Nearly every week in these reviews, I call out whichever episode of The West Wing feels oddly similar to Designated Survivor’s latest. It’s not meant as accusation or condemnation, just as acknowledgment. Some of those similarities are likely coincidental — after all, both are one-hour dramas about a President and the people who work for him — or unavoidable, as Aaron Sorkin’s series was on for seven long seasons and told a lot of stories in its time. This one, though, let’s call an homage, because President Kirkman’s Three-Letter Day is pretty much just Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s Big Block of Cheese Day in mail form. Good choice, Designated Survivor: if you’re going to pay tribute to one big West Wing premise, this is the one you choose.
That’s not to say that “Three-Letter Day” is all that similar in tone or story to either of The West Wing episodes in which the White House Staff is asked to meet with citizens whose concerns would otherwise go unheard. There was never much in the way of spy games in Sorkinland, and at least a third of this week’s installment sees Hannah doing her thing on not one but two cases. Instead, it’s the basic setup that’s familiar: the staff are split into small groups and asked to confront problems they’d not otherwise encounter; the issues they tackle then relate thematically to the characters’ own lives. Here, the theme is betrayal. The proceedings would be a hell of a lot more compelling if that theme were driven by character, rather than plot, but it’s still a good formula, and the result is a decent episode with a fun, if highly telegraphed, twist in the final moments.
Let’s start with that twist. It’s plodding and predictable to reveal that the dapper new love interest is in reality a deadly enemy; for examples, see almost any story in which there’s a female spy or operative. At the same time, it’s also an appealingly sudsy move, something that sounds like it’s ripped straight from the Scandal playbook (and yes, this happened on Scandal, too.) The idea that Maggie Q gets to do anything outside walking purposefully and being generally bad-ass is an appealing one, and frankly, Designated Survivor could stand to lean into the whole “guilty pleasure” thing. It’s worth pointing out that the show’s high point thus far was ridiculous and highly entertaining: the season’s presumed Big Bad who was also the VIce President doing a Macbeth thing with his wife before getting axed in a cemetery in legitimately shocking fashion. Bonkers? Yes. High art? No. Entertaining? Definitely.
So it seems that Ben Lawson’s Damian was purposefully vague and underdeveloped, instead of being the regular kind of vague and underdeveloped. It puts some of the sillier moments of the season to date — the weird “I ran track at Oxford” moment, the convenient way he kept sticking around, his relative lack on contribution outside general suaveness — in a new context, turning what were not insignificant flaws into a purposeful choices. It’s possible that in next week’s winter finale, Lawson will be given free reign to go full villain, making the big, bold choices one longs for in a soapy villain. It’s also possible that Damian will remain a non-entity. Still, the sense that things could get a lot more interesting is an enjoyable one.
That possibility of exciting things to come is found elsewhere, as well. Damian’s treachery ties him to the slowly unfolding saga of Alex’s mother’s bribe, which in turn links him to the machinations of Patrick Lloyd, which I guess, in theory, links him to the Capitol bombing? It’s all still pretty messy and not that compelling. What is compelling, though, is the effect it seems to be having on the Kirkmans, and on Alex in particular. Her demand that the President fire Reed Diamond’s John Forstell is only the most recent reaction from her that seems to come from a place of panic, and as a result isn’t particularly rational. That’s a far cry from the Alex that Natascha McElhone introduced us to in season one. Then, she gave the impression of warmth, steadiness, and overwhelming competence; in the last few episodes, instead we see a person who’s defensive, reactionary, and occasionally cruel.
The result is a scene that may not be brilliant, but is definitely rooted in something real, and gives Kiefer Sutherland something substantive to play. Like connections to old episodes of The West Wing, it’s possible that regular readers of these reviews may be tired of the constant request for plot to come second to character, but McElhone and Sutherland’s scene illustrates that point quite clearly. It’s motivated by plot, but centered on character and relationship, looking at the strain an impossible situation can have on a marriage. It’s likely that each party would consider the other’s actions a betrayal — Kirkman for not firing Forstell, and Alex for implying that his failure to do so makes him a bad husband.
Those are only two betrayals in an episode full of them, but it’s by far the most effective. There’s a selfish, murderous son and a betrayed commanding officer, a cheating war hero and a married couple who commit garden-related wrongs, and there’s Emily and Seth, who are still at odds over the latter’s arrest. They’re of varying levels of quality and interest, but at least they’re somewhat linked. Until Designated Survivor either starts hitting higher highs or leaning into its more sudsy, silly elements, something fairly cohesive is probably the best for which we can hope.
- ...Sorry, what?: Aaron’s still the NSA but also has time to do three-letter day because apparently only 6 people work at the White House.
- I fear for Chuck.