Television’s greatest modern-day hero returned for one more go. Was it worth it?
How many characters — and series — have truly been a product of their time like Jack Bauer and 24? In the years following the 9/11 attacks, we were scared and angry, and Jack was there for us: uncovering truths, breaking the rules for the greater good, and kicking ass all the way up the west coast. That velvety voice at the top of each hour (“The following takes place between…”) was comforting. Flagrantly disregarding protocols? Sure. Going rogue, casting suspicion on himself because there’s just no time to waste? Absolutely. Torturing bad guys for information (choice quote from Season 2: “Get me a hacksaw”)? …Well, it was fun for a while, but the longer the series went on — and the further embroiled we became in the debate over America’s tactics abroad — the more it felt like Jack was becoming a relic before our eyes.
In answer to the criticism, the show curbed somewhat the willful use of “torture” in its final seasons, instead relying on increasingly ludicrous plotting and repetition of the same old tropes, while trusting that we’d keep showing up just to watch Jack be Jack. (We did.) In the end, 24 just ran out of gas, and ended its 8th season with a fizzle, with Jack having committed another crime spree before escaping once more into an unknown future. But when the show was great — like its Emmy-winning(!) 5th season — it was truly GREAT. 24 at its best was a propulsive, rollicking ride, lurching from setpiece to setpiece via its clever split-screens, and the more of a licking Jack took, the more sweet his inevitable victory.
Which is why, four years later, when that first teaser aired on Super Bowl Sunday — that one of a slo-mo Jack carrying a bloodied, goth’d out Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Raksjub) across a London street, explosions a-plenty — we couldn’t help but be TOTALLY PUMPED about the prospect of Jack Bauer’s return. Even better, producers Howard Gordon and Jon Cassar had chosen to limit it from its usual 24 episodes to 12, making it more of an “event” series, which meant we’d hopefully be avoiding the filler that doomed the weaker seasons. It would be set in London, a new location for Jack Bauer to wreak havoc. Most of all, it would be fascinating to see how Jack had changed in the interim, and how he would function in a world that has “moved on,” one of drone warfare and fractious public opinion with regards to the use of force.
And yet, the more I watched of 24: Live Another Day, the more I felt like it missed a real opportunity — to make some kind of statement, to bring closure to Jack’s story, and to transcend its history. Instead it was just another season of 24, which isn’t all bad, but it isn’t quite great.
Not to say I didn’t enjoy it — I did. Many sequences, like Jack’s brazen entry to the U.S. Embassy, or his white-knuckle drive avoiding Margot’s drones, or the Splinter Cell boat operation in last night’s finale — were as good as anything the show had ever done (if nothing else, 24’s crack editorial team can still wring tension out of the simplest of computer keystrokes). And this year’s supporting cast, particularly super-competent agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski, future 24 spinoff lead?), and Alzheimer’s-diagnosed President Heller (William Devane) more than held their own against a world-weary Kiefer Sutherland. This edition of Jack Bauer looked older and more broken than ever, and Sutherland, as always, sells his broiling internal conflict. (At one point, after inflicting some pain to get info out of Margot’s daughter, he actually apologizes. Not to her, of course. But to someone.)
Live Another Day succeeded in packing a full season’s worth of twists into 12 episodes, as familiar as the beats felt. We still had the Big Bad (Michelle Fairley, having fun), leading to a Bigger Bad (Michael Wincott, a Julian Assange-type with the posture of Nosferatu), leading to the Biggest Bad (Tzi Ma as Jack’s eternal nemesis, Cheng Zhi). We had the inevitable mole (Benjamin Bratt, naturally, who seemed to be waiting all season to get his shirt off), the usual buffoonery from the President’s staff (Tate Donovan, as the thoroughly worthless — and thoroughly screwed — Mark Boudreau), plots within plots, and a sensational lack of highway traffic or bathroom breaks. In other words, everything we love, or love to hate, about 24.
The plotting itself was actually pretty good by 24 standards — this season was more pre-planned than any other, instead of the writers being forced to make things up as they go — and the shift from Al-Harazi to the more existential threat of “the override device” was handled deftly in the season’s final third. Even the stuff that would be sure to annoy in earlier seasons — Benny Bratt’s luring of that poor analyst dude to his death; anything involving Mark Boudreau — eventually looped back around to being important. President Heller’s sacrifice at Wembley Stadium was laughable until it was revealed to be a bait-and-switch, but plenty of other characters were dispensed with with little to no fanfare (have fun in Star Wars, John Boyega). For those characters that survived/remained relevant, the end of the season finds them more or less getting what they’ve deserved, except Jack. Always, Jack.
In the annals of heartbreaking 24 deaths (see: David Palmer, Renee Walker, Edgar), Audrey Heller neé Raines neé Boudreau doesn’t really rate. Not because of how it affected Jack — it nearly breaks him, before his visage steels itself into a katana-wielding rage — but because Audrey, despite Kim Raver’s best efforts, never made much of a mark as a character. Worse, she’s already “died” once before, having, like Jack, spent her own time in a Chinese torture cell. But she was the great love of Jack’s life, though they could never really be together (one time, he literally let her husband die on an operating table so the docs could save a terrorist with intel), and Kate’s near-rescue of her was extremely well-staged to the point that I was almost affected by it. More tragic was her father’s reaction, tinged with the knowledge that it won’t be long before he doesn’t remember ever having a daughter.
Every installment of 24 comes down to the same lesson: the crisis may have been averted, but Jack personally would have been much better off if he hadn’t gotten involved. He is a piñata, made to suffer, here to sacrifice another piece of his soul to achieve another temporary American peace. Every woman he has ever loved is dead; he is estranged from his daughter; half the nations on Earth want him imprisoned. At the end of Live Another Day he offers himself up to the Russians, in exchange for his only remaining friend, the ever-steadfast, ever-prickly Chloe. Every time we think Jack has nothing left to lose, we are reminded of how much he has lost. This time, when he gets on that helicopter, he’s smiling. Why? Because this is what he does. He saves the world and then disappears to collect his penance, but never a thank-you.
If it’s enough for Jack to have just come back one more time, despite how inconclusively his story ended, than 24 more or less lived up to expectations. But if, like me, you wanted this “special event” to be truly special, to justify its existence beyond having a new season of 24 just because we could and we like it and it’s fun, to manage to articulate all that Jack has been through and make it all worth something, putting a melancholy bow on this 13-year journey…this wasn’t it. Like catching up with an old high-school buddy, until he’s had one too many drinks and while you’re kind of enjoying yourself, you remember why you stopped hanging out in the first place.
As Jack would say, dammit.