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Designated Survivor Just Killed Off a Major Character

The showrunner explains why and what it means for the future

Tim Surette

[Spoilers for Wednesday's episode of Designated Survivor follow. Read at your own risk!]

Things were looking pretty good for the Kirkmans at the end of Wednesday's fall finale, but in the blink of an eye, everything changed.

Following Tom Kirkman's (Kiefer Sutherland) successful negotiating with a stubborn religious group who chose to put themselves in the line of fire (like, literally, they refused to move from the path of a raging wildfire) to hold to their values and Alex's (Natascha McElhone) successful thwarting of Forstell's (Reed Diamond) investigation into the bogus allegations of bribery and obstruction against her, a large vehicle sideswiped Alex's escort, totaling the car she was in.

Though it was never clearly stated in the episode that Alex was killed, the final shots of Kirkman crumbling to his knees after receiving a phone call may as well have confirmed our worst fears. The First Lady is dead.

This may not be shocking to some. In the real world, McElhone was known to be leaving the show to join a new series on Hulu, but how she was being written off was never discussed. Alex's death is sure to have a major impact on Designated Survivor, especially for Tom.

To find out why the decision was made to kill Alex and how the show will change in the second half of Season 2, TV Guide got on the phone with showrunner Keith Eisner.

Natascha McElhone, Designated Survivor

Natascha McElhone, Designated Survivor

ABC/Ian Watson

From Kirkman's reaction, it would appear that this is more than just a simple fender bender.

Keith Eisner: That is true. I think we've left little doubt as to what has happened. And given that, what is it like going forward for Kirkman to be home alone, if you will. To be a widower in the White House. To be a bachelor. That will have personal and professional repercussions for the remainder of the season. And it's also terra nova dramatically, we haven't seen this in a television show. A president who is essentially by himself, and the isolation of being a single parent and of having to figure out what to do professionally and personally without his partner. And that is a very interesting and exciting dramatic area for us to go into to. And we'll see how that isolation has ramifications in both the personal and political arenas. Something we're very excited about is sort of a new direction.

What went into the decision to kill Alex off? I know Natascha was going to a Hulu series, was it her decision to leave?

Eisner: Yeah, look, I think there were other opportunities for an actress we love, and we knew she wanted to do the cable series. And look, one always considers are there other ways to temporarily write a character out so a character can return, there are lots of ways to do this. But the more we spoke about it, with Natascha and the network and studio, the more we recognized we had a tremendous opportunity here to create a new world for a show about a president, which is a president by himself, a president dealing with the aftermath with the loss of his wife. And how he deals with that we think provides a great opportunity for great storytelling.

Each time we talked about it in the writers' room, it became a very exciting thing for us because we realized that all the ideas we had were new. And it will be addressed very slowly, because this was a close marriage and they'd been together for a long time. You don't just move past this, it's the sort of thing you live with and you have to adapt to. That's going to be Tom Kirkman's cross to bear for the second half of the season. How does he move forward on his own?

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The saddest part of this is Alex and Tom never got to reconcile, aside from Alex leaving a phone message. How does Tom deal with that?

Eisner: It's difficult, right? But it's real. It's one of the things that I know interested Kiefer, which is there were all these phone messages during 9/11, where people left messages and some of them were "I love you" messages and some were unresolved arguments. The lack of resolution is very true to life. It's very pat to have everything tied up in a bow and have everyone telling each other how much they love each other before going off and something bad happens to one of the parties. That's not life, life is interrupted by death. It's not set up neatly. It's a very difficult thing for the president to realize that he never had the final conversation with his wife that he really wanted to have. And that's something that haunts him.

Can we rule out that this was an accident?

Eisner: That's something I won't reveal. It certainly has the earmarks of that, but we'll wait 'til we get back before figuring out exactly what happened and why, but that's something we're going to tease a little bit.

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Even when Damian was caught by Hannah, he insisted he had something that would explain everything. Is there more to his story?

There is, you're not going to learn that for a while. Damian (Ben Lawson) is a complicated character with a complicated agenda. There's obviously affection for Hannah (Maggie Q) and affection from Hannah, so part of the journey is, can he ever restore trust? It certainly doesn't seem that way, given how the episode ends. [Laughs.] It's a complicated relationship. Hannah, from her standpoint, was pursuing someone she had evidence had betrayed the United States in addition to betraying her. And it's that dual betrayal which fuels her behavior, and causes her behavior to be looked at with very close scrutiny. He was reaching for something, but we will reveal that sometime later in the season.

It seems like Damian may have ties to Russia. Designated Survivor has been ahead of real-world events in the past, like the storyline with the Confederate statues, but here you're bringing Russia into things. Are you trying to bring the show back into our real world given what's going on with Russia now?

I've said this before, we try not to be an express commentary on the Trump White House or on current events. And I think what you're going to learn is that the Russia connection is very different than the connection we see in contemporary events. It's not at all the same thing, and Russia's involvement has quite a twist to it. We are not mirroring current events here. The fact that Russia is involved doesn't suggest how they are involved. And I think that's something interesting for the audience to stay tuned into.

Designated Survivor returns Wednesday, Feb. 28 at 10/9c on ABC.