It Still Stings: Hannah Well’s Disappointing Fate on Designated SurvivorPhotos Courtesy of ABC TV Features Designated Survivor
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Netflix has done a lot of favors when it comes to un-cancelling shows. The likes of Lucifer, Manifest, and even Star Wars: The Clone Wars have been saved by the streaming service. Though somewhat less notable, Designated Survivor was also one of the shows that was given a second chance by Netflix, and it is arguably among the more disappointing of their resurrections.
Canceled after two seasons by ABC, Designated Survivor was a political thriller that followed Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) after he is unexpectedly appointed as the President of the United States when a bombing kills every other person in the presidential line of succession. Netflix revived the show after it was canceled in 2018, where it was canceled again after one season due to contract issues with the cast.
One of the most compelling characters on the show was Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who bounced from the FBI to the CIA over the course of the series investigating things that tied into the larger overarching plots of each season. She dug into the source and motivations of the bombing that served as the catalyst for the whole series, and she served as the source of most of the show’s action across its run.
On a personal note, she was my favorite character in the series, not only because her journey from episode to episode was usually the most interesting thing going on, but because she was so different from everyone else on the show. It’s not like the political and personal drama that was usually the main focus of the series was unwatchable, but it was always nice to know that whatever Hannah was doing that week would be there to break up the petty interpersonal drama.
Unfortunately for Designated Survivor, the character’s sudden death in the middle of the show’s third season is what made me quit watching.
To be clear, Hannah’s existence on the show is always a bit disconnected from the rest of the characters. As nice as it was to get a break from the drama, Hannah never really got to interact with the people in the oval office until whatever she was looking into got bad enough that Kirkman had to hear about it. She had a lot of untapped potential despite being a really well fleshed-out character, so her death truly came out of nowhere.
Hannah’s unceremonious demise happens in Episode 7 of Season 3 while she’s investigating the creation of a bioweapon specially engineered by a white supremacist. After meeting potential suspect Wouter Momberg (Nick Boraine), she returns to his place of work to look into him further. Unfortunately for her, Momberg is lying in wait and hits her with VX, a nerve agent that causes irreversible paralysis to the entire body. Hannah dies lying on the floor in front of him as he taunts her for almost being able to figure out his plans.
Not only did her death come out of nowhere—Hannah was smack in the middle of her investigation with no signs of anything to stop her—it doesn’t fit her character at all. She’s hit with the nerve gas before she even has the chance to fight back, and once the paralysis takes over, she’s completely helpless, the antithesis of the character the series had worked to establish. At the very least, she deserved to go out fighting, and the fact that she didn’t was hugely disrespectful to her.
In addition to the general disregard of who Hannah was, it is objectively bad form to have a character of color be murdered by a white supremacist. Yes, Designated Survivor explored racism and white supremacy throughout its time on air, but Hannah’s death fits into that exploration as an afterthought. It doesn’t matter to the story that Hannah was killed off specifically by a white supremacist, it just matters that she died and it separately matters that Momberg is aiding in a plot to mass-sterilize all people of color in the United States.
Worst of all, the bioweapon plotline could have continued while keeping Hannah alive. There was plenty of action that went on after her death, and she could have easily been involved in it. There would have been a bit of extra satisfaction if Momberg had failed to kill Hannah and she had a direct hand in his eventual capture. Even if she was gravely injured and out of the game for the rest of the season, that still would’ve been better than her anticlimactic death.
Maybe Hannah having no power in the last moments of her life was supposed to be some thematic mirror that the writers wanted her to look into, but that could’ve been done without them killing her. If we take the idea of her being gravely injured and having to come back from that in a hypothetical fourth season, that opens the doors for a deep emotional journey to be explored. Instead, she was taken out of the game four episodes before what would inevitably be the final episode of Designated Survivor, leaving her unique presence in the show and her potential behind.
The final shot we see of Hannah is her laying dead as “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee plays. Honestly, I can’t tell what the show is trying to say with this. Maybe it’s supposed to go along with the plot twist of Hannah’s failure to stop Momberg, something that she surely should have been able to do based on how the first two seasons of the show presented her. To me at least, it reads as a wildly ironic lack of self-awareness from the show. As the camera zoomed out on her the first time I watched the scene, I asked myself the same question as Peggy Lee.
At the end of the day, “Is that all there is?” is one of the worst questions that a show can draw from you. It’s a show killer, maybe not in the sense that it can get a show canceled, but it’s a bad mark on the legacy the series leaves behind. People don’t recommend things that were unsatisfying to them, and they certainly don’t stick around when their favorite character gets killed off in a manner that insults who said character was. Designated Survivor was clearly on its last legs regardless of what happened in its third season, but taking Hannah Wells out of the equation was just one of the many fatal stumbles the show made on its way down.
Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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