Warning: This contains spoilers
Designated Survivor channels House of Cards this episode, as the ABC thriller continues to place more emphasis on its politics. The only problem? It’s not House of Cards.
The show has made it clear in its second half that it’s keen to get down to business, as far as Kirkman running the country goes – with no Vice President wannabe waiting in the wings and no sniper attempting to shoot him, he’s got to get on with his actual job as POTUS. And, after Senator Bowman (Mark Deklin) dumped that flawed gun safety bill on the table, he’s got no choice but to make that his administration’s first issue. So much for an easy warm-up.
The bill is full of loopholes, but would give Kirkman the first real step forward in America’s history in tackling some of the problems surrounding gun violence in the US. The problem? There are only 46 Democrats in the Senate – and even though Kirkman is an independent, the Republicans aren’t going to want to risk any changes to gun law.
The majority of the episode is therefore driven by Kirkman’s team trying to secure an additional five votes on their side of the aisle – and there’s a enough deal-making going down to make it compelling. Aaron and Emily have a drink, as he offers her the help of Hookstraten, who’s willing to put her clout behind Kirkman’s stance, in the hope of eventually getting the post of Vice President. Kirkman welcomes the assistance, although makes no promises – just fine for Hookstraten, who is all too happy to ditch Kirkman and avoid being shacked to a lame duck, should the bill fail to get the votes.
Hookstraten’s support, though, only causes a Democratic supporter of the bill to back out, disliking the idea of working with a Republican. And so the talks continue, with Kirkman earnestly pleading for people to do the right thing, and others asking for assurances and promises in return. But despite making up the bulk of the runtime, it’s hard to shake the fact that there’s just not all that much depth to it all: Geoff Pierson as Cornelius Moss is enjoyably smarmy, as he sweet talks people like he’s been doing it for years, and Kal Penn and Italia Ricci match Kiefer Sutherland for sincerity points, but it often comes across as paint-by-numbers political drama.
A subplot that sees Alex talk to those affected by gun violence, mostly so that she can become emotional and communicate to us why this bill matters so much, is about as superficial as the bill itself: we never get a dissection of where its weak points lie, nor which elements Kirkman’s team would be hoping to keep or compromise upon. Compare it to the rigorous attention to detail that policy gets in House of Cards, as Frank Underwood cracks his whip while back-stabbing and deceiving people just to get an individual line of legislation, and Designated Survivor is notably lacking. Here, we’re mostly just asked to boo and hiss at Mark Deklin’s wonderfully sneery Bowman and cheer and whoop, as Kirkman tries to Make A Difference. Normally, that’s not a problem for Designated Survivor: it’s a conspiracy thriller that only needs to convince so far for its political backdrop to work. And, when it doesn’t convince, it makes up for it with an engaging, heartfelt passion. But even Sutherland’s earnest charisma can’t quite keep us hooked for an hour: the moment the show stops to scrutinise its politics, it becomes clear that its largely a skeleton without much meat on the bones. Kirkman wins the vote (just), but it’s telling that even the team themselves don’t feel that elated at the achievement – there’s not enough sense of hard graft for it to really pay off.
This is all partly a consequence of killing off Peter Macbeth just after the midseason break: without him looking sinister in the corner of every room, there’s less of an immediate threat to the plot, which means the series has to double down on politics. That’s likely intentional, given the growing nods to President Trump and real life under the series’ new showrunner, but in previous episodes, the narrative has managed to balance that shift by ramping up the mystery surrounding the conspiracy. After last episode’s cliffhanger (that there were more schematics discovered simulating more bombings on US landmarks), though, Wells and Atwood’s investigations are something of an anti-climax, as they trace down a secret facility owned by Browning Reed (a private military firm who certainly sound evil), only to end up standing in an empty field. They realise, later, that it’s a facility hidden underground, but all that means is we have to wait another episode to get more answers about why Brooke Mathison was visiting the area. Designated Survivor pretending to be The West Wing or House of Cards is all good, but it began as a closer cousin to 24 – the show would do well to remember that as it begins to close out its maiden run.
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.
Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg