Of course Tom Kirkman is a registered Independent. Of course he is. It’s a classic TV move: try and make the fantasy palatable to both sides of the aisle by playing it straight down the middle. But it’s also speaking to a certain flaw in Kirkman’s character—one which, while not devastating yet, is gradually becoming more of a problem. For all his good intentions and nobility, Kirkman often finds himself paralyzed by the responsibilities his new job entails. It’s a character trait that’s at once endearing and easy to relate to, and one that speaks to the dream at the show’s heart—that of a politician who really doesn’t want power, but is determined to make the most of it. But it can also be a liability. Nice guys can make terrible leaders.

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“The Interrogation” starts with things seemingly going well for the beleaguered new president. Nassar is in custody, and he’s brought in the country’s governors to begin the slow, painful process of rebuilding Congress. In the middle of one of Kirkman’s trademark Idealistic Speeches, though, shots ring out, and the proceedings are brought to an abrupt halt. The gunman is a supporter of Nassar’s; he manages to get a few bullets into Mike (who was supposed to be bowling, poor guy), Mike takes him down.

It’s not a terrible opening, showing us both the system trying to rebuild and the dangers it still faces moving forward. The problem is, there’s not a lot of tension there; the gunman never feels like a credible threat, and Kirkman’s concern for his best buddy Secret Service guy is basically a retread of every other time Kirkman’s been intensely concerned for someone’s well-being. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, given recent events, it’s refreshing to see a president struggling because he cares too much), but it’s not particularly fresh or exciting to watch. And that’s a problem for the episode as a whole.

Maybe it’s a bad episode, maybe it’s the show displaying its true colors, but there’s an overly manufactured quality to the conflicts in this latest entry, a feeling of characters behaving less as people than as variables in a familiar and bland equation. The worst of the lot is Kirkman’s meeting with the governors, a supposed major step forward for the new government that quickly goes haywire when Governor Nichols of Arizona (dressed like an American Dolores Umbridge with all the charm to match) starts pushing him on his record. He makes the mistake of agreeing to answer questions, and things quickly go south.

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The whole thing seems ill-advised, both in Kirkman’s willingness to go along with a discussion that will, at best, complicate his relationship with people he desperately needs on his side (although at least his earnestness is in character), and the fact that he crumbles after maybe three minutes of mild attack. It’s clumsy writing: while Kirkman has expressed some reservations about his right to the presidency in the past, the way he folds here is severe enough that it needed some kind of build, some reason as to why he’s more vulnerable now than he was a day ago. And for him to then bounce back after a quick pep talk from Aaron, to deliver another Idealistic Speech, makes him seem less like a good man trying to do his best than a fool who points wherever the wind is blowing.

This characterization is not helped by Kirkman’s willingness to close all American borders to immigrants on the demands of Nichols, the Governor of Florida (who has a group of Syrian refugees detained back in his state, which at least gives Alex a semi-relevant plotline for the hour) and, supposedly, the majority of the rest. It’s a tricky decision—I have no idea how the President would even go about it—but while the writers do their best to give it weight here, it makes Kirkman look inept; yes, as he points out, he’s in an impossible position, but that position needed more time to sink in. Having Alex be “disappointed” in him reads less as an authentic exchange between a wife and a husband, and more like a forced effort to inject some drama into a situation.

The episode’s other interrogation, which has Hannah and Atwood putting the proverbial screws to Nassar, was equally disappointing. The characters remain two-dimensional at best, and the attempt to give Nassar a tragic backstory feels less like characterization, and more like the show’s inability to let anyone come out as an actual villain. (This was the guy who was using children as shields last time we saw him.) It takes barely any effort at all to get Nassar to admit that his group wasn’t directly responsible for the bombing; just a few rhetorical flourishes and a threat to the man’s surviving family members, and Nassar breaks like a twig. He gives up a name, and then, a few scenes later, obediently dies before Hannah and Atwood are able to wring more info out of him.

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This should, in theory, be creepy; whomever is responsible for the bombing is powerful enough to murder a prisoner under extremely heightened security. Instead, it’s such a cliche it’s borderline camp. Designated Survivor has never been afraid of committing to a certain degree of hokiness. That’s part of its charm. But tonight’s episode felt like the first time sincerity was unable to make up for sloppy writing. A few bright points aside (Seth’s flirting with a reporter is cute, and Kirkman calling Mike at the hospital was both overly sentimental and effective), this was a mess, and it doesn’t bode well for the weeks to come.

Stray observations

  • This is the second episode to treat the paternity Leo Kirkman as though it were compelling enough to justify a cliffhanger. No one cares, show. The kid has disappeared at this point, and the longer he stays gone, the happier we’ll all be.
  • They’ve offered MacLeish the vice presidency. Hopefully that will lead to some compelling awkwardness next week.

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