While the luster wore off of 24 years ago, it too came to an end this week. I previously commented on its cancellation, predicting the final episodes would not offer any tidy, unified narrative resolution–never a priority for the series–but instead maintain its tradition of abrupt yet formulaic twists, turns, and shocks. Okay: not the most profound predictions, but I’d say they were largely borne out. What I couldn’t have foreseen, however, was the renewed energy injected into the series in the back half of the season following a particularly dismal, plodding first half.
Suddenly, 24 had its groove back. First, Jack failed to stop the Russian assassination of “Islamic Republic of Kamistan” President Hassan. In the next episode, Jack gets his first real-time sex scene–only to see love interest Renee immediately killed by a sniper. Simultaneously, President Taylor seeks dubious advice from disgraced ex-President Logan (returning from season 5), hiding Russia’s involvement in the murders to protect an international peace accord. As a result, Jack goes over the edge, delivering as “judge, jury, and executioner” the justice Taylor will not: he eviscerates the sniper, impales the Russian ambassador with a fire poker, attacks Logan’s secret service convoy, and in the finale, almost kills the Russian president. Kidnappings, graphic politicized murders, sudden attacks on woefully inept US security forces–this was vintage 24!
But with a twist.
I’ve always considered my reading of 24 to be negotiated, in that I do not interpret the series as reactionary and pro-torture as some “fans” like Rush Limbaugh and Antonin Scalia famously have. To me, Jack Bauer is one of the most deep, fascinating characters on television because he represents the emotional and social folly of “extreme” interrogation and security policies. Granted, 24 has always problematically suggested that torture can deliver actionable intelligence–but Jack shows us the costs of such delivery. Jack may repeatedly stop terrorist attacks, but at the expense of his loved ones, the health of the American political institution, and ultimately, his own humanity. Jack’s character arc is a gradual loss of character, with him becoming a more pitiable, pathetic killing machine each season. Maybe that’s not how most viewers saw this show, but the way I read it, Jack is a cultural argument against extralegal security measures.
These final episodes, then, actually bolster my reading by reversing Jack’s position in these stock 24 plots. Jack is no longer the protagonist, or even an anti-hero, but an antagonist who must be stopped by cooler minds like his former sidekick Chloe. Jack effectively becomes the unstable terrorist, his actions described not as “interrogations” or “operations”, but with terms like “murderer” and “slaughterhouse.” Though Jack had “gone rogue” before, he had never been portrayed as unhinged in taking liberties with the law; Jack loses it, however, after using a blow torch to torture the Russian sniper, exasperated that “This isn’t working!” In the penultimate hour, Chloe confronts Jack; there’s a palpable danger that crazy Jack may actually kill her rather than calling off his attack. Though Chloe brings him back to reason, he’s taken prisoner and almost entirely removed from the canvas for the final hour of the series. His only major scene is a shared admission of guilt with the President. It’s up to Chloe’s non-violent methods and a penitent political establishment to bring the story to resolution and rescue Jack from an execution squad. Jack, ultimately, is irrelevant, expelled from the nation as an outlaw. Of course, that’s not entirely new to 24, echoing Jack’s previous exiles after seasons 4 and 6. But that only strengthens my reading, in that the finale reaffirms the recurring rejection of men like Jack from the social order.
I know many viewers celebrate Jack for his lack of humanity, gleefully tallying the Bauer kill count. Maybe my read is even a little naive in that light. But even so, I think we need to recognize the end of 24 for what it brought to the “cultural forum” of television as a lens through which viewers could imagine a decade of war, institutional ineptitude, and narrowing civil rights in multiple and rarely cohesive ways. It wasn’t a poetic reflection on fate and free will, to be sure, but something more contradictory and urgent.