‘Designated Survivor’ Recap: Season 1, Episode 2, ‘The First Day’

President Kirkman suddenly finds himself leading a country consumed by fear. Photo credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
President Kirkman suddenly finds himself leading a country consumed by fear. Photo credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

By Guest Contributor: Lakshmi Gandhi (@LakshmiGandhi)

Shortly after the fifteenth anniversary of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, The Week posted this excellent piece headlined September 12, 2001, which detailed just how terrifying the day after that devastating loss was.

“And while most of us remember with unsettling clarity where we were when we heard that hijacked planes had crashed into the World Trade Center (and later, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field), killing nearly 3,000 people,” writes Lauren Hansen, “it might be the next day — September 12, 2001 — that actually marked the beginning of a new era, one in which full-body scans at the airport, color-coded threat levels, slow-burn wars that never really end, and an undercurrent of fear running beneath the mundanity of life became the norm.”

I kept thinking about that line as I watched Wednesday’s episode of Designated Survivor. Aptly titled “The First Day,” viewers were thrown into a world that’s chaotic, violent, and fearful — and ready to pounce on anyone who appears foreign or brown.

Unfortunately for President Kirkman’s speechwriter Seth Wright (played by Kal Penn), his brown skin immediately makes everyone around him uncomfortable in the attack’s aftermath. It was chilling to see Seth nod hello to a formerly friendly neighbor and to be stared at in return. Seth’s relationship to his neighborhood has changed, and he knows that there is nothing he can do about it.

Things get progressively worse for Seth as he walks from his apartment to the White House that first morning. Two cops stop him and immediately begin to question his right to be in the neighborhood. “Where do you live?” they ask. “Where do you work?” (Seeing and hearing their disbelief when Seth explained that he worked at the White House seriously stressed me out, even know I knew I was just watching a TV show.)

Even more striking was the reaction of the cops after they realized their error. While one cop thanks him for his cooperation, the other half heartedly urges Seth to stay safe as he hands him back his ID. The police officers, of course, have the luxury of returning to their routine, while the anxiety of being stopped unjustly lingers over Seth Wright for the rest of what was already going to be the most stressful day of his life.

“When people who don’t know who the enemy is, they start with people who look like me,” Seth says later on in the episode as the President’s staff discuss the spate of racial profiling instances that have started to occur across the United States.

Before I continue, I want to note that I received a lot of feedback last week expressing dismay about the fact that a clearly South Asian American character was named Seth Wright. One of my Facebook friends wondered if this was a way for the show’s producers to avoid discussions or portrayals of South Asian identity. Given Seth’s storyline this episode, that’s obviously not true, yet it does make it more bewildering that Penn’s character wasn’t given a name that sounds more South Asian.

Here’s what else stood out this episode.

Hannah Wells is on the case. One of the most refreshing parts about Designated Survivor is seeing that along with Seth Wright, Maggie Q’s FBI agent Hannah Wells is shaping up to be the moral center of the show. This week’s episode began with Hannah sifting through the rubble of what was the Capitol building, trying to figure out who was responsible for the explosion. Hannah soon realizes the intense amount of pressure the Bureau is under to find a culprit quickly (regardless of whether or not the party is guilty or not.) Her thoroughness and commitment to accuracy along with her willingness to face off against her bosses is encouraging.

It was nice knowing you, civil liberties. One of the strongest and most powerful parts of this episode came as the fear Seth alluded to earlier turned into a crisis situation in Michigan. The conservative governor has gone completely rogue, instituting a mandatory curfew in the Muslim-majority city of Dearborn and jailing Muslim Americans without cause. Kirkman, who was known for his civil rights work before becoming president, is horrified.

But his horror is initially not enough. Michigan’s governor has refused to acknowledge Kirkman’s authority and says his police sweeps and profiling is all for the greater good. “Tragedy either makes people appreciate their fellow man or fear them,” Seth says at one point and Michigan becomes the epicenter of this fear.

“Some are saying this is just the type of policing the country needs right now,” a cable news talking head says while discussing the incident.

RIP, Danny Fayed. When the governor ultimately begins ignoring the President completely and begins behaving as if he is the dictator of his own sovereign nation, Designated Survivor got downright chilling. Everything came crashing together when Kirkman visits the still burning ruins of what used to be the Capitol.

As he grabs a bullhorn and attempts to address a devastated and grieving nation, a very 2016 thing begins to happen in the crowd: everyone’s phones begin to buzz. Soon everyone is ignoring the President and instead stares at the tiny screens in their hands, watching as police in Dearborn brutally beat a Muslim teen lying in the middle of a road.

The teenager is named Danny Fayed and its reported that he later died as a result of his severe internal injuries. Although this episode was likely written months ago, it was impossible to watch this scene without thinking about everything that’s been happening here in the United States over the past few months and the seemingly countless videos of innocent people of color being killed or severely injured by the police.

And because Seth Wright is clearly the wise sage of this show, it was fitting that he was the one that noted that Michigan was probably just the beginning. “The world is falling apart,” he notes.

Seth and President Kirkland have a heart to heart. Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg
Seth and President Kirkland have a heart to heart. Photo Credit: ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg

President Kirkman is a fantastic boss: Kirkman makes it a point to talk to Seth for a few minutes about everything that happened. The police had called the White House, he explains, in order to verify Seth’s employment. In a lovely moment of solidarity and concern, Kirkman asks Seth if the Secret Service can drive him home.

Seth declines. “Stay safe,” Kirkman replies.

There are two Designated Survivors?!  Apparently (at least in the world of this show) the Republicans choose a designated survivor as well. (And of course she’s a super conservative congressperson.) To Representative Kimball’s credit, she seems to be willing to work with the new president and even cleverly helps convince the governor of Michigan to release those thousands of Muslim Americans who were being held without charge. (She and Kirkman lie and say that undercover Homeland Security agents were among those detained, but that they could not reveal their names publicly for national security purposes.)

We need to talk about President Kirkman’s code name. In an episode that didn’t have many light notes, it was really delightful to discover Kirkman’s code name was Phoenix. Hopefully he will continue to lead the country out of the ashes next week.

(And I can’t end this recap without noting that this little nod to ’24’ was also pretty great.)

Lakshmi Gandhi
Lakshmi Gandhi

Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.

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