‘Designated Survivor’ 2×11 Review: Grief

Some people dismiss ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ as teenage crap, but I can tell you, as someone who’s a little removed from her teenage years at this point, and as someone who has experienced loss, that the book, to this day, contains one of the most sincere portrayals of loss I’ve ever read.

There’s one quote, in particular, that’s always stuck with me. “Grief,” the book tells us “doesn’t change you. It reveals you.” And Designated Survivor explores this with poignant eloquence in the magnificent midseason premiere, titled simply: “Grief.”

It’s not at all surprising that Kiefer Sutherland brings some of his best acting to this episode and to this material, but I have to say the rest of the cast rises up to the challenge of presenting us a world in the absence of the First Lady that both feels possible and yet, at the same time, unfathomable.

Because one of the hardest parts of losing someone is realizing that the world doesn’t stop, it continues spinning. Responsibilities are still there, people still need you to do things, and yes, there’s sympathy, but very few people understand the pain, and even those who feel it don’t feel your exact pain.

Your pain is yours. It’s personal. And any way you choose to deal with it – as long as it’s not actively destructive – should be respected.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There’s no guideline, no ten step program to how you feel. And though President Kirkman is, rightfully so, seeing a professional to help with, not only the grief, but the guilt he feels, the process of mourning is normal, and terrible and gut-wrenching and intensely personal.

Which is why this episode, though not a tear-jerker per se (I did weep at the conversations with both Leo and Penny), is still a hard episode to watch. In typical Designated Survivor style it’s a bit too neat, a bit too much like the way things should be instead of the way they are, and yet, somehow, it still manages to be raw in a way this show hasn’t been in many a month.

So, let’s talk about grief, about what it does to you and about that first step forward.

YOU GAVE ME A FOREVER WITHIN THE NUMBERED DAYS

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR – “Grief” – (ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg) MCKENNA GRACE, KIEFER SUTHERLAND

The moments, the days, and sometimes even the months after losing someone are usually a blur. What did I do? How did I react? It’s hard to tell in a quantifiable way. Sure, you felt pain, but what else did you feel? I’m not sure President Kirkman can’t remember, in the same way we can’t.

It’s just like the doctor says, there’s what happened and then there’s our consciousness of it, and they don’t have to coincide.

You might have lost people, dear reader. I hope you haven’t, but if you, like me, have known loss, you’ll understand this feeling, just as you’ll understand that sometimes it takes a while to get to that place, the place where you can remember the good things and not blame yourself for everything else, the bad things, the so-so things, the ambiguous things.

Tom Kirkman isn’t there yet. Yes, he’s functional, and yes, a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s in full avoidance mode, but he’s not over grief, no. If anything, at the end of this episode, he’s just opened the door to it. And what know what the five stages of grief are – anger is next. And when you’re the President of the United States, your anger can do a hell of a lot of damage.

Fasten your seatbelts.

WITHOUT PAIN, HOW COULD WE KNOW JOY?

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR – “Grief” – (ABC/Ben Mark Holzberg) TANNER BUCHANAN

Ah, another really hard lesson to learn. Sadly, that’s the road that awaits the President we all wish we had right now – the hard one. And what can we do but go along for the ride?

The choice in this episode was simple, and yet, it took action-Tom, the one who never, ever wavered, not in the Pilot, not when he had no idea what he was doing, a long conversation with his therapist to realize that he was letting his personal feelings get in the way of what he had to do – what he himself would have done three months before.

He was afraid, and fear is a normal part of the grieving process. I remember thinking, not that I was going to walk out of the street and get run over by a car, though I guess that’s part of it, but that everyone else in my life was going to be. I didn’t care, at the time, so much about me as about the idea of losing someone else.

But, what kind of life can we really live if we’re scared all the time? What kind of President can Tom Kirkman be if he can’t make any decisions? I don’t have to tell you what the answer to this is, because the answer is obvious, to you, and to President Kirkman, in this episode. But grief is not a straight line, and I have a feeling, during the rest of the season, we’ll all be taking one step forward and three steps back.

But – as I said before, what can we do but go along for the ride and hope they keep telling a story that resonates so deeply, not because it’s personal, but because it isn’t. Grief is universal.

And we all have to learn to deal with it, sooner or later.

Other things to note:

  • Just to stay on brand, here’s another quote: “The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”
  • Emily is the real hero.
  • Aaron and Hannah is a thing I could go for. Work on it, Designated Survivor.
  • I like Adan Canto in any way, shape or form, but casual Adan Canto speaking with his real accent is how I like him best.
  • Also, I’m not sure if the extras this show hired are Cuban, but they are at least speaking with a Cuban accent, which is more than we ever get. So kudos, Designated Survivor.
  • “If you don’t risk anyone, you risk everyone.”
  • Diversity! I like it. And I like Tricia, as well.
  • Hannah Wells, my badass heroine. I’ve missed you.
  • The moment with Tom listening to the voice mail is going to haunt me.
  • Emily, honey. You’re reacting too. Take a step back. Figure out what you want. But do it fast, or you might end up with nothing.
  • Ugh, Damian. UGH.

Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on ABC.

Lawyer. Dreamer. Geek. Eternal optimist. Fangirl since the dawn of time. Hates the color yellow, olives and cigarettes. Has a recurring nightmare where she’s forced to choose between sports and books. Falls in love with fictional characters.