Wednesday, October 12, 2016

REVIEW: 'Designated Survivor' - Situations Aboard and At Home Divide the President's Attention in 'The Enemy'

ABC's Designated Survivor - Episode 1.04 "The Enemy"

President Kirkman learns who is behind the attack and needs to grapple not only with the prospect of war, but brewing domestic troubles as well. Kirkman taps Emily to monitor the domestic situation. Alex may be in for more than she bargains for when she seeks out help from Hookstraten.

Designated Survivor has been good and competent in its first few episodes. It hasn't been great yet. It's still just figuring itself out which can often create some awkward storytelling. Big things happen in "The Enemy." President Kirkman makes a couple of key decisions that will more than likely change how he leads the country. But it still feels like the storylines are isolated parts that aren't adding up to a satisfying whole. The performances remain great. This week doesn't feature the two children either. So, it's a massive improvement. And yet, it's still difficult to connect with everything that is going on - especially when looking at the big picture. This is a conspiracy driven show. That's a huge component. It needs to be when the basic premise is the destruction of the entire government via a terrorist act. These first few episodes are justified in focusing on the search for the group responsible for the devastating event. It's just been so slow delivering information. But more importantly, it's making the audience question everything. That's a huge part of a mystery-based premise. But it only works when the audience cares about the characters at the center of the journey. And right now, the plot still seems to take priority over character.

Honestly, it's confusing to watch as the show does two separate storylines that have the same basic agenda. Both President Kirkman and Agent Hannah Wells are unraveling the pieces of what really happened that fateful night at the Capitol. In Kirkman's case, it's a rather simple story. The terrorist group, Al-Sakar, is responsible. They released a video saying as much. And now, there is even more proof thanks to an undercover asset who has infiltrated the group. All it takes now is the President to deliver the order to take out the man behind the attack, Majid Nassar. However, that doesn't particularly track well with what Hannah is up to. She's looking at the attack from a different angle. She provides the audience with a perspective of the FBI's own investigation. It's different than the intelligence briefing that Kirkman is getting. Hannah is following her own leads. She believes everything happened for a reason - including the one bomb not going off and Congressman MacLeish being the sole survivor. It's clearly being set up as a whole new layer to this conspiracy. But it's also needlessly complicated the main story for no reason other than to build up an even more convoluted main story behind the basic premise of the show.

Maggie Q is a great actress. She is making the most of this role. And yet, Hannah's story is just not connecting as well as everything else thematically. That's somewhat surprising. After an attack like this, it makes sense that the government agencies would be looking into it. However, it's just a more effective story in the abstract. Kirkman is being delivered intelligence about the parties responsible. They are a familiar enemy from halfway around the world. It's something easy to understand. It's simple and doesn't strain too hard to make sense. Meanwhile, Hannah's story is propping up a completely different explanation. One that could be driving her insane. She may be trying to make something out of nothing. MacLeish could just be the luckiest man in the world. There doesn't need to be any kind of nefarious agenda with him. And yet, there is. Hannah gets a mysterious phone call from an unknown caller saying there is more to this story. Because the audience knows that, it lessons everything President Kirkman is doing as he's about to declare war with Algeria.

President Kirkman has been a cautious and thoughtful leader so far. He wants to take his time with his decisions. He doesn't want to rush into any situation without having a full grasp on what's happening. He needs to be certain about everything before doing anything. It has made him right in a lot of regards. Throughout these opening four episodes, he has had the right strategy every single time. It's made General Cochrane a rather one-note adversary. He's a silly and broad character. It doesn't get into the nuance of the situation or the job. "The Enemy" is better in that regard. Kirkman realizes that not every situation has an easy solution. The Algerian government denies having Nassar in the country. Kirkman wants to wait before striking the compound they are watching until they know if the asset in the field is safe. The audience knows that he isn't. We know that he just barely sent the message in the first place. So that effectively sucks the tension out of the whole story. Plus, it makes no sense why Nassar would stay in this location all day long if he knows it has potentially been compromised. Again, it's way too simplistic and doesn't work the more you think about it. Yes, it's an effective final beat when Kirkman turns to his generals saying they are going to war. But it's just too messy and convoluted getting to that point.

At times, the show is better when it's not focusing on the overall conspiracy of the main premise. Tension is still high throughout the country because the government blew up. The situation in Michigan is still tense. Kirkman's conversation with Governor Royce was a simple solution that couldn't be wrapped up in one episode. It's an ongoing storyline. Royce is back at it this week trying to suppress the rights of Muslim citizens. He too is a pretty broad and one-note character. And yet, Michael Gaston is still able to bring a gravitas to the part that makes his concerns feel more genuine and tense. After the interview from last week, Royce questions the legitimacy of Kirkman's presidency with renewed vigor. It's a very topical issue. Does Kirkman have the right to hold this office if he's never been elected and was fired by the previous administration? Of course, that debate is basically summed up in this one conflict. This is the only place in the country where this is a major issue. Again, that's simplifying things for dramatic purposes. But it still leads to a pretty intense plot here that should have lasting consequences for Kirkman as the President of the United States.

Kirkman and Royce are in a standoff. Both men believe they are right. Both are willing to bend the law a little bit in order to win this war. Emily actually travels to Michigan to serve as a legal adviser to make sure that no one's rights are trampled on. Kirkman doesn't want any more deaths of innocent citizens. He already failed once in that regard. He can't afford to let it happen again. He needs to be stronger this time. He needs to be willing to make the hard choices he couldn't before. His team questioned the legality of sending the national guard in the first time Royce was causing problems. They found a diplomatic workaround that time. But now, Kirkman actually makes that call once Royce refuses to let any representative from the federal government leave the airport. Of course, the national guard side with their governor. They too don't believe Kirkman has the authority to make a call like this. It shows how difficult it can be to get things done when fighting against leaders who want to discriminate against a group of people. Royce wants to hold all Muslims responsible for this attack. He vows to protect the citizens of his state. But he's doing so by alienating a huge population of people. So, he's not effectively doing his job. And yet, it's a big deal when Kirkman decides to arrest Royce for treason. It may be a trumped up charge. It's a show of strength. It could unite the country around him. It could get people to stop questioning the legitimacy of his presidency. Or it could only ignite the debate further. It could be seen as the President jailing a political rival who disagrees with him. The show probably doesn't want the audience to see it that way. It wants it as a simple debate of Kirkman being good and Royce being bad in this situation. But Kirkman's actions need to have consequences and they can no longer be as simple as they have been in these opening episodes.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Enemy" was written by Dana Ledoux Miller & Jon Harmon Feldman and directed by Paul Edwards.
  • Alex gets her own subplot this week. It largely serves as a remainder that she had a career before all of this happened too. That didn't just end because she is now the First Lady. She still cares about the cases she was working on. But it mostly just sets up the fact that Kirkman can always go to her with legal advice because she knows constitutional law as well.
  • Of course, the resolution to Alex's story about needing to keep a client from being deported comes from her asking Congresswoman Hookstraten for a favor. When Hookstraten does someone a favor, she expects to get one in return. So, that's a precarious thing to be worried about for the future.
  • Aaron and Emily's dynamic has just gotten so weird. They were both competing for the same job. And now that Aaron has become chief of staff, they are just totally fine and worry about each other in dangerous situations. The show isn't being subtle about potential romantic tension either.
  • Seth is promoted to Press Secretary. It's not a surprising move at all. He needed a more official title than just a speechwriter. Plus, he already has the President's trust. It's just weird that it takes a full episode for him to accept such a promotion. 
  • Hannah's tragic backstory really isn't working either. She isn't the only main character who lost someone during the Capitol bombing. Everyone knew someone there that night. But the person Hannah lost has been given a name and personal context. And now, she's mourning his loss and worried that may be affecting her judgment. 
  • General Cochrane is fired after preparing for the strike in Algeria without the President's orders. Kirkman ultimately decides to follow through on the plan. But it should be nice not to have Cochrane around any longer. Hopefully, his replacement is much better.