Designated Survivor recap: 'Backfire'
Kirkman returns to the White House as his staff deals with the fallout from the shooting
After an action-packed slew of episodes, Designated Survivor finally pumps the brakes tonight for one of the season’s slower episodes. There are no deaths or assassination attempts or explosions, just a bunch of political machinations.
But first things first: President Kirkman is finally out of the hospital! It’s good to see him out of a gown and back in the White House. In fact, let’s start right there at the West Wing, where everyone is buzzing about the crazy events of last week.
INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE
All across D.C., phone calls and news alerts are waking people up in middle of the night: There was a shooting in D.C. last night.
Kirkman, back in the White House, is baffled — how on earth could they let the Vice President get killed?! Agent Wells confesses she hadn’t considered Beth MacLeish becoming a factor. The whole thing points to one answer, Wells concludes — Beth must have been a part of whatever conspiracy was afoot.
Kirkman informs his staff, which of course consists only of three people — Emily, Aaron, and Seth — of what happened and tells them the game plan. The official party line is that Beth shot her husband in a domestic dispute. “These next few days are going to be crucial,” he notes. “I need you to hold it together, project strength. The American people deserve no less.”
The next morning, Kirkman informs the First Lady of what happened… or at least some of what happened. She’s aghast! “This is surreal,” she says. Some people have wondered whether she might be in on the evil plot against the government. Could she be feigning shock?
At the White House Press Briefing Room, the president makes the official announcement: MacLeish was killed by his wife in a murder-suicide last night. He walks off, declining to take questions.
In other news, Emily gives POTUS some administration updates. Their pick for Secretary of the Interior is declining the job. “People just don’t want to be in Washington right now,” she tells him. Who can blame them! Although there is one person who’s interested: former Secretary of State Gary Dwyer is slated to meet with Aaron about resuming his old role. Kirkman is pleased — a guy like Dwyer would do a lot to restore people’s confidence. Emily suggests she take the meeting instead of Aaron, given the suspicions still surrounding him, but he insists on business as usual.
During Seth’s press briefing, one enterprising journalist named Abe Leonard finally asks the question I raised in last week’s recap — the issues surrounding Kirkman’s would-be assassin, Nestor Lozano. Leonard’s been tipped off about the fact that VP MacLeish overrode the FBI and gave a shoot-to-kill order on Lozano. “Why would he do that?” Leonard wonders. His questions whip the whole room into a frenzy, catching Seth off guard.
Kirkman and Aaron confirm Leonard’s information to a surprised Seth and look for ways to contain the fallout “before paranoia takes over.” (I’d imagine that by now, paranoia is the norm in D.C.) In current events-like fashion, Kirkman orders his staff to find out who’s leaking classified information.
Aaron runs to the most obvious source of the leak, Speaker Kimble Hookstraten. Not only does she not deny it, she points out that technically Aaron is the leaker for having told her in the first place. Nailed him!
Aaron comes clean to Kirkman, who ends up being pretty chill about it. But he does make one recommendation: He tells Aaron to get some rest. He thinks the stress and lack of sleep is compromising Aaron’s judgment, so he instructs him to take a week off. Could this be part of a larger strategy to figure out if Aaron’s a bad guy? Or is Kirkman just genuinely concerned?
Either way, he appoints Emily to take over as Acting Chief of Staff. Finally, it’s Emily’s time!
Back in the press shop, Seth’s assistants are complaining that the journos won’t stop asking whether the Vice President was involved in the plot to kill President Kirkman. Seth comes up with a counter-offensive: to publicly question the work of Abe Leonard, the apparently Pulitzer-winning reporter responsible for Seth’s headaches. He’s made mistakes before, right? Let’s remind everyone about that!
Out on the street, Seth runs into college friends who insist on taking him out for drinks. Reluctantly, Seth says yes.
As his buddies ply him with whiskey, they try to slap some sense into him. He’s on a sinking ship! He should get out while he can, rather than become the face of a failed administration. Seth hears them but rejects their premise forcefully before walking out.
The next day, Emily meets with former Secretary of State Dwyer about taking back his old job, but he stops her short. He only took the meeting out of respect and has no interest in the position. But he does give Emily a hot tip: Former President Cornelius Moss is eager to get back into politics to help advise the Kirkman administration through these turbulent times.
Cornelius Moss?? There’s a suspicious sounding name if I’ve ever heard one.
Kirkman is a little curious about this as well — he’s spoken to Moss several times since taking office, and he’s never expressed an interest in returning to the fold. Why now?
In the hall, Leonard runs into Seth and lets him know he’s on to Seth. What is the administration trying to hide? Leonard is determined to find out.
To help beat the nosy press to the story, Kirkman goes on TV to let the entire nation know about the truth — that MacLeish ordered the FBI to kill Lozano. It’s not how he would’ve done it, Kirkman says, but he nonetheless respects MacLeish’s decision. The president goes on to give some inspiring, Lincoln-esque words about a nation united, etc. etc.
OUTSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE
Wells has a face-to-face with Joyner, the guy MacLeish met with before he was killed. She presents him with documents that confirm how things went sideways for their unit in Afghanistan. He cracks.
She takes the intel straight to the president. Lozano, the man who tried to kill Kirkman, was also involved in the bloodbath MacLeish’s unit found themselves in over in Afghanistan. And MacLeish was responsible for stopping his men from killing Lozano, a war criminal. Lozano owed MacLeish his life.
Her takeaway: This failed mission is how MacLeish became radicalized against the government. The very event that made him a hero also turned him into a traitor.
The episode ends with Aaron coming out of a car and getting approached by a shadowy figure in the sidewalk. “Langdon?” Aaron responds. “Not here,” the man says, and the two walk off together.
But, of course, they’re both being watch the entire time — by Agent Wells. “That’s Charles Langdon,” she says. As in, the former chief of staff who suspiciously didn’t die in the attack on the Capitol.
ODDS, ENDS, THOUGHTS, PRAYERS
— In a late scene, we saw Wells check in on her old pal Jason Atwood, who’s still sad about his son dying. “Let’s make them pay,” Wells says. Atwood isn’t having it: “Justice won’t bring my son back.”
— Midway through the episode, Alex tells Kirkman she wants to take the children to Camp David for the sake of their safety. Kirkman doesn’t like the sound of this. He needs his family! But she insists that the White House — and, frankly, anywhere Kirkman is — is a dangerous place to be for the kids right now.
On the face, this is a pretty sensible move. But one could read something else into this. If Alex is indeed involved in the conspiracy, maybe she’s gathering the children somewhere off-campus where it’ll be easier to use them as collateral, or even as bait? Perhaps this could lead to some sort of blackmail situation? Or, there could be a whole other explanation—that the writers decided the show would be easier to write with the family out of the way.
— Before we get too carried away with Aaron theories, let’s consider the fact that Aaron seemed surprised to see Langdon. There’s a strong chance that the two haven’t been colluding all this time, and that Langdon is simply trying to flip Aaron now while he’s down. (But also, how does everyone not realize they’re probably being surveilled at this point?)
— I’m a big fan of this new Abe Leonard storyline. A disgraced Pulitzer winner looking to make his big journalistic comeback and becoming a thorn in the administration’s side along the way? Played by Northern Exposure star Rob Morrow, no less? Yes, please! But it also begs the question: What happened to that other journalist who was a thorn in the administration’s side, the one who briefly became Seth’s love interest? Did she suddenly decide to stop journalisming?
— Speaking of Seth, that scene where his old college pals take him out drinking seemed a bit out of place. The writers are probably trying to flesh out his character a little more, which I’m all for, but I’m not sure that was the best way to do it.
— I can’t wait to meet this Cornelius Moss fellow! What does the former president want? What does he stand to gain? Now that MacLeish has exited the picture, is he the next operative being sent in to dismantle Kirkman’s White House from the inside?
While it’s obviously too early to say, we do know one thing — Moss will be played by Geoff Pierson, a.k.a. the guy who played President John Keeler back on 24. Reunion! According to Deadline, Pierson’s Moss will be a recurring character whom Kirkman will try to appoint as Secretary of State. Should be interesting!