There’s a moment when Jack Bauer stops. It’s not hard to spot; he’s sitting in the bowels of the Russian ship, just a hundred feet away from Cheng, and before he can make the final assault, Kate calls. The news is bad, about as bad as it could be, and that’s when Jack just—stops. The professional rage-face Sutherland uses when Jack is in attack mode slips away, and it’s like he’s an eight year-old kid who just saw his dog run over. Only it’s worse, because this is no dog, and because he knows that even though he had no other choice, he’s in some way responsible for what happened. Cheng gave the order, and the anonymous second gunman pulled the trigger, but Jack was the one who knew what the stakes were, and knew he had to put Audrey’s life at hazard for the sake of the millions who would die if the US and China went to war. He took the risk. She lost. And when the news hits him, the momentum that’s kept him alive so long collapses, and for that moment, he’s not a hero or a warrior or the ultimate bad-ass. He’s just lost.
24 has always excelled at giving up moments like this one; never too many of them, and always at the exact right time in the story. It’s what balances the brutal action that defines so much of the series—most of the time, we’re cheering and wincing, and then every so often there’s a reminder that there’s a cost to all of this. That the world gets saved over and over again, but the people doing the saving have to pay for their victories with their souls; not just once, but every new day. It’s a theme that could, in lesser hands, seem flatly melodramatic and manipulative, and if you’d asked me before watching this episode, I would’ve said that killing Audrey was exactly that; a needlessly cruel plot twist that uses one of the show’s few remaining emotional relationships for a cheap and ultimately hollow gut-punch. But it worked. In context, Audrey’s death played less like a writer’s gimmick, and more like the inevitable outcome of a chain reaction that started when Jack arrived on the scene eleven hours before.
Good writing helps; the fact that Audrey dies not from a surprise attack allows Jack and Kate to do everything they can to save her, which means they don’t end up looking stupid or helpless. (Okay, maybe Kate should feel bad about not expecting there to be a second gunmen, but while you could chalk that up to sloppy scripting, I think it’s intentional; the reason Audrey dies, and the reason so many good people have been killed over the run of the show is built into the real-time premise. 24 hours is a long time to stay constantly vigilant. So is 12. Eventually mistakes will be made, no matter how good you are, and those mistakes will hit you where you are most vulnerable.) More importantly, the acting is terrific on all counts. Kim Reaver makes the most of her final moments, and while I was never a huge fan of her character, the actress helps to ensure her loss registers. Yvonne Strahovski (who’s been great throughout) is convincingly horrified and guilt-ridden when she calls Jack, which sets up her apparent resignation from the CIA at the end of the hour. Her husband’s suicide was bad enough; two deaths is enough for any conscience to live with.
Then there’s William Devane, who gets the most unexpectedly devastating scene in the entire hour. 24 is, when it comes to the big emotions, a pretty straightforward series. When people are angry, they’re angry; when they’re grieving, they’re grieving. And Heller is clearly grieving—after successfully stopping World War III (with a little help from Jack), he learns the news about Audrey and collapses onto the floor, as though the age he’s been holding off all day has finally caught up with him. But the real kicker comes later, when the episode jumps twelve hours into the future, in time to see Heller and the Prime Minster (among others) watch as Audrey’s coffin is loaded onto Air Force One.
Heller has this expression on his face that seems almost inappropriate; he’s smiling, sort of, although I wouldn’t call it a happy smile. The PM offers his condolences, and Heller tells a story about a picture on his desk—a picture of a beautiful woman whom he didn’t recognize, until he finally he remembered it was his daughter. It’s no real consolation, but someday soon, he won’t remember what happened today, that Audrey died, or that he had a daughter at all. Someday soon, everything will be behind him, and that means losing the grief along with the love. In 24, that almost counts as a happy ending.
It’s a fantastic speech, well-delivered and upsetting and sort of bitterly funny, in a way so pitch black the eye can barely register it. The end of the season is, in the broadest strokes, a positive one. People died, but most were saved. Margot Al-Harazi blew up a hospital, but she didn’t get her revenge on Heller, and she didn’t wipe out most of central London with drone missiles. Adrian Cross tried to sell the override device to the highest bidder, and got a bullet in his head. Cheng and the Russians tried to start a war, and now most of them are dead, and there’s no war, although I guess having Jack under arrest is a moderate consolation prize. The world continues on its axis. The bad guys didn’t win.
Maybe that’s why the show manages to avoid turning into a slog of misery and regret; because unlike The Walking Dead, there’s a sense that millions of people are benefiting from the terrible sacrifices these heroes make. The lesson isn’t, “The world is shit and all your attempts to survive aren’t ever going to change that.” The lesson is, “Some of the world is shit, and if you bury yourself neck deep, maybe you can protect other people from that shit—but you’ll never get away from the smell, no matter how hard you try.” (This is not my best metaphor.)
That moment when Jack stops—it works because Sutherland is so damn good in the role (try and imagine someone else in the part; it’d either be too bland, or try to hard to “humanize” a man who needs to be %90 machine), and because the sight of him pulling out his handgun and clearly thinking of blowing his brains out is maybe the most shocking moment in a season full of hard twists. Finally, we see just how far Jack has fallen, and it re-contextualizes everything else, enough so that his harshness, the anger that’s kept him going the whole twelve hours, makes perfect sense.
Then the bad guys show up, and Jack goes full bezerker, and that’s the other reason the moment works: because we know it’s only temporary. It’s sort of like our own cost. We want to see Jack Bauer take out a ship full of bad guys, we want to see him using Chloe’s satellite view to plow through armed guards with the efficiency of a man mowing a lawn. We want to see him take that sword down off the wall and chop off Cheng’s head. But if we’re going to see all that, then we need to see what’s underneath too. We need to see that the bad-ass isn’t something that happens in a vacuum, and it’s not something that comes easily. Jack is damn good at what he does, but being that good means giving up almost everything that makes life worth living: a home, a family, basic peace of mind. This means the action scenes have weight. They’re thrilling to watch, but there’s something frightening about them as well. Jack always pays for what he owns.
But this isn’t completely without hope. I mean, it very nearly almost entirely is. Jack ends up with the Russians in the end, and you know they’re going to torture the shit out of him; and you know he’s almost looking forward to it, because of the way he smiles (slightly) on the flight out. Torturing is no fun, but hey, he won’t have to think about Audrey. It’s not as thorough a solution as Heller’s, but it’s something.
That’s not the hope I mean, though. There’s an exchange in this episode that actually made me cry, I don’t mind admitting, and it wasn’t about anyone dying or forgetting their loved ones. Early in the hour, Chloe calls Jack and begs him to come pick her up so she can help out on the assault on Cheng. He’s reluctant at first, but she’s desperate, and he gives in; and when they see each other again, she explains what happened with Adrian, and how Adrian used her ideas to build the override device; and how she needs to help stop Cheng to make up for her own sins, however inadvertent they might have been. Jack still doesn’t quite accept this, so Chloe finally says, “At this point, I think I’m the only friend you have left. Whether you want to admit it or not.” So Jack relents. He even tells her it’s not her fault, and then later, “Thank you. For everything.”
That was lovely—it seems like a small thing, but one of the smarter aspects of the series’ relentless approach to plotting and character is that it makes the rare moments of non-expository communication all the more affecting. Jack is so on target most of the time that whenever he’s recognizably human, you can’t help noticing.
What got me, though, came at the end. Chloe gets grabbed by the Russians in the middle of the attack on Cheng, and the Russians force Jack to make an exchange. Since this is the end of the season (which means he’s no longer needed in the field), and since Jack just found out Audrey is dead, he agrees to give up himself up. They meet up in an empty part of town, and the Russians send Chloe across, as Jack walks to where the helicopter is waiting to take him away. They meet each other at the halfway point, and Jack says, “You were right about what you said earlier. About being my best friend.” Then he briefly takes her hand. That was a hell of a thing right there, so pure and kind that it somehow makes the suffering a little easier to take. He’s lost nearly everything, but he can still save Chloe. That’s one bridge that stays unburned.
This has been a terrific season of television, sharp and well-plotted throughout. Jack Bauer returned pretty much the same as ever, if a little worse for wear, and the show’s creative team made the shortened running time into a major boon. What could’ve been a misplaced excuse for nostalgia turned out to be one of the summer’s best surprises, with a good cast, great action, and a story that holds together better than maybe any other story in the history of the series. And Jack tells Chloe she’s his best friend. I don’t really think the word “perfect” belongs in criticism, and I don’t think this season was perfect, but still. I can’t imagine it any better than this.
- Poor Mark. It’s a sign of how strong Tate Donovan was in the role that I actually felt bad for him at the end. He does his duty, helps Jack take out (some of) the Russians, and then the one person who might’ve been able to plead his case, or at least convince Heller to show mercy, gets killed; worse, the one person is his wife. The last we see of him, he’s getting hauled off in handcuffs to fly back to the states, where he’ll be put on trial for treason and almost certainly convicted. He deserves it, but it still feels like a raw deal.
- “She loves you.” “SHUT UP!” Mark and Jack would make a great buddy comedy team.
- I was critical last week of the twist that put Audrey in the line of fire, but I’d argue that the way that plays out this week makes up for the implausibility. Same thing goes for Chloe getting grabbed in the middle of the attack. Maybe it’s not the most logical thing to happen ever, but it works well enough to get the job done.
- Audrey got the silent clock.
- The whole sequence on the boat—starting with Jack and Bellcheck systematically going through Cheng’s guards, then Jack learning about Audrey, then Jack going crazy, and finally Jack lopping off Cheng’s head—was fantastic. One of the best sequences I’ve seen on this show, and the rest of the episode was just as great, if not quite so intense. (At a certain point, I stopped taking notes because I wanted to keep watching.)
- Thanks for reading, folks.