'Designated Survivor' Showrunner Discusses '24' Parallels and Post-Election Impact

Jon Harmon Feldman tells THR that the Kiefer Sutherland drama will "explore the fragility that I think exists in America culturally and politically right now."
Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

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

It's difficult for longtime 24 fans to view Designated Survivor without sparing an occasional thought for Jack Bauer, and in that regard, the latest episode of the ABC political thriller certainly conjured up the ghost of Kiefer Sutherland's old gig as a counter-terrorist operative.

At the end of the episode, called "The Traitor," FBI deputy director Jason Atwood (Malik Yoba) finds himself at the mercy of terrorists who have kidnapped his son. They promise to return Jason's son unharmed, but only if he arranges a face-to-face meeting with President Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) and does exactly as instructed. The story closely mirrors an arc in the first season of 24, as terrorists force Bauer to attend a presidential primary rally or else risk his family's lives. Will the Designated Survivor scenario have a happier outcome than Bauer's very bad day? For the sake of Atwood's family, he'd better hope so.

As for President Kirkman, he's busy dealing with a personal crisis of his own — namely, the paternity of his son Leo (Tanner Buchanan). Even worse, Kirkman has to face off against Russia when an American hero is accused of being a traitor. Kirkman arranges an elaborate three-way negotiation with Russia and Saudi Arabia in exchange for the American, only to learn that the man was a double agent all along. In light of the reveal, Kirkman decides it's hard to ever fully know someone, which is why he wants the FBI to thoroughly vet his likely vice presidential pick Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman) — a man that Atwood (and fellow federal agent Hannah Wells) already know played a role in the attack on Washington.

Showrunner Jon Harmon Feldman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter for more details on these storylines, plus how Designated Survivor is reacting to the 2016 election, and what to expect from the series' upcoming election-themed episode.

This was a big episode for Malik Yoba as FBI director Jason Atwood. Jason's son has been taken hostage, and he's being forced to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Kirkman for as-yet unknown reasons. Can you talk through the genesis of this story?

The story came from the idea that obviously someone orchestrated the attack on the Capitol from the pilot episode. As our heroes — embodied by Hannah and Deputy Director Jason Atwood — get closer, the forces behind this attack start to feel threatened that they will be exposed, and their plan will be scuttled. As Atwood and Hannah close in on putting this together, the forces behind the conspiracy realize they have to do something to prevent this from happening. And Atwood finds himself in the crosshairs.

I'm curious about Jason as a character. Was he always this involved in the story, or did his involvement increase due to what you were seeing from Malik Yoba? 

I think Malik is so compelling as a presence and so relatable and so human, that it makes him fun to write for. Hannah's relentlessness pulls a guy who is a career bureaucrat into this conspiracy. It's compelling. He's not a guy who was built for that. Hannah's built for this. Hannah's the person who's thinking three moves ahead and thinking unconventionally and making choices that fly in the face of hierarchy at the bureau. But he's kind of a career bureaucrat who has steadily risen in the FBI by playing by the book. It's compelling when a guy who plays by the book gets pulled into this other approach that will have major ramifications not only for him, but for his family.

Which leads nicely into my next question. Is Jason more of a family man or more of a company man?

Whether it's text or subtext, and I think it's both at times. The characters on our show — namely Tom Kirkman and, in this respect, Deputy Director Jason Atwood, they're driven by family, and what's the cost of their professional life on their personal life? In this instance, what's the cost to their family? For as driven and talented as these people are professionally, at the end of the day it's all about the personal. So he has a dilemma. What's he going to do? What comes first? That's what's compelling for him, those blurred lines and those questions he's going to ask him. How will he proceed? Will he make a choice that is in defense of his family, or is he going to go full bore to try to prevent something from happening that can't be good?

There's a fun parallel between Jason's current story and Jack Bauer's story in the first season of 24, when he was forced by people holding his family hostage to get close to the president of the United States. Were you and the writers at all conscious of that mirror, given Kiefer's involvement in both shows? 

There's always going to be those comparisons, but consciously we're trying to stake out different territory. Obviously, these things are discussed. But we feel like the characters are different enough and the situation of this guy both personally and professionally are different. We hope it stands on its own, but as you bring up, there will be people who invite comparisons.

Another great scene in the episode is between Jason and MacLeish at the FBI office, the two of them dancing around the elephant in the room: "The last thing either of us wants is the wrong person in office," MacLeish says. What does this scene accomplish for these characters?

In these shows, you never want characters to show too many of their cards. At the same time, getting characters who are in opposition and are circling each other in the same room often makes for compelling scenes. The challenge was how to bring these two people together, yet at the same time have them both smart enough not to show their hands, but direct enough to let the other person know that they're onto them. The fun was in the limitations of what we could say, but keeping our characters strong in the process. It was a challenging scene, but it was very interesting to get them in the same room together. It's not the first scene with them, either. Previously in the episode, they find themselves in [the Oval Office], and it leads the way to this. It's an ask and answer. MacLeish clearly senses that Atwood knows more than he can say, and that drives the second scene.

Do we want to re-evaluate our feelings toward MacLeish at all? Since we know Jason's under duress, is it worth considering that if MacLeish isn't on the level, it's because he's protecting his family?

One of the things we wanted to try to achieve is a question of, is there nobility in what MacLeish is doing? Is it duress, or is he a true believer? We're going to continue to play with those expectations. It's fair to question it, and at the end of the day, we'll do our best to answer it.

Turning toward Kirkman, we see him learn the hard way that an American hero is actually a traitor. Was this story designed to parallel the threats about MacLeish right now?

I think it's the idea, thematically, that people might not be who they seem to be. There should be resonance, and I think we played it, for Kirkman, that when he realizes a person he quite idolized is actually quite different in reality. It's his continuing loss of innocence as he inhabits the Oval Office. Things from the outside appear to be one thing, and as you get close, they appear to be much different. I think it lands in his daily interactions with all of these people. He's starting to gain the knowledge that things are not quite as they appear to be.

Kirkman tries to make a deal with the Russians to free the coach. What's his plan here, and what are the ramifications of the plan not working?

He knows he needs to get this American hero back from the Russians who don't seem interested in making a deal. So they come up with a three-way trade, where he takes the Saudis and Russia and caters to things they both want from each other or from us. He's then able to pull off an elaborate three-way trade, only to learn that all of these machinations lead to the revelation that the guy he wants to save doesn't actually want to be brought home. He has loyalties that are essentially with the enemy. It's a loss in the sense that he doesn't get the man home, but it's a victory in the sense that it informs his feelings about MacLeish, a greater threat. As much as we want our hero to have as many victories as possible, we also think sometimes in a loss, there's a lesson that serves an even greater purpose. That line he says, that sometimes people aren't who they seem to be, informs his feelings on the man he wants to be vice president.

Kirkman deals with the Russians for the first time in the series. This is clearly a relationship that's fraught with real-life parallels. What did you want to accomplish with bringing Russia into the world of Designated Survivor?

The challenge of the show is to both honor what we know to be true in the world, yet also when we can put our own spin on it. I think Russia in today's climate, we have a complex relationship. I think it's mainly adversarial. I think we're starting to inch back to this place of a kind of Cold War relationship, though perhaps that will evolve in even more unexpected ways in the months and years ahead. But we liked the idea of creating adversarial relationship with a country that's a true adversary in this moment in time. We felt that it's a country that offers those possibilities, even in our fictional environment.

To that point, America is at a divisive moment in its history. How have the results of the election and the current political climate impacted the way you view Designated Survivor right now?

What's interesting is that a lot of the things we have been talking about, in terms of things we're going to build to in the latter half of the season, are less influenced by the election and more we view as validation that the way we saw the country — a country that is in many respects split into two along cultural and/or political lines — is actually an unfortunate but perhaps accurate representation of where we are as a country right now. I think this idea of America, that feeling without too much more provocation can start to schism into two Americas, is incredibly compelling and I think borne out by the election, and indicative of a direction we want to go with the show: to explore the fragility that I think exists in America culturally and politically right now.

The next episode is called "The Results." Safe to say this will speak to the paternity of Kirkman's son? 

It's a title with double meaning. It's not only the paternity test Kirkman takes with regards to the paternity of his son, but also the election results. It's the congressional elections in our next episode, and Kirkman encounters an obstacle in trying to get these elections to happen. The results have a double meaning personally and nationally for Kirkman. It plays on how our hero handles a problematic situation, rather than the actual exploration of candidates who are running. It's more about how our hero overcomes an obstacle and makes sure people find their way to the polls.

What did you think of this week's Designated Survivor?

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