ByEmily Browne, writer at
Twitter: @emrbrowne
Emily Browne

Designated Survivor is an ABC show about a low-level congressman, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), who suddenly becomes president of the United States and must handle the unexpected pressures of the job. The Handmaid's Tale is Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel, set in a brutal totalitarian future where women are property. Those don't sound like a shared universe — but if you look a little deeper, Designated Survivor totally works as a stealth prequel to The Handmaid's Tale.

Don't believe this theory? Hear me out! Spoilers follow for (up to Season 1, Episode 20) and (up to Season 1, Episode 5) so proceed with caution.

The Attack On Congress

"When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up," Offred (Elizabeth Moss) tells us in Season 1, Episode 3 of The Handmaid's Tale. "When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then, either."

This gives us a glimpse into American politics before the fanatical Gilead regime controlled every aspect of life on the East Coast. We don't know exactly what happened to place the Commanders in control of the fragmented United States, but we know enough: Gilead took out Congress and stoked Islamophobia to hide their true motivations.

Capitol bomb aftermath in 'Designated Survivor' [Credit: ABC]
Capitol bomb aftermath in 'Designated Survivor' [Credit: ABC]

Meanwhile (or should I say "previously"), Designated Survivor portrays the fallout of a successful attack on the Capitol Building, which wipes out the president, the House of Representatives and the Senate in one well-timed explosion during the State of the Union address. Tom Kirkman — the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — is that evening's "designated survivor," whose duty is to assume the presidency if anything unforeseen happens. President Kirkman is not cut out for job at first, but ultimately proves himself to be a passionate and formidable leader.

This is where it gets a little complicated.

The Killers Blame Others To Distract The Public

Majid Nassar, leader of the fictional Al-Sakar terrorist group, takes the blame for the bombing — but we now know that Nassar was paid off by the mysterious (and apparently invincible) Nestor Lozano. We still know very little about Lozano and his group. All starting to sound familiar? Stick with me...

The Kirkman Administration wants to keep the public unaware that Al-Sakar was not responsible — and that the corruption went as high up as Vice President Peter MacLeish, who was also in cahoots with the shady organization. As far as the public is concerned, terrorists are to blame ... until Episode 20, when newspapers publish allegations that Al-Sakar had no part in the attack, leading to uproar and unrest.

This leads us back to The Handmaid's Tale, and how Offred would know that terrorists did not actually slaughter Congress; it was members of Gilead, trying to gain control. It's a badly kept secret that is now in the open. Everyone knows the truth, even if it's still not the official story.

The Manifesto ... And The Military

In Season 1, Episode 17 of Designated Survivor, we have our first clues as to who really blew up Congress, and why. Wells and Atwood (the two FBI agents investigating the conspiracy, one of whom just so happens to share a last name with The Handmaid's Tale author), discover a manifesto while in North Dakota:

"All democracies from ancient Athens to the Roman Republic to the city states of the Renaissance end, and they end the same way. As a corrupt alliance of extreme wealth and centralized power. Ordinary citizens are denied of liberty, what's rightfully theirs is taken away, and their children are sent to die in rich men's wars."

In Episode 5 of The Handmaid's Tale, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes ) — a high-ranking Gilead leader — explains to Offred that they were "only trying to make things better." When she questions Fred, he tells her:

"Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some."

Both groups have that same driving mentality: that things would be better if they destroyed it all, tore it down and rebuilt from the ground up. There are many groups that exist today with that exact same school of thought.

Waterford's belief that women are happier "fulfilling their biological purpose in peace" is the same warped thinking that would drive a small-yet-motivated syndicate to risk blowing up Congress in Designated Survivor — could they be one and the same? Or an early, less religiously radicalized cog of the same machine?

After all, wasn't it within the extreme elements of the Army where Designated Survivor's shady org found its key members? And Gilead's revolutionaries clearly had intense military training and access to weaponry.

Of course, Gilead didn't gain total control overnight. As Offred says in Episode 1:

"Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."

This means that there were probably years between the attack and the coup — from Kirkman taking the oath of office to Gilead taking over the country. (After all, Episode 18 of Designated Survivor — which takes us deeper into Lozano's conspiracy — aired on the same day as Episode 1 of The Handmaid's Tale.)

In that time Offred would have had her daughter, and the events of Designated Survivor would continue to unfold.

Any Problems With The Theory?

'The Handmaid's Tale' [Credit: Hulu]
'The Handmaid's Tale' [Credit: Hulu]

Look, I'm not saying this theory airtight; there are some problems that need to be ironed out. We also don't know at what point men and women started to become sterile/infertile — a major trigger for Gilead's rise to power, and something which clearly isn't a concern just yet in Kirkman's America.

Also, women seem to play a key (and equal) role in Designated Survivor's shady organization, which would be unlikely given Gilead's theocratic belief that women are only good for baby-making. Perhaps they grew more extreme over time or the leaders haven't revealed their true ideology yet, even within their own ranks.

So, could we be watching two eras of the same timeline? If confirmed, even with a quick throwaway Easter Egg line about "President Kirkman's assassination" in The Handmaid's Tale (he is too pure for this world — and such an event could reasonably lead to Gilead's martial law), it would be the greatest TV timeline twist since Westworld.

If you can think of any more connections between Designated Survivor and The Handmaid's Tale, let me know in the comments. Or if you want to tell me I'm a Jezebel for thinking such heathen thoughts, then I guess that's okay too.


So, you think 'Designated Survivor' is in fact the prequel to 'The Handmaid's Tale'?


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