Warning: this contains spoilers. Not caught up with Designated Survivor? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
“What a monster.” Those the first three words that President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) can think of to describe Peter Macbeth – sorry, MacLeish – when he finally learns the full truth over his newly-appointed Vice President’s power play, successful bombing and attempted assassination. If that sounds like an under-reaction, though, don’t worry: Designated Survivor isn’t about to ease off the gas.
Still, Episode 12 of the political thriller starts off slowly, with Kirkman still confined to hospital. He wants to rush back to work, but the doctors won’t let him – after all, he did get shot only the other day. It’s the kind of little touch that keeps the show just on the right side of the realistic/preposterous line; Kirkman, as we saw from his window-waving last episode, is a hero who inspires his supporters (and his staff, including Seth) by being flawed, not by being invincible. His idealism and his mild ineptitude are as important as his tenacity and drive; he is, in short, the perfect mix of President Bartlet and Jack Bauer.
24 meets The West Wing? It’s still as accurate a way as any to describe Designated Survivor and, as it settles into its second half, complete with new showrunner, it seems to be getting better and better at balancing that tone. Kal Penn is key to that juggling act, as Press Sec. Seth continues to deliver slick one-liners with a side portion of earnestness, plus he asks the common sense questions we’re asking in the living room, which helps to ground things. The writers are getting better at using him, and their other characters, too, tightening their narrative just as they Kirkman must tighten his circle.
Kiefer Sutherland, of course, is conflicted over the advice he’s given by Hannah Wells and Agent Ritter, who tell him that he can’t trust anyone anymore. Sutherland does barely bottled exasperation well. He confesses to Ritter, after a visit from Macbeth in hospital, that he wants to strangle him – but to Macbeth’s face, he’s polite and gracious. He’s a more convincing politician with every episode.
Wells, meanwhile, is just as frustrated – everyone knows that Macbeth is a bad guy, but they can’t just arrest him without proof. And so she tries to dig up the evidence they need, without letting anyone realise what she (and Kirkman, and Emily, and Ritter) are up to. Let’s not forget that Wells is technically a rogue agent at present and shouldn’t even be out at large. A visit to military vet Joyner, who served with Macbeth is the key, as she quizzEs him on that op that went wrong until he gets nervous enough to run out and contact Macbeth immediately.
Macbeth, rather craftily, is kept busy by Kirkman, who – following a speech in which Peter pretends to show support for the President, but really puts himself in the spotlight as the younger, fitter man waiting in the White House wings – promptly assigns him to handle all POTUS public engagements until Kirkman’s back on his feet.
Lady Macbeth, though, isn’t being distracted: “We pledged ourselves to a higher cause,” she reminds him, with real conviction. “There’s no victory without sacrifice.”
Sacrifices are everywhere this episode, not always on a financial or political scale, but on a personal one.
Emily and Aaron struggle to keep their friendship going, as Aaron is cut out of the loop by Kirkman. He tells Aaron it’s because everyone’s being re-vetted, but we all know it’s because he might be involved with Macbeth. It’s testimony to how good Adan Canto and Italia Ricci are that we actually sort of care about their relationship – yes, even after we’re treated to a scene in which Emily plays the piano in an empty room, for no real reason.
Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen, still one of the series’ MVPs) rather foolishly tells Aaron that people are on to Macbeth – although Aaron, surprisingly, actually tells the truth about what happened when Macbeth issued the order to kill Catalan last episode. (To recap: Everyone told Macbeth not to do it.)
The marriage of Kirkman and the First Lady (Natascha McElhone) is also taking a hit. Now that the political negotiations have eased off, Alex faces the possibility of being redundant once more to the plot – so the writers have smartly turned that into a plot point in itself. As Kirkman tightens his circle, she is also cut out from what’s going on, which means that 1. We get a cheekily bold final shot, which borrows from The Godfather, as a door shuts on her face, and 2. The writers are clearly angling to give her a more substantial storyline in the coming weeks.
But the biggest sacrifice of all? That turns out to be one nobody expected: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Wells and the FBI race to intercept Macbeth and Joyner meeting at night in a cemetery (never let it be said that Designated Survivor shies away from the most dramatic cliches possible), but just when we think she’s about to arrest him, up pops Lady Macbeth with a gun. Before the Vice President can remind her just who he is, she pops a cap in his chest – then turns the gun on herself and pulls the trigger.
It’s a shocking, unexpected twist, and while it means we don’t get anymore fun watching Ashley Zukerman and Lara Jean Chorostecki being evil, it’s the best moment in the show to date.
Death, just like Kirkman’s weakness at the episode’s open, helps to ground the show, giving consequences to each character’s actions. Even Jason Atwood, Wells’ former boss (still in prison), feels a bit more relevant to the plot here, as the series clearly sets up the impending discovery of his kidnapped son’s death. But for the Macbeths, it gives real weigh to everything they’ve been doing so far: after Lady Macbeth’s speech earlier, that conviction makes it clear that this is not only a conspiracy, but a conspiracy she’s willing to kill (and die) for. Whoever they’re in contact with is clearly a big deal. And so, barely two hours into the show’s return after a midseason break, we’re already asking who that Big Bad is – just like that, the series has moved its narrative along to the next question.
It’s hard to dislike a show that can keep you guessing, and keep the pace flowing, at the drop of a hat – it’s a move straight from the 24 playbook. Tightening its ensemble with the removal of the Macbeths, Designated Survivor now seems to have a renewed plan for how to deliver on that mix of Bauer and Bartlet. Just like CTU, now, everyone really could be a mole. Is it Alex, who’s now being shut out from Kirkman’s inner circle? Is it Emily, who’s been secretly communicating with terrorists through messages encrypted in her piano fugues? Is it Hookstraten, who just wants to become VP (or President) so that people have to say “President Hookstraten”, which sounds way cooler than “President Kirkman”? Is it Seth, whose betrayal would be even surprising than the deaths of the Macbeths? And, speaking of Seth, what will the media make of all this drama? The day may have started slowly, with Kirkman in hospital, but suddenly, they’ve got a lot to catch up on. What a monster of an episode.
Designated Survivor is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere.