Stop and think about it: The last chunk of 24 ended between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. That’s the middle of the afternoon. Such a sleepy, winding-down time, for most of us. A time for an afternoon cup of coffee or soda to get through the rest of the work day. But not for Jack Bauer.
The last half of this final season set Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer loose as what he was trained to be and always tried to transcend: a remorseless killer. And it couldn’t come too soon, as far as I was concerned. I’d gotten used to only half-listening to any of the high-flown prattle about either the peace treaty (“the most important diplomatic action in generations!”) or the death of Hassan (he was handsome, he was a rake, he died — get over it). This eighth season of 24 was uneven — part dud, part exciting action-adventure. By this measure, one of the clear high points of last night was when Jack went Mike Tyson on Reed Diamond’s Jason Pillar and bit off a chunk of his ear. Now you know where I’m coming from: I support Jack’s right to go gonzo on someone who deserves it.
Let’s do a quick recap of the final two hours and then give the entire series a send-off. Last night was simply two regular hour-long episodes shown back-to-back. By the end, they had the feel of a season, not a series, finale: leaving the door open for the planned 24 feature film. Jack continued the revenge rampage he’d embarked upon ever since Renee Walker was killed via an order that led all the way up to the president of Russia. Once Jack confirmed through overheard conversations that the cover-up for this and other crimes also included Cherry Jones’ President Taylor, he was, if possible, even more bitter and intent upon a killing spree. “I am judge and jury,” he said, justifying his actions in the absence of anything resembling true justice anywhere in Jack Bauer’s America.
Which, of course, was hooey. Jack knew deep down that what he was doing was wrong. He just didn’t care anymore, a state of mind that came uncomfortably close to that of not a few 24 viewers. The not-caring, I mean. It was probably time for 24 to “shut it down,” in Chloe’s words. The first half of this season typified much of what had gone wrong with the series — predictable “unpredictable” twists (the whole Dana Walsh mess); the shameless reintroduction of fan favorites when the series failed to introduce new ones (hello again, Gregory Itzin).
Even last night’s 24 didn’t escape foolishness. Chloe with a gun, tracking down Jack and shooting him through blinked-back tears? Chloe being choked-out by Jack so he could get back to convincing himself to assassinate the Russian president? (The choke-out, by the way, is one violent move that’s gone mainstream during the decade 24 was on the air: Ten years ago, it was rare for someone to be knocked senseless by getting someone in a head-lock and cutting off just enough oxygen to the brain to cause a convenient, momentary collapse.)
It was rather late in the season to give President Taylor something to do, but better late than never. After hours spent sitting at a table talking to numerous people on speaker-phone about The Most Important Peace Treaty In Our Lifetime, Cherry Jones was finally called upon to do some of her humdinger acting. This included a fine mixture of remorse, guilt, self-contempt, and nobility as she faced up to what she’d done, declined to use the dead Hassan pen to sign the magic treaty, steeled herself to tender her resignation. Watching the emotions play across the President’s face, you realized that, with but a few exceptions (Itzen’s Logan was another rare bird), Jack is the only character over the course of the show’s history that was allowed to evince some evidence of a complicated inner life.
One of the small satisfactions of this season was fewer last-minute moles-within-CTU revelations, by now a tired writers’-room trick. I was relieved that neither Cole nor Arlo, for example, were bad guys. For a few horrible seconds, I feared the Jack-Chloe gun confrontation might really get surreal, and would conclude with Chloe revealing she’d secretly been responsible for everything as far back as Teri Bauer’s death, before Chloe even joined the series. Once you enter the 24 universe, you start expecting both brutal realism and wild leaps of implausibility. (Did Chloe go back to CTU after the show ended, wrinkle her little nose, and say, “I smell a dead body stuffed in a wall somewhere in here?”)
As it was, we got away with merely what was, for Jack, a sweetly sentimental speech, not to a lover or a family member, but to Chloe (“I never thought it would be you who would cover my back after all these years”). It was telling that as the final seconds ticked down, Jack became more verbose than he’d been in a long time, and it was left to Chloe to pronounce the end of the series: “Shut it down.”
This mixed-bag of a season cannot take away the performance Kiefer Sutherland gave over the entire run of 24. Lead actors in good TV dramas have to pace themselves, knowing that a season has a shape, and that it’s a smart idea to avoid keeping the same tone or intensity hour after hour. But the very nature of 24 didn’t give Sutherland that artistic option: He really did have to spend the last decade playing a man who was always seen in extremis, always caught in one of the worst, most dangerous moments of his life. Sutherland also declined to play Jack for laughs. How easy it would have been for the actor or the producers to say, “Hey, how about a few hours — or even a season — when the threat isn’t so awful that Jack can’t kick back and show his sense of humor or irony for a change?”
No, Jack Bauer was always a driven man, and Sutherland probably portrayed intensity with more shades and variations than any TV actor. He rarely went overboard; he never succumbed to melodrama. The plots around him may have, but not Jack.
It’s too early to say how 24 will hold up. Certainly its real-time structure and split-screen technique still managed to hold our interest. But do a lot of people you know rent the DVDs of, say, Season Three to relive fond memories, or to experience a bit of classic TV? I doubt many do — yet, anyway. 24 may well prove a very specific television phenomenon, a self-contained record of a post-9/11 mood. Which is not to say that, in its moment, it wasn’t a clever experiment that turned into something more searching, as it surfed the wave of national discourse about politics and policy, hanging-ten on terrorism. And 24 didn’t merely provide its lead actor with a career revival, but with a pop-culture character capable of, if not exactly true tragedy (after all, he lives to fight at the box office, whereas a true tragic figure must die), then of an orneriness, a stubbornness, not seen with such sustained purity since the title titan in Roseanne, The Shield‘s Vic Mackey (The Shield being a show that was a clear benefactor of 24‘s adventurousness), or another character that bade adieu this week, and another Jack at that: Law & Order‘s Jack McCoy.
Except with Jack Bauer, we got law and disorder: “I am judge and jury.” Finally, in his greatest moments of grief and fury, he showed us the most vulnerable, despairing side of the man of action.
What did you think of the 24 finale?