That Other Jack

May 25, 2010
By | 15 Comments

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.


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15 Responses to “ That Other Jack ”

  1. Erika Johnson-Lewis on May 25, 2010 at 8:39 AM

    Your post has me excited about catching up with the final season. (I have no issues with spoilers). And, I think your reading of Jack is spot on. I spent a portion of my dissertation arguing something similar. I started watching 24 begrudgingly when I decided to examine the use of torture in post-9/11 TV. How could I not? I’ve never watched it week to week, but always enjoyed my marathon sessions watching Jack’s tormented existence. I also have the sense that a lot of people who talk about 24, to demonize it or praise it, had never actually watched it. The series never shied away from presenting the dehumanizing consequences Jack’s methods have on him. It only makes sense, that when his chance at re-entering the human community is taken away from him — again, that he would snap. He always was an outlaw; having him go rogue against the government would make what was already there all that more obvious.

  2. Derek Johnson on May 25, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    Thanks, Erika! The first half is again, really terrible, but if you can get through it, I think it’s a pretty satisfying end.

    One thing I forgot to mention that I think would certainly count as a second scene of significance for Jack in the last hour was his farewell to Chloe (the final scene). While I thought the scene was a little cheesy as a whole, I still loved how it made Chloe the hero, with Bauer acknowledging that she was the one who had Jack’s back over all these years. He basically thanks her for saving him (in this case, from himself), and in my reading, that suggests that Chloe and her snarky, skeptical, techie style may be a far better model for protection and security than Jack.

    • Jonathan Gray on May 25, 2010 at 10:09 AM

      There were interesting things going on with crying women in that last hour, for sure. On one hand, they seemed weak and feeble in contrast to the tough guys biting ears off, headbutting one another, and taking decisive action with guns and fists, and certainly women have often been a major “problem” on 24 — connivers, manipulators, and plot annoyances (cough, Kim, cough). And yet the just path in the final hour was represented by two tear-drenched (ie: distinctly NOT masculinized) women solving things with words and rationality. An interesting coda to a series that has often been drenched in testosterone.

      • Will on May 25, 2010 at 12:25 PM

        Given how many viewers, male and female, have freely admitted to weeping buckets over the last Lost, I think someone should write something about these season finales and crying.

      • Elizabeth Rose on May 27, 2010 at 2:48 PM

        To be fair to at least one of the crying women, Chloe was crying IMHO for the Jack who crossed the red zone, a friend lost, not so much for her own situation, except as it related to Jack. She doesn’t know yet that she has a movie to do (which I hope allows Jack to be redeemed again). 😉

  3. Jonathan Gray on May 25, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    I really loved the first season and was energized by it like few other shows (in a DVD-watching era, it may now seem quaint to note, but part of its effect for me came from watching it in the UK on the BBC, and hence with no ads, thereby building the tension significantly through lack of release). But I drifted away from it over time, as the show got profoundly stupid.

    Nevertheless, I tuned in last night, perhaps in part to see how far the show had fallen, yet in part to honor a former fandom. And like you note, I was surprised to see not a fallen show but a very fallen Jack. He just seemed spent and used up, and I say that not as criticism but as compliment to the writing and acting. It was sad to see Jack brought so low, yet also impressive.

    Indeed, I agree with you that the show’s always been more complex than many allow. It’s perhaps the most perfectly ambiguous text on television, resolutely right-wing for those who want it to be, yet open to your, my, and Erika’s take if we want it to be (and, after all, Kiefer does stem from a great line of “socialism,” given that his grandpa founded Canada’s healthcare system).

  4. Derek Johnson on May 26, 2010 at 8:01 AM

    You know I was kind of expecting someone to take my reading to task here, so thanks everyone for making me feel less like I’m stretching against all odds to find some personal value and meaning in Rush Limbaugh’s favorite show. Granted, we’re a pretty a small pool (should have written about Lost!), but I think it adds some credence to Elizabeth’s comments above that many of the assumptions about the fundamental right-wingedness of 24 often come from those who haven’t watched the show. Which ties right into Jonathan’s work with paratexts, in that Limabaugh’s ability to broadcast his interpretation of the show, soldiers’ publicized claims that they learned torture techniques from it, or just its position on the Fox network, that give the series as much if not more meaning than its own characterizations. For anyone reading who doesn’t watch the show, I’d be curious to what paratexts shaped your major perceptions of the series (and perhaps your decision to avoid it!).

    • Jeffrey Jones on May 26, 2010 at 8:50 AM

      Great article and conversation here, and yep, I fit the last category (not a viewer but interested in the show’s politics), so I can answer your question, Derek. The big paratext for me is Joel Surnow and his intentionality. I haven’t read a ton on him (seen some interviews here and there), but do know that he wears his conservatism proudly. I like your reading, and thinking Jonathan may be spot on about the openness of the text. So that leads me to the production question–given Surnow’s politics, how much of a hand does he have in writing the show? What do we know about the other writers?

      • Derek Johnson on May 26, 2010 at 9:23 AM

        I don’t know how much Surnow’s cigar-chomping conservatism actually translated to a control over the writers’ room and the political perspectives they might try to bring to the show. But I do know that Surnow actually left the day-to-day production of the series in early season 7, at which point ex-X-Files and Angel producer Howard Gordon (who describes himself as a Democrat) grabbed the creative reigns. Gordon is also credited for being a driving creative force as early as seasons 2 and 3, however. What I find interesting is that Gordon rarely ‘t emphasized his own politics as much in promoting the show as Surnow did, which might suggest that despite his own views, he sees some value in perception of the show as conservative (maybe because liberalism and action heroics don’t go as well together generically?)

        There’s an interesting Newsweek article here about 24’s attempts to be a “green” production that uncovers some of these tensions between a assumed-to-be conservative counterterrorism show going green, and between Democratic and Republican writers on the same staff:

        • Jeffrey Jones on May 26, 2010 at 12:52 PM

          For what it’s worth, I think this would make for a nice academic article–the textual analysis, plus some of the production background. I say this out of self-interest–I’d like to cite it right this minute (in something I’m writing)! 😉

        • Elizabeth Rose on May 30, 2010 at 2:52 PM

          It might be helpful to be mindful of the entomology of “conservatism”. Going green is quite consistent with a conservative perspective. I think it’s important that we differentiate between far-right-wing backlash and real conservatism, where it is understood (as it is with traditional liberals and libertarians and progressives and centrists), to paraphrase that famous old saying, we may not agree with what others say, but we’ll fight to the death for their right to say it.

    • Elizabeth Rose on May 27, 2010 at 3:04 PM

      I enjoyed your criticism too Derek, and thought you (and commenters) were “on target.” (Sorry for the word play.) As for paratexts, I tended to watch (or not watch) the show based on its own merits, that is, if the story entertained and edified me (or not). Of course, I didn’t ignore the outside influences or politics (goddess forbid! HA!), I just didn’t use them to assess the show. On the other hand, I was among the many viewers and critics predicting years ago that we would have an African-American President in the not-distant future because of the characters David and Wayne Palmer. (Especially David, Dennis Haysbert was something special in that role.) So maybe those comments and critiques were actually paratext. And thanks to Cherry Jones’ amazing performance, I’d say it safe to say we’ll be considering women for the job again. (Did anyone else see Allison Taylor as a reflection of the perceptions of Hillary Clinton, good, bad, and in-between?) For all its ups and downs, *24* was one of the most diverse shows on TV, and never compromised by taking the “easy villain” route, exemplifying this perfectly in the finale. In a nation where too many are content seeing things as black and white, *24* always kept it gray, and I appreciate that. And Kiefer Sutherland has always been a bulwark of amazing acting in what had to be one of the demanding roles on television.

      • Derek Johnson on May 30, 2010 at 9:23 AM

        Thanks, Elizabeth! Dennis Haysbert himself would agree with you! 🙂

        I’m not sure I want to give him as much direct credit as he wants to give himself, but I think it certainly speaks to the way in which national politics are often imagined directly through fictional representations (insert too-easy Fox News joke here). This makes shows like 24, The West Wing, and Commander in Chief crucial sites for exploring the politics of the last decade.

        • Elizabeth Rose on May 30, 2010 at 3:09 PM

          Thanks for the link, Derek, I missed that one. I agree, it seems to me to be more a matter of zeitgeist than cause-and-effect. But, for better and worse, Americans do tend to let television reflect that for them. (Some of which is about the medium, some about the general human reaction to storytelling and playacting. And I won’t speak for other nations, as I am American and see the medium and the pop culture through American eyes.)

          Seeing an African-American president – albeit a fictional one – allowed Americans to imagine the reality when the cognitive concept alone was insufficient. For better or worse, we do still tend to view others through the lens of emotional evocation rather than objective or empirical evidence about their abilities and qualifications. Which brings to mind how hard fought the primary races between Clinton and Obama were, some could not get past their negative perceptions of then-Senator Clinton, which gave Obama the wedge he needed. (IMO.) I was one of those with less-than-positive perceptions of Hillary, but when our caucus time came, I’d like to think I was assessing them more on qualification than “gut feelings.” But I wonder now how I would’ve felt had Cherry Jones/Allison Taylor been the presidential candidate in that first season of *24*?

          • Jonathan Gray on May 30, 2010 at 4:38 PM

            but there were women presidents on film and TV before Hillary ran too, so I think there’s waaaaay more in play here than who got to be pres. on a TV show that only a very small portion of people watched anyways