It is only coincidence that I am posting this review of a show about the decapitation of the United States Government on the very day somebody had a go at such an abortive plan. In any event, this morning I completed viewing episode 12 of Designated Survivor, now available on Hulu. The plot concerns a member of the President’s cabinet designated to skip the annual State of the Union speech. This is an actual practice, because, the speech, held in the Capitol Building, is attended by the president, vice president, all other cabinet members, all Supreme Court justices, and all members of Congress. The idea is, should a calamity of massive scale take out all attending, somebody in the presidential line of succession will survive to take over.
The opening scene reminds viewers of that fact with a nighttime view of the Capitol complex and a caption explaining the setup. Next we see Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Thomas Adam “Tom” Kirkman watching the proceedings on TV, along with his lovely wife Alex (Natascha McElhone). We know he’s going to be the designated survivor, because he’s Kiefer Sutherland, and you know he’s going to have to be in all remaining episodes. It’s a pleasant evening, beer and popcorn, some quiet time with the wife.
Of course, we know what’s going to happen. The president is going to be talking, and then the screen is going to go blank. We know that, because the only thing that can take out the entire United States government in a single strike is a massive bomb attack. We watch. Here it comes.
Here it is. And the screen goes blank.
First nit to pick is right here. When a bomb takes out a TV transmission, there is not any streaking. The screen just goes blank. Later on we learn about the nature of the bombing and realize even an instantaneous blank screen would not be expected. But more on that later. The Secret Service detail rushes in immediately, and Kirkman gets the word. He goes to the window and witnesses the horror, still unfolding.
Pushed into a Secret Service car, Kirkman and bride are rushed to another secure facility, could be somewhere besides the White House. There an appellate judge stands him up and issues the oath of office. He’s the President of the United States.
The realization hits him. Earlier in the day the president had told him he was going to be replaced as HUD secretary, and now his fortunes have reversed in the most spectacular way. He goes to the restroom to puke his beer and popcorn. In the next stall is a speech writer wondering loudly how a buffoon like Kirkman is going to be able to handle such a job. Emerging, speech writer Seth Wright (Kal Penn) realizes he has been talking to his new boss. Kirkman quickly makes him the new White House Press Secretary.
And the story continues from there, and I am not going to regurgitate the plot. However, if you have have not watched the series, then you might want to stop reading now, because what follows will be a massive spoiler. There are some issues I have with the plot.
Religious terrorists are immediately suspected. In fact, there is no other consideration besides a bunch of Muslims have waged an attack on the United States. This is going to be standard for this kind of story, because it is typical of our government’s reaction these days. Back in real life I am sure government intelligence has a better handle on these matters than the public at large and elected officials in general. They are going to be considering all possibilities and not be blinded by the “obvious.” In this story that rationality does not manifest, and all eyes are closed to the ultimate source of the attack. Makes the story more interesting.
Of course, American Muslims are targeted, with at least one person killed. Seth, who is the son of immigrants and does not look the least bit Western European, gets some hard looks early on. The governor of Michigan cracks down on Muslims in Dearborn, forcing President Kirkman to have him arrested, along with the general in charge of the Michigan national guard.
Next comes a critical plot development. A survivor is pulled from the rubble. He is Congressman Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman), and he is quickly hailed as a hero (Hero of the Potomac). A decorated military veteran, he is quickly promoted as candidate to become the new vice president. Things look suspicious.
The FBI solves the case, and a main character is FBI Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q). She has an FBI technician pull cell phone intercepts from the fatal night, and she observes uploaded snapshots made prior to the explosion. They show that the congressman left his seat in the chamber prior to the event. And here is a minor plot failure. The congressman previously told interrogators he was in his seat watching the speech when everything just went black. But nobody follows up on this inconsistency. Agent Wells goes to the MacLeish home to ask him about this, but he and his wife Beth (Lara Jean Chorostecki) explain his absence from his seat, but not the inconsistency of his account. Agent Wells takes the explanation and departs. My thinking is real FBI agents are more tenacious than that.
But Wells receives a phone call from out of nowhere. A female voice tells her to check room 105. Then she hangs up. Digging deeper, Wells pulls up classified Capitol Building renovation plans, plans which show that room 105 in the Capitol Building has been recently constructed. Reconstructed as a bomb-proof bunker. Further, this matches the location from where MacLeish was pulled from the debris. Things are beginning to add up.
Scenes show recovery workers digging at the remains of the building. Not all that realistic. I have seen video from, for example, the Murrah Building, the World Trade Towers, and the Pentagon. It really is a lot more messy than depicted in the show. Also, my guess is, suppose MacLeish were in the 105 bunker when the balloon went up, so to speak. How did he get out? How come rescuers didn’t find him still inside the well-fortified room 105?
They find an unexploded bomb. It later develops that numerous such bombs were planted throughout the building. Examination reveals it is of a kind used by a known terrorist. What is suspicious is this one seemed to have designed not to explode. It was possibly a plant to throw suspicion on a specific operator.
Further, if the building has been taken down by a collection of dispersed charges, there would be some evidence of this in the TV broadcast. There would be flashes of light from off screen as the charges detonated, but before blast wave propagated.
MacLeish is immediately promoted to the vice presidency. No no no. This is the American government, which pulls like a magnet to all and anybody having a lust for power. There would have been about 50 governors and numerous others clamoring for that job and presenting a much stronger case than being a war hero from Oregon who survived the attack. But, the plot must go on.
We see the FBI closing in. We see Deputy Director of the FBI Jason Atwood (Malik Yoba) being blackmailed by the conspirators. The suspected Muslim terrorist is tracked down and sucked out of his hiding hole in Algeria. He has previously claimed responsibility for the attack, but he has a history of false claims. Atwood and Wells interrogate him with some success, and he admits he was coaxed into taking the fall. Then he is murdered in his cell in a secure facility. Atwood’s young son is kidnapped, and Atwood succumbs to the demand he admit to killing the prisoner. Yeah, both you and I are thinking that FBI deputy directors are made of sterner stuff.
The plot continues to unravel, but Agent Wells is shown to be about the only person to exhibit a pragmatic approach. She carries the load to bring the initial stage of the master plot crashing down. She tracks down an assassin who has plans to shoot President Kirkman immediately after Vice President MacLeish is sworn in. I mean seconds. You want to raise suspicions? This is the way to do it. But Wells rushes to the scene of the inauguration (see In The Line Of Fire) and takes a shot at the gunman, deflecting his aim and saving the president.
Of course, Wells is arrested and charged with complicity, this despite obvious witnesses who saw her take a shot at the gunman. Any investigation of the shooter’s perch would reveal where Wells’ bullet struck and caused him to miss.
OK, President Kirkman is wounded, and must undergo surgery. That allows VP MacLeish to take charge of the government during a few crucial hours. One of his actions, when the gunman is tracked down to a hiding place, is to order he not be taken alive. On the president’s orders, government agents execute the fugitive with no attempt to arrest him for questioning. No. Absolutely not. The President of the United States does not have the authority to order the execution of a fugitive, script writers notwithstanding.
But the shooter is dead, and now Wells is able to tell her story to the president. Plans are laid to trap VP MacLeish and his Lady Macbeth squeeze. Tricked into a meeting at Arlington National Cemetery with an Army buddy who knows sensitive details, MacLeish is about to dump the goods when Lady Macbeth comes along and shoots him to silence him. Then she kills herself. The plot is obviously much deeper, and there is going to a lot more to unravel in future episodes.
Hulu reminds viewers the series will resume this fall.