One of the most fascinating (and uncomfortable) aspects of 24 has always been trying to figure out an ideological through-line for the series. You could argue there isn’t one, at least not one that remains consistent over the entire run, and that could be true. I don’t know as anyone working behind the scenes is trying to make a point beyond basics like “Systems will fail you” and “Heroism is requires sacrifice.” Yet there are certain assumptions that are so at odds with my own perspective that I’m sometimes at a loss as to what’s actually being communicated. In a way, that’s one of the reasons I’ve been willing to follow the series as long as I have: It feels like I’m getting a glimpse of a different perspective than we usually see on television, however unpleasant that perspective may be.

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At one point in tonight’s episode, a character lays down bin-Khalid’s plan—to infiltrate the country with sleeper cells brought in under false pretenses for a coordinated series of terror attacks that will bring the nation to its knees. It’s the usual over-the-top bad-guy scheme, made that much more uncomfortable by the fact that the premise seems tailor-made to support paranoid fears about foreigners who come to America only to destroy us from within. The characters accept the scope of this premise without question; no one wonders just how it’s possible for bin-Khalid to have accomplished this much, and there’s no debate over anyone’s understanding of what’s happening.

Partly that’s just how the show works: The heroes are the ones who assume the worst and act accordingly. (Hence Eric’s decision to break his former comrade out when Keith doesn’t immediately approve his plan.) That intensity is what makes the show so attractive to use as a political talking point, because it means forcing the audience to take certain presumptions as fact. Yes, this is all fiction, but it’s fiction that relies on exploiting certain cultural fears, and it presents itself as something that isn’t that distanced from our own reality. If you stop and think about it, it’s clear that this is all heightened to the point of absurdity, but again, the show is designed to avoid giving you a chance to stop and think.

All of which is pretty uncomfortable when we’re dealing with terrorism and xenophobia, but it gets weird when the writers use that expediency in ways that seem to undercut its presumed thematic intentions. Like, say, the way the series has always been deeply suspicious about the efficacy of law enforcement. Usually that just expresses itself as a condemnation of bureaucracy—Jack Bauer was a hero because he was a loner and he was willing to make the tough calls on his own, even if it meant going against the people who were supposed to be giving him orders. (Eric Carter is headed in much the same direction.) But there’s a scene in tonight’s hour where Isaac casually bribes a pair of police officers into letting Nicole go. It doesn’t matter that she’s actually in the right (self-defense); it’s the way the cops roll over at once when Isaac offers them money. Maybe the real message here is that no institution is safe. Everyone outside a small handful of noble badasses is hopelessly corrupted.

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Or hell, maybe there’s no message at all. That’s the real danger; it’s important to address the show’s assumptions, but it’s also worth pointing out that so much of this stuff happens because of the basic structural needs of each season. Isaac bribes the cops quickly because having Nicole locked up in jail would put her out of play for too long. She’d be safe, technically, and that would mean she couldn’t be used as an ongoing storyline to fill all those minutes when her husband isn’t on screen. Our heroes have to immediately assume that the list of sleeper agents is a deadly threat because they need the pressure to keep making the decisions that makes this foolishness (at its best) so thrilling to watch. But it’s still worth poking at what underlies all of this.

As for the events of this specific episode, “3:00 PM-4:00 PM” is something of a breather as the season shifts into its next focus. Nilaa continues to claim she’s innocent no matter how hard John Donovan pressures her, and the fact that we know she’s telling the truth adds a level of intense discomfort to watching her get spirited away to one of CTU’s magic torture rooms. (Keith spouting off about a “full biometric package” is enough to give you chills.) John figures out the truth fairly quickly and confronts his father, who lays out a usual “It’s not my fault, I did this for you” sob story; Henry was apparently blackmailed into helping the baddies when one of his underlings bought oil from ISIL. Which means that Jadalla is still the main bad guy (so far), and Henry is just a self-justifying dick. It remains to be seen if his son bought into his message; John calls Rebecca to tell her the truth, but the hour ends before we hear what he says.

The hour found the season’s weakest plotline so far—Ayesha’s reign of terror—jumping into high gear as Nicole manages to escape the spurned woman’s clutches and save Isaac’s life. This whole thing is still a dud, as Isaac’s drug business feels like an amalgamation of cop show cliches and Ayesha is a dull, annoying villain, but at least we didn’t have to endure a long and drawn out hostage situation. I mean, okay, we’ll probably have to deal with that later on because Nicole wasn’t able to shoot Ayesha or her friend, and there are a lot more hours to fill before we see the end of this. But for right now, at least, everyone is on the same page.

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The same is more or less true at CTU, which means, of course, it’s time for a shake up. With the flash drive back in the terrorists’ hands (it’s apparently damaged, which buys our heroes some time to get caught up), Eric is looking for any edge on tracking Jadalla. Ben, desperate to redeem his bad choices, offers one: an arms-dealer named Gabriel who also dabbles in human trafficking. Only problem is, to get to Gabriel they’ll need some weapons schematics. Keith rejects the plan (arguing Ben is too much of a risk), so Rebecca and Eric decide to go rogue. With Andy’s help, Rebecca gets the Onyx missile schematics to Eric, and Eric breaks Ben out of custody.

All of this is very, very familiar. It’s fun to see just how good Eric is at is job—and he’s very, very good—but it’s a bit much just how quickly all of this goes down. Admittedly neither Eric nor Rebecca know that Jadalla’s men are busy trying to reconstruct the (conveniently) damaged flash drive, so they’re feeling the pressure; but the fact that they both jump on the first possible way forward without any real confirmation or evidence outside of Ben’s promises and Eric’s gut makes them look kind of stupid. With everyone already operating under maximum pressure, it’s going to be harder to build as the season goes forward. If the good guys are willing to turn on one another less than a quarter of the way through the day, what’s left to surprise us?

Stray observations

  • Amira’s descent into hell continues at the hospital, where she meets Drew’s mother, almost decides not to commit murder, but then goes through with it when her victim wakes up at the worst possible moment. This continues to be very silly in a very grim sort of way.
  • The fact that Rebecca didn’t bother to have that ATM photo verified doesn’t reflect (ha!) well on her. It’s not even a plausible-looking picture. (I suppose it could turn out that Rebecca is behind all of this, but for right now, I’m just going to assume it was just an oversight.)
  • Nicole continues to be exactly as competent as the writers need her to be to keep her storyline going. She gets the drop on Ayesha pretty easily, but then lets both of her captors go when she can’t bring herself to shoot them. Which makes moderate sense (it would be hard to shoot someone in the back, especially for someone with no combat training), but still makes her look kind of foolish.
  • “And whatever they do to you at CTU, hold your mud.” Uh, thanks guy who I can only assume is a time traveler from the 1930s.

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