President Kirkman learns he's not the only designated survivor

By Ray Rahman
September 30, 2016 at 03:33 PM EDT
Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
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“West Wing: right or left?”

Those are the first words we hear from the newly sworn-in President Kirkman on the first morning of his tenure. The question at first glance seems simple — this dummy literally doesn’t know where the West Wing is!

But if you choose to read way too much into it (and I do), it also serves as the bigger, more searing philosophical question Kirkman must grapple with in tonight’s episode (and probably the rest of season): In which direction should an unelected, unprepared president guide the country after a devastating terrorist attack? Should he take an ask-questions-later strongman approach by raining bombs on the rest of the world, reviving “enhanced interrogation,” and curtailing the rights of American citizens on the basis of their race or creed? Or should he, well…not do that?

As we know from last week, Kirkman favors a measured approach to life — he used to be a professor, after all. But you know who else was once a professor only to find himself occupying the White House? No, not him — I’m talking about The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet. I mention this because the best moments of Designated Survivor’s second outing often resemble that show: Here is a good, decent, moral man forced to make unpopular but necessary decisions. Despite the advice of everyone around him, he challenges the country to live up to its ideals.

But Designated Survivor is a lot of shows at once, and “The First Day” manages to cram all of them into one episode, so let’s organize this recap by the major storylines — as well as the night’s last-minute twist.

Who’s in charge of stuff now?

There are a lot of job openings in Washington right now: Supreme Court justice(s), the entire presidential Cabinet, both houses of Congress, and so on. Kirkman doesn’t even have a chief of staff yet, so he asks the two most beautiful people near him — Aaron and Emily — to split the job between them. Aaron and Emily have either had sex before or will have sex soon (it’s hard to tell at the moment), so it only makes sense they should get locked together in rooms where they’ll have to argue about who should be secretary of state, which is how people flirt in D.C.

They don’t get very far in this regard. They disagree about pretty much every name that comes up for each post, including attorney general — which becomes relevant later.

But there’s a curveball thrown into all this: Kirkman wasn’t the only designated survivor! Someone named Congresswoman Kimble (played by Virginia Madsen) pops up out of nowhere and alleges she was the Republican Party’s designated survivor. What does that mean exactly? Is any decision made by Kirkman (including declarations of war) subject to a vote by this one member of Congress? Does she get to pass all sorts of legislation willy-nilly? It’s not entirely clear yet. So far, she just gives Kirkman a pep talk about how party affiliation doesn’t matter anymore: “We’re all Americans now.”

RELATED: Breaking down episode 2 of Designated Survivor

Kimball’s presence could lead to some interesting scenarios. She could somehow challenge Kirkman’s status as president. Maybe she’s lurking around to gather intel to use against Kirkman and weaken his role. Or maybe the two of them could team up to form a TV-fantasy bipartisan administration.

For now, the closest hint we get is at the episode’s end, when Kimball googles “Tom Kirkman” and gazes pensively at the results on her screen. She’s probably up to no good, right?

NEXT: General Angryman gives Kirkman someone to blame

Who blew up the Capitol?

“We know who blew up the Capitol!” General Angryman blurts to President Kirkman after barging into the Oval Office. He does not know who blew up the Capitol, but apparently he has a pretty good hunch. There’s this terrorist organization called Al-Saqar (I think that’s how it’s spelled, at least), which we learn is an Al-Qaeda spin-off. The general is “75 percent” sure it was them, so naturally, he wants to bomb them right now. “I’m giving you an enemy we can kill!” he shouts. His evidence? The undetonated bomb recovered from the site can be sourced to the Middle East, specifically the region controlled by Al-Saqar.

But 75-percent sure isn’t good enough for Kirkman, so he decides not to bomb anyone. “Come back to me with more than 75 percent and I’ll launch the damn missiles myself,” he barks at General Angryman, ending the issue right there. Good thing, too: Back at the FBI lab, agent Maggie Q takes a closer look at that undetonated bomb and comes back with a different theory. The bomb was meant to be found in order to throw everyone off. Whoever planted it, her thinking goes, purposefully selected an explosive popular with Middle Eastern terrorist groups in hopes the United States would simply decide it was Al-Saqar and not look elsewhere for suspects.

And who really, really wants everyone to think Al-Saqar was behind the attack? General Angryman. He even pulls Aaron aside at one point and says, “Hey, please help me convince the president it was Al-Saqar behind the bomb.” I know it’s only the second episode, but at this point, I’m pretty sure the general had something to do with the attack. I’m 75-percent sure of it.

What should we do with all the brown people?

Designated Survivor surprised me a little here. I didn’t anticipate the series diving headfirst into issues like racial profiling, civil rights, and the treatment of Muslim-American citizens so quickly. Maybe with a midseason B-plot or just an obligatory line (“Not all Muslims, Mister President!”) — but the central plot of the second episode? Pretty bold move.

Kirkman learns that the residents of Dearborn, Michigan — home to America’s largest Muslim population — are being targeted by the local police. This upsets Kirkman, so he tells his team to keep an eye on the situation. They don’t need to, because soon it’s all over the news: Michigan authorities are imposing curfews on Muslims, harassing them without cause, and generally trampling all over their civil rights. Back in D.C., this issue becomes personal when Kirkman’s brown-skinned speechwriter Seth Wright is stopped and questioned by the police for no apparent reason.

Kirkman himself isn’t sure of the answer, which is sort of crazy. The president has no idea what he’s allowed to do?! This is where Aaron and Emily’s two candidates for attorney general come in. They (let’s call them Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) meet with Kirkman and offer him differing solutions: Rosencrantz says he should issue an executive order, but Guildenstern thinks that’s too hostile. Guildenstern says he should make a presidential proclamation, but Rosencrantz thinks that’s too weak. One of them (take your pick) even suggests instituting martial law.

Their disagreement leads Kirkman to continue dithering, but soon the decision is made for him when the media broadcasts a video of the police beating a 17-year-old Muslim boy named Danny Fyed — to death. The entire country suddenly gets righteous, giving the president at least a little support. But weirdly, Kirkman calls back Governor Royce and comes up with a complicated lie, something about the Dearborn police accidentally arresting undercover FBI agents, which would subject Royce to possible criminal charges. It’s not exactly the impassioned, moralistic speech about justice and idealism that, say, Jed Bartlet would’ve given. So far, it looks like Kirkman is shaping up to be a pragmatist-in-chief.

NEXT: The night’s big twist

Can Kirkman trick Americans into thinking he’s a good president?

According to snippets from cable news, the president’s first address to the country didn’t do much to quell America’s fear and confusion. The country is on edge, nobody knows if things will be okay or if there will be another attack, and people who live in D.C. are thinking about moving away.

All these problems stem from the fact that the people just don’t have confidence in Kirkman, a man whose Secret Service code name was Glasses until yesterday. (It’s now Phoenix, because the Secret Service loves poignancy.) To fix his image problem, his team decides to stage a photo-op visit to ground zero, where he’ll make a second address. The American people need to see a strong and fearless leader, not some nearsighted Cornell dork in a tie.

It doesn’t work. It’s not really his fault, though — members of the press all start checking their phones and watching the Danny Fyed video. Yes, that’s right, they stop paying attention to the new president’s second-ever speech, being delivered atop the rubble of the Capitol building where the entire government was killed, because their phones vibrated. Like, what if it was just Snapchat?

Anyway, the scene turns into a frenzy when all these “journalists” start shouting questions like “Are you going to let Americans get beaten?” They start getting restless, prompting the Secret Service to flip out and scuttle Kirkman away from the hordes of easily distracted reporters. The whole thing is a disaster.

Later, Kirkman comes up with a better idea — to do it again, but in a hat. Dressed casually in a low-key cap and a cozy Uniqlo parka, he returns to the blast site and takes in all the good work being done by good people. He makes sure to personally thank the first responders and emergency workers, including the ones who probably don’t know who he is. This is how Kirkman likes to lead, by doing the right thing even when he’s not in front of a camera — and preferably while soundtracked to a sentimental song from a British rock band, because this is still ABC.

The big twist

Though if you count the existence of two designated survivors a twist, I guess this is the second one of the episode. At the end of tonight’s installment, the show slaps us with another big reveal: Someone survived the explosion! We don’t know who this regular, un-designated survivor is yet, but it could possibly upend the very premise of the show.

Now, let’s review some of the stuff we know: A lot of people have thrown around terms like “It’s confirmed: Eagle is gone” and “Nobody made it” and “Oh my god, every person who was in power is for sure dead now.” (Those aren’t exact quotes, but pretty close.) So we can probably assume the survivor isn’t the former president, right? Because that would be the one person whose death everyone would triple-verify, right?

So let’s assume that much, for now at least. It could be someone else in the line of succession, like the speaker of the House or vice president, or any of the other 11 people who come before HUD Secretary in the actual presidential line of succession. That would be interesting! If Kirkman is already sworn in, would that even matter? Could it lead to a (bigger) constitutional crisis?

Or, maybe, it’s one of the people involved in the attack? The next episode is titled “The Confession.”

Or perhaps it’s a journalist. Or a Secret Service agent. Or just a C-Span camera operator. We just don’t know! But we can probably predict one thing: Whoever it is will likely be in the hospital and unable to speak for a while, allowing the show to delay any definitive answers about the attack for as long as possible.

Episode Recaps

Designated Survivor

Kiefer Sutherland returns to TV in this ABC political drama. The 2016 new fall show follows his rise to president when all other cabinet members tragically die. Natascha McElhone, Italia Ricci, Adan Canto, Kal Penn, and Maggie Q also star.
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