Designated Survivor started out like this: the HUD Secretary was about to be fired. Before that firing actually took effect, he was selected to be the Designated Survivor for the President during the State of the Union. During that State of the Union, someone blew up the Capitol, and Tom Kirkman assumed the Presidency. He cobbled together a staff and began trying to piece the country back together. Along for the ride: Hannah Wells, a grief-stricken FBI agent with a hunch that the sole survivor of the bombing, a Congressman, might be involved in the attack; the Republican’s designated survivor, Kimble Hookstraten, who is politically wily but essentially honest; a team that includes two potential chiefs-of-staff and a press secretary with doubts about Kirkman’s abilities; his wife and kids.
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Does any of that seem to have anything to do with what you saw in this, what may be the last episode of Designated Survivor we’ll ever see?
Well, there are kids, anyway. One of them, at least. Of the roughly four dozen plots and subplots that fill “Run,” there’s exactly one that makes perfect sense. The story Leo (Tanner Buchanan) getting into a college his father didn’t know he applied to isn’t particularly thrilling or engrossing, but for all its simplicity, it’s refreshingly human. He doesn’t know how to tell his dad that he got into a school that’s far away—very Lady Bird of him—and he’s worried about leaving his little sister and father behind, so soon after the death of his mother. He gets his letter, hides his feelings, asks for advice, has a heart to heart with dad. Not earth-shattering, soul-shaking art, perhaps, but a story, centered on characters, based in their shared history. Given how often this show forgets about both Leo and Penny, it’s time well-spent.
There’s nothing else remotely like it in “Run,” or, to be frank, in most of the back half of the second season of Designated Survivor. The first season has its moments, and the first half of this season has a few as well. Peter MacLeish and Lady MacLeish were nuts, and the episode in which they both meet their end is easily the best of the series. Kimble was an entertaining figure, even when her machinations became comically inconsistent, because Virginia Madsen is such an engaging presence. Hannah and Jason Atwood’s (remember him?) search for the truth had a few great twists and turns, despite (and sometimes because of) its utter implausibility. Italia Ricci, Kal Penn, LaMonica Garrett, Adan Canto, and Natascha McElhone were all good, when given decent material. Sometimes they were even good without it.
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And there was always Kiefer Sutherland, trying to make good old Tom Kirkman more Jed Bartlet than Jack Bauer, but ready to lose the mild-mannered thing when steely-eyed determination and some forceful shouting was needed. That Leo storyline, brief though it is, works in no small part because Sutherland approaches it with some subtlety. There’s an undercurrent of pride and happiness, largely unseen since the midseason break, in Kirkman when Leo gets his first admission; their second scene is quiet and gentle, a father reconnecting the son who, not so long ago, blamed him for his mother’s death.
If you don’t remember that, never fear, because neither does Designated Survivor. Oh, also, there was that whole subplot where maybe Leo wasn’t actually the President’s kid? Remember that one? Or remember how the whole case against the late Alex Kirman was linked to her mother, who lives in D.C., despite the fact that the show went out of its way in the last few months to tell us that Trey Kirkman (Breckin Meyer) was the family’s only relative? Moving on.
Elsewhere in this episode, Lyor and Seth are trying to coax a fictional American protectorate from leaving the fold, Brexit-style, when a massive tidal wave hits the island. The point of this storyline seems to be to put Kirkman in a position where the right thing to do is also unconstitutional, to further piss off the only two congresspeople we ever see anymore. I’m not sure why that’s necessary, as they’re already pissed at Kirkman for not joining either the Democrats or the Republicans, not to mention the charges that Special Prosecutor Ethan West (Michael J. Fox) handed over to the Attorney General after investigating Former President Cornelius Moss (Geoff Pierson). Anyway, back to the tidal wive: Lyor is fine, but Seth is missing. Then it turns out that Seth was just on the roof, and it’s all a bunch of weakly humorous twaddle shot in the Valencia filter until the very end, when it’s revealed that Seth was on the roof because he carried a bunch of this nice lady’s grandkids up there. This is played absolutely straight.
The business at the White House is so jumbled together, so filled with legal jargon and hand-waving, that it’s not easy to capture in brief. That’s probably for the best. There’s a glimmer of something that could be compelling in Emily’s storyline, which results in her resigning after harassing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That’s mostly due to Italia Ricci, who underplays her resignation scene in particular, to good effect. The whole mess ultimately resolves in Emily sitting at home in sweats while Kirkman announces his decision to run as an Independent, a decision made after Michael J. Fox handed him a piece of paper.
There are little things here and there we’ve skipped, some fine (a nice farewell between Kirkman and Mike, Kirkman’s scene with Fox’s Ethan West, some ludicrous metaphorical mustache-twirling from Cornelious Moss) and some just perplexing (the cliffhanger in which Emily got shot is resolved almost immediately, save for the fact that she uses it to justify her resignation). But the last sucker on the agenda is the Hannah Wells storyline.
Even when Designated Survivor was very bad, Maggie Q was pretty good. She’s so well cast as the steely operative type that even the most ridiculous storylines—and poor Hannah Wells got almost all the really ridiculous storylines—were at least watchable, if not sensible. Consider the streak broken. This shit is bonkers. There’s not much to say beyond that. Hannah Wells behaves in a way that makes no sense, the kid behaves in a way that makes no sense, the bad spy (Nora Zehetner, sorely wasted) behaves in a way that makes no sense. It ends with a terrible hallway fight, an anticlimactic shootout, and Hannah accidentally adopting the teenage kid of the guy who she thought was MI-6 but was actually a Russian spy who betrayed her but who she also used to sleep with who is now dead. Oh, and bad spy was working for Emily?
It’s looking like this might be the end of Designated Survivor. (Then again, maybe not.) If it is, at least we can all sleep easy knowing we never have to see what the hell this show would do with Hannah’s British teenaged orphan while ignoring the fact that she murdered an evil Russian spy who maybe worked for the former White House Chief of Staff.
I’ve got nothing else. What a dumb, empty hour of television. At least those scenes with Leo were good.
- This is normally the part of the review where I’d note which episodes of The West Wing feel, shall we say, oddly similar to the storylines in this particular hour. But good news on two fronts: 1) This was really more Scandal than The West Wing; 2) There was never a tidal wave on the West Wing.
- Someone hire these people, Kal Penn and Italia Ricci in particular, immediately please.
- It’s always nice to see Michael J. Fox again, and while I liked the manipulative-lawyer-with-a-soul role better when he played it on The Good Wife, he’s still a welcome presence.
- That “he saved my family” moment reminded me, in abruptness, of that brilliant moment from “Sting of the Tail” when Damian told Hannah he ran track at Oxford and she sprinted out of the creepy bunker. Good old Designated Survivor, always good for a laugh.