'Designated Survivor' Theories: Is Chief of Staff Aaron Shore the traitor?


Since Designated Survivor premiered in the fall, it has consistently been one of the more enjoyable series on network television. And there are several reasons for this. Not only does the political thriller feature a stellar ensemble that includes Kiefer Sutherland, Adan Canto, Italia Ricci, Kal Penn, Maggie Q and more, but the series continuously keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.

(Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead for season one of Designated Survivor.)

Designated Survivor explores a terrifying scenario — a terrorist attack so devastating that the continued operation of the United States government hangs in the balance. In the series premiere, a bombing at the Capitol, during a presidential address, forces Tom Kirkman, at the time the Housing and Urban Development secretary, to ascend to the presidency. And Kirkman inherits a government that is without all but two members of Congress and missing all senior members of the cabinet. 

So, since the premiere, the series has focused on Kirkman's attempts to rebuild the government, all the while trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the attack on the Capitol. And while we have been given a few clues as to how the attack was carried out — and perhaps even why — we are still no closer to learning who is behind it. 

This is especially true after last week's shocking final moments, which saw the death of Peter MacLeish: Kirkman's vice president, the attack's only survivor and the only man we knew for sure to be involved with the bombing. 

Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

What do we know?

Here is what we do know. We learn prior to the series' winter finale that MacLeish was intimately involved in the Capitol attack. In fact, not only did he know it was going to happen, but it appears the entire point was to facilitate his rise to the presidency. We also know that the attack on the Capitol was based on a prior government-sponsored war game scenario. And this is where things get a bit tricky.

There are only a few people who have seen the simulation, and they are all members of the prior president's staff. And, of course, following the attack on the Capitol, there are only so many of them who are still alive — the most prominent being chief of staff Aaron Shore. Because of this, Kirkman's senior adviser, Emily Rhodes, has been tasked with investigating Shore, with whom she has developed a bit of a romantic rapport (talk about awkward). 

Emily's early investigation seems to suggest that Aaron, at some point, saw the simulation. So, the big question, really, is whether Aaron Shore is actually the traitor. 

Can Aaron be trusted?

Ben Mark Holzberg/ABC

While there seems to be evidence that Shore could have known about the attack, or even facilitated it, it is more likely that this is a red herring. Of course, we frankly do not have enough information to know anything for sure. After MacLeish's death last episode, the audience and the series' characters are roughly on the same page; we essentially know nothing more than Kirkman. Are you not on the edge of your seat?

Here is why, though, I think Shore can be trusted. Short of Aaron playing everyone in the room — which certainly is possible — his interactions with Vice President MacLeish, after the latter temporarily ascended to the presidency when Kirkman was shot in episode 11, would seem to indicate that the chief of staff was not involved in the terrorist plot — at least not knowingly. In fact, Shore tried to stand in the way of most of MacLeish's actions as acting president. That would seem counterproductive to his goals if they were supposed to be on the same page. While this could have been a ruse, I don't think that's likely.

When MacLeish ordered that the markets remain open following the assassination attempt on Kirkman, Shore objected. When MacLeish told the FBI that the suspected assassin be shot on sight — obviously to protect his own skin — Shore objected with passion. Essentially, all signs point to Shore protecting President Kirkman's agenda, rather than MacLeish's or his own.

Still, with the stakes as high as they are, it appears that Shore will remain under considerable scrutiny as the season progresses. 

Walls are closing in

It's becoming clear that Aaron is being given very little wiggle room in the White House. He has now had his access to classified information considerably reduced since becoming a suspect, he is getting suspicious that he is being more-than-routinely investigated and, after conversations with the speaker of the house, he knows that the president has been keeping vital information from him. If he is the traitor, the walls are certainly closing in on him. So, what will he do?

None of this really matters if he is not the traitor; presumably all investigations will come back showing he is clean. But if he is, we should start to see Shore making moves to protect his position. Thus, Shore's actions in the upcoming episodes will likely give us more insight into his motivations and involvement, if any, in the Capitol bombing.

If Shore continues to be steadfast in his support of the president, we may be able to hypothesize with more certainty that the chief of staff is not the traitor, leaving open a massive question: Who is?

Designated Survivor airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC. 

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