'Designated Survivor' Recap: "Backfire"

Michael Simon ‘19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Spoiler alert: This recap contains spoilers for 1×13 of Designated Survivor.

While watching the first half of the latest installment of Designated Survivor, that is the word that came to mind most often. Now to be clear, ‘underwhelming’ is a word here that is not necessarily meant to mean ‘bad’, because for all intents and purposes, the series delivered a very good episode. The writing was stellar, performances were mostly top notch, and the plot advanced in a more or less natural and sensible way. It was a good episode, it just wasn’t the episode we needed right now, given the magnitude of the situation presented to us at the end of last week’s episode. When the Vice President and his wife are laying dead in a graveyard shootout, it feels somewhat unjust when the story that follows seems much like business as usual.
As mentioned earlier, this is a good episode – there is a lot to like about it. The best elements in play here involve the evolution of two previously established characters and the introduction of two new players on the show. Aaron Shore (Adan Canto) found himself in the hot seat this week, as viewers got their first taste of the dangers that may come from associating too closely with Speaker of the House Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen). His honest confession to leaking information helped to earn the trust and good faith of both the President and the audience, but the ending scene in which he’s found associating with former Chief of Staff Charles Langdon raises plenty of questions. The show clearly does not want us to feel comfortable with our opinion of Aaron, which helps makes him one of the most interesting characters on the show right now.
Additionally, this installment also shows the next step in the life of former FBI Director Jason Atwood (Malik Yoba) and, understandably, it is not good. The resilient, brave, loyal, friendly man has been reduced to a shell, wrought with guilt and self-doubt and a longing to shut out the world and everyone in it. As a character, Jason and his family tragedy are treated with the utmost respect, as the progression of his grief feels heartbreakingly human. One can only hope that perhaps Jason is in the process of evolving into a man bent on revenge once he is past this state of morning; he remains one of this show’s best untapped assets.
The newbies this week consisted of loud-mouthed reporter Abe Leonard (Rob Morrow), and the yet-to-be-seen former President Cornelius Moss. The former man does his job well, serving as an ally to Hookstraten and an adversary to Press Secretary Seth Wright (Kal Penn). His continued importance in the show is questionable, as his questions were all answered by the episode’s end. But even as a one-time character, Abe is memorable. President Moss, as of this moment, remains an enigma. It was a clever bit of writing to introduce him in the way they did, casually mentioning him in conversation as everyone in the world of the show clearly knows who Moss is, but we as the viewers obviously do not. The idea of a living President other than Kirkman was a nice little subtle plot twist that no one was really expecting. They pulled one over on us without us even noticing.

Kal Penn as Seth Wright in ‘Designated Survivor’. Photo Credit: ABC.
As for the problems in the episode, it was hard to shake the feeling that we were constantly viewing Vice President MacLeish’s (Ashley Zukerman) untimely death through the eyes of people who knew how villainous he was. Thanks to Agent Wells (Maggie Q), MacLeish gained a bit of humanity through the story surrounding his radicalization, but even that isn’t enough to make this episode truly deliver on the weight of his death. What needed to be shown was the reaction of the American people, and perhaps, as fans of this series, it would be worthwhile to take a step back and consider this all from their perspective. They don’t know MacLeish was a traitor. All they know is that this was a man – a decorated war hero – literally pulled from the ashes of the destroyed Capitol, who had his inauguration interrupted by an assassination attempt on his boss, and was then thrown into the role of President. To the American people within Designated Survivor’s world, MacLeish is seen as just as big of a hero as we viewers see Kirkman, if not more so. His death deserved a weightier impact and it just was not there.
Finally, we land on President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) himself, as he continues to fracture and make difficult decisions in this episode. Unfortunately, a good chunk of his work here revolves around his family, and it’s hard to take a statement like “this family is the only thing holding me together” seriously when the family on this show is treated as an afterthought rather a centerpiece. It is a testament to Sutherland’s acting chops that we still believe him to be a wholesome, loving father and family man, because the show itself does him no favors in getting these character traits across. Watching as his family flew off in a helicopter to a safer home at the episode’s close was almost a relief: if this is what it takes to organically get them out of the show for a while, so be it.
The President’s final speech is where this episode truly shines in the eyes of this reviewer, for it shows how well this series and this man can hold themselves in a time of absolute crisis. It was a moment that any real world President would have reason to be proud of, full of uplifting rhetoric, respectful honesty, and endearing thoughtfulness. This is a President addressing his people not as a superior, but as a citizen himself, identifying with their fear and longing for answers amongst the chaos. Throughout all of the turmoil presented over the course of this series, Tom Kirkman has remained a guiding light, and that alone makes Designated Survivor worth watching for every last minute.

Episode Grade: B

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