Thursday, October 5, 2017

REVIEW: 'Designated Survivor' - Patrick Lloyd Enacts a Seemingly Pointless Master Plan in 'Sting of the Tail'

ABC's Designated Survivor - Episode 2.02 "Sting of the Tail"

FBI Agent Hannah Wells finally closes in on Patrick Lloyd, but when the president decides to take action during the White House Correspondents Dinner, members of the Homeland Security Council threaten to derail their plans.

Complications and complexity aren't the same thing. That's a statement I and many other critics have made over the years. Narrative storytelling can sometimes confuse the two of them. A lot of plot can happen in a particular episode but there's no guarantee that any of it is going to have a profound effect on the characters moving forward. Actions that have consequences are the purpose of storytelling in this medium. Television fosters an environment where the ramifications of an action can play out over a long period of time and surprise the audience in how it affects the characters. But long-form storytelling has never been something Designated Survivor has done well. Again, it's easy to blame the constant changes behind-the-scenes. The vision and structure of the narrative kept changing. But those constant changes never led to something that was compelling to watch because of how all the various pieces of this story came together. It was certainly more exciting as it went along. But now, the show has seemingly reached the conclusion of its grand conspiracy plot that kicked off the entire series. Patrick Lloyd has been labeled the mastermind of the attack on the Capitol building that wiped out the majority of the United States government. And now, his death has happened early on in the new season. And yet, it's hard to feel anything regarding this story. The audience should feel exciting and rewarded because this was the story that kicked the whole series into motion. But in the end, it just feels like a bit of house-cleaning following the first season. That makes it all seem lame and remarkably pointless.

The first season did a horrible job in explaining who Patrick Lloyd was as a character. He didn't exist as a fully realized character who had a clear and consistent motivation for his actions. There's the obvious assumption that he needs to believe in something in order to concoct a master plan that includes the destruction of the government. All of that needed to happen for some reason or another. But the show never really gets around to justifying Lloyd's actions at all. Instead, he mostly comes across as this aloof billionaire who has vast resources around the world that he is now using to raise the threat level against the United States. But even the stakes of that story feel weird. Lloyd is depicted as this incredibly dangerous man. He's the most wanted fugitive throughout the entire world. Multiple government agencies are tracking him down. Hannah has a new ally from MI-6 to assist with this. And in the end, none of that really matters. It's all building to a conclusion that is more Lloyd's master plan than a discovery that Hannah makes to capture him. That's lame and makes it seem like none of the characters are all that important to the actual plot. This episode has the bullet points it needs to hit in order to advance the plot of this season. But those details are very minor and lackluster. The rest of the hour is just full of complications to give the illusion that something meaningful is happening to bring the Patrick Lloyd story to a close. Ultimately though, it's just a story that defies any sense of explanation or rationalization.

Seriously, the plot of this episode makes no sense at all. Patrick Lloyd just seems to be randomly wandering around the city doing pointless tasks that don't collectively build to something greater. He had to have returned to Washington, D.C. for a reason. He's a wanted man whom this administration is hunting down. The entire world knows that he is responsible for the Capitol building. It was an ominous tease at the end of the season premiere that he has returned to the scene of the crime. But here, he spends his time reaching out to the son who has never been mentioned before. That produces a false lead where the FBI is tracking a car heading nowhere important. Then, he breaks into the house of President Kirkman's mother-in-law - who makes her debut for the season and is played by Bonnie Bedelia, which should signal importance down the line if not in this episode. That gets the attention of the FBI who want to know what he was doing there. But that doesn't seem to be all that important either. Then, Hannah and Damian are miraculously able to track him to an abandoned lot that Chuck just now notices is potentially a good hiding spot for Lloyd. That creates a situation where he is hunkered down in a bunker and delivering a threat to the President demanding amnesty or he'll release sarin gas throughout the city. Kirkman then has to decide if he is bluffing or not. He's also faced with the moral implications of ordering a drone strike to kill Lloyd despite him being an American citizen on American soil.

For a brief moment, it seems like Hannah and Damian's quick thinking will spare the President from having to make that choice and allow him to return to the White House Correspondents' Dinner in peace. They have been tracking Lloyd for months and know that he always has an escape route. But that too turns out to be a dead end in the story. And then, it suddenly dawns on President Kirkman why Lloyd is doing all of this. He blames the government for destroying his family! His father died in prison while his son was taken away from him in a custody battle. It's an absolutely ridiculous twist that is played completely straight. It serves as the show trying to explain Lloyd's actions in a last-ditch effort for him to become a multi-dimensional character. It doesn't work because it changes nothing in this situation. Kirkman talks with Lloyd about this but it's essentially meaningless information. Despite some legal questions about the drone strike, Kirkman still orders it and Lloyd is swiftly killed. It's played as this big celebratory moment. Kirkman can tell the American people that the manhunt is finally over. Justice has prevailed in this case. Lloyd has been eliminated as a threat against this country. And yet, it really does seem like such an easy resolution that the show does because it wants to distance itself from this main story as quickly as possible. Audiences have a tendency not to believe a character has died unless they see the body. Lloyd's body hasn't been recovered yet. His computer has which shouldn't be too far away from the corpse. But it's mostly just a moment to deliver another empty but ominous tease that he's uploading something to the Cloud. That doesn't mean anything but it provides the titular sting to create a new mystery moving forward.

So in the end, the purpose of this episode seems to be in eliminating this central threat. It just goes about it in a roundabout way that doesn't seem like it will have any ramifications moving forward. Lloyd created a network of individuals who followed him with this plan. Most of his American allies have been caught for their involvement in the Capitol bombing. But his influence may still be felt - especially for those people who receive whatever message he is uploading at the moment. Perhaps that will be the springboard for the new conspiracy storyline of the season. It's easy to expect that element in the show's storytelling will continue because otherwise there would be no point in keeping Maggie Q and Ben Lawson around. Even then, that doesn't seem like such a crushing loss because the show hasn't even put in the work to make them at least flirt when that's obviously the type of dynamic they are going to have moving forward. Meanwhile, this episode also serves as introductions for two important new characters. Alex's mother doesn't make a great first impression. It's just said where she's been for the past year while showing that she can be very stuck in her ways as well. The other introduction is Zoe McLellan as Kendra Daynes. She's the lawyer fighting the Kirkman administration every step of the way in authorizing a drone strike to eliminate Lloyd. The grand solution to all of this is swapping the military out for the FBI. That seems like such an easy solution that someone in the control room should have thought about long before it finally hits Aaron. And so, it's just super obvious that this story is being elongated so that Kendra can have the illusion of a meaningful introduction into this world. But ultimately, the only enticing thing about her is that both she and the President are very respectful and aspirational about the responsibilities of this office. That's possibly an intriguing story angle to pursue in the future. But none of it holds any bearing throughout this episode whatsoever.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Sting of the Tail" was written by Keith Eisner and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye.
  • Isn't it potentially reckless of President Kirkman to address the nation about the death of Patrick Lloyd moments after the drone strike without confirmation that his body has been discovered in the wreckage? The FBI couldn't have possibly moved that quickly. But both Emily and Lyor are quick to give notes to the President about the specific tone he should strike with this message he needs to give immediately.
  • Why do the events of this episode even need to happen alongside the White House Correspondents' Dinner? It doesn't create any meaningful complications for how the President handles the situation. It's just a hassle he has to deal with while keeping up the appearance of everything being normal.  Plus, there's a subplot about Seth not being able to write jokes that goes nowhere. The show doesn't even depict how he stalls for the President.
  • Things are competitive between Aaron and Kendra right away because both are holding true to their beliefs and can't possibly believe how the other doesn't see things their way. Of course, he gets the bigger moment where he tries to make an emotional appeal to her by having the potential deaths of thousands on her conscience. Meanwhile, she has the actual law on her side which makes for a significantly better argument. It makes Aaron seem a little dim and reckless with his job.
  • This is basically an entire episode of random subplots that go nowhere. Another example is that President Kirkman does the expected thing in notifying the senators on the national security committee of the decisions he's making regarding the situation with Patrick Lloyd. It's what's required of him but he does nothing to actually include them. It then takes a turn to one of them trying to leverage this meeting to get support for a small issue in his district. It's lame and pointless.
  • But hey, at least President Kirkman gets to have a heartwarming moment with his daughter. After all. this episode has a core theme about family, right? Well, it's at least a small aspect of this main story. As such, it's not effectively sentimental at all. But at least, Penny got to tell one of the few amusing jokes throughout the episode.