How 'Breaking Bad' Influenced Kiefer Sutherland's President on 'Designated Survivor'

"There's no time for half-measures anymore," show runner Jon Harmon Feldman tells THR in our weekly Debriefing.
Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers through episode four of ABC's Designated Survivor.]

At the top of the newest episode of Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland's fish-out-of-water President Tom Kirkman complains about only getting three hours of sleep. Soon, he learns that you don't need sleep in order to live through a nightmare.

Indeed, Kirkman faces crises on multiple fronts in "The Enemy," from the search for terrorist group Al-Sakar's leader Majid Nassar, to Michigan Gov. Royce (Michael Gaston) and his veritable secession from the union. Kirkman sends special adviser Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) to Michigan in order to quell the anti-Muslim rebellion, while he clashes with — and ultimately fires — the snake-like Gen. Cochrane (Kevin R. McNally) over how best to handle the hunt for Nassar. 

In both cases, Kirkman ultimately decides to go "full measure," to quote not only Breaking Bad, but also Designated Survivor showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman: "He's at a point where, to quote Breaking Bad, there's no time for half-measures anymore. He has to use full measures." Keep reading for more intel about Kirkman's actions and the episode at large from Feldman, as part of our weekly Designated Survivor Debriefing.

This week's episode sees Kirkman fighting a few different battles: Gov. Royce's rebellion in Michigan, and the search for Al-Sakar terrorist Majid Nassar. Either conflict could demand a full episode of focus on its own. What went into the decision to put both of these dangers in the same episode? 

We liked the idea of Kirkman, within the first few weeks of his job, facing his biggest international test and his biggest domestic crisis within the same episode. We thought it would kind of throw him into the pressure cooker at double speed. We liked the idea that he could learn from each of the conflicts, and how it would inform his handling of the other one. … The pilot was kicked off with the decimation of the U.S. capitol, and the inauguration of the lowest level secretary in the president's previous administration. It established a pace, and basically a template of event television. We wanted to honor both the pace and the stakes that the pilot set up.

There's even a point in this episode where Alex's (Natascha McElhone) old colleague tells her that she's become first lady in "a summer blockbuster way." 

Absolutely. Kirkman owns it, too. He's been thrust into this job and suddenly is deciding who lives and who dies. It's a 180-degree turn that his life has taken, but he can't shrink from the challenges, as much as he would like to sometimes. As we see in this episode, there are crises bubbling on every front. 

If Kirkman has been even-handed in the past, too much so to some of his advisers' liking, this episode sees him drawing hard lines. Can you talk through Kirkman's decision to federalize the National Guard? And what was the research process into the legality of Kirkman's decision?

It was something we set up in a prior episode. We did research this, and other presidents have done this. It's within his right as the president of the United States to federalize a state's National Guard and basically make them federal soldiers, as opposed to under the auspices of the governor. There's legal and presidential precedent for that move. We found that very interesting, for a guy to have to basically quell an uprising by doing this. Again, he's not someone who has ever been in this position, and he suddenly has to use the means at his disposal to handle business. 

Kirkman arrests Gov. Royce — a high-risk, high-reward sort of move. What's his reasoning here? Why not take a more diplomatic approach, as he's done on several other issues?

What I think he's learned in this episode, after some of the half measures he took that have proven to be Band-Aids in earlier episodes ... he's at a point where, to quote Breaking Bad, there's no time for half-measures anymore. He has to use full measures. It's a dramatic move on his part, but the situation necessitated it, because previous half-measures did not work.

Michael Gaston is a seasoned veteran at playing strong-willed antagonists. Is this the end of the story for his work as Royce, or will he continue to cause headaches?

Down the line, we have some plans for more headaches.

Why Michigan? Why did you set this conflict in this state?

The area of Dearborn has the highest concentration of Muslims in the United States. It seemed like a natural place to use as a flash-point for this story. It was done for that reason. We also shoot in Toronto and felt we could do our best to re-create Michigan with the geography we have.

The conflict in Michigan puts forth the idea of states essentially seceding from the nation. Is that an idea you'll explore more in this universe as the show moves forward?

Absolutely. That's something that, as we get through the later part of our initial episode order, down the road, we want to explore a civil war-like schism within the United States. The idea of secession and states' rights and two Americas is something we will very much be telling the stories of.

On the war front, Gen. Cochrane disobeys Kirkman for the last time, leading the president to fire him. You often talk about wins and losses with this character. How big of a win is it for Kirkman to get rid of this thorn in his side?

Well, I don't know that everything is so black-and-white in our show. I think he had to fire him because he was being insubordinate, but at the same time, he also knows that [Cochrane] was right to go after the enemy. It's just how he went about it. His methods were wrong, even though his military strategy was not. He was insubordinate, but he wasn't wrong about how to take down the enemy. I think Kirkman, even in firing him, in announcing that he's going to go to war just as Cochrane pushed him to do, is kind of acknowledging that Cochrane's methods were wrong — but Cochrane necessarily wasn't. I think there's a gray area in terms of the character of General Cochrane, and also the handling of it by Kirkman.

At the end of the episode, Kirkman makes his move. He's ready to go to war. This can't be an easy decision for him. What finally brought him to this point?

He has the evidence. Their man on the ground is out of harm's way, unfortunately in a way that Kirkman didn't want. There's nothing stopping retaliation now. Even though this is a story we'll continue to tell in specific and unexpected ways, at this moment, it's the right decision. Kirkman has to make it.

We have not talked much about Emily, who is now a special adviser to Kirkman. She does not get what she wants, ultimately — Kirkman goes his own way with handling Royce — but she's certainly effective in bringing the governor to Washington. What more can we expect from Emily, now that she's in this role as special advisor? In a way, is this a better fit for her than chief of staff?

I think it is, because as we will talk about in future episodes, she's probably the person in the White House whom Kirkman trusts the most. Emily as special adviser serves a different role than chief of staff. It's one that fits her character, and it's also one that's going to create conflict for her down the road, as we get deeper into the stories of the other players in the White House.

Aaron (Adan Canto) keeps texting Emily during her trip to Michigan, and later they share a drink. What's developing between these two? Is this just "post-disaster acceleration," or is it something more?

They definitely have a connection. It started off adversarial, as many of these connections do. It's blooming into something resembling respect and admiration and perhaps the advent of feelings between them. It's a story we'll continue to tell over the course of the first season.

Seth Wright (Kal Penn) becomes press secretary, after his predecessor spectacularly flames out. Kal comes to this show with actual White House experience. How much insight does he bring to this position, and the best ways for a press secretary to operate?

Kal's a consultant on our show. He worked in the Obama White House and has more White House knowledge than anybody on our show, with the possible exception of our consultant, who also has extensive White House experience. Kal brings unique knowledge that none of us have to the authenticity of the show and the authenticity of the stories. We really rely on his insight not only into his role, but the show in general.

Alex makes contact with Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), appealing to the Republican designated survivor for help with a former client. Hookstraten agrees, but now Alex owes her a favor. What's the cost going to look like? 

It's something that will be in the offing, and as we get further into the season, we will see what that costs Alex, ultimately. Hookstraten is certainly a political operator. She knows how things work in Washington. It's all about quid pro quo. If she does something for you, then inevitably, she's going to call in that favor.

Tease us up for next week, "The Mission."

This is an episode that starts to heat up the storylines we've been telling over the first four episodes, when Kirkman has to authorize a military mission to take retribution for the bombing. Hannah (Maggie Q) closes in on the truth about Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman), and I think it's a truth that will be a shock to our loyal viewers. 

What did you think of the episode? Sound off below. Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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