Designated Survivor: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Designated Survivor Poster

‘The Traitor’ Plot Summary:

While FBI Deputy Director Atwood (Malik Yoba) struggles to tell President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) the truth about the Capitol bombing, Kirkman and the CIA scramble to free American track and field coach Brad Weston (Jeff Teravainen) from Russian custody.

Even the best shows have the occasional misstep. This year’s season of Game of Thrones, which won Best Drama Series at the Emmys and was highly entertaining, had its fair share of dud moments. Many TV series have been more fulfilling than movies lately, but given the extended format of television it’s unreasonable to expect every episode to be amazing. A show’s strength might not be individual episodes but a slow burn to where they lead.

Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

Designated Survivor started quite strong and maintained that quality for several weeks, so it was bound to suffer a slump at some point in its 22-episode season (one reason I wish the season were shorter). While it has other issues, clearly the problem is the season arc is too drawn out in this episode. Even though it’s a couple weeks overdue, it gets off on the right foot with Deputy Director Atwood going to inform the President about Congressman MacLeish’s (Ashley Zukerman) duplicity, only to find MacLeish in the Oval Office with him. Talk about tense. What happens afterwards is where the plot unravels.

After both Kirkman and MacLeish sense the strangeness of the situation, a couple things should have gone down. The first is that Atwood should have immediately scheduled another appointment with Kirkman via one of his assistants but stated the need to speak in private. The second, which would make the first ultimately futile, would be for MacLeish’s associates to strike Atwood’s family the morning after, upon somehow learning about the private appointment. Having Atwood fumble and even semi-threaten MacLeish and not understand what’s going on is like watching a character in a horror movie make a stupid decision. You’re so frustrated you want to shout at the screen. By the episode’s end we’re at the right place, but it could have been easier and more satisfying. Apparently the Deputy Director of the FBI’s family doesn’t have security detail though, which is weird.

Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

The other weak storyline is the ongoing mystery of Leo Kirkman’s (Tanner Buchanan) biological father. Does it really matter who it is? If I recall, the other man in question was convicted of tax evasion after he was born. It is both noble and irresponsible that Kirkman didn’t think knowing for sure mattered because he loved Leo as his own.

Believe it or not, I also have a minor gripe that our reviewer for Arrow has brought up for the past few weeks. Why do we keep seeing female journalists having unethical relationships with sources in TV and movies? I’m probably the last person to bring something like this up but I just can’t deny the similarities. These aren’t hardboiled detective stories or a works of pulp fiction, after all.

Beyond my complaining, there’s one storyline that saves this episode and it’s not one you would expect. With the season 22 episodes long, Designated Survivor needs episodic plots at times for filler. Filler is generally bad but somehow this week’s installment makes it work. Sure, there’s the obvious identity parallels with Weston, Catalan (George Tchortov), MacLeish, and Leo’s father, but it just comes down to sheer entertainment value. The twists and turns keep you guessing, plus you have to love the dig at the Russians for their widespread doping in athletics. Not only is it enjoyable to watch Kirkman’s team formulate a solution inspired by sports, of all things, seeing it blow up in their faces is a shock. Maybe you saw it coming, but I certainly didn’t.

So, despite obvious problems with the annoying drawn out nature of the central conflict and the needlessness of the fatherhood storyline, I wouldn’t call this episode a failure. Not only are there a few exciting moments in the season arc (Catalan, for example), the one-off plot is better than it has the right to be.

Full steam ahead, Designated Survivor (after your one-week break).


Aaron Sarnecky is Pop-Break’s television editor and covers Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among other things. He is a graduate of Rowan University with a degree in television and film. He probably remembers that show you forgot existed. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronSarnecky

Aaron Sarnecky is The Pop Break’s Television Editor and covers Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., among other things. He is a TV/Film grad of Rowan University and the fraternal twin of staff writer Josh Sarnecky. He probably remembers that show you forgot existed.