Warning: This contains spoilers
Oh, President Kirkman. The only Commander in Chief of the United States of America to hold a secret back-room meeting to discuss funding for musical instruments. At least, as far as we know. That really is a central plot point for Episode 19 of Designated Survivor, but before you can sigh and lament for the days of The West Wing, you’re forgetting one thing: light-weight, unabashedly sentimental and morally rewarding? This is precisely the kind of politics that ABC’s drama is good at – and, sure enough, Kirkman fighting to secure money for the arts is extremely likeable viewing.
The musical funding issue comes up when Alex gives a tour of the White House to some school kids, whose teacher is Tyler Richmond, the son of the former President Richmond. After posing for some selfies with the kids (Kiefer Sutherland has got to work on his selfie face), Kirkman is taken aside by Tyler for a hushed plea: help to secure funding for music now and stop the New Orleans school students suffering from a lack of access to the arts. At a time when funding for the arts is steadily being axed, this is a lovely little cry real life politicians to do the same, but it’s one that’s done with a gentle smile, rather than a heavy-handed lecture.
Kirkman, of course, is all about making the arts accessible again, but Congressman Saldua isn’t prepared to help a long-delayed bill that would solve the problem get a renewal in Congress. Why? Because he’s too busy playing politics with Hookstraten: Saldua’s leading the charge to run her out of the Capitol, and with Aaron’s cousin revealing that the Ethics Committee is about to rule against her in that investigation over Turkish bribes, it looks like Saldua’s about to win and Hookstraten’s about to see her political career go bye-bye. But Kimble’s never down for long: she cuts a deal with Saldua to resign her seat as Speaker in exchange for the arts education bill’s renewal.
It’s a gesture that’s at once shrewly political, putting her firmly in Kirkman’s books, and genuinely good-hearted, as it helps the kids visiting the White House that day. After a few episodes of not knowing what to do with Kimble, this is a reminder of her charm as a character: an ally for POTUS, but one with the smarts and moxy to get her own way, no matter what. As reliable as clockwork, Kirkman repays the favour, announcing in the middle of the school choir’s performance that Hookstraten is his choice for the new Secretary of Education.
It’s a happy, jolly little subplot that doubles down on the infectious optimism so missing in real life with a cute joke about Kal Penn’s Seth, who wants to get photo of himself boarding Air Force One to send to his mum. Bless you, Seth. We’d all love to receive that photo.
Meanwhile, the series’ conspiracy plot is also stepping its game ready for the finale, as Atwood continues in Wells’ absence (Kirkman orders his agents to find Hannah, pronto) and, rigging up a home-made spying kit, begins to follow Patrick Lloyd, our new Big Bad from last episode. He’s still not much of a threatening villain, but the show counters that this week with a solid mix of espionage and actual danger.
First off, Atwood plans a nifty trick that’s worthy of Jack Bauer, as he uses a metal detector as a chance to get a security guard to swap Patrick’s lapel pin for a duplicate containing a tracking chip. And so Atwood can keep on his prey’s heels, listening in on his conversations. It turns out he’s about to deliver a rousing speech about change to his deluded followers, but he also lets slip that he’s been feeding former Teen Mode reporter Abe Leonard fake news – and, even more intriguing, that the schematics for the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam are also fakes too, designed to mislead the FBI. What is Lloyd’s group actually planning? That’ll be a matter for a future episode.
It’s a promising sign that the show is moving on from Abe to focus on the more important characters. Equally promising is the fact that Hannah Wells’ predicament has finally got a lot more perilous: it turns out that she’s been locked in a shipping container by Lozano and co., leaving her to try and break out. In no time at all, she’s asked for her cuffs to be loosed so she can eat, swiftly whipped out a bra wire to pick the locks, and is out of the container and running for her life, only to discover that her shipping container actually is on a ship, which is sailing to goodness knows where. She might still be alive and frustratingly invincible, but this is a situation that we genuinely didn’t expect – and it’s about time Designated Survivor started rediscovering its knack for surprises. (There’s even a cruel joke when Whitaker (who, spoiler, is a traitor) messages Lloyd to say that his “package is out for delivery”. If Amazon Prime did kidnapping…)
With Wells out of play, all our hopes on stopping this extremist nonsense is Atwood, but as soon as we head back to see him, Designated Survivor pulls out its Peter Macbeth card once again – and shoots Atwood dead. Unexpected danger, unpredictable villains and an undeniable sense of renewed threat? Just like that, Designated Survivor has got its mojo back. Roll on the finale.
Designated Survivor is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere.
Photo: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg