“The End Of The Beginning” finds Kirkman still stuck in a hospital bed. That’s not a huge surprise, and, at least on a plausibility level, it’s a smart move; tempting as it would be to have him go full action badass, his heroism is defined in part by how he deals with his limitations. The fact that he has to recover from his injuries before jumping back into the fray—and the fact that even when he does “jump,” his choices will still be restrained by the very authority that drives him to act—is what makes him a good character. But it also means that he can’t shrug off a bullet. It takes a least a few days for him to get back to work.

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Kirkman’s making plans to leave the hospital by the episode’s halfway mark, but even before that, the writers make an effort to return him to the center of things. We pick up almost immediately after last week’s entry left off, with Hannah Wells in the president’s room, laying out the reasons why she doesn’t trust Vice President MacLeish. It’s a relief, really; and while the show immediately works to start holding up secrets again (this time between Kirkman and his wife, among others), that doesn’t undo the feeling of forward motion. The episode title promises a lot, but what’s surprising is how much it actually manages to deliver. There’s a lot of death, and the status quo is no longer sustainable. Shit, as they say, is getting real.

The death is what makes this work; not just Beth MacLeish’s decision to take out her husband and herself in the episode’s climax, but also the discovery of Jason Atwood’s son’s body. We don’t see the body, but we see enough to know what happened, and while you could argue this is a hollow loss—we never met Luke, and Jason himself has been out of the picture of what seems like ages now (though this is more a function of the long break than anything else)—it’s still a murdered child, a crime that reminds us of the violence at the heart of the series’ premise.

At one point, after learning of MacLeish’s betrayal, Kirkman meets with his vice president, and barely manages to contain his rage at what the other man has done. He confesses that rage to Mike afterwards, and in the course of their conversation, he mentions how MacLeish is involved in the death of “thousands.” I don’t think that number is accidental. This is, as I’ve noted time and again, a pretty corny show. But that corniness can work for it if it follows through on its convictions on every level. If it wants us to believe in Kirkman’s idealism, than it also needs us to keep in mind the very real horror that set all of this in motion.

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That’s a hard line to walk, because this is at heart a mash-up of action thriller and optimistic drama, two concepts which can, if handled poorly, work towards opposite ends. And it’s something the show has been struggling with. When the writing is weak, it’s difficult to reconcile the darkness of a multi-level conspiracy that manages to destroy almost the entire American government against the aw shucks, Mr. Smith decency of Kirkman’s time in office. Tonight did a good job of keep up both ends, and the result was legitimately exciting, and hopefully indicative of where the series will aim for as it goes forward.

So: Kirkman knows about MacLeish, which means that Hannah doesn’t have to hide anymore. Or, at least, she doesn’t have to hide from everyone. (Tech Guy wasn’t back this week, which made me sad.) The trick is finding the evidence necessary to arrest a vice president without letting on to whatever cabal is running things behind the scenes that you’re on to them. She teams up John Forstell, her former interrogator, and comes up with a plan—put pressure on MacLeish’s old unit until one of them cracks. The plan works even better than they’d hoped for, and only Beth’s last minute discovery of Hannah’s release fouls the works.

It’s a shame to see Lady MacLeish and her husband leave so soon, but it’s a smart, even necessary, move. Hannah can’t win that much this early in the run, and if she’d managed to get MacLeish into custody, it would’ve represented a jump forward in information, a jump the show is probably not quite prepared to make. Even better, Beth’s decision to kill herself suggests a whole new level of fanaticism at work here. After spending so much time urging her husband on, for her to choose suicide over running or even cutting a deal is unexpected; and while it does neatly cauterize this particular plotline, it also opens the possibility of evil we haven’t even considered. What force is so powerful that it would make someone this driven take her own life, rather than face failure?

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“The End Of The Beginning” applies a bit more pressure to the cracks between Emily and Aaron, and while Kirkman explains the situation to his Chief of Staff, and he, in turn, apologizes to Emily for turning on her, the wounds aren’t exactly healed. I’m not hugely invested in their romance, but if it works out as a way to make everything a bit worse for our heroes, I’m all for it. Aaron’s innocence is still in question even despite Kirkman’s assertions to the contrary, and while this question can’t remember open forever, as long as it does it keeps the White House from feeling too much like the West Wing Lite.

And how about that last shot, eh? Referencing the end of The Godfather is a gutsy move, especially when that reference seems to explicitly connect the presidency to the degradation of Michael Corleone’s soul, but while I doubt the show is going to get quite that bleak, it’s a surprisingly effective moment. Early in the episode, Mike and Hannah both lecture Kirkman on the need to keep classified information secret from people who don’t have the clearance to hear it. That means keeping Alex out of the loop, and while this could easily turn into a contrived way to generate drama, right now, at least, it feels in keeping with the show’s determination to take government and the law as seriously as possible. While I doubt the First Lady is in on the conspiracy, there’s a certain integrity in reminding the most powerful man in the country that just because he wants to bend (or break) the rules doesn’t mean he should; and there’s drama in remembering that power almost always costs us more than its worth.

Stray observations

  • Apart from Kirkman, Seth is easily the best character on this show. Emily should dump Aaron and go for him, because that’s how that works, right?
  • Kirkman has a nightmare about another capital bombing; it’s the first sequence of this sort that I think the show has done, it’s more than a little goofy, but I thought it worked.
  • Hookstraten appears in two different scenes wearing the exact same outfit, but given the editing, it seems like these scenes are supposed to be on subsequent days, which is odd.

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