Designated Survivor Powers Through Deceptive Promos

Photo Credit: ABC

“Commander-in-Chief” Plot Summary:

After making contact with Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), former Chief of Staff Charles Langdon (Peter Outerbridge) is brought in by the FBI. Elsewhere, President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) meets one of his predecessors, President Moss (Geoff Pierson), and must manage a crisis in a small African nation.

While “Commander-in-Chief” proves to be another solid episode of Designated Survivor, the advertisements for this week’s episode greatly exaggerated when they said our “most burning questions” would be answered. A more honest description would be “some questions you may have thought of will be addressed and partially answered in a way that leads to more questions.” Given that ABC is probably more responsible for the ads and previews than the show’s writers and producers, I won’t hold this misleading advertising against the episode.

At least we know President Kirkman will never mislead us . . . unless he’s asked to talk about an ongoing investigation or has to negotiate with terrorists. Kirkman has another strong week that sees him tested on multiple fronts. And Kiefer Sutherland displays shades of Jack Bauer during his conversation with Charles Langdon, which is always a treat for 24 fans. We’ve seen situations get under Kirkman’s skin before, but this standoff represents one of the few times that he openly threatens someone with both a sense of righteousness and confidence. He has clearly come a long way from his decisive but difficult interactions with Governor James Royce and General Harris Cochrane. That’s not to say Kirkman is comfortable in his job yet; his first meeting with the former president, Cornelius Moss, reveals once again how insecure and green Kirkman is.

President Moss is instantly charismatic and knowledgeable in a way that inspires and intimidates Kirkman, making Moss both an asset and threat to his successor. The dynamic between the two presidents starts out tense and warms over time, yet it will likely remain an intriguing source of drama going forward as their levels of experience clash. Of course, I can’t help but feel that the timing of Moss’ introduction is a tad suspicious. Could he be linked to the conspiracy? I wouldn’t be surprised. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this isn’t the first time actor Geoff Pierson has played a president. In fact, he previously played President Keeler on 24, so there is some history between Pierson and Sutherland that could enhance their chemistry.

As exciting as those scenes are, however, the episode’s strongest (yet most underdeveloped) moments involve Kirkman’s response to a potential genocide in Africa and his meeting with Aaron Shore. Intervening in foreign affairs is frequently a complicated matter that draws morals and politics into conflict; Kirkman is forced to acknowledge that fact this week, as he has to weigh the lives of Americans against other innocent civilians and consider how his decisions would impact the international community. This storyline does a good job of capturing the complexity of the situation (especially considering Kirkman’s strong moral compass), but I can’t help but feel the plot point could have used more time and fleshing out. Designated Survivor has shown Kirkman tackle domestic and international incidents in the past, but these issues are usually resolved within the timeframe of a single episode, which usually amounts to two or three days. Such episodic storytelling is not uncommon for network television, but many of these cases could benefit from greater exploration. Otherwise, incidents like the unrest in Detroit, the Russian government’s arrest of an Olympic athlete, or the conflict in a small African country feel like filler that is only superficially addressed. As the show seems poised to put greater emphasis on Kirkman’s need to govern, I’m hoping such storylines will be given more attention.

Meanwhile, Aaron Shore’s discovery that the White House and FBI had been investigating him is dramatic and appropriately tragic. Adan Canto undoubtedly gives his best performance of the season in this episode, perfectly portraying Aaron’s confusion, sense of betrayal, and wounded acceptance. The conversation between Aaron and Kirkman is surprisingly moving, as Kirkman realizes what has transpired. Despite the power of this scene, however, these developments aren’t quite as impactful as they could have been, simply because we haven’t spent enough time getting to know Aaron. While we’ve seen Aaron make some questionable calls to protect Kirkman in the past and witnessed his complicated romance with Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci), the series has failed to truly reveal what makes Aaron tick and establish reasons to care about him. And this problem isn’t limited to Aaron; with so much of the show’s focus placed on Kirkman, many of the supporting characters in the White House haven’t really established themselves. If the series wants the dramatic moments featuring supporting characters to feel significant, these characters will need more time in the spotlight and more growth.

Nevertheless, “Commander-in-Chief” introduces a strong new character in President Moss and proves that the show’s supporting cast can be given dramatic moments to shine. The question now is can such developments and the show’s strengths continue to satiate fans hungry for answers? I believe so. That is, as long as ABC stays away from more deceptive promos.

RATING: 8.5 OUT OF 10

Josh Sarnecky is one of Pop Break's staff writers and covers Designated Survivor, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. His brother, Aaron, is the site’s TV Editor, but Josh is the family’s reigning Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars champion.