Netflix UK TV review: Designated Survivor: Episode 13
Ivan Radford | On 28, Mar 2017
“Finally, we get to spin something!” says one of Seth Wright’s (Kal Penn) staff in Episode 13 of Designated Survivor. That’s right, folks: Designated Survivor is entering the world of politics with a capital “p”. After 12 pretty much relentless episodes, can it still grip with a chapter that doesn’t feature people getting shot, buildings blowing up, people getting shot while buildings blow up, or Peter Macbeth plotting to overthrow the President? The answer, based on Episode 13, is yes it can.
Hannah Wells, thankfully, has some answers to what’s going on, as she does some digging into Catalan (real name: Nestor Lozano). It turns out that he was also at Macbeth’s bloodbath in Afghanistan – and Macbeth apparently stopped the unit from killing Lozano, who was a war criminal. Lozano was in his debt, while Macbeth’s ideals were shaken; he became a hero, but also become a radicalised traitor against the USA.
But, of course, the public can’t know this – and Kirkman, like everyone else, is in emergency damage control mode after the events of last episode. You know, the episode that ended with Peter Macbeth being shot by Lady Macbeth, before she then shot herself.
We begin with Kirkman shocked to hear what happened and asking the team to tow the line that the shooting was a domestic dispute gone awry. It’s the first time he’s explicitly asked the administration to hold back the truth from the American people, and it marks a turning point not just for him, but for the show.
The clue to that comes as Seth holds a press briefing, when he finds himself caught off guard by Abe Leonard, a journalist from a teen magazine. Asking a serious question about Macbeth reportedly giving a shoot-to-kill order in the hunt for Lozano, he’s batted away by the awkward Seth, before he runs off to check the rumour with Kirkman – and, in return, is asked to discredit Leonard in any way he can. A smear campaign from an inexperienced president in a political climate where teen magazines are a rare bastion of truth? If this is starting to sound familiar, it’s not just you. And if it isn’t, wait until the point where Kirkman orders his staff to uncover who’s leaking classified information to the press.
This is the closest Designated Survivor has come to nodding to the current US administration, but after most of a season of escapist nonsense, the show recently moved on to its third showrunner (Jeff Melvoin, replacing Jon Harmon Feldman) – is that switch in head writer about to see a shift in direction to more pointed political criticism?
If so, there’s a lot of promise to be found in the series mining real life for ideas. That’s partly because it gives more screentime to Kal Penn, who continues to be the programme’s MVP as Seth, easily balancing the mix of humour and political savvy.
The latter now looks to be increasingly important, as he asks his subordinates to encourage press reports of Leonard’s previous professional scandals to weaken his standing. Leonard calls him out on it when they collide in a corridor, even quizzing Seth Wright on whether he knows what his name means – it’s brief, but pointed encounter, not least because the noble, honest Seth flat-out lies and says that he can’t influence what newspapers publish. Yes, the show’s Armando Iannucci cat is out of the bag – and it’s got claws.
Seth even turns down an offer from some old friends, who happen to be in town, for a night of drinking, so he can focus on work – in anyone’s hands but Penn’s, that brief aside could seem completely out of place. It’s not the neatest fit, even here, but it’s a promising sign that they’re fleshing him out more and more. (Here’s hoping we also get an answer to what happened to that other journalist from the first half of Season 1, who was shaping up to become Seth’s romantic sparring partner.)
Meanwhile, Aaron – once White House hearthrob, now suspected mole – admits to Kirkman that he told Hookstraten about Macbeth’s decision to kill off Catalan, which led to her ultimately leaking the news to the public. Kirkman, remember, was keen for her to keep Macbeth in line while he was out of action. That perhaps explains why he’s so calm about this revelation, but it’s more likely because he’s learning quickly on the job about how to deceive those around him. With Emily already warning him about her suspicions of Aaron’s involvement, Kirkman instead acts concerned, telling Aaron to take a week off and get some proper rest.
Kiefer Sutherland impresses more and more as the inexperienced POTUS – he’s just charismatic enough to leave you unsure about whether he’s actually worried about Aaron’s health, or whether it’s a cunning ploy to get Aaron out of the way. Even better than that mind-bending little moment, though, is that this means Emily gets promoted to Acting Chief of Staff – we fully expect awesome things from her.
Emily doesn’t get off to a good start, though, as she finds herself rejected by Secretary of State Dwyer, when they discuss him potentially resuming his old post under Kirkman. Instead, Dwyer informs her that Former President Cornelius Moss is keep to get back in the Capitol game and potentially act as an advisor to Kirkman. We don’t know who he is or what his intentions are, but we do know he’s called Cornelius Moss and anyone with a name like is almost certainly evil.
Kirkman, meanwhile, is going through some personal rejection, as Alex decides that she wants to move to Camp David with the kids to protect them. “Dammit, Chloe!” Kiefer Sutherland almost shouts at this point, as Kirkman finds himself angry at the thought of trying to do this job without his family supporting him. But a quick trip to drop his daughter off at school reminds him how much danger they’re in, so he agrees. The question is what that means for her character in the second half of this season. After looking like she was going to become more central to the plot, is this the writers phasing her out, or the start of something else? Could she be part of a conspiracy and keeping her nose clean? As unlikely as that is, it’d be preferable to them becoming bait in some kind of Camp David hostage situation.
Either way, it’s certainly cheaper than the relocation of the President’s family in real life. Indeed, the episode climaxes with the perfect riposte to the modern world of American politics, with Kirkman going on TV to admit that Leonard’s rumour was right: that Macbeth did order the FBI to kill Catalan. He wouldn’t have done that himself, he adds, but still respects Macbeth’s decision. His ensuing speech about the country uniting is standard presidential spin, but his actual speaking of the truth is a nice little antidote to the heated rhetoric and blustering lies we see in the current White House. Indeed, Designated Survivor’s use of Kirkman as an independent candidate, rather than a Democrat or a Republican, makes for an enjoyably rousing reminder than politics doesn’t have to be a black-and-white case of extremes and opposites.
Aaron, of course, misses the speech, because he’s using his time off to sneak about suspiciously – that night, we watch as he meets with Charles Langdon, the once-Chief of Staff, who (shock, horror) apparently survived the Capitol bombing too. Hannah Wells, of course, is watching to, so it won’t be long until that comes to light. More political secrets and an unexpected bout of Trump bashing? Even with Macbeth out of the picture, Designated Survivor shows no sign of running out of ideas yet.
Designated Survivor is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Thursday, within 24 hours of their US premiere.