‘Designated Survivor’ Season 1 Episode 13 Recap and Review: Backfire

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Designated Survivor Episode 13

Maggie Q and Kiefer Sutherland on ‘Designated Survivor’ episode 13 (ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg)

“The mission that made MacLeish a hero turned him into a traitor,” says President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) to Special Agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) who’s just updated the President on how MacLeish and the man who shot Kirkman, Lozano, know each other in ABC’s Designated Survivor season one episode 13.

As the episode begins, an upset Kirkman is asking Agent Wells and John Forstell (Reed Diamond) how MacLeish was shot by his own wife and, more importantly, why. Wells tells Kirkman she had no idea Mrs. MacLeish was part of the conspiracy but it’s obvious now that she was and rather than let her husband get caught, she killed them both.


Kirkman gathers Emily (Italia Ricci), Aaron (Adan Canto), and Seth (Kal Penn) to inform them of what has happened and explain how he plans on handling it. All three are shocked and Emily asks if the FBI has any idea why Mrs. MacLeish would shoot her husband. Kirkman tells them they believe it was a domestic dispute, keeping all three of his staff on the outside of the internal investigation. “I need you to hold it together, project strength. The American people deserve no less,” says the President.

Later that morning, First Lady Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone) is shocked by the news but suspects the domestic dispute story isn’t true.

The President walks in during the White House briefing and makes the official announcement that Vice President MacLeish was killed by his wife while visiting a fallen soldier’s grave. He leaves, not taking any questions.

Agent Wells and other FBI personnel attend the funeral of Atwood’s son, Luke. She gives him her condolences and hugs Atwood who seems lost and still in shock.

Back at the White House, Emily and President Kirkman go over the day’s agenda. (Really? The Vice President has been killed and within minutes of it being announced it’s business as usual?) It seems their pick for Secretary of the Interior has declined the job, and former Secretary of State Gary Dwyer is slated to meet with Aaron about taking his old role back. Emily suggests she should take the meeting instead, but Kirkman says Aaron can handle it.

Seth is blindsided at the next press briefing by reporter Abe Leonard (Rob Morrow) who says he has it on good authority that MacLeish ordered a kill shot for the man who shot the president. He asks if it’s true and why would he do that. A surprised Seth tells Abe he’ll have to get back to him on that one.

Seth finds President Kirkman and tells him what happened and Kirkman confirms that it’s true but he does not want to release that info just yet. He’s also extremely upset because he knows there’s a leak in the White House and he wants whoever it is found. He tells Emily and Aaron finding the leak is their top priority.

Aaron visits Senator Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen) knowing she told Leonard because they go way back. Not only does she not deny it but she points out to Aaron that he’s really the leak because he told her without checking with President Kirkman.

Aaron returns to the White House and confesses to Kirkman that he’s the leak. He apologizes saying it was a lack of judgement and it won’t ever happen again. Kirkman asks when Aaron slept last and he answers, “Last night.” “More than three hours?” asks President Kirkman and Aaron doesn’t answer. Kirkman tells Aaron he needs him at his best and he can’t be that right now. He suggests Aaron needs rest and gives him a week off to de-stress. Aaron doesn’t want to but President Kirkman insists, assuring Aaron it’s not punishment. After Aaron leaves, the expression on Kirkman’s face changes to concern. Kirkman tells Emily about Aaron and promotes her to acting Chief of Staff. “I’m throwing you into the deep end now,” says President Kirkman to a slightly overwhelmed Emily.

Seth tells his assistants to remind the press about the up and mostly down career of Abe Leonard and to focus on how many times he has had to print a retraction. Later, Seth runs into some old college friends who insist on grabbing drinks and because they won’t take no for an answer, he agrees. Over drinks, his old college friends take a shot at Seth’s boss, saying he’s on a sinking ship. Irritated and finally fed up with their attitudes, Seth reminds them he’s not a Wall Street broker or making superhero movies but that HE works for the President of the United States. “When your ship starts taking on water, you don’t jump overboard. You grab a bucket,” says Seth to his old college buddies as he leaves.

Agent Wells visits Joyner in hopes of finding out more about MacLeish and the conspiracy. At first he won’t talk, but when she shows him documents of what happened in Afghanistan during MacLeish’s last mission and puts MacLeish down, he cracks and tells her the truth of what really happened.

Meanwhile, Alex is feeling uncomfortable with the extra security and all the secrecy. She tells Tom she wants to take the kids to Camp David to keep them safe and get away from this. Kirkman doesn’t like the idea, believing they’re safe at the White House. He also confesses he needs his family around him right now.

Emily meets with Dwyer about taking his old job back and he quickly declines, saying he only showed up out of respect for President Kirkman. However, he does have a suggestion. It seems former President Cornelius Moss is looking to get back into politics and might be interested in helping advise Kirkman. When Emily tells Tom about what Dwyer said, he’s surprised. He reveals he’s spoken to Moss several times since taking office and he never once showed interest in returning to politics.

Wells meets with Kirkman about her interrogation with Joyner. In Afghanistan, MacLeish and his men ended up in a bloodbath with a warlord and his men had to basically kill everyone in sight to survive, including innocents. “The rules of engagement didn’t apply anymore to them,” says Wells. The government covered up the embarrassing mess and it was their handling of it when MacLeish and his men who survived came home that actually radicalized MacLeish against his own government.

Kirkman sets it up so he can watch his young daughter go to school from his armored car and sees her surrounded by Secret Service but no friends. Later that day he tells Alex he’s on board with her and the kids going to Camp David. He tells her what he saw and he’s afraid of robbing his kids’ childhood from them, but that he promises not to let that happen. That night she says goodbye to his children and Alex as they get on a helicopter and head out for Camp David.

Wells visits Atwood, finding him alone at home and basically devastated. He says he lost his job with the FBI and that he’s a disgrace. She tries to argue but he won’t listen. Wells tells Atwood they should work together to make whoever is responsible for Luke’s death pay. He tells her to leave.

Abe and Hookstraten meet at a restaurant and he vows he’s going to find the connection between MacLeish and the shooter. No one at the White House is going to stop him.

President Kirkman addresses the nation on television. “Without truth there can be no trust,” he says. He continues on to admit that MacLeish did give the order to shoot to kill the man who shot him. He says he did it in the interest of the agents involved in the operation and for the good of the country. The President closes his address quoting Lincoln about a nation divided cannot stand and that he’s confident that his nation will unite and stand together.

The last scene shows Aaron approached by a man. “Langdon?” asks Aaron. “Not here,” responds Langdon. The two men walk off together not knowing they’re under surveillance by Agent Wells.

Designated Survivor Episode 13 Review:

Intriguing with some new plot twists and a potential new ally – or enemy – on the horizon, episode 13 titled “Backfire” deals with the immediate fallout of MacLeish’s death and introduces a burned-out but determined reporter seeking the truth and a great story to put him back on top again.

Even while dealing with the aftermath of the VP’s death, the episode was still jam-packed with events including Wells learning the real truth about MacLeish’s war story and how he turned against his own country. It also introduced Rob Morrow who’s perfectly cast as the past his prime reporter looking for a way to revive his career. It also hinted at Aaron possibly being more involved in the conspiracy than originally suspected.

With Aaron and Langdon under FBI surveillance and a former President looking to re-enter politics, it looks as if life as President of the United States is going to get even more complicated and dangerous for Kirkman. Here’s hoping he’s up to the challenge.

GRADE: B




Kevin Finnerty

Kevin Finnerty

Professional film critic since 2003 and a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society. Host of “The Movie Guys” radio film review show from 2007 through 2013. Film and television critic for Showbizjunkies.com and a movie buff since 1973.
Kevin Finnerty
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