Television After 9/11: A Continuing Series
Part 4E: 24 Ends…And Ends…And Ends
After the glory of Day 5, it was inevitable that the following season would be a disappointment. I don’t think any fan of the series would realize how much of a disaster it would end up being. In contrast to the previous season where everything had been done right, everything in Day 6 was done wrong. There are far too many examples to go into, so I’ll settle for what was the most blatant. Within the first few hours of Day 5, it became clear that one of the masterminds behind the current plot was Graem, the man who’d led the cabal behind Charles Logan. The problem was the writers did so by telling us that Graem was, in reality, Jack’s estranged brother. As bad as this twist was — which honestly was almost the level of the appearance of the cougar in Day 2 — it actually got worse as we learned that Jack’s father, Philip, was behind so much of it. (Supposedly this role was offered to Kiefer’s father, the great actor Donald Sutherland who had to that point never shared the screen with his son. In an example of great judgment, Donald turned it down, leaving poor James Cromwell to do his best.) The plot got so bad I actually thought the writer’s realized their error and discarded it halfway, through. They didn’t, and I’ll spare you the remainder of details.
Redemption came in Day 7, which was on the right track in that it changed the setting of the series from LA to Washington, DC. (I guess by this time even the writers had realized that Jack could only save LA from a nuclear bomb so many times before it became ludicrous.) It wasn’t so much the change of setting that helped the series; it was the change of attitude. Due to the writer’s strike of 2007, Day 7 was postponed until early 2009 by which time not only the Bush administration was over but much of the detail of the War on Terror had become public. Rather than pretend this was business is usual, the writers made the sound decision to make it part of the plot.
Day 7 opens with CTU having been disbanded and Jack Bauer being called before Congress to testify before a subcommittee about basically all the extra-legal activities he had done in the six seasons prior. Jack’s initial attitudes toward Congress seemed openly unapologetic:
“Am I above the law?” Jack said in a contemptuous statement. “No sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent…But please do not sit there with that smart look on your face and expect me to regret the decision I have made. Because, sir, the truth is, I don’t.”
You could read this as 24 thumbing its nose at the culture that now existed or directly implicating the fact that so many elected officials were willing to look the other way about what was going on in the name of national defense until it became politically expedient to condemn it. Either way, it would have been a brave stand. But the writers were willing to go further. Jack is called away from Congress by the FBI and an idealistic agent named Renee Walker to deal with a threat that they think only Jack can solve. (Lessening the machination is the fact this threat deals with the return of Tony Almeida, who seems to have gone rogue after faking his death and whose exact link to what’s going on are not clear until the very end of the day.) Renee finds Jack’s methods repellent, but as the day progresses finds herself slowly becoming more inclined to his methodology — much to the horror of her fellow agents.
There are many brilliant segments throughout Day 7 — including extraordinary performance by veteran actors Cherry Jones and Jon Voight as new President Alison Taylor and Jonas Hodges, the billionaire industrialist behind much of the terrorists’ plots, respectively. (Jones deservedly won an Emmy and Voight should’ve at least been nominated for one.) We suffer the sacrifice of a truly noble character and witness the welcome return of Aaron Pierce, who retired from the Secret Service after Logan’s exposure, but has returned to aid Jack. And we watch in horror and sadness as Tony, one of the series most beloved characters betrays everyone and everything he ever believed in — on both sides- to get revenge on the man who was responsible for Michelle being murdered. It’s a heartbreaking moment because it’s probably the most understandable motivation for betrayal any character on either side has ever done.
But the reason Day 7 resonates the most is how it ends. Jack is poisoned by a chemical agent one of the terrorists is using and ends the series on what he is sure is his deathbed. In the final moments of the day, Renee asks Jack if she should torture the mastermind of the day’s events to assure his conviction and the arrest of his co-conspirators. In what is his most heartfelt confession, Jack says he will do anything, break any law to save the lies of fifteen strangers on a bus. He says he doesn’t regret his actions that day, but he doesn’t work for the FBI:
“You took an oath. You made a promise to uphold the law. You cross that line; it always starts off with a small step. Before you know it, you’re running as fast as you can in the wrong direction, just to justify what you started in the first place. These laws were written by men much smarter than me, and in the end, I know those laws have to be more important than those fifteen people on the bus. In my mind, I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could have lived with that. I guess the only advice I can give you is ‘Try to make decisions that you can live with.”
Then Jack, who has never truly been a spiritual person, spends what he believes will be his final minutes with an imam he racially profiled earlier that day. He has made his choice. When Renee decides to torture the mastermind regardless, the series has framed it as the wrong decision.
Jack ended up being saved for Day 8 (Kim reunited with him and despite her father’s wishes performs a medical procedure to save his life ) but I have always wished that Day 7 had been the series final statement. Would it have been dark and depressing for the series to end on Jack’s death? Maybe, but I have a feeling the fans would’ve been able to take it. And there would’ve been certain nobility to the idea of Jack dying for his sins — and by implication, the nations — that we certainly didn’t get at the end of Day 8 or the sequel to the series four years later.
More to the point, it would have ended 24 on a high note. Day 8 always struck me as a waste of time (pun not intended). It wasn’t just that there wasn’t anything new to the plot or that the series final episodes ended with Jack becoming the soulless killing machine the casual viewer thought he had been for the entire series. It was that the show had nothing original left to say. There was not a single story line or character within the entire day that had anything interesting or novel to it. The final hours are far darker than anything the series had done before not just for Jack but for everybody involved, but it just seemed like it was a series trying to play with all the switches before the power is killed. When we see Jack for the last time (we think) he is forced to go on the run for his actions over the last few hours and will never see freedom. This doesn’t seem fitting; it seems like a series that has run out of ways to handle its hero any more.
Many people were excited to see Jack and the show return for ‘Live Another Day’ in 2014, but for all my love of the series I truly wasn’t. A lot of it had to do with the fact that the series was 12 parts. As someone who recorded every episode and refused to watch the DVDs because I thought without commercial breaks you might as well call the series ‘18’, this struck me as betrayal from minute one. And while there were some decent moments throughout — Jack’s reunion with Audrey, now recovered from her trauma and remarried, some brilliant scenes with James Heller, now President and suffering from Alzheimer’s and just generally great acting from the always Yvonne Strahovski and Tate Donavan as new characters — by and large, the series left me cold. And the final statement it gave for Jack — being flown to a Russian prison to pay for the crimes he committed at the end of Day 8 — was really no more satisfying than the end of the series proper. Live Another Day was basically little more than any sequel to an old franchise is these days, an attempt to get more ratings for an established property without having any respect for what made the original great in the first place.
A new ‘day’ (yet another 12 hour series) this time without any Jack Bauer at all aired in 2017 and it seems likely that another revival will come in the future. Even if Kiefer Sutherland is attached to the project (and seriously, shouldn’t Jack Bauer be the well-kept member of AARP by now) I see no reason to give it the time of day (again pun not intended)
In truth, I think the moment for 24 has passed. It’s not that the series no longer fits the era; it’s that the era no longer fits the series. 24 was one of the last truly great series before the era of binge-watching truly began and in a world where everyone demands instant gratification, there’s no patience for a series that demanded you wait an entire week to see what happened at CTU next. The fact that the last two incarnations of the show were only twelve episodes indicates another problem — no one is willing to commit to the twenty-plus episodes it would take for a series any more, not even a series whose entire foundation was based on this premise. 24’s approach of slow revelation doesn’t work in a world designed by shows like The Blacklist or Scandal where the viewers expect — nay, demand — a game changing revelation every ten minutes. The sad truth is there is no place for Jack Bauer any more, in the world of politics or television in general.
And it’s probably not a coincidence that when the series ‘ended’ in 2010, the next wave of new and complicated antiheroes were beginning to fill this void. And to explore this world of realpolitik, Howard Gordon and many of 24’s writers would change their approach entirely. In the next article in this series, I will explore Homeland and how it looked at the War on Terror