“Designated Survivor” has found its sweet spot: nonstop, soapy, chaotic. It started off a bit lukewarm, but suddenly developing into a 9’er just like 24 was.
As every scene of this week’s episode ends, a new crisis springs up, like Whac-a-Mole. Some shows fall victim to their own pace and devolve into frantic tedium. But here, every crisis feels earned with its own potent stakes; they all seem to build toward a promising and fiery conflict between two sympathetic characters.
The episode is called “The Traitor,” which could refer to many characters, all of whom serve important functions within the story. The first is the foreboding Catalan, now the story’s ultimate villain. He’s an American who not only seems central to the Capitol bombing, but also managed to casually masquerade as a guard in a high-security prison to murder the F.B.I.’s most wanted man. (Shout out to our eagle-eyed commentators who spotted him skulking in the hallway last week.) That he decided to personally take on the mission and risk capture seems like an extra audacious middle finger to the F.B.I., and I’m looking forward to seeing what other tricks he has up his sleeve.
The second is Coach Brad Weston, a bargaining chip in a three-way spy exchange, whose sole purpose, seemingly, is to create some goofy Cold War tension. An American Olympic-hero-turned-double-agent, Weston is a character plucked from a different era, and this subplot seems less about a national security threat than like a six-figure poker game. That’s fine, given how wildly entertaining Vladimir Jon Cubrt is as Ambassador Petrov of Russia, who preens and struts around, making veiled threats in an extravagantly put-on Russian accent. Whether or not such a three-way diplomatic deal would ever work in real life is beside the point. It makes for a juicy set piece, and it further hardens President Kirkman.
The final two “traitors” — Congressman Peter MacLeish and the F.B.I. deputy director, Jason Atwood — are surreptitiously locked in their own power struggle. Their secret psychological war is evidence that the show is taking on a life apart from its superstar lead; the stakes are raised precisely because Kirkman is kept in the dark. And it’s a sublime, fitting twist that Atwood is blackmailed the same way Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer is in Season 1 of “24”: with his daughter kidnapped by an omnipresent organization.
Atwood now will go face-to-face with the president with an earpiece and a motive. The stoic agent has grown on me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the show’s first shocking casualty. He’s mostly served as a skeptical, logic-driven counterweight to Hannah, but he’s also the blandest character of the main cast. Moreover, elevating the sparkplug Hannah to his position would be dramatic and have unpredictable results.
At the same time, MacLeish is closing in on a spot inside the White House. It’s possible he’s had a change of heart and is trying desperately to cover himself because he was complicit in the disaster. Or maybe he’s still working for Catalan. Either way, his back story is fishy: His daughter’s disappearance during the State of the Union address is too coincidental — and if you’ll recall, she, too, was found eating ice cream. (Very weird signature touch by these kidnappers, but it seems to be working.) Moreover, there’s something suspiciously choreographed about the way MacLeish and his wife narrate their meet-cute, and his raspy, dead-eyed whisper gives me chills.
• Lots of sports talk in this episode. Aaron’s resigned attitude toward the hapless Wizards might be the most realistic depiction of Washington life on the show. But as a basketball fan, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the three-way deal Emily describes between the Wizards and the Thunder last year never happened.
• Hannah really is not keeping her promise to Kimble Hookstraten of informing her about any F.B.I. leads. The steely congresswoman was nowhere to be found this week.
• As if the American people needed another reason to be suspicious of the press: Lisa Jordan colludes with the White House to kill one story in favor of another scoop. Stay vigilant, Lisa!
(By Andrew R. Chow in NY Times)