It’s understandable that, after an hour like “The End of the Beginning,” Designated Survivor might need a moment to catch its breath. Both the Kirkman administration and the narrative we thought we were following have realign, to adjust for a new reality and plan accordingly. You can’t exactly call “Backfire” a place-setting episode. How can you set places when no one has any idea what the table looks like?
At the risk of torturing the metaphor (too late, probably), let’s say that “Backfire” isn’t so much about place-setting as about the moment after someone has flipped a table over entirely. Better still, let’s leave furniture and cutlery behind and say that the most important thing Designated Survivor needs to say with its most recent installment is something about where the show is headed, now that its most visible villain has well and truly bit the dust (and Lady MacLeish along with him—thanks for that shorthand, Mr. Handlen). It’s not entirely satisfying viewing, but there’s perhaps no smarter choice for the series to make: instead of giving us a new bad guy, it returns Kirkman, Agent Wells, and the audience right back to a place of confusion. What’s next? No one has any damn idea.
It may offer plenty of promise for future episodes, but as stated above, it doesn’t exactly make “Backfire” a thrilling installment. There are compelling moments, to be sure. Watching Atwood recognize that Wells’s compassion is (at best) equal parts honest and manipulative makes for both a great scene and a really bad sign of things to come. The President watching his daughter approach her school flanked by a security detail turns what could have been an ongoing point of contention between the Kirkmans into an open-and-shut decision, and the show’s choice to send the Kirkman children to a very nice farm (or Camp David, as the case may be) seems likely to help the show overcome some issues with underdeveloped characters.
For the most part, however, ”Backfire” feels pretty subdued, particularly compared with last week’s season-best installment. There’s one exception, and while it makes for entertaining television, it’s also a touch worrisome. I speak, of course, of the entrance of Abe Leonard (Rob Morrow of Northern Exposure and about a million other things), an award-winning but diminished reporter now covering the White House for Teen Mode (nice). He’s our stand-in for good journalists putting in the work to uncover the truth about the MacLeish apparent murder-suicide and its connection to the attempt on Kirkman’s life.
It makes perfect sense that press would become a bigger presence on the show, but it must be said that Abe Leonard seems to have been ripped from the grizzled-reporter-who’s-still-sharp playbook. Hell, he’s practically interchangeable with Supergirl’s Snapper Carr, except that Snapper’s an editor, probably sober, and not primarily interested in his own redemption. Still, cookie-cutter or not, Leonard (and Morrow) offers a worthy foil to both Seth and Kimble, and it’s nice to have a character who may be both a patriot and a total dick. Fingers crossed that he never shows a soft side, mentors a young reporter, burns an embarrassing story about another person because it’s not real news, or gives a great speech about why he won’t reveal his source.
Outside of the children exiting (pursued by a bear) and the reporter entering (pursued by all the other hard-livin’ reporter types ever to appear on television), there’s one other way in which “Backfire” lays the groundwork for stories to come. One of the first things Emily has to deal with as the acting Chief of Staff is the promise of an appearance by a former President who, in the wake of Macleish’s death, suddenly wants to offer his advice on President Kirkman’s Cabinet appointments. If we’re taking bets on the most likely Big Bag, this guy would have to be mine, but the real promise isn’t in his involvement (or lack thereof) in the conspiracy. Instead, it’s in the likely unavoidable imbalance Kirkman will experience when a former President stands next to him.
A show can’t possibly have its foot on the gas at all times. Still, in spite of the necessary decrease in speed and intensity from the last two episodes, “Backfire” manages to get a lot done, and more importantly, it lays the groundwork for some storylines that could prove nearly as exciting as those we just left behind. Kirkman’s White House has started to lie and smear and obfuscate—a fact that’s clearly tough for Seth to handle, since his bathroom encounter with Kirkman so clearly lingers at the forefront of his mind—and his family has fled to safer ground. His Vice-President is dead and the Speaker of the House is leaking to the press. His Chief of Staff is on a forced vacation and his acting CoS is clearly about to get blindsided by something. Oh, and he got shot recently.
Lots to contend with. I think we can forgive him, and Designated Survivor, for taking a bit of a breather.
- Unless Aaron is the best actor in the world, there’s no way he’s in on this thing. He was totally bewildered by the former Chief of Staff showing up in the worst incognito outfit in history.
- On the other hand, Seth’s out-of-nowhere friends neither speak nor behave like human people, so either they’re suspicious (even if they’re just looking for an angle) or that scene was a total flop. Love seeing Kal Penn get all loyal and stuff, but it was weird, am I right?
- Other options for surprising co-conspirators, both likely and unlikely: Emily! (Nah.) Alex. (Probably nah.) John Forstell, a.k.a. TV’s Reed Diamond. (Totally.)
- As Zack has said in previous installments, it sometimes seems that this show has a hard time avoiding turning the staff into The West Wing lite. On a related note, I can’t help but picture this former President as being played by either James Cromwell or John Goodman. A girl can dream.
- Thanks to Zack for letting me fill in this week!