Television After 9/11: A Continuing Series
Part 4D: Charles Logan and the Worst TV President
The representative of the worst we see in executive power on television — at least until the rise of the Underwoods on House of Cards almost a decade later — came slowly and wasn’t apparent at first.
As I mentioned in an earlier article in reference to Day 4, Air Force One ended up getting shot down. The President was left comatose and unable to fulfill his duties. (In one of those cases of ambiguity the series often left, we were never sure whether he died.) Vice President Charles Logan, played by long time character actor Gregory Itzin assumed command. And it was clear from minute one, that he was unsuited for it.
Throughout the remainder of Day 4, Logan came across as an incredibly weak, easily cowed man — not unlike so many of the Vice Presidents we’ve had over the years. Forced into the kinds of decisions that his predecessors were capable of making, he waffled and when they were defied, he went against common sense. As a result, the mastermind of the conspiracy escaped. Broken by this, David Palmer was called into act as a proxy for him — which unfortunately led to Jack invading the Chinese embassy and murdering their council. This would lead to a nemesis that would stalk Jack for a remainder of the series. At the end of Day 4, the Chinese demanded Jack is handed over. Because of Logan’s weakness, his chief advisor Walt Cummings told him that they should kill Jack before that happened. This led to Jack faking his own death and walking off into the sunset at the end of Day 4.
Day 5, in my opinion one of the great achievements in TV history (the Emmys for a change agreed with me, giving it 5 wins including Best Drama and a Best Actor prize for Sutherland) started with one of the biggest shocks in TV history. David Palmer, the man who had been the foundation of the series as much as Jack Bauer the first four seasons was assassinated in the first five minutes. Less then ten minutes later, Michelle and Tony now out of CTU were involved in a car bomb. Michelle would die instantly; Tony would be seriously wounded and linger. (He would eventually be ‘killed’ halfway through, but in a rarity for series that didn’t do fake deaths, he would come back in Day 7. Were the writers playing fair with us? I will say they used the word ‘allegedly’ in a lot of publications the next year.) This led to Jack being drawn back in.
Day 5 took place involving the signing of a peace treaty with the new Russian President and Logan seemed fixed on it. But it was clear that even after more than a year; Logan was still the fundamentally weak man he was when he was a scared Vice-President. He refused to back away from his treaty even when hostages were taken, he seemed cowed when his chief advisor was recognized behind the plot, and in one of the most memorable scenes the series would ever do, he allows an attack on the motorcade of the Russian President going back to the airport — even after his wife, who knows what’s coming, decides to accompany them back. Throughout the first half of the day, Logan was inevitably compared to Nixon (Itzin’s resemblance to the President is striking) and the series even had a direct reference when a fraught President asked Mike Novick (Novick has since become his chief of staff) to pray with him. Logan seemed a man who was incapable of making a decision no matter how great the pressure — indeed, when his Vice President Harold Gardener came in the second half, he seemed to walk all over him. (I really wish the series had decided to make more use of Ray Wise, because you could smell the sulfur coming off him. Would’ve been better than who ended up serving in Day 6…but I digress.)
This actually brings me to another of the major highlights of Season 5 — Martha Logan. 24 always made superb casting decisions, but whoever it was that decided Jean Smart was the perfect choice to play Martha deserved a promotion. It’s not that Smart isn’t a great actress — the last year alone has demonstrated as much — its that at the time she was known almost entirely as a comic one. So whoever decided that she was perfect for this role was a genius.
We’re told that before the day began Martha’s mentally unstable and we are inclined to believe them pretty much from the moment she decides ‘I look like a wedding cake’ and ‘touches up her makeup’. We see her as a burden that her husband and the world have to bear. Slowly, however, it becomes clear that her paranoid delusions are actually accurate and Charles slowly begins to trust her again. Much of the brilliance of Day 5 is watching Martha and Charles slowly try to rebuild their relationship and you can see very quickly that the asset she might’ve been going forward.
And then, we get the day’s biggest twist. We learn that someone has set this plot in motion, and eventually we find out — it’s the President. What makes this twist believable is Logan does not turn into a Machiavellian genius but as a man whose clearly being manipulated even now, mainly by the man doing the work Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller) and in one of the series better twists, a group of men backing his campaign, led by the mysterious Graem (Paul McCrane finally got to play a proper villain instead of a power-mad egomaniac like he did on ER for more than seven years) All the way through the conspiracy, he’s trying to talk his way out of it. At one point, Graem to shoot down a passenger plane that has evidence that will implicate him and he tries all the way to back out of it despite the fact he will go to jail for treason and murder if he is caught. When the evidence seems insurmountable, he decides to take the coward’s way out and shoot himself. Before he does so, he asks Martha (who has since learned the details of his involvement) for forgiveness and she has nothing but contempt for him. Moments before he is about stick a gun in his mouth, an aide from CTU intervenes…but his problems are not over.
There were so many great moments in Day 5 that I can’t even begin to list them all. But one of my favorites is one that had no right to happen. Aaron Pierce, still with the Secret Service plays a vital part in Day 5, doing his duty for the President and protecting Martha. Late in the day, he becomes aware of the conspiracy and Logan’s guilt. Martha asks him what’s going on and he agrees to meet her. When she goes out to the meeting point, she finds only Aaron’s phone. I automatically assumed that Aaron was dead, after all, the series had been killing off regulars left and right all day, and there was no reason what was basically a third-string character should be spared. And indeed, Aaron was supposed to be killed.
Morshower read about this, and was heartbroken. He wrote an impassioned letter to Gordon pleading to let his character live. And wonder of wonders, it worked. Aaron is found late in the day having been tortured. Logan tries to be polite and offers to reinstate him and asks what do you have to say. Aaron is completely restrained, but for the first time ever on the series, you can sense contempt in his voice:
“There’s nothing to say. You’re a traitor to this county, and a disgrace to your office. It’s my duty to see that you’re punished for what you’ve done. Is there anything else, Charles?”
For a man who has put duty above country above all else, it is a stunning moment. To be honest, as brilliant as the last three hours of the series are — Jack foils another terrorist attack, kills Henderson out of revenge, and finally works together with CTU and his allies — which include Mike, Aaron and most memorably Martha herself — to bring Logan down — everything else from this point is somewhat anticlimactic. Still the final moments of the day are sad, because even though CTU has prevailed and the plot exposed, no one feels any joy that they are bringing down the President. The fact that Logan will basically end up trading the office in order to get clemency makes no one any happier. It is a truly powerful moment that, for all of the show’s glories in the next three years, it would never equal again.
I’ve written a lot and I’m still not done. I think I’ll need one more piece to wrap it up — the 24 section, at least.