I’ve been meaning to write about this for weeks but, after the first flush of excitement, shoved it so far down my to-do list it fell right off. Which is a shame because, after a very rocky start, and against all odds, laws of physics and general principles of space and time, this short, abrupt and, as it turns out, final season of Designated Survivor turned out to be kinda great.
“Great” in this context doesn’t mean perfect by any means, though, the treatment of Agent Q being the most egregious flaw. The poor woman may have saved democracy and the world as we know it yet again, but wasn’t allowed to share a single scene or even a phone call with any of the main cast while doing it. It was as bizarre as it was blatant and made even more so when, immediately after her, er, “redaction” – violent, lonely and sad, much like her entire Cassandra-like existence on the show – the random new scientist guy brought in to hang out with her was flown straight to DC to hang out in the sitroom with PJB himself. Oh, Hannah. You deserved better, as did Maggie Q.
Not knowing how to marry up the action thriller and the political element is hardly a new problem for this show, mind you. What was new for season 3, though, was a sharper focus on issues of identity, equality and, er, internet. Perhaps to emphasise that we’re not on network any more, Toto, every episode title began with a hashtag and almost every political problem was somehow solved with new character Dontae’s viral videos. I’m not sure that blurring the lines by having real people talk about their real experiences in these vox pops added much, entertainment-wise, but it was eloquent of the makers’ search for authenticity, which didn’t seem to be anywhere on the show’s agenda for seasons one and two but was very much the focus of season three.
Of course, searching for authenticity didn’t always mean Designated Survivor found it. Its attempts at inclusion were commendable in concept but often clunky in execution. Introducing PJB’s trans sister-in-law could have been a worthwhile idea, for instance but, thanks to a lack of imagination and some astoundingly bad dialogue, the opportunity was squandered, leaving us with a “viscerally” irritating character and a completely one-dimensional one to boot. New internet whizz Dontae, meanwhile, a likeable enough screen presence by contrast, had to do a huge amount of heavy lifting as the story’s sole touch point for issues of blackness, poverty, sexuality, HIV status, voter apathy, and the digital generation. But, for poor execution, neither of them compared with Aaron’s girlfriend Isabel. The exploration of Aaron’s issues with heritage and identity was a decent idea and far better-handled than I thought it might be, but the use of Isabel as a life-size “Are you a good Latino?” Exam, constantly giving him a big red FAIL every time he opened his mouth (or didn’t) did everyone a disservice. As did the super-soapy cliffhanger at the end of the season, but I guess we don’t need to worry about that any more, huh?
Even if Isabel’s sole function was to constantly tell Aaron he wasn’t a good enough Latino, though, at least this season went a long way to making up for completely sidelining the very capable Adan Canto last year and gave Aaron depth, screen time, and the Vice-Presidency. Oh, and a night with Italia Ricci’s Emily which was long overdue and had me squeeing myself into orbit. I am ride-or-die Aamily/Emron you guys. Ride. Or. Die. And even if they ended the show apart and she may have helped taint the legacy of his vice-presidency forever, in the fanfic I am now writing in my head, they will find their way back to each other, dammit. They are too hot not to.
Never mind my fanfic, though, what of the rest of the characters? Thankfully, the writers stopped trying to give the resolutely unshippable Seth romantic storylines – unless that dance at the finale was supposed to be the start of something, in which case the one silver lining of re-cancellation is we don’t have to see the end. Instead, they gave him an odd story about being a sperm donor father which I can just about see as an extension of the season’s identity and heritage themes, but really felt more like them trying to find him something to do. Whatever. It wasn’t good but it wasn’t awful either which, at the very least, is a significant improvement on last year’s Semily debacle.
New Chief of Staff Mars, however, was annoying, patronising, weirdly pally with Isabel and blatantly jealous of Aaron, so he and I were never going to get on, but while his marriage troubles were utterly turgid (and bizarrely easily resolved by one short conversation with a random priest) at least the show used them to shine a light on the opioid crisis, even if Mars approached it more in the manner of Jack Bauer with threats and shouting than the White House Chief of Staff. Hurrah, then, for campaign manager Lorraine for injecting plenty of humour into proceedings while Mars and the rest of the administration were angsting about everywhere. Yes, Lorraine turned out to be a bit evil but in such a fun way; Julie White was clearly having a ball bringing her to life and delivering lines that were way better than anybody else’s. Sorry you’re going to federal prison, Lorraine!
And PJB himself? Well, for a show all about having someone new, decent and true in office, it ended on a surprisingly bleak, nihilistic note as integrity’s poster boy ultimately chose ambition and expediency over principle in an entirely believable, if tragic way. Also believable and tragic was the collision course this put him on with Emily who, having lost her mother in incredibly harrowing circumstances, found the added loss of her faith in her beloved PJB too much to bear. Emily chose to burn it all down and, just as I was wondering how she and the Kirkman administration were going to come back from that, word came out that they weren’t. The show had been cancelled again. A year ago, after a dreadful second season, I was more than ready to let Designated Survivor go, but now, after a third season which breathed new life into it, brought some genuinely compelling issues to the fore and made every episode if not always wholly successful at least something to look forward to, I’m going to miss it. It seems cruel to have got us all excited about the show again, only to drop it and us so quickly, but such is the TV business, I guess. Goodbye, Kiefer and co! At least this way, I’ll remember Designated Survivor a lot more fondly than I would have had it ended after season 2. It’s not closure, exactly, but I’ll take it.