After finishing Daredevil Season 2 finally, I decided that Designated Survivor looked like the next best show to binge on Netflix – being an avid House of Cards fan and an ex-Scandal junkie (I stopped when Olivia Pope was kidnapped since that just became a little too ridiculous for me; though I will say I’m not sure what it means for my tastes that I find Underwood murdering people left, right and center more believable than Olitz), I thought this looked like a great show.
And while perhaps there are times when I get so frustrated at Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), who plays the President, being so damn nice and morally upright, watching this show in the week when Trump decided to roll out his Muslim ban, place his alt-right, white nationalist lackey on the National Security Council and basically wreck havoc on everything that seemed normal about the USA – although I suppose after November 8 and then January 20 nothing really can be normal again – is strangely fitting, and also very disheartening.
The show is premised on 2 “designated survivors” chosen by the two parties, who sit out on the President’s State of the Union address – Kirkman was the President’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) i.e. a pretty inconsequential, technical-details sort of guy on the cabinet who was told the morning before he had to sit out on the address that he would be demoted for the then President’s second term. Before he actually got to leave the Cabinet, the Capitol is bombed in a horrific terrorist attack and everyone who was attending the address i.e. everyone of any importance in Washington, including the President, the Vice President, all of Congress, every Supreme Court justice etc. is killed in the blast…except the other designated survivor Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), and a lone survivor of the bombing (with a mysterious link to the attack, it seems – I don’t know yet because I’m only halfway into Episode 6). Early intel on the site like a dud bomb, and a hacking into Kirkman’s White House in his early days as President which placed a vide on his drive, pointed towards a terrorist group Al-Sakar based in Algeria, apparently an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda (i.e. basically some sort of proxy for ISIS).
The best thing about this show for me with respect to how timely it seemed was the harassment against Muslims, and the general Islamophobia – and how different people dealt with it. From Episode 2, the Governor of Michigan James Royce (Michael Gaston) starts a semi-coup against Kirkman partly stemming from the latter’s lack of legitimacy as Commander-in-Chief…and partly because he’s trying to protect his people. He authorizes arrests of innocent Muslims and permits – asks – the police to impose a curfew on Muslims in his state, and justifies this by pointing at the disaster in Washington. Just as post-9/11, Islamophobia increasingly became a problem in the US, the show accurately portrays how people react to fear – to an amorphous enemy lurking in the shadows with so much power it can blow up the entire government and everything that represented. Of course it seems absolutely ridiculous when it plays out on screen, and Kirkman’s attempt to federalize the National Guard to have them take down Royce’s stand-off fails spectacularly when the National Guard pledges allegiance to the Governor instead, but upon further reflection this is really not that different from the Muslim ban, especially before the Trump White House’s retraction regarding the green card holders.
Early on in the show, junior speechwriter (and later Press Secretary) Seth Wright (Kal Penn) – who is Muslim, and a son of immigrants – is stopped arbitrarily by two policemen who hostilely ask him about his bulky backpack, and doubts his credibility when he claims to work in the White House. After Royce’s first attempt to crack down on the Muslims in his state, a young Muslim is beaten to death by policemen (though the show doesn’t make the circumstances clear). Seth is one of the best characters of the show because he isn’t anything other than a frantic staffer – his first encounter with Kirkman, who has just been sworn in, is in the toilet where they are both retching in shock at the turn of events. In a classic comedy trope, Seth rants to Kirkman (who is in the stall next door absolutely sick with nerves) about how unqualified the latter is, and how he thinks the ex-HUD Secretary ought to resign. The pair grows to respect each other and have generally great chemistry, but it’s gratifying to see this smart young man owning his identity but also showing that he is just as affected by the terrorist attacks as anyone else.
A powerful scene depicts Seth walking towards the mourners gathered outside the White House and having eye contact with a burly-looking policeman; Seth freezes, evidently recalling the events of the morning when he was stopped and searched without cause – but the policeman comes over and asks him whether Seth, too, lost someone. It’s that connection that seems to be missing everywhere in Trump’s worldview: not everyone who’s different in some way from you is an other; obviously the smallest of minorities of Muslims are terrorists – just as there are White individuals who shoot up schools or churches, and people from every nationality and every religion and race who are criminals, and who deserve to be targeted…for the heinous acts. It’s literally going to be hell if – when – something happens to America (and obviously I hope nothing bad ever happens, but one can’t turn a blind eye to all the oil they’re pouring into the fire that is anti-American sentiment, fanned up by jihadists and the like): can you imagine the rhetoric, the hatefulness, the racism and intolerance that Trump will be spouting? Can you imagine the poor innocent people all around America who will be walking around with a heavier heart, who are a little more fearful and mistrustful of security personnel glaring at them? And all those people who support Trump and his agenda, who will try to pin everything on people who have literally done nothing at all? This world is going to shit – it literally will be worse than this show, because at least in Designated Survivor we have a good man who’s President.
An equally strong moment paralleling the Islamophobia is a bit in Episode 6 where Kirkman gets all the sitting Governors together in the White House, hoping to kick-start the process of electing Senators and what-not…only to have a stray shooter who pledged allegiance to Al-Sakar attack the White House. Immediately after that, the Governor of Florida, who previously agreed to resettle a plane full of Syrian refugees, rescinds that approval and refuses to let them in. Not only does this bring to mind the St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees the US turned away during the Holocaust, but it is literally on all fours with Trump’s Executive Order. Kirkman tries to reach out ; his wife, who is an immigration lawyer (which is, you know, convenient), tries to persuade the Governor that the refugees have been subjected to rigorous screening which most Americans probably wouldn’t pass! The Governor, however, stands firm; his replies are eerily similar to what you hear on the news: how can you be sure – perhaps one of those refugees could come in and ruin the country – for the safety of the people in Florida, surely the better approach must be turn all of them away?
I’m not saying that it’s an easy decision – Jesus, the whole point of being a Governor, or a President, is that you’re not going to be making easy decisions. If your job was a breeze, we’d all be Presidents; the point is that you are elected to this office because the people believed you could steer this country in a direction they want. And that’s a final thought: is Trump doing this? Is this bigotry, this inflammatory approach the thing that his voters mandated him to do when they cast their ballots in November? Of course an obvious answer is that he didn’t get the popular vote, so he really doesn’t have a true mandate – but what does that mean? It’s a classic theoretical dilemma: if there’s a tyranny of the majority, is democracy going to require bowing to the whims of a mad crowd of people driven by fear? The other designated survivor, Hookstraten, asks Kirkman days after the bombing when he is going to declare war – this is juxtaposed with his caution, his indecisiveness almost, which is rooted in his need for absolute certainty that a specific organization is to be blamed before he takes military action. He questions that worldview; Hookstraten tells her without blinking an eye that the American people in their lowest, most fearful state, need a common enemy. Kirkman’s Chief of Staff leaks the terrorists’ video despite the President’s doubts, knowing that the public will be fixated on a mysterious enemy from abroad even when there are (legitimate) concerns about the legitimacy of Kirkman’s presidency.
The fact that Kirkman literally was not elected by anyone and never aspired to this office, but yet still seems to be coming out as a logical, compassionate, kind leader is also very depressing because it makes one question whether we need democracy at all, or whether all the world needs is a handful of Lee Kwan-yews who will make the world a better place, and have it at that.