Hannah’s been captured by the conspiracy! Hookstraten is on the ropes! There are only three episodes left in the season! And President Kirkman is worried about—federal arts funding.

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Look, I’m not trying to be snide or dismissive about the value of programs that fund arts education for high schoolers. That stuff can save lives in the real world, and I’m as horrified as any sane person when the money gets threatened by politicians who treat it as a target. But Designated Survivor isn’t real life (in case last week’s hilarious product placement didn’t tip you off). It’s goofy TV show that mixes political fantasy with action thriller theatrics, and “Misalliance” is an unfortunate example of just how poorly those two styles can mix together when badly handled.

The main problem here is a lack of cohesion. There a handful of storylines running throughout the hour, and each on its own is clear enough. Hannah is trapped in a cargo container; John and Mike try and figure out what happened to her; Jason runs his own surveillance on Patrick Lloyd; Kirkman gets invested in keeping a funding program for high school arts alive; and Hookstraten deals with pressure from the Ethics committee. The latter two plots connect by the end, and there’s an obvious causality at work in the various conspiracy investigations, and yet there’s no sense of growing tension or suspense at all.

Hannah’s disappearance should be a major threat to the few people at the White House who realize something shady is going on. There should be a sense that the game has changed, that the enemy is bold enough to take a major player off the board without any apparent fear of consequences. But while John and Mike are clearly concerned, and Kirkman is stressed out at the possibility of sending yet another person to their possible death, this doesn’t feel like anyone is all that worried, not deep down where it counts. There’s no sense that anything has changed, really. Even Jason’s sudden death, while shocking, fails to make much of an impact.

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It’s a question of focus, really. Ideally, Kirkman should be struggling to stay afloat when faced with the myriad public and private demands on his time. Instead, he appears to be thriving in the Oval Office; sure, we pay lip service to his missing kids, and Alex seems a bit stressed, but there’s no sense of Kirkman working through immense pressure. If anything, things have gotten easier for him as he’s grown more familiar with the job. He spends the most critical moments of tonight’s episode on the sidelines, offering his support to Hookstraten and trying to help with with the grant money, but not accomplishing much movement on either on his own.

That makes him look ineffectual, although the occasional setback is a smart move for the show, which too often has let Kirkman enact his goals before the end credits roll. What’s really my concern here is how Hannah’s disappearance, and the supposed growing threat of the conspirators, has so little connection to what’s arguably the main action of the series. In order for these two halves to work, there needs to be more back and forth than Kirkman taking yet another quick meeting in a backroom and realizing there’s nothing he can do.

It doesn’t help that the week’s Crisis is so slight as to be practically non-existent. The danger that a bunch of high schoolers who we’ve never seen before and never will see again is a theoretical problem at best, and while it fits in with the series general idealized version of a government where all the people we like really support all the things we want them to support (I mean, unless you’re watching this and you are anti-arts funding, in which case, um, how nice for you), it works to subtly but constantly undermine any fear we might have for Hannah’s safety. If the show isn’t worried enough about her to change focus, why should we care?

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Not that the scenes with Hannah et al help much. Her discovery that she’s on a ship on the ocean isn’t a bad twist, but we get no sign whatsoever of why the bad guys kidnapped her, instead of just killing her and moving on with their lives. John and Mike aren’t the most engaging pair, and Jason’s doomed attempt to get some answers on his own seems more pathetic than tragic. Really, the whole sequence reeks of a show writing off a character who no longer has a purpose; the fact that he lost his son to the bad guys a few weeks ago, only to end up as their victim himself, should have some weight to it, but it doesn’t. It’s mostly just inept.

There are some bright spots. Sutherland remains an engaging presence, mostly managing to sell Kirkman’s implausibly perfect idealism without straining too much. And Seth continues to be a highlight—he’s been clearly set up as comic relief, but he routinely feels like the only sensible human being on the whole series. His glee at going on Air Force One was corny as hell, but it was at least corny in an endearing way. The show’s unabashed sincerity is still pleasant enough, when it isn’t trying to be all serious with guns and crazy people. But it needs to either find a way to make the conspiracy threat matter, or give it up entirely. No half measures, folks

Stray observations

  • I think I missed the resolution of the Hookstraten story. I know she was resigned and using resignation as a way to ensure the arts funding got renewed, but was there a step after that? Kirkman seemed determined to maintain his support, but I don’t know if that meant finding her a new job, offering her the VP slot anyway, or if it hasn’t been resolved yet.
  • Vincent Rodriguez III, who plays Josh Chan on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, did a guest turn tonight as Congressman Saldua. He makes the most of a slight role.

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