Designated Survivor Follows Last Week’s Fireworks with Current Events in “Backfire”

Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

“Backfire” Plot Summary:

Following the death of Vice President Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman), President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) and his staff attempt to the keep information about MacLeish’s role in the conspiracy from going public. Meanwhile, Wells (Maggie Q) interviews one of the soldiers in MacLeish’s unit for intel on how he was radicalized.

After the explosive ending of last week’s episode, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that the latest episode of Designated Survivor is relatively subdued. “Backfire” certainly covers the impact of Beth MacLeish’s murder-suicide, but the show’s sense of urgency fades somewhat without its villains being in the forefront. It’s too early to tell whether the loss of the MacLeish duo will hurt the show in the long run though. But Kirkman and rest of D.C. are no doubt shaken by the shocking deaths of the Vice President and his wife, and the show manages to portray these repercussions in an appropriate mix of personal and political terms.

While the episode is full of dramatic reactions to MacLeish’s death, Kirkman’s response is the most nuanced and powerful. Having started the season as a mild-mannered family man who allows himself to be pushed around by generals and becomes visibly overwhelmed by his ascent to the presidency, Tom Kirkman has had to emotionally steel himself and find previously untapped reserves of confidence. The incredulous anger he displays when Agent Hannah Wells explains what happened to MacLeish is a perfect example of this growth.

But at heart, Kirkman is still the same fish-out-of-water that desperately wants nothing more than to spend time with his family and be rid of his new job’s tremendous responsibilities. Unsure who to trust and in greater need of support than ever, Kirkman seeks solace in his family. But as reminded by Mike Ritter (LaMonica Garrett), Kirkman can’t afford to share classified information with his wife. And his wife, Alex (Natascha McElhone), reveals that the increased security following the attempt on Kirkman’s life is robbing their children of normal lives. As a result, Kirkman’s rise to power takes on a tragic quality; as much as he needs reassurance and support following the Vice President’s treachery and demise, Kirkman realizes he can’t rely on his family and needs to process the conspiracy’s latest developments largely on his own. Last week’s twist thus impacts Kirkman on a much deeper level than most could have expected.

On the other hand, White House Press Secretary Seth Wright (Kal Penn) has to defend the President from the political fallout of MacLeish’s fate. I haven’t talked much about Kal Penn’s character in these reviews, but he has remained one of the show’s most charismatic cast members, even as the number of scenes he shares with Kiefer Sutherland has gradually decreased. Seth’s conflict with journalist Abe Leonard (Rob Morrow) isn’t the most exciting storyline we’ve seen (and feels somewhat similar to Seth’s issues with press frenemy Lisa Jordan), but it once again highlights the ways that Seth and Kirkman have had to adapt to their new roles. Kirkman and Seth have shown a dedication to transparency in the past, but the sensitivity of the conspiracy is forcing them to question whether revealing too much information could violate the integrity of the investigation. Sound familiar? Rob Morrow is a bit over-the-top as the disgraced Pulitzer Prize winner uncovering explosive news via intel leaks, yet this storyline has the potential to explore current events in some rather intriguing ways if done correctly. Exploring real world political controversies, especially when the controversies are still ongoing, can be an extremely delicate direction for a TV show to follow, but I have faith in the show’s ability to handle this challenge as long as the writers remember to ground the issue in Kirkman and Seth’s development as characters.

As we move into the post-MacLeish portion of the season, Designated Survivor will need to find new ways to infuse the political drama with a sense of urgency and suspense. Time will tell what elements will be added or altered to provide these thrills, but “Backfire” generally illustrates the show’s understanding that all twists and turns gain their strength from how they force the characters to respond. As long as the series continues to accomplish this task, the cliffhangers and shocking reveals will take care of themselves.


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.