Warning: Spoiler Alert
Preamble: I’d like to take a moment and share my enthusiasm for this series. Here at NJATVS there are no shortages of instances where I have touted the West Wing as the greatest achievement in television history. While I don’t think Designated Survivor will be that show, I do feel there are bound to be unintentional similarities that will present themselves yet allow Designated Survivor to etch its own place in the spectrum of White House shows. I may from time to time draw parallels between Designated Survivor and The West Wing but look forward to Designated Survivor to be its own show and will stand alone on its own merits.
Tom Kirkman enters what must be a government office board room with two flat screen televisions running the same feed of the State of Union address. Tom looks out-of-place in his jeans and Cornell hooded sweatshirt. He stretched out with a beer and take out pizza. Tom begins to anticipate the President’s talking points. Alex Kirkman enters the room giving someone the business. Like a lobbyist barking at a senator. Only in this case the one being barked at is their daughter refusing to go to sleep. Tom diffuses that in a diplomatic way that his wife sees as writing on the wall of a future bigger problem. However, they will have bigger problems tonight.
Mr. and Mrs. Kirkman both focus on the speech. Without warning, the video feed cuts out. Tom quickly changes the channel. Other channels work fine, clearly this is no outage. Their phones ring with others experiencing a similar occurrence. Before they can make heads or tails of it, Mike (Secret Service Agent) burst through the door demanding they get off their mobile devices. They’ve lost contact with the capitol. Just then, a news feed interrupts the tiling and snow on the tv. “Reports are coming in about an explosion near the capital. In a powerful moment utilizing slow motion, Tom advances towards a window closed with wooden shutters. He tears open the shudders. What is revealed is a wonderful view of the Capitol building and the Washington monument, with a massive explosive cloud spitting fire and smoke from the Capitol building.
What follows next is flashback to earlier that day. This reveals Tom Kirkman to be a typical family man struggling with the day-to-day challenges of raising two children at their respective points in their childhood/adolescence. To them, he is just Dad. Before arriving at work, Tom’s assistant meets him before he gets to the office. Side note, any show/movie that deals with elected officials and government, having the assistant meet the public servant outside is always bad news. She informs him that the President will not include any of HUD’s initiatives in the State of the Union. If you missed it or have yet to see the show, Tom Kirkman begins this series as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A relatively low ranking station among the Presidential Cabinet. While Tom attempts to diffuse this situation as well he utters something that might as have otherwise been dipped in irony.
Tom: Don’t get me wrong, I’m as mad as hell. But at the end of the day, I’m not the President of the United States. We should remember that.
Tom and his assistant make their way over to the President’s Chief of Staff to discuss the lack of HUD material in the State of the Union. Its made clear pretty quickly that Kirkman’s contributions to the agenda hadn’t been taken seriously and there’s a pretty obvious reason. The Chief of Staff asks for a moment alone with Tom. Once they are alone, he informs Tom that the President is looking to make a change. After the State of the Union, Tom will be asked to step down and take essentially a low ranking ambassadorship or be let go. Tom has the day to get back to them. That will prove to be a very important distinction later.
Back at present, Tom and Alex are rushed into their first Presidential motorcade (even if they don’t know that’s what it is yet). Tom pleads with Mike for any information they have. Mike returns focus back to the phone call he’s on. Mike’s stoic demeanor shifts a little with the news he’s being given. He eventually turns around to face Tom and Alex to give them the biggest news they’ll ever hear, good, bad or otherwise.
Tom: Mike, please, just tell us what you know.
Mike: The Capitol’s been attacked. There’s still no word on the President or his detail. (Returning to the call) This is Ritter. Oh God. Don’t tell me that.
Tom: What is it?
Mike: It’s confirmed. Eagle is gone. Congress. The Cabinet. (Returning to his call) Yes sir. I’ll let him know. (Back to Tom) Mr. Secretary, we’re enacting continuity of government. The DC Appellate judge will meet us at the White House. Sir, you are now the President…of the United States.
Hannah Wells (played by Maggie Q) sees the coverage from a downtown bar. She makes a call and gets voicemail. She leaves on foot and doesn’t get very far when she gets a visual of the smoke billowing from above the Capitol. Hannah finds the FBI tent on location and jumps in to help. It takes a little convincing but she makes it clear, she’s the only one who knows what to look for if they are going to catch whoever did this. Helen makes her way out of the tent to find the wreckage. It is substantial. Well over 60% of the Capitol building is missing and the rest is burning to ash.
Tom and Alex arrive at the White House. Secret Service has already moved to secure their children. The White House at the moment is a somber collection of despair. Chaos and sadness at once. The chaos settles long enough for the Appellate judge to swear in President Tom Kirkman, street clothes and all.
Tom gets whisked away to a command center one must assume is the Situation Room where we find more chaos. The Secretary of Defense is leading the loudness, clearly I’m not going to like this guy. The SoD is asserting himself without any real clarification as to who has what level of authority. Tom drifts back out of the foreground and eventually finds his way to a restroom to throw up. Problem is, Seth Wright has been doing the same thing. Seth is a speech writer for the former President who has strong feelings against Kirkman’s fitness to lead. He just didn’t know he was talking to Kirkman between the stalls until it was too late.
Seth and two staffers sit in a room. One of them, “Nicky” (can’t imagine she’ll be around for long) begins to rip Kirkman. Calling him a glorified real estate agent and also questioning Kirkman’s fitness to lead. Then she does something rather stupid and I’m just glad Seth was there to point out her stupidity in a very Sorkin-esque manner.
Nicky: I’m sorry but no one could have foreseen this.
Seth: Why the hell do you think there is a Designated Survivor, Nicky? Because this was foreseen.
Right about the time Tom gets a moment to breathe and really measure the gravity of what is going on, its the first time he questions himself. Even considers quitting as he ‘isn’t the right guy for this’. Then Mike appears with more bad news. Leo (eldest child) is not at the home he claimed he’d be.
On to the next item of business, Tom is introduced to the Nuclear Football. Despite the power that symbolizes, Tom finds a way to be slightly humorous in the moment unintentionally. After seeing a movie or two that references the Nuclear Football he asks if they need a retinal scan or something. The Army Major accompanying it shrugs it off and claims it’s nothing like the movies.
Leo is not at the designated friend’s house because he’s out selling some kind of drug at a rave. They aren’t there long before cops make their way in. Leo tries to evade them but can’t get past Mike. In the car, Leo asks how they found him. Mike gives a long story about setting up an Ops Center at NSA and identifiying his digital footprint. Just a joke. They pinged his cell phone. Leo looks around at the route they’re taking. They are traveling to the White House and Leo is out of the loop.
Leo: I thought you were taking me home.
Mike (pauses): I am.
In what I believe is supposed to pass as the Mural Room, Seth works with Alex and Tom (yes in that order) to find Tom’s Presidential voice. Seth quotes a line that sounds like something a President would say. In fact, its something Tom said in regards to a HUD initiative. Now is not the time for that sentiment.
Seth: Sir, tonight, you’re speaking to the world. We don’t need another friend right now. You can’t be relaxed or disarming. That’s not going to work anymore. Mr. President, you need to be stronger than you’ve ever been before. We all need that right now.
Then what follows probably gets brushed under the rug for what it is. A staple of Presidential TV shows or movies. The West Wing, American President, and now Designated Survivor. Once someone is thrust into the role here, they at first, find it hard to accept the instant respect given to their title. In the case of the West Wing, Mrs. Santos wanted Donna to call her “Helen” which Donna can’t do in the current arrangement. Same here with Seth and Alex.
Alex: It’s ok. We’re all feeling it.
Seth: Thank you Ma’am.
Alex: Alex, please.
Seth: Uh…no Ma’am. You’re the First Lady.
In the Situation Room, there is movement. Apparently Iran is moving ships in position to affect the transport of oil to the United States. A curious move considering the timing. This proves to be the 2nd of as many brushes between Kirkman and his Secretary of Defense. Kirkman isn’t willing to just throw men and artillery at everything like his SoD wants him to.
Tom: General, you can scramble your bombers. But they do not engage. We are going to do this my way. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try yours.
Outside Emily (previous Kirkman assistant) knocks heads with the acting Chief of Staff (the deputy Chief of Staff to the Chief of Staff who was in the Capitol. She wants in because of her familiarity with Kirkman. He wants her out because Kirkman is no longer the Secretary of HUD but the President. Before he walks away, she says something cryptic. “You know more than anyone why its important for me to be there for him right now”. I’m not crazy about how that sounds.
Helen is still searching for someone named Scott. This in a small way feels like stories we heard from 9/11 of people calling loved ones. Calls going straight to voicemail, just trying to confirm that those people were alright. Only to find out later that they had sadly become casualties of the event. I hope we find Scott well, but I have a bad feeling about it. On site they find an un-detonated bomb or explosive device. With the area secured, the bomb squad goes in to dissect it. It was just a dud, but may prove to be advantageous in moving forward.
Tom waits to speak with the Iranian Ambassador. The Ambassador starts with the predictable greetings and message of support in this dark time. Tom does not hesitate, he does not bat an eye before charging in with having Iran remove their destroyers from the Strait of Hormuz. The Ambassador pushes back as if that has not happened.
Tom: Mr. Ambassador, you may not know much about me, but what you should know is I’m about as straight a shooter as you’re gonna find in Washington. So you should believe me when I tell you that I do not want my first act as Commander-in-Chief to attack Iran. But as both of us know, it’s not always up to us how history plays itself out. Now I have chosen to believe that your country is not playing on our emotions tonight. But nevertheless, you’ll feel the full impact of them if you do not comply with my demands. Mr. Ambassador…dock your destroyers. Or the lead story on the morning news will not be the attack on our Capitol, but the devastating attack on yours.
Helen’s agents toss around a theory that she’s not buying, but offers up one of her own. The big attacks, 9/11, Paris, Belgium all reported massive chatter leading up. As if they were telegraphing intentions. We knew something bad was going to happen, just not what. Right now, in regards to this attack, Helen is hearing absolutely nothing. Silent. She submits a simplistic notion. No one has taken credit for the attack because you don’t take credit until you’re finished. Is it possible that the attack on the Capitol was just the beginning?
Alex preps Tom to address the nation and has a hard time placing his suit. That’s because he had to borrow it from someone else. She reassured him that he looks the part. Outside on the Portico, SoD converses with Aaron (acting Chief of Staff) about doing something to remove Kirkman. Aaron is not comfortable with the conversation as it technically is grounds for conspiracy to commit treason.
Kirkman sits at the Resolute Desk looking ironically resolute. Before the cameras roll, Seth jumps in to remove Tom’s trademark horned rimmed glasses as they don’t look ‘Presidential’. Tom takes one last look around the room.
Tom Kirkman: My fellow Americans…