Whenever a show doubles down on a seemingly uninteresting storyline, I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Partly because that’s my job (surprisingly, I’m not actually paid to hate television shows—who knew, right?), and partly because I legitimately want things to work out. Leo Kirkman’s parentage is not something I’m particularly interested in. Leo himself is a non-starter, yet another surly, rebellious teenager on a medium who has used far too many surly, rebellious teenagers to fill screen-time; and even if he was someone it was possible to care about, the true identity of this father is not a plot hook designed to set the world on fire. Not to be callous, but who the hell cares? It’s not even as though there’s some mystery here.

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At least “The Traitor” raises the stakes slightly by introducing a question that’s actually relevant to Kirkman’s new position as leader of the free world: will the president help his wife’s ex-boyfriend get an early release in exchange for his silence? And the episode also makes an effort to find some emotional honesty in such an absurd situation, giving Kirkman a chance to apologize for his earlier decision to keep the paternity question unanswered. It doesn’t work, exactly, but it’s more interesting than it could’ve been, and also serves to underline the curious old-fashioned sincerity that seems to dominate so much of the series.

That sincerity gets twisted up in knots in the Crisis of the Week, as the president works quickly to get a supposed American hero free from trumped up charge in Russia. It’s maybe the most effective one-and-done plotline the show has done yet. We’re introduced to Coach Brad Weston as Kirkman waxes poetic about the value of sports after a crisis, and then learn soon after that the coach was arrested in Russia for possession with intent of performance enhancing drugs. While trying to wrap his mind around that, Kirkman then discovers that Weston is actually a CIA asset, using his job as a way to access all sorts of high-ranking officials in other countries.

This isn’t a bad set-up: we already know Kirkman’s a fan of Weston (admittedly, Kirkman seems to be a fan of everyone unless it’s a bad guy), but throwing some espionage intrigue into the mix gives the whole thing an extra level of tension. What makes it work so well is that Kirkman and his team (on Emily’s suggestion—and here’s another example of the show’s occasional dips into retro attitudes, as Aaron makes a joke that Emily’s basketball knowledge is somehow unexpected due to her gender; it’s the sort of one-liner you might expect from something set in the ‘60s, not present day) figure out a clever solution to the problem—bringing in a third party to find something the Russians will accept in trade—only to discover too late that they’ve been played, and Weston was, in fact, a double agent.

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While I don’t entirely understand why Brad wouldn’t just come back to the states and resume his cover, this is a smart way on a script-level to both give the president a win and then undermine that win in a way that still resolves the story. Kirkman and his team did their best, but they got played; it’s a reminder that, clever though they are, they’re still working in murky territory, and just because you want to believe someone’s a hero doesn’t mean they’re going to live up to your expectations. The only down note is Kirkman’s final scene with the Russian ambassador. The supposedly threatening line he offers (“The one thing I do know about chess is that there’s nothing more dangerous than a pawn that thinks it’s a queen.”) is absurd, and Petrov’s slightly unsettled reaction to it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

It’s also nice to see things escalating on the hunt for Catalan (yay, I can finally spell it correctly). Kirkman calls in Jason Atwood to tell him what happened with Nassar, but Jason holds back when he finds Peter MacLeish lurking on the sidelines. Jason’s freak-out over this doesn’t quite land, but it turns out he was right to be afraid; his son is kidnapped hours later, and the end of the episode has one of Catalan’s people making contact with an offer: either do what we say, or your son and wife will be killed. The extremity of the situation doesn’t entirely mesh with the more down-to-earth politics back at the White House, but the sense of story progression and rising tension is useful. Hannah ends the hour with some more info on the bad guy, including an actual name, Nestor Lozano. Which, unfortunately, isn’t anyone we’ve officially met yet, but a conspiracy has to start somewhere, I guess.

“The Traitor” is more confident than last week’s episode, finding ways for Kirkman to be both canny and vulnerable, and I even found myself slightly invested in Leo’s only scene; Sutherland plays the hell out of it, and I always enjoy an awkward exchange that’s loaded with subtext. (There are actually a couple of those this hour, which is nice.) There’s something still a bit cartoony about the hunt for the real bombers, but if the writers can find ways to keep the new president’s job interesting, that might not be as much a problem as it seems. And hey, if things get much crazier, that’ll have its own appeal.

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Stray observations

  • Seth’s ongoing flirtation with a member of the White House press pool remains pretty cute. Hopefully he’ll have something more to do as the season goes on.
  • There has to be a way for the director of the FBI to get in touch with the president and arrange a more private meeting, right? Jason is coming off as fairly incompetent, and now he’s stuck in a classic 24-style dilemma: betray his country, or lose the people he loves?

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