More leaning into the politics, and more struggles by the Kirkman administration to push a political platform that’s been carefully tailored to appeal to the largest percentage of the viewing audience possible—and that means an episode that isn’t exactly the height of suspense, but one that at least tries to deal with the realities of government in a simplified but fundamentally honest manner. Senator Jack Bowman (Mark Deklin) has decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works by forcing a vote on a controversial gun control bill, sabotaging the president and his administration’s efforts to gets some easy wins under their belt before going after the big stuff.
Bowman makes a laughably perfect villain, a smirking, arrogant creep who spends most of “Party Lines” setting himself up for a fall. It’s an admittedly simplistic approach to conflict, albeit one that doesn’t feel all that implausible. Probably the biggest downside to his sudden appearance last week is that we’ve haven’t seen him before he suddenly decided to make himself a pain in the ass, but given how long it took Kirkman to get a functioning Congress into place, that isn’t all that surprising.
So, decent villain, and at least multiple characters acknowledge that this particular gun control bill is compromised from the start. The problem is that we never really dig into what makes the bill so flawed, and how a trip through the House of Representatives can possibly manage to fix it. That’s not really surprising for this series, though; the writers have shown an interest in behind-the-scenes politicking, but only to a point.
Case in point: there’s a nominal effort to deal with what gun violence has done to this country, and why gun control is such an important issue to so many Americans. But while the show is more than happen to tug at the heartstrings, making up a dead kid story to inspire Alex to jump into the fray, it never feels like anyone behind the scenes is that interested in actually having a discussion. That’s not exactly a problem—this is a fun, twisty pulp thriller, not a debate on C-SPAN. Yet it limits the impact of the maneuvering by reducing a messy issue to Wikipedia talking points.
The thing is, I’m not sure I can imagine a version of Designated Survivor that dealt with something like gun control in a more adult way. This is, after all, a fantasy; a comforting dream that spins out a grim premise into a vision of government run by heroes. But even taking that into account, if these conflicts are going to be more than just a long build-up to Kirkman winning yet another fight, there needs to be a clearer understanding that in politics, just like in real life, there are no perfect solutions. Every attempt at nuance here (like the fact the bill isn’t very good) is almost immediately undercut (but that’s okay, because they’ll fix it in the House!). The show’s understanding of vote scrounging is better than a cartoon, but only just.
Still, if the show dodges anything more emotionally complicated than “guns aren’t bad, bad people who have guns are bad,” at least the actual negotiations focus more on making deals and begging votes than anything to do with principle. Kirkman does win in the end (again), but he does so unexpectedly, and almost in spite of himself. Getting the votes he needs means owing a favor to Hookstratten, who Aaron is working to reposition as a potential VP. That would be an interesting direction, although I’m almost surprised Hookstraten would want the job; it seems like she’d be better off just consolidating her power as speaker and then running for president herself someday.
The final vote comes from an unexpected source: a senator who’d taken over her husband’s seat after the husband passed away. She decides to vote her conscience after a chance encounter with Alex showed her that anyone (even a woman!) could stand up to Senator Bowman. Earlier in the episode, Seth and Emily worried over Alex’s random encounter with Bowman, but they needn’t have bothered. Given that the last time she spoke her true feelings, the First Lady ended up having to eat her words on morning television, I guess it makes sense to give her a win, but the show’s optimism can be cloying if not balanced with some actual compromise. So far this season has had a little too much winning in it—an odd thing to say given how things started, but still.
Maybe that’s not going to last, though. Pursuing a lead, Hannah and Jason wind up in an underground facility owned by Browning Reed, a private military group that appears to be involved with the conspiracy shenanigans. They find a huge stockpile of bombs, and that, plus the program Hannah found last week that shows all sorts of horrifying attack scenarios on major American landmarks, means that Kirkman and the rest of the country aren’t out of the woods yet. There’s always the possibility of more calamity to come.
- There are some nice touches here, like the fact that one of the Democratic supporters of the gun control bill turns on it when Kirkman starts working with Hookstraten; or the when Senator Hunter tells Kirkman the Dems are behind him, but need to know where his “red line” is, in terms of how far he’ll compromise to get what he wants. It’s not terrible. But at its worst, the show sometimes feels like I’m watching a PBS educational series on How Our Government Works, and that’s a weird look for something that airs this late at night.