, shouting down a head of state and forgiving a previous holder of his own office, the most important moments in each of these plot lines occur when Kirkman is talking to someone. Think about earlier this season, when Maggie Q ran from plot reveal to plot reveal, checking off boxes on her race to the episode’s end. Now compare that episode to this one, in which troubled relationships serve the plot and the plot helps to strengthen or transform the relationships in turn. There’s still plenty of narrative choppiness, but you can trace the story through Kirkman’s personal experience. In contrast to most of this season, the choices made by Kirkman and his team matter, and the show, mercifully, treats them as such. It’s about damn time.
If Kirkman’s reasonably well-drawn in this episode, then Hannah Wells suffers in contrast. As described above, Maggie Q’s Wells seems to bounce from important plot reveal to important plot reveal without much to ground her character in our reality. The closest we come to any real development is when Wells picks up on the simmering resentment between Chuck and the mysterious man from the UK. She’s an observer of human behavior, and the stand-off over the crumbs in a bag of chips may have escaped MI-6’s notice, but not hers (or Chuck’s.)
Hannah may continue to be over-worked and under-used by the show’s writers, but she’s one of the only characters to suffer such a thing in this episode. The best news is all Kirkman-related, as Alex and Leo are both given a bit of a spotlight—Alex as she calls upon that long-lost law degree of hers, and Leo because he’s acting like a human with feelings for once. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it is, but progress is progress. This episode of Designated Survivor isn’t going to change the world, but it’s a step in the right direction, because it cares about the motivations of the people who inhabit the story. So, in a slightly less thoughtful way, does the next one.
This one doesn’t have quite as much focus as the last, but it’s still a step up. “Home” ties its threads together thematically in a thoughtful way, something few episodes of this series have even attempted. It doesn’t all fit neatly. It’s not even particularly interesting, some of it. Still, the connection exists, and that’s another step forward.
Kirkman spends much of his time with a man estranged from his only living family member (Brian Howe) while visiting troops in Afghanistan and attempting to achieve new stability in the Middle East. Hannah and Mike have to head out on a mission to recover a CIA Station Chief who Hannah served with and knows well, like family; Mike goes to help protect his Commander in Chief, to whom he is fiercely loyal in a way that feels both personal and professional. Seth’s prepared to take a fall to protect his brother, while Emily considers that protection a betrayal of his other family (the one in the White House.) And Lyor discovers that an impulsive marriage to an on-and-off girlfriend is going to cost him a fortune, unless he gets it annulled. Then he, and his wife, discover that neither of them wants that connection severed, because in some distant, quiet way, they’re family. They’re home.
Every one of those stories—again focused on characters, not plot—is more interesting than the main one, which is Kirkman’s attempt to figure out which of two Afghan tribal leaders is a potential ally, and which is determined to carry out a terrorist attack. Before we get to the positives, and there are some, it should be said that Designated Survivor’s insistence on reducing complex issues to their most basic and uninteresting essentials is a real problem. It doesn’t happen every week, but it happens. A policy issue is resolved with a magical happy medium. A look at the news cycle’s disinterest in nuance becomes “well, we’re all just people who are hurting underneath.” And here, the American presence in Afghanistan gets boiled down to “unlike my predecessors, I’ve read all my briefings, and one of you is bad and one of you is good, and to the bad one I say SEPTEMBER 11!” It’s frustrating, and I’m not the one to dissect it, because I’m not qualified to unpack those complexities in a responsible and thoughtful way. Oh, and neither is Designated Survivor.
That aside, “Home” mostly works, because each of these thematically linked stories is at least partially spurred by these characters and what we know of them. The least successful is Kirkman’s story. While well-acted by both Sutherland and guest star Brian Howe, this is another example of Kirkman getting an emotional monologue from a stranger, the result of which seems to be mostly nothing. Still, it’s reasonably affecting stuff, if only because both Howe and Sutherland underplay their scenes to good affect. Also, all the food looked delicious.
The other stories are more effective, particularly those in the White House. While both Lyor’s stint at the podium and his tax-related issue feel like pulls from The West Wings’s greatest hits, the small story picks up steam once the episode moves on. The idea that two people could remain connected on a deep and important level despite years and miles apart isn’t a foreign one, but there’s something unexpected in making that connection a legal one. I don’t know that we’ll see Lyor’s estranged (is that the best word?) wife again, because the final moment is a whole and surprisingly lovely one. Perhaps it stands best on its own. Still, I’m curious about the relationship and the character, and Designated Survivor could use a few stories that feel new.
Mike and Hannah’s story, while brief and mostly secret-agent stuffed, also holds some promise. Mike (LaMonica Garrett) gets some extra shading at long last, and while it’s still largely focused on his loyalty to the President, at least he’s doing more than just handing Kirkman his lesson of the week. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the two paired, because Hannah (and Maggie Q) is so often confined to scenes with the same three people. This story gives the strongest impression of being mostly set-up for things to come, and if that’s the case, it’s good news for the show. This has been a series within a series for too long, and it’s time for Maggie Q (and Chuck, please!) to start mingling with the other denizens of Designated Survivor.
Still, the best story once again belongs to Emily and Seth (and thus to Italia Ricci and Kal Penn.) If there’s one promising development from this episode, it’s that these two actors and characters are among the strongest assets the series has, and that Designated Survivor improves when they have more to do. Yes, it’s a familiar plot, and sure, most probably guessed that the pills were Seth’s brother’s from the beginning, but Ricci and Penn are good enough to make sure that the stakes feel real and that their problems are compounded by bone-deep, relentless weariness. Kiefer Sutherland is great and all, but every time the show returns to the people who make the trains run on time, it gets more interesting. They are, as Emily says, a kind of family, and that’s the one on which Designated Survivor should focus.
- Sorry for the delay on “Family Ties.” There was a publishing error that wasn’t caught until a few days later, so we thought it best to lump these together. We’re back to a regular schedule next week.
- You’d think Kirkman would have learned from Suckergate that you probably shouldn’t joke about serious issues when you’re one of the most famous people in the world, but: “I had to get out of Washington. It’s war there!”
- President Kirkman exposition-dumping about Afghanistan was to be expected. Did he have to do it to characters who were actually Afghans? That was weird, no? If they’re going to crib The West Wing, they should steal the trick of having everyone explain stuff to either Donna or Charlie. Worked like a charm (sometimes.)
- Not only is the “rude substitute press secretary” thing in “Celestial Navigation,” so is a story when a public official gets pulled over by an overzealous cop and the news has to be hushed up.
- “The fluid dynamics are very interesting.”
- What the...: Wait, they flew Air Force One directly to a military base and expected no one to notice? Don’t they usually use military transportation for stuff like that?