Warning: This contains spoilers
“Despite recent disruptions, this is not the time to retreat into isolationism or populism, this is the time to show that global cooperation can and will lead us to a safer future.” That’s the message behind the penultimate episode of Designated Survivor’s first season – because no matter how serious or urgent the situation, there’s always time for a message.
Last episode saw Kirkman wax lyrical about the importance of the arts, wheeling and dealing his way to a new Secretary of Education – and some funding for music in schools. Now, he’s gone from a school choir singing in the White House to a NATO summit, where he tries to convince the rest of the world leaders to scale down their nuclear deterrents. Being President: it’s nothing if not varied. While that may well reflect the job in real life, though, Designated Survivor’s biggest challenge remains keeping that switch in tone, scale and seriousness interesting enough to entertaining – and, in the context of such a lightweight thriller, keeping things serious enough to engage but avoiding being heavy-handed enough to bore. Kirkman’s message this week steps over to the heavy-handed side of the fence, not least because it’s such a contrast to last episode’s debate about cellos.
Kirkman’s earnest mission, though, is derailed when Abe Leonard drops his news bomb on the world: that Al-Sakar was not behind the Capitol bombing at all. The US media pounce – and Kirkman, who can’t deny the claim because it’s true, but can’t admit the claim because they don’t have any answers yet, is left looking like a right wally in front of all those world leaders. Kiefer Sutherland, thankfully, is charismatic enough to keep things moving along – compare that to Rob Morrow, whose dishevelled-journalist act has gone from enjoyable to repetitive and overplayed, as Abe Leonard is dragged on the TV to discuss his allegations. This whole subplot could have done with being wrapped up a couple of episodes ago. (It will be soon, judging by Patrick Lloyd’s phone call to Whittaker, aka. our White House mole, telling him that Abe has served his purpose – way to admit that a character is redundant, guys.)
The reason why this feels like a bit of an anti-climax, though, is actually because of the other half of the show’s narrative. The proverbial poo is, in theory, about to hit the fan, with Dramatic Consequences about to unfold – and with the possibility of bad guys bombing landmarks, are Kirkman’s pleas to pare back national nuclear arms schemes (which, ironically, are also extremely high-stakes) meant to feel gripping? We’d rather just spend an hour following the conspiracy.
Except, well, that’s a bit underwhelming too. Maggie Q again impresses as the tough-as-nails FBI agent, spending half an episode carefully, slowly escaping from some handcuffs. She makes it to a radio and calls for help, and the smart eggs at the coast guard manage to work out that Hannah Wells isn’t the name of a ship, but the name of a kidnapped secret service operative. And so the FBI spring into action, tracking the ship to somewhere off the coast from Baltimore and raiding the whole place. They go through the shipping containers, while Lozano knocks out Hannah as an insurance measure.
Remember Lozano? He’s the bad guy with no real sense of peril, intimidation or even personality – a bad guy so bland that it undermines the whole story strand. (Remember Peter Macbeth? Now there was a villain you could enjoy booing – it’s no coincidence that Designated Survivor has struggled to stick the landing of its conspiracy plot since then.) Worse still, though, is the show’s apparent uncertainty about what it wants its conspiracy plot to be.
Only a week after shipping Hannah off in a ship to goodness-knows-where – a revelation considered dramatic enough for a cliffhanger, don’t forget – Designated Survivor’s next big surprise is that Hannah has been taken back to shore and is now being kept hostage in a van. Breaking out of that container, she discovers she’s parked in the car park of the FBI, with a bomb on a timer ticking down. If the plan was misdirection and a second homegrown attack against the intelligence service, why bother with the ship at all? After weeks of attempting to build up a plot that’s topical enough to carry some weight, meanwhile, it boils down to a generic bomb in a car park. Next to that, even the discovery of Whittaker as our White House traitor isn’t very exciting.
Thank goodness, then, for good old fashioned wish fulfilment: compared to real life, there’s something undeniably charming about seeing a fictional POTUS deliver heartfelt speeches about the importance of peace, love and understanding. And, with Kirkman’s determination to tell the truth at all times now working against him because he doesn’t know what the truth is yet, Kiefer Sutherland gives everything just enough welly to leave your inner liberal punching the air. There’s always time for a message, but a show needs more than just that.
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