Warning: This contains spoilers
If in doubt, 24 has taught us two tricks to keep a TV thriller going: firstly, unexpectedly kill someone off, or secondly, unexpectedly bring someone back from the dead. Designated Survivor did the first just after its mid-season break, and the result was its best episode yet. Episode 17 goes for the second – and while it may not be an instant classic, it’s just enough to get things back on track, after the slightly lacklustre Episode 16.
That episode was primarily bogged down with the struggles facing Kirkman’s fledgling administration – something that only reinforced how light Designated Survivor plays its politics compared to the more substantial House of Cards. There’s nothing wrong with Designated Survivor’s likeable, lightweight politicking, as long as it doesn’t forget to balance it with heavier conspiracy thrills, and Episode 17 gets the balance just right.
On the one hand, we have Senator Bowman still causing havoc, as he decides to mess with Kirman’s attempts to fill up the Supreme Court positions they need to pass national laws. Kirkman hits in a typically noble and worthy solution: split the nine justices right down the middle, so that there are four republicans and four democrats, with one impartial independent (like Kirman) in the middle to cast the fair, potentially deciding vote. Bowman, though, is having none of it, vetoing the choice for chief justice – and Mark Deklin delivers yet another brilliantly loathsome performance. (He’s presumably called Deklin, because he makes you want to deck him immediately.)
It’s just the kind of situation that Kirkman needs to deliver another of his Well-Meaning Speeches, in which he scalds everyone in the room for being petty and reminds them that they have hundreds of cases that need to be heart in the Supreme Court so the country can continue to function. Kiefer Sutherland’s good at the stern, heart-of-gold dad gig; even the wrinkles showing up around his eyes give him a bit of extra world-weary clout.
Kirkman calls up an old lecturer from his uni days: Julia, who has been helping to find the eight candidates needed for the senior Supreme Court positions. He asks if she’ll be the ninth justice to keep everyone happy, but she turns him down – not for political reasons, but because she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia. It’s testament to the couple’s chemistry that this is actually a moving discovery. And so she hits upon a better idea: skip the ninth person altogether, so it’s an even 50/50 split.
Bipartisanship is all well and good, but we need some excitement too, and so Designated Survivor uses everyone’s favourite character to bridge the gap between politics and action: Abe Leonard, Teen Mode journalist extraordinaire. Sadly, his very-close-to-real-life teen mag job has been cast aside in favour of a promotion to The New York Standard, who want the now-less-disgraced-than-before reporter to investigate the conspiracy theories surrounding Nestor Lozano, aka. Catalan, the man shot dead under Peter Macleish’s orders while Kirkman was in hospital.
Rather surprisingly, Abe does this by going all the way to Iraq, where he meets with the leader of a terrorist group, who reveals that Catalan paid Al-Sakar to take credit for the bombing. And so, not for the first time, Abe ends up having a conversation with Seth in which he drops a huge conspiracy bomb – and, not for the first time, Seth doesn’t know what’s going on. (We miss the days when he did.) Even more surprisingly, Abe then comes up with the most desperate journalist trick of all: searching the web (not on Bing) for conspiracy theories about Nestor Lozano. The result? A video of Wells firing at the shooter during the assassination attempt on Kirkman.
That’s about the same time that people start to follow Abe around. Is it the FBI? Is it someone more sinister? Nobody knows. Seth certainly doesn’t. But someone wants Abe to dig deeper – he gets a phone call from an anonymous source telling him to rendezvous later that day to find out more. We don’t get any more from him this episode but after stealing several scenes in recent episodes, it’s great to see the show turn Rob Morrow’s character into something more substantial – especially after the show tried and ditched the romantic subplot between Seth and another reporter.
Speaking of exploring weird happenings, what about Wells and Atwood? After stumbling across the underground bunker of explosives last episode, the FBI agents contact their boss, but ask him to hold off on sending in the cavalry until their know more. It soon becomes clear they might as well be in a mini-Twin Peaks, what with all the weird people loitering on the street corners. One man comes up and tells them a storm’s coming, but they don’t know what to say – a classic fail at a spy code, which tips their hat to the fact that something’s up. A quick look at the man’s car shows a book called “Pax Americana”. Just in case the town name “Driggs” wasn’t enough to raise suspicion.
In classic small-town conspiracy tradition, the local pub landlord has some answers, telling us that this group of clandestine outsiders rock up in their stolen-licence-plate cars a few times a year for secret meetings involving bonfires outside of the deserted missile silo. They call themselves “True Believers”. Then, if all your alarm bells aren’t already being set off, Wells spots a dude with the tattoo “NVWS”, which matches the letters written on the explosives in the bunker. Luckily, she pulls a fast one and swipes his Pax Americana book from his pocket at the petrol station. The book reveals that the group’s motto is “No Victory Without Sacrifice”. Their manifesto? To build a new empire. Can we say the words “treason” and “terrorist” yet?
The CIA’s task force, though, is still an hour away, which leaves Wells and Atwood just enough time to sneak to the edge of the air force base and see what’s going down. In fact, it turns out that a helicopter is literally doing just that. Those bonfires? They’re actually to create a landing pad for a chopper. Inside the chopper? You guessed it: Catalan himself. So much for Peter Macbeth’s kill order while Kirkman was in hospital. If that didn’t really happen, though, then how deep does this rabbit hole go?
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