MacLeish makes a power play as the president recuperates
Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

Man, this show moves fast. There are no small steps anymore, no slow drips of information. Each hour seems designed to cover as much ground as possible as the series sprints towards whatever madness awaits as we approach the season’s end.

In other words, the episode lives up to its title. Tonight’s killer final scene gives viewers a lot to ponder, but first, let’s go back to the beginning of “The End of the Beginning.”

Hospital Intrigue

Still lying in his hospital bed, President Kirkman reviews Agent Wells’ findings on Vice President MacLeish. It’s damning stuff.

“He was involved from the very beginning,” Kirkman muses. “What a monster.” He assumes that this means MacLeish has been in league with Al-Saqar terrorist groups, but Wells begs to differ. She suspects MacLeish’s partners in crime might be closer to home and points out that Charles Langdon, the former president’s Chief of Staff, is still secretly alive. In other words, anyone in government could be a suspect, and he should trust no one.

She and Agent Ritter instruct Kirkman to close ranks and whittle his inner circle down to only his most trusted and necessary associates.

In the meantime, Wells goes about trying to find more evidence. She meets with ol’ Jason Atwood in prison. He’s hesitant to cooperate, and with good reason. Not only has been cooped up in solitary confinement, but his son, who you might recall was kidnapped all those episodes ago, is still missing.

Wells tries another route and meets with an Army veteran named Joyner who served with MacLeish. Immediately, she picks up a weird vibe. The guy definitely knows something, so she decides to lay low and watch him until he leads her back to MacLeish.

Back at the hospital, the president has a nightmare. In the dream, he relives that time he got shot at MacLeish’s inauguration day. He sees himself lying on the ground bleeding as his wife hovers above him. The image jolts him out of his sleep. Sweaty and shaken, he gets up and decides to look out the window… only to see a giant explosion in the middle of Washington, D.C.

And then he wakes up again. That’s right, it was a classic DOUBLE NIGHTMARE! Luckily this time, his children are there by his bed. His young daughter shows him recent drawings she made for him. This is sort of like a third nightmare because his child’s drawings are so terrible, but, unfortunately, this one is for real.

The next morning, the doctor decides it’s okay to release Kirkman from the hospital, and no one addresses the fact that he’s probably suffering from all kinds of PTSD.

Palace Intrigue

Even though Kirkman is president again, MacLeish decides to holds a press briefing from the White House. On the surface, it seems innocuous — he mainly says he’s thankful for the president’s recovery, blah blah. But really, it’s an underhanded PR stunt to assert his strength in a time of uncertainty. “Look, here I am, young and virile and standing behind a podium, while our middle-aged academic of a president is bedbound and probably wearing glasses.”

Speaker Kimble Hookstraten barges into Aaron Shore’s office and demands to see the president ASAP. Aaron says that’s not possible, but she’s very insistent. Speaker Kimble Hookstraten doesn’t usually take no for an answer, so Aaron says he’ll do his best to convene a meeting.

But you know who does score some face time with POTUS? MacLeish. He visits Kirkman at the hospital and immediately spits out an explanation for his shoot-to-kill order on Kirkman’s would-be assassin, even though no one brought it up. Suspicious! Kirkman plays it cool, making sure not to tip MacLeish off.

Back at the White House, Emily is playing an eerie piano arrangement in an empty room like she’s some sort of spooky ghost. Aaron walks in and lets her know that the president has informed him about why things have been weird at work lately. He gets it, he says, and apologizes for being a dick to her. Maybe they will be make-out buddies again soon?

Anyway, the next day, Kimble Hookstraten corners Aaron again and tells him directly what she wants to talk to the president about. “It’s about the gunman,” she announces. She wants to know why the FBI was ordered to shoot the guy on sight — and who ordered it. Interestingly (and perhaps ill-advisedly), Hookstraten also decides to let Aaron in on the fact that everyone is on to MacLeish. Hearing this, he tells the truth: MacLeish issued the shoot-to-kill order over the objections of Aaron and every other person in the Situation Room that night. A grave expression overtakes Hookstraten’s face.

Meanwhile, MacLeish is being driven around town when he sees a strange marking — a big, chalky white slash — on the side of a random USPS collection box. It means something! Once he’s alone, he calls his contact and learns that the Feds (as in, Agent Wells) have spoken to Joyner and are getting closer to the connecting the dots.

When MacLeish tells his wife Beth about this, she decides they need to murder Joyner immediately. MacLeish is aghast. They served together in the same unit! That still means something to MacLeish. “We pledged ourselves to a higher cause,” Beth responds. “And now he becomes another casualty of war. No victory without sacrifice, remember.” MacLeish vetoes her, deciding instead to meet Joyner and offer him some reassurance. She relents, but begs him to be smart about it.

So of course, MacLeish does something very dumb. He meets with Joyner to discuss their great big treasonous plot against the United States… at a United States National Cemetery. That’s just the kind of place federal officials tend to have access to, and lo, the Feds are indeed there listening in on the conversation. Wells tries to arrest MacLeish (for, um, perjury), holding him at gunpoint in the middle of the cemetery.

But before she can cuff him, MacLeish gets shot out of nowhere. He looks pretty dead. Wells turns around to find Beth holding the smoking gun. Beth then points her weapon at herself and commits suicide.

The episode ends with Emily, fully embracing her newfound Phantom of the West Wing identity, creepily playing some Bach on the piano in an empty room. The final image: Kirkman at the hospital, presumably being informed of the oh-s— scenario that just went down.

Odds, Ends, Thoughts, Prayers:

— Well obviously all of D.C./the government/the country is going to be apoplectic next week. After everything that’s already happened so far, now people will learn that the Vice President was murdered? By his wife? And that the main witness was a rogue FBI agent who was thought to be in custody? Can’t wait to see how everyone reacts to all that.

— Has the public actually identified the original Inauguration Day gunman yet? Like, do they even know his name? Wouldn’t his whole story have been the only topic that everyone everywhere wanted to talk about?

— Looks like we’re going to have a new Veepstakes. My money’s on Speaker Kimble Hookstraten becoming Vice President Kimble Hookstraten, because making people say “Vice President Kimble Hookstraten” is totally a thing Designated Survivor would do.

— Seth is definitely the best character on the show. Not only does the character provide A+ comedic relief, but Kal Penn clearly understands what the tone of this show should be.

— I should probably note for posterity that it looks like Atwood’s son Luke was found dead in a creek. There, I noted it.

— During MacLeish’s meeting with Joyner, we get a few cryptic clues as to what their sinister group’s goals might be. “The government’s not interested in truth,” MacLeish says. “It’s the government that lies. They sent us into a slaughterhouse, and then they covered it up. They used us, so we use them… You gotta live up to your end of the bargain.” Intriguing!

— Who is the eye-in-the-sky contact that MacLeish and Beth kept calling for updates? Is he a liaison to whoever is up at the next level of this conspiracy? Or is he the ringleader himself? This could be the next thread to pull.

— On a related note — MacLeish has been this shadow group’s most visible chess piece throughout the series. Who will they use to achieve their objectives now? A new character? Someone we know? Perhaps, say… Aaron? There’s a chance he’s playing dumb in order to fool everyone. Who knows, maybe that disagreement he had with MacLeish in the Situation Room about the shoot-to-kill order was all for show, an elaborate ruse to throw people off his tracks. Or maybe not!