Natascha McElhone (Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg)

“Equilibrium” isn’t a great hour of television. It bumbles around between its several subplots, often pivoting gracelessly and not paying much attention to tonal shifts (or the lack of them). But in some ways, that makes it a perfect example of what Designated Survivor is doing in its second season. It’s not clear what it wants to be, it’s not sure of who its characters are, and it’s seemingly a little bit tired of trying to figure it out. There are only two things in which this show seems interested: making President Kirkman the most noble character on television, and in shoehorning in at least one twist an episode.

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Both those things would be more entertaining and effective if Designated Survivor were more invested in character and storytelling. We’ve covered that ground pretty thoroughly in previous reviews, but it’s worth revisiting briefly. This week’s primary plot seems intent on continuing to build that Kirkman mythology, but because of the show’s continued struggles with structuring its stories, it totally misses the mark. Instead of making him seem like a paragon of virtue, it makes him seem like a kind of shitty boss.

As is always the case, Designated Survivor packs its 40-plus minutes with too much plot, and not all of it works. The aforementioned A-story centers on a blockade at the border between the United States in Mexico, a situation we know to be complex because of the talking head that helpfully says, “This situation is a powder keg just waiting to explode!” Things become considerably more heated when a truck driver on the Mexican side of the border drives through border security and is shot and killed by someone on the American side of the border (likely a civilian). Kirkman and his staff spend the rest of the hour trying to close a trade deal that will end the standoff, landing on a solution that pleases no one.

The show doesn’t take the time to explain what’s happening in anything resembling concrete terms, instead focusing on the big emotional beats. To Designated Survivor’s credit, most of those scenes work pretty well, even if the road there is bumpy. When all parties seem unlikely to budge an inch in negotiations, Kirkman suggests bringing in Gloria Menes (Sofía Lama), the widow of the the driver who was killed, but when she arrives, her fear makes him reconsider the whole scheme. Instead, he asks her to tell him something about her husband, and when she tearfully obliges, he discovers that Flores may have been paid to drive through the gate. Kiefer Sutherland’s scene with Lama is an episode highlight—she’s particularly good, underplaying something that could otherwise tip over into melodrama—as is the resulting scene with the man responsible for Menes’s decision to hit the gas.

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The lasting impression, however, is not of Kirkman the noble humanist, but Kirkman the indecisive waffler, a man who turns on a dime when he sees a grieving woman tremble but never stopped to consider that she might not want to be used to manipulate the media in the first place. Sutherland sells it all, working overtime to make it all make some sense, but Kirkman’s noble decision to keep Mrs. Menes away from the cameras is somewhat undermined by the fact that it was his damned idea in the first place, and one he had (in show time) only minutes before.

Aaron, who is still the National Security Advisor, fares somewhat better, but again, his storyline is undermined by a lack of care for the actions of the characters and any consequences that might result from the choices they make. Early in the episode, it’s established that Aaron’s Mexican-American peers view him as someone burying or denying his heritage. While the show never actually lets us see his internal conflict until the closing moments, it’s refreshing to actually learn something about one of the people in Kirkman’s orbit. His scenes with his cousin (who we met earlier in the season) as she acts as a representative for a Senator in the Hispanic caucus don’t necessarily make us understand Aaron at any kind of deep level, but theirs is an interesting dynamic, and when she calls him out for assuming she was merely a pawn, there only because of their relationship and not her skill, it’s satisfying. The sight of him returning home to a large and joyful family is even more so, and if Designated Survivor continues to make a little time to show us who its characters are, it’ll be a welcome development.

The rest of the hour is spent on a broken vase, a storyline that was a lot more fun when it was in “The Stackhouse Filibuster,” and on the continuing saga of Patrick Lloyd’s plan. Natascha McElhone is good at her job, but the scenes in which she deals with the accusations being leveled against her mother are not great. Before her husband became President, Alex Kirkman was a lawyer, and apparently a highly prized one. Are we really meant to believe that she wouldn’t understand the actions of Agent Wells? It makes perfect sense that she’d want to protect her mother, but her reactions at basically every moment feel like they belong to another person.

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As we leave the hour, Alex’s mother has been subpoenaed by the FBI, and her husband’s telling her it’s all going to be fine, that he got shot and the Capitol got blown up and they survived a giant conspiracy, that this is nothing. At least in that way, “Equilibrium” is pretty consistent: Kirkman doesn’t really think things through.

Stray observations

  • This was probably not a great week for Lyor to get blackmailed into dinner for breaking a vase, huh?
  • Speaking of VaseGate, that was Wynonna Earp’s Meghan Heffern as Maya Dunning.
  • I’m something of a Lyor-quirk defender... but a “come to Lyor meeting”?
  • ...What?: a White House employee could live-stream a random hallway at all times; an OMB employee would lecture the President about parenting; Penny Kirkman plays with her dad’s watches often enough to be barred from doing so; Agent Wells would tell her boss that the First Lady’s mother might have committed a Federal crime on a stroll through D.C.,; she would tell him off for subpoenaing her on a park bench at night.
  • No Chuck this week.
  • Sorry about the delay on this review. There was a minor technical hiccup, and by that I mean I’m an idiot.

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