'Designated Survivor' Boss Talks the President's Hidden Enemies, Private Victories

"We want to give him some victories along the way — even the victory of being able to see his family at 9:30 at night," Jon Harmon Feldman tells THR in our weekly Debriefing interview.
Sven Frenzel/ABC

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

A few days into his new job as president of the United States on ABC's Designated Survivor, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) is starting to realize that not all of his allies are quite as they seem.

First, there's Kimble Hookstraten (Virginia Madsen), the Republican party's designated survivor who first appeared in Kirkman's life as an ally, but revealed herself as a future political rival by the end of "The Confession." There's also the ambitious Aaron Shore (Adan Canto), who earns Kirkman's reluctant appointment as chief of staff after leaking video of a terrorist group confessing to the attack against Washington — a confession that Kirkman doesn't fully buy, not yet. Little does Kirkman know that Aaron has hidden plans of his own, as he ends the episode gaining secret information about the new unwitting president. 

Far away from Kirkman's radar, if not exactly absent from his world, is Peter MacLeish (Ashley Zukerman), the sole survivor of the State of the Union attack. It's a miracle that the decorated war hero and congressman is still alive … or is it? FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q) comes to the startling conclusion that MacLeish wasn't actually present during the attack, arousing concerns about the undesignated survivor's true motives.

Between navigating the smiling sharks in the political waters, the public learning about his tenuous position within President Richmond's cabinet, and more, Kirkman still somehow manages to make it home in time for dinner. Well, almost in time. Close enough. Certainly better than Jack Bauer ever mustered.

For more on the episode, Designated Survivor boss Jon Harmon Feldman provides THR a debriefing on the introduction of MacLeish, Hookstraten's true ambitions, the potential new traitors in Kirkman's midst, and more. But first, some congratulations are in order …

Congratulations on getting the full season pick-up for Designated Survivor

I think everyone feels very gratified and really excited to be able to tell all of the stories we've been discussing in the room, and have the ability to really follow through on what we've been setting up.

Have you been writing toward a 22-episode season, or does the pickup change the game for plotting out the season?

It doesn't change things. We always had different signposts we were building to. We had a longer arc in mind if we were going to get the opportunity to tell those stories. Now that we are, we'll just dive into that. But it's not changing the short-term, and it allows us to fully explore the long term.

Let's dive into this week's episode, which introduces Peter MacLeish, a war hero, congressman and the sole survivor of the premiere's explosion. Can you talk through the development of this idea that there would be an undesignated survivor — someone who might be designated for another more nefarious purpose altogether?

The goal was, without giving anything away, to create a character who was going to survive and would raise questions about the nature of his survival. It was very much by design, a guy we want our audience to have questions about. He's going to be a big part of things [moving forward], both for reasons that we see, and also for reasons that I hope will come as a surprise. He'll be important not only to Hannah's storyline, but to the president's storyline as well.

Hookstraten comes out of her shell a bit this week. She shows that she's a bit more politically ambitious than she appeared at first glance, with her eye on the White House a few years down the line. Is she ultimately friend or foe for Kirkman?

I think she's a political animal. I wouldn't categorize her as either friend or foe. I think she's someone who sizes up the situation and makes the expedient choice that works for her. Sometimes that places her on the right side of Kirkman, and sometimes it places her on the wrong side of Kirkman. But I think she's strong enough that she's being driven by her own agenda, rather than simply reacting to someone else's.

Questions about Kirkman's worthiness to serve as president are raised not only by Hookstraten, but also through the public revelation that Kirkman was effectively fired by President Richmond hours before his death — a scandal some are calling #BogusPOTUS. How big of an obstacle is this for Kirkman as he seeks to win over public opinion?

One of the things he's always going to have to grapple with is that he's not a guy who ran for this job. He did not want this job. He was not elected for this job. You can see in this country that there are questions about the legitimacy of elected presidents. So now, in our show, we have a president who wasn't elected, and some would argue wasn't qualified. It becomes an ongoing question of his legitimacy for the people who are his opponents. I think it's going to be a big part of Kirkman's drive. He's always going to run into people who questions whether he's fit to be the president, for all the reasons this episode lays out, and some that we'll continue to explore going forward.

Kirkman has been wrestling with who to choose as his chief of staff between Aaron and Emily. He ultimately chooses Aaron — perhaps a mistake, considering the episode ends with Aaron securing a file of intelligence on Kirkman. It seems he has an agenda of his own …

Without giving anything away, I think that will play out hopefully in ways we won't expect. The contents of whatever Aaron discovers will be revealed at a later date.

There's something automatically suspect about Aaron, another person who comes off as a political animal, much like Hookstraten. What do you enjoy about playing around with a character like Aaron, someone who naturally raises a certain amount of suspicion?

I think what's fun about him is that he is a political operator and he does things for what he believes are the right political reasons. He's not, as we'll see in future episodes, exactly politically correct, but he is politically savvy. Aaron is a more complex character than we see, but there's also a refreshing simplicity to the fact that he follows his political instincts and he doesn't apologize for them. It makes him a fun character to write for, especially when you throw him into the mix with other political operators like Hookstraten.

Aaron leaks video footage of terrorist organization Al-Sakar accepting ownership of the attack against America. This might help Kirkman out in the short term while people are questioning his place as president, but Kirkman also doesn't fully believe that Al-Sakar is the group responsible for the attack. How big of an obstacle is this for Kirkman?

That's a great question. The revelation is complex for a lot of reasons. In future episodes we'll follow this through, and I'd like to believe it's going to play out in ways that may be unexpected. But with Kirkman, there's this groundswell of belief in the nation that Al-Sakar is behind the bombing, and for the most part, all of the evidence does point to them. So even the smartest guy in the world, and I think Kirkman is an intensely smart guy, is going to have a hard time refuting all of the evidence that keeps coming forward and points to Al-Sakar. The question is, why is all of this evidence coming forward?

On the domestic front, family is an important element through the episode. Tom meets with Tyler Richmond, the late president's son, and learns that the two were estranged before the president's death. Kirkman keys in on this tension and ends up bonding with Tyler. What did you want to explore through this story of fathers and sons?

A lot of what we're doing with the personal stories is peeling back the layers on Kirkman. The truth is, whether they are in the White House or they're public figures, the First Family deals with and struggles with all the same issues that we all do. In terms of fathers and sons, that's often a fraught relationship of expectations and a desire for a son to have his father's approval, and a desire for a father to connect with his son. I think those stories are universal, wherever a character lives, whether it's someone who lives in the White House or it's any of us. We really wanted to explore the universality of those emotions and relationships, embodied not only in Richmond and his son Tyler, but going forward with Kirkman and his son Leo.

How about the relationship between Kirkman and President Richmond? We don't know much about their history yet, except that Richmond was preparing to cut Kirkman loose, hours before his death. Kirkman is not a political animal; he's someone who came to Washington because he believed in his ability to affect change. How much is left unresolved between Kirkman and the late president? Was he something of a father figure?

I don't think we're necessarily viewing it as a father figure, but for Kirkman, the question is: "Why?" Why was he asked to resign? Why was he made designated survivor? What was the plan he wasn't privy to? Those questions are going to come forth as we move forward.

The Kirkman family manages to enjoy dinner together, albeit a little later than the original 6:30 start time. I certainly expected Tom to miss the meal altogether, as a sign that there was no going back to his old life. Fair to say you were hoping to subvert those expectations?

Yeah. When you tell that story, there's probably an expectation that it's not going to happen. What we're going for is the idea that it happens, but not in the way they thought it would or would have liked it to have gone. But they're doing their best to adjust to a new reality. There are unexpected benefits and victories along the way. That's the balancing act, especially for the character of Kirkman. This is a challenge that no one… a man who was not prepared for the presidency in any way, did not want it and did not ask for it, who is thrust into this role. It's going to take a toll politically and personally. But we also want to give him some victories along the way — even the victory of being able to see his family at 9:30 at night.

Next week's episode is called "The Enemy." What can we expect?

Kirkman will face what he thinks are his biggest challenges on the domestic and international fronts at the same time. There are two big crises, one with national implications, and one with international implications. Kirkman is really put to the test.

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