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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Designated Survivor finds “The Enemy” and he is us

Illustration for article titled iDesignated Survivor/i finds “The Enemy” and he is us
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Late in “The Enemy,” while newly minted press secretary Seth is giving an inspiring speech about rising to the occasion, President Kirkman stops briefly on his walk home to look at a photo of a soldier from World War II. Sutherland adopts a pensive expression; it’s not hard to read his mood, even if Kirkman’s exact thoughts are beyond us. This a serious business he’s involved in, and serious decisions have to be made on a regular basis. Is he up to the task? Can he make the necessary sacrifices to lead the country? Or will he flounder in the face of adversity, proving the doubters right that a low-level bureaucrat has no business occupying the highest office in the land.

It’s a nakedly sincere bit of artistry, uncomplicated by irony, meta-commentary, or ambiguity. And yeah, it’s a bit much. Given the horrors of the current election cycle, there’s something almost funny in watching a show treat the government, and the role of the presidency, with such grim, heavy-handed sincerity. But that humor never quite escalates into camp. This show is pretty much exactly what it seems on its surface: a well-meaning thriller that uncomplicatedly believes in the righteousness of the American people; strives to find an appropriate way to deal with racial tensions, mostly succeeds, even though you can’t ever entirely shake the suspicion that there’s something sub-textually questionable going on here. It’s not a show that looks to break new ground, and while I don’t want to keep repeating this point, I do think it’s worth mentioning, because it’s the sort of thing that requires certain expectations to enjoy.

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And I am enjoying it. “The Enemy” followed the classic model for heroes-struggling-with-adversity, raising a handful of new crises, showing Kirkman and his staff floundering to deal with them, then giving us the relief of some very satisfying wins. Arguably the main plot doesn’t move forward much; it takes till the end of the hour for Kirkman to okay the attack on Nassar’s location, and Hannah gets stuck with a “questioning her sanity” storyline until a final cliffhanger suggests that her instincts may have been right all along. But then, that’s presumably how the show is going to work going forward. The mystery of who’s really behind the bombing (because c’mon, you don’t think this is going to be as banal as Nassar and his group, right?) is going to be kept at the fringes, because that’s the stuff you hold back for a bit.

In the meantime, we get troubles at home like the return of Governor Royce, who uses last week’s revelation about Kirkman’s status as a government employee as an excuse to start asshatting around again. It’s a smart move to bring him back, as the idea that Kirkman and his administration would have to deal with contentious, power-hungry governors from around the country both makes sense and helps to add at least a little nuance to the whole “Gosh, isn’t the US super?” thread. (As someone who lives in Maine, the only thing I find implausible about this storyline are the attempts to give Royce dignity.) This also gives the team a chance for a win, as Emily first uses protesters to force Royce into agreeing to a trip to Washington, and Kirkman then arrests the governor as soon as he steps onto the ground.

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It’s a curious moment, with Emily acting shocked by Kirkman’s apparent hardness; she’s so troubled by it that she has a sitdown with Aaron later on, confessing that Kirkman’s “changed.” I’m not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take her objections—Kirkman’s charges against Royce all stick, and this doesn’t strike me as excessive force in any way. Yes, he’s betraying Emily’s promise, but Royce was engaging in treason. Watching him get led away in handcuffs was supremely satisfying. (Although given that we’re reminded once again that he’s friends with Hookstraten, there’s always a chance she could end up using him for her own machinations.)

Also satisfying? Watching Kirkman hand General Cochrane his walking papers after the general oversteps his bounds. While Royce’s comeuppance wasn’t a huge shock, seeing Cochrane get taken off the board this early was a bit of a surprise, and a welcome one; the fact that Kirkman is going to be facing off against people within his own administration is a given, and Cochrane seemed like someone who’d be around for a while, needling at the edges until he finally went too far. But he was also way too obvious an enemy. Unlike Hookstraten, Cochrane’s enmity was all out in the open, which makes him less interesting as an antagonist, and a useful way to show Kirkman coming into his own.

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As for the rest, Seth’s elevation to press secretary seemed inevitable from the moment we saw him shaking his head at the last guy in the briefing room. Given that the show is focused mostly on the major crises right now, it’s hard to say how important Seth’s role is going to be going forward, but it was nice to see him get a win. The First Lady’s storyline was at least a step up from the Adventures Of Another Stupid Teenage Boy, hopefully the writers realize that anything she does that isn’t directly involved with the White House is almost by definition going to drag. Here, at least, her efforts to protect one of her former clients has her turning to Hookstraten for help, a move which will most likely have consequences down the line.

So far, this is a good job keeping our heroes on their toes, and the occasional nod to idealism isn’t entirely unwelcome; it’s broad and a little silly, and also sort of charming in its hamfistedness. (At least to me.) Hopefully when the show comes back in two weeks, it’ll ramp up some of the tension with the bombing storyline, as leaving that fallow for too long would be a mistake. Right now, this is an effective mixture of tension and optimism, and as long as it keeps the balance, it’ll stay worth watching.

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Stray observations

  • Jason is a terrible FBI boss. “Stop investigating that man! But, y’know, follow your instincts.”
  • All right, Aaron and Emily are going to hook-up at some point. And then maybe we’ll discover that Aaron is actually working for the enemy. (There’s always a mole.)
  • “Find Room 105.” Yay, rooms!
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