The Continuity of Government: Designated Survivor, Episodes 1 & 2, review

I have a morbid fascination with the worst-case scenario. When something horrible happens, what happens next? This is the reason I love disaster films like Pacific Rim, 2012, Independence Day, Godzilla (the 1954 original), Godzilla (the 1998 crap-shoot), The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, and Contagion; because that’s when interesting things happen. Oh sure, all these films are far-fetched, but that’s why they’re so interesting, because they’re scenarios which we’re unlikely to prepare for. So if they did happen, how the people react and how the world reacts can reveal much about the world we live in.

Take Pacific Rim for example. Giant monsters start stampeding through major cities around the world. At first, we convince ourselves they’re isolated incidents, but after the fourth attack, we start to see the pattern. In response, we start building giant robots to fight them off because we’ve watched too much anime.

Actually, I’ve argued this to a few friends before. In this scenario, giant robots make a bizarre amount of sense because the alternatives are guns and bombs. And really, what would you do if you were fighting a human being? Throw a few needles at their legs, throw a firecracker in their face (which is likely to just piss them off), or grab them in a headlock and punch them in the face twelve times? Obviously the last one. Scale this up, and you have the bloody Jaeger program.

But eventually, the program doesn’t seem to be that effective. The solution? Build a wall, because that’ll stop the stampeding monsters. They each weigh around 3,000 tons! Unless the wall’s constructed from solid vibranium, what are the odds that it’ll hold up if a Kaiju so much as leans on it? But it’s at this stage that the world is panicking. They’re almost certain that the end of the world is upon them, so they try whatever they can to survive, even if it’s futile.

In contrast our heroes decide the most rational response is one final attack at the source of the invasion. Something they tried before and failed. So why they thought it would work this time is beyond me. But they are also panicking. Realizing the world’s coming to an end, one last attack, one last blaze of glory is all they’re after.

This is interesting. This is how they react when the end is nigh. With nothing left to lose, they try whatever they can think of to hold off the end, hold onto hope, and hold onto sanity. The one thing they don’t want to do is give up.

But this is a scenario that humanity is unprepared for, and we’d be insane to prepare for it. It’s so far-fetched that it’s not even worth considering as a potential issue. But there are other, slightly less horrible and slightly more plausible scenarios that we could plan for; and we have.

During the Cold War, the worst-case scenario was real possibility: Nuclear war. Everyone thought it would be almost inevitable, with both America and the Soviet Union continually glaring and each other, and fighting proxy wars all over the planet, that eventually someone would take it just a bit too far and trigger a war that would result in millions dead, and half the planet rendered uninhabitable.

And they planned for it.

They planned for everything. What if the war started, and the President wasn’t near a phone? Well, he had the Nuclear Football, allowing him to launch a counter-strike from anywhere in the world. Dark.

But what about after? What would happen after the bombs dropped, and the President and Vice President didn’t survive? Who would lead America? Well thankfully, there are plans for that as well. There are two members of the legislature, as well as the entire US Cabinet, eligible to take up the presidency, if anyone above them is unable to. The technical term for this is the line of succession, and virtually every country has this kind of thing enshrined in law. But in the US that’s only 18 people. If all them are gone, which is likely in a nuclear war, there’s no one left. If they all die, no one can take up the presidency, not without being elected and that takes time. So, how do we prevent this? Yes, they planned for that too. You see, during any event where the President of the United States, the Vice President, and everyone else in the line of succession are in the same room, at the same time, one is excused, brought to a secret location, given a full Secret Service detail, and in the event that something horrible happens, they are elevated to the presidency.

They are known as the designated survivor.

But would this ever actually happen? Probably not. But what if it did? How would America react? How would the world react? And how would their new President react?

Kinda like that…

Yes, in the new series, Designated Survivor, Keifer Sutherland plays the designated survivor… then the President of the United States, and the last surviving official of the US federal government. And that’s just the first three minutes.

The story opens during the annual State of the Union address. Tom Kirkman is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and is apparently disliked by the President of the United States. It’s not entirely clear why though, only that the President excised all of Tom’s housing initiatives from the State of the Union, and wants him sent to Montreal to become Ambassador to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Basically, he’s being fired and given a shit job no one cares about despite the cushy title.

Then as a final snub, the President gets him to sit out the State of the Union by placing him as the designated survivor. Then the Capitol building blows up.

The President, Vice President, rest of the Cabinet, Supreme Court, and the entire 535 member legislature are killed, leaving Tom Kirkman to be sworn in as President of the United States.

See Alanis, that is irony.

But the thing about Tom Kirkman is that, much like Twilight Sparkle, he’s not really what one might call ‘presidential material’. He’s not a career politician, he’s not a particularly strong leader, he’s never been elected to anything, and he never wanted to be President. But he is now thrust into a position he never wanted, and never expected, because he’s the only one left.


Quickly sworn in, he’s rushed off to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, or PEOC, which is a bunker located under the White House, and is quite bling.

Okay, I know for a fact that the real PEOC looks nothing like that. It looks like this:

But of course, it’s television. So they’re allowed to have some fun, bit of dramatic licence, and over-exaggeration. But I do find this odd, considering that shortly after, Kirkman’s introduced to the Nuclear football and asks:

Kirkman: Do you need my fingerprints or an eye-scan or something?
Military guy: No sir, it’s not like the movies. It doesn’t work that way.

That’s right, they have a go at films for their lack of realism, right after showing us a PEOC built from the old CTU sets.

Though to be honest, I would like to assume there is some type of lock on the football that only the President, or possibly one of his military aides, can open. There are activation codes in that thing, you can’t just leave it unsecured like that. It’s like these people never watched the fourth season of 24! Remember that one? Where Air Force One was shot down, the football was stolen, and the writers had a collective stroke?

Anyway, Kirkman’s in the PEOC, surrounded by advisors and military officials who are running around, trying to deal with the current crisis. And everyone’s arguing like idiots. This triggers a reaction in Kirkman. A gastronomic reaction. He runs off to the nearest toilet and empties the various snacks he was munching on at the beginning of the episode. I’m guessing this is just a symptom of shock.

But as he’s emptying his stomach, in the next stall a White House speechwriter, played by Kal Penn, tells him to let it all out, because everyone’s feeling the exact same way. Then he starts sharing his thoughts about the current situation, by having a go at the new President, saying he shouldn’t be President, and he should step down and let someone who knows what they’re doing be in charge.

Then he steps out of the stall.

Well, he may not have remembered Kirkman’s name, but he remembered his face.

And after hearing all this criticism, I think Kirkman realized that the best person to convince the American public that Kirkman can lead the country, is someone who doesn’t believe it himself. So he asks the man’s name, and assigns Seth to write Kirkman’s first speech to the nation, due to air in under an hour.

This is what I like about Kirkman, he’s smart. He doesn’t assign someone who’s thinks he’s the best man for the job, he assigns someone who thinks he should step down. Someone who’ll know exactly how the naysayers will respond. Someone who needs convincing himself.

He writes Kirkman’s speech, then starts advising him on how to actually deliver it. Because apparently, he doesn’t have the gravitas to instill confidence in the American people.

Meanwhile, a more urgent problem pops up, as the Iranian military decide to move a few destroyers into the Straits of Hormuz, which is a major trade route for oil, likely setting up a blockade. One of his Generals, General Cochrane, suggests an immediate and direct military response, because that’s rational.

I see Cochrane being one of the chief dickheads on this show.

He comes out with shit saying, ‘they shouldn’t test us,’ and ‘we need to prove we’re still strong.’ But all he’s proving is that he’s a cat who just broke his paw. Lashing out at anyone who moves just because something bad happened, and you’re scared, is not a rational response; it’s something an animal does; and Kirkman knows this. He refuses to give the order. Instead, decides merely to talk to the Iranian ambassador, reminding him that tensions are high right now, and it’s a bad idea to test their patience. And with a few stern words, as well as the most powerful military in the world behind him, the President manages to talk them into withdrawing.

See, how simple was that? And yet Cochrane thought the only available response was to just shoot at them, because he’s an idiot. Or perhaps he’s just afraid.

But fear seems to be a major theme in this show, which leads me into the second episode.

It’s Kirkman’s first day as President. In the wake of the attack, the country’s still reeling, and in Michigan police are rounding up Muslims without charge.

Obviously this is not on, and when the President decides to call the Governor of Michigan to offer some help in dealing with the situation, he learns that it was actually the Governor who ordered it.

Apparently, he’s afraid. He says he needs to protect his people, and believes this is the best way to do it. I guess because he doesn’t think Muslims count as citizens. Also, he refuses to recognize Kirkman’s authority as President.

But that’s just the beginning.

Meanwhile, Kirkman needs to start rebuilding the government, starting with his Cabinet, because currently, it’s a bit empty.

By the way, that cabinet room looks a little small. No way they have enough chairs for 15 cabinet secretaries, much less the President, Vice-President, and anyone else who wishes to sit in. But that’s just minor quibbling at this point.

So he assigns the job of building the new cabinet to a new comedy double-act, Rhodes and Shore.

By the way, Rhodes is on the right. And these two apparently don’t like each other, but they have to put that aside for now, as their job, collectively, is to act as the new White House Chief of Staff until Kirkman officially appoints one. One would expect Shore to be elevated to the position as White House Deputy Chief of Staff, but Rhodes is sticking around as Kirkman’s former Chief of Staff. So does he keep the Chief of Staff he already knows and trusts, or does he choose someone who’s more familiar with the intricacies of White House operation?

Anyway, he’s not ready to make that decision yet. And I really don’t blame him.

But as they select a new Cabinet, it begs the question: There were 535 lawmakers at the Capitol. Not one called in sick? Not one got stuck in traffic? Not one had something else to do? I know the State of the Union is a big deal, but they air it on TV, so it’s not like they’d miss it. But no, every single one of them died in the explosion, leaving the United States without a legislature.

Well, actually…

Meet Congresswoman Kimble Hookstraten, the ‘other’ designated survivor, representing the GOP.

Actually, this is a thing. Since 2005 they’ve assigned a few members of the legislature as designated survivors, along with a member of the Cabinet. Two Senators and two House Representatives, one from each party, ready to form a rump legislature should the worst happen. But here, they’ve only assigned one. And not as a member of the legislature, but as a member of the Republican party. Seems quite pointless, if I’m honest.

Anyway, given that she’s the last surviving House Representative, I guess that officially makes her Speaker of the House, and next in the line of succession after Kirkman. Oh sure, there’d probably be some issue over the fact that she’d need to be elected by the House, but given that she’s the only member, I doubt she’d get much opposition. In fact, I’d wager she’d win in a landslide.

So, with a member of the opposing party also surviving, I’m sure we’re all betting on some type of political rivalry between these two.

Well, apparently not. Because Kimble arrives at the White House, sits down with the President, and basically gives her support of Kirkman’s presidency, and offers her reassurances. She doesn’t care about ideological boundaries anymore. After all, having all your colleagues die in a horrific explosion, leaving you as the only survivor, might get you to reexamine a few things.

But of course, as some people are changed for the better, others are changed for the worse. You remember Cochrane?

Well this day, some new information comes his way regarding the destruction of the Capitol. Turns out they have a culprit: A terrorist group known as Al-Sakar, an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda based in Northern Africa. And they’re 75% certain these guys are responsible.

Which means there’s a 25% chance they’re not responsible… yeah, not good enough, and Kirkman points that out.

Kirkman: 75 is still a ‘C’ on a test, General.
Cochrane: This is not a test, this is war.

So, your standards for going to war are lower than Harvard’s admissions department?

And I love this exchange, as Cochrane just says that they finally have a target they can aim at in retaliation, apparently not really caring whether they really did it or not. He’s just panicking! And Kirkman knows this, and responds thusly:

“You think I don’t want to strike back at the people who did this? I lost colleagues, friends, people I love. I want to find every single person involved in this attack from planning to execution and rip them limb from limb. Which is why I need to know exactly who did this!” –Jack Bauer President Kirkman

And that’s what we in the trade call, a bollocking.

But it’s during this scene that we can see shades of Jack Bauer in the performance. Particularly when he says ‘dammit!’

I’ve delayed this long enough. Yes, you can see a bit of Jack Bauer in Tom Kirkman, and that’s not merely because they’re played by the same actor. Much like Jack, Kirkman is not one to take any shit from anyone. He’s principled, determined, and not one to be easily pushed over.

But there’s also a lot separating the two. I don’t think President Kirkman’s likely to pull someone’s nipples out through their eyes unless they talk. In fact, during his first briefing in the Oval Office, someone mentions ‘enhanced interrogation’ (see: torture) and he looks shocked and appalled at the suggestion. He understands proportion, which I don’t think Jack Bauer was ever known for. He’s also humble and self-conscious. He spends most of the first two episodes unsure he even belongs in the White House. Of course that may make people wonder why he doesn’t step down and let someone else take over. Because much like Jack, he knows that there’s too much of a risk of someone else screwing the job up. As bad a President as he may be, Kirkman knows that if he lets someone else take over, they may just end up following Cochrane’s advice, and just bomb every country they don’t like. He may not be the best leader, but finding someone better, and more principled, might not be possible. Besides, he can’t just appoint a new President. Doesn’t work that way.

So they have a few similarities, but I wouldn’t say they’re the same character. No more than Malcolm Tucker and the Twelfth Doctor.

Anyway, he demands they find more proof tying Al-Sakar to the bombing before they take action. Which leads me so elegantly to the investigation subplot that I’ve been avoiding up until now. Because frankly, I find it the most boring part of the show.

Even though it is important.

Here, we’re focusing on FBI Agent Hannah Wells.

As the entire Bureau investigates the bombing, she runs her own analysis, and very quickly comes to question what becomes the official word. Basically, she’s a conspiracy nutter. But her conclusions are not unfounded.

She says they’re hearing little to no chatter from any known terrorist group, telling her that none of them are responsible. She notes that no one has yet taken credit for the bombing, and suspects that means more attacks are to come. They find an unexploded device of similar design to those used by some middle-east terror groups. Others suspect it didn’t go off because of faulty construction or human error. She suspects it was never meant to go off, and placed as a red herring to lead them in the wrong direction.

Of course, her stated reason for that last point seems quite ridiculous. That those who blew up the US Capitol wouldn’t be that sloppy. But sometimes an idiot who’s determined can pull off some amazing things. One idiot with a gun killed a President. Three idiots with box cutters hijacked planes and flew them into buildings. They were dumb enough to mess up the construction of one bomb, but determined enough to let the rest go off. It’s not that far-fetched.

But as I said earlier, she also states that she heard no chatter. Normally, in the days before any major terror attack, they would hear quite a lot of chatter from these groups. The chatter told them something was coming, they just didn’t know what or where. So the fact that all is quiet on the middle-eastern front tells her that none of those groups are responsible. Meaning the evidence before her is suspect.

In a show like this, we’re supposed to side with her. We’re supposed to think she’s the one person with her head on straight. If only everyone thought the same way she did. If only everyone agreed that there was some massive conspiracy hidden behind that we’re not supposed to notice. But she has no hard evidence for her theories. Nonetheless, she goes to her boss, Deputy Director Atwood, and tries to convince him to inform the President that the unexploded munition may have been planted.

Later that day, the President is visiting the Capitol site to thank the first responders. He is also briefed by Atwood on the status of the investigation, where he asks about the unexploded device, and is told it didn’t go off because of human error.

See, he doesn’t mention Hannah’s theory. Mainly because she has no hard evidence to back it. But surely he has no evidence for human error, either. Talking out of his ass, I think. But I’m guessing this is going to form the basis for the next few episodes. As she searches for evidence that there’s more to this bombing than they currently assume. Personally, I’m thinking domestic terrorism, or some internal government conspiracy. Because if it turns out to be Islāmic terrorism, that’ll just be the laziest plotline since Lost. I just-I don’t want to see… Make the bad guys white people, that’s all I’m saying. It’s more interesting.

Meanwhile, Kirkman gets ready to deliver a few remarks to the assembled crowd. But first he removes his flak jacket, which Mike, the lead Secret Service agent, insist he wear. And this is more meaningless quibble, but I don’t think that’s how it typically works. I don’t think US Presidents wear flak jackets when they go out. I’ve seen clips of Obama pressing the flesh in public and on the street, and I saw no flak jacket. All he had protecting him was his handsomeness, which he has a lot of, but generally won’t protect you from bullets. Then again, it’s possible they changed policy because normally there’s a line of succession to the presidency, and Tom Kirkman doesn’t have one yet. If he get’s killed, they got no one to replace him. So they beefed up the protocol. Then again, in that case, why didn’t they use ‘The Beast’? They brought him there in a normal car, not the armoured car-shaped tank they normally use. I’m guessing the original was buried under some rubble at the Capitol. But I’m pretty sure there’s more than one.

Of course, the real reason they don’t use ‘The Beast’ is probably because the show’s budget couldn’t handle it. Even then, they couldn’t just get a cheap limo? It doesn’t actually have to be bulletproof.

Anyway, Kirkman climbs on top of some rubble, and addresses the crowd, delivering a stirring speech… which is so rudely interrupted by breaking news.

Yes, apparently, as he was giving his speech, news dropped about a Muslim kid who was beaten by police and hospitalized. And it appeared everyone in the crowd had a Google alert set, because they stop listening to his speech, and start looking at their phones.

The President is giving a speech here! Is this not a good time for you!? You do realize that video will be there later, right? It’s not going anywhere! This is one of the many reasons I hate smartphones. And as Kirkman finishes his incredibly moving speech, which even he seemed to get choked up by, I could tell no one else even heard most of it, because they just start grilling him about the breaking news story they just heard about! Yes, he does have a comment, because while it looked like he was giving a speech memorializing the attack, that was just a hologram. He was actually hiding in a tent, and staring at his phone. So of course, he’s fully informed about this event.

Sorry, that scene really annoyed the shit out of me. I know we’re supposed to assume this would really happen, but I highly doubt any journalist would just start grilling any politician about a news story that just broke 20 seconds ago.

Actually, scratch that, they probably would, but they wouldn’t frame the question assuming he already knew about it. They also would let him answer before asking another question, because you kinda want him to answer, that’s the whole point of asking the question. However the dickhead heckler from the audience? Yeah that’s probably realistic.

But the real issue is the kid that was beaten to death in Michigan.

Yeah, beaten to death, he actually dies. Which means there’s been enough dicking around, it’s time to get serious about the Michigan issue.

Kirkman demands to speak to someone from the Attorney General’s office. So Rhodes and Shore call in their two AG candidates.

One suggests issuing an Executive Order, the other suggests that’s a too forceful and says he should issue a Presidential Proclamation, which the other suggests is too weak before saying they should consider enacting Martial Law, which the other says could backfire drastically.

So basically, they can’t give him a clear answer on anything. So it’s safe to assume neither are getting the Attorney General job. Or maybe they could both get it, and stick around as a comic double-act. The Abbot and Costello of the Cabinet.

But seriously, the task at hand. Because even if he did have a solution, Kirkman still can’t even get the Governor on the phone. But eventually, they get a break, because Hookstraten actually knows him, and manages to get the smug bastard on the line. Kirkman gives him an official order to stop harassing the Muslims, and release all those they arrested without charge. But he refuses, because he’s a dickhead. Then Kirkman mentions that Michigan police also arrested three undercover DHS operatives, and he can’t hand over the names, so they all need to be released. And if they aren’t released, the Governor will be obstructing a federal investigation. And the man’s reaction is priceless.

Not so smug now are you? Ya bastard.

And to me, this is proof that, despite what everyone thinks about him being unprepared, and not fit to lead, Tom Kirkman is the best President the United States could ever have. Because I know I wouldn’t have thought of that. Make up some bullshit about the police accidentally arresting a few undercover agents? Brilliant! And it worked! He immediately orders everyone’s release. And the crisis ends. But sadly, not soon enough for that one kid.

Also, it’s probably only the beginning. Because after a crisis like this, people will blame those that are different. It’s a knee jerk reaction. It won’t stop at Michigan. And this was illustrated in the episode itself by an early scene featuring Seth, on his way to work, stopped without cause by two police officers asking ‘what’s in the backpack!?’

Thankfully, this situation ends without anyone getting arrested or beaten. But not everyone would be that lucky. Things are only going to get worse from here.

Kirkman has a lot of work to do. It’s only just beginning. And I’m excited.

Designated Survivor may not seem like the most sophisticated show on television. In fact, at first glance it may seem like populist swill. Just 24 in the White House, basically. But there’s some depth here that has certainly been gripping me. Social commentaries about the treatment of Muslims. Bit of ‘ripped from the headlines’ police brutality plotlines. International politics and dickheads from the military-industrial complex. We have a few lighthearted moments, we have a few dark and shocking moments. But overall, despite the primary catalyst being the destruction of the US Federal Government, we have hope that it can be rebuilt. Hope is something not a lot of shows have. I’ve seen too much dark and gritty recently, we need hope and light, and that’s what this show brings.

I’m not going to say it’s perfect. There are moments in dialogue that are a bit too ‘TV,’ a bit too staged, and end up feeling just awkwardly placed. And it also has that J.J. Abrams syndrome that all American television seems to have a terminal case of.

What do I mean by that? Well mainly, scenes that seem to function only as mysterious hints at possible future plots. Rather than focus on the plot before us, the one we’re dealing with now, they want to focus on future episodes that probably haven’t even been written yet. Case in point: After the bombing, Rhodes manages to make her way into the White House, and talks to Shore, saying she needs to be by Kirkman’s side, and Shore knows ‘better than anyone else’ why. What that means is beyond my understanding, and I can only assume it’s because Rhodes, Shore, and Kirkman have some secret history that the writers just haven’t decided to reveal yet. But that reasoning, that he needs people he knows by his side… I do have a theory that I might as well share:

To start, during the first PEOC scene, Kirkman ended up vomiting while everyone in the room was yelling at everyone else. Then, there’s a similar scene the next morning, where we see him in the Oval Office, surrounded by advisors, who start arguing with each other. Then, Kirkman rushes out of the room to find somewhere quiet. I have a feeling this wasn’t random, or a stress reaction. I think, and this is just a theory, that Kirkman has a mild form of epilepsy that can be triggered whenever a lot of people start yelling. I knew someone in high school who had epilepsy, and she mentioned that someone yelling could trigger a negative reaction; it’s not always flashing lights. So this seems possible, and I’m willing to bet both Rhodes and Shore are well aware of his condition; mainly because there were a few spots of dialogue that indicated Shore understood the chaos in the Oval Office could trigger something bad, and Rhodes has been his Chief of Staff for years, so of course she would know.

But obviously this hasn’t been revealed in the episode proper yet. They’ll probably reveal it in a dramatic episode when Kirkman has a seizure, and it’ll become a useful dramatic device they can use, much like President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, or President Heller’s Alzheimer’s disease. But uniquely, in Kirkman’s case, it’ll just exemplify the fact that he is not the ideal man for the job.

But even though that’s the theme the show seems to be running, I don’t know if it’s true. You see, I think Kirkman is the best President the United States could possibly have, even if they don’t know it yet. As I’ve said, he’s principled and determined. He also has a stunning political acumen, exemplified when he got the Governor of Michigan to stop being a racist prick. He may not have ‘experience,’ but let’s be honest, experience for what? Most jobs you need specific skills like how to wire a plug. But being a politician? You just need the ability to lie convincingly. You also need knowledge of world events, and international law. But you also have advisors to help you with that, since no one can be an expert on everything. Also, Kirkman spent three years in the Cabinet. Surely he picked up something.

But more than anything, the main reason he’s the best man for the job, is because he doesn’t want the job. It may seem odd but I’ve noticed this over the years. The best people for a position of power are typically those who don’t want it. For instance: those who are reluctant, or hearing a call to join, or have been unceremoniously drafted. Case in point: Barack Obama, who I don’t remember initiating the idea of running for President back in 2008; it was a Time magazine article that suggested it. And surprise, surprise, he ended up being a brilliant President. Not perfect, but pretty damn good. Also, Justin Trudeau, who seemed to have the entire Liberal Party begging for him to lead. Now, he’s done a surprisingly good job as Prime Minister. Who would’ve thought an infant would make a good Prime Minister? Then there’s Pope Francis, who was asked about it after being elected and said he never wanted to be pope, but I guess took the job because everyone else knew they would be shit.

But my point is, someone who doesn’t want to lead would make the best leader. And someone who wants to lead would make the worst. Remember that in November, America.

So my point is, Kirkman is a brilliant President, and I can’t wait to see him prove it. Because this journey is only getting started.


Speak your mind!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s