Last week, I made a joke about how often characters on 24 are struck with disbelief at moments when it would be most narratively convenient for them to be so stricken. But really, that’s just a symptom of one of the show’s most basic storytelling tools, a tool that works okay in small doses, but suffers when it’s forced to do too much of the hefty lifting: the Obstacle.
Pretty much all narratives have obstacles that prevent their protagonists from immediately achieving their goals, because without that, all stories would be very, very short. (“Frodo had the One Ring. He broke it. SAURON WAS DEFEATED.”) But 24 takes this idea to ludicrous extremes, featuring characters whose entire purpose is to stand in the way of whatever it is that needs doing, with an obstinacy and determination that goes beyond all rational thought. At its best, the heightened nature of the show’s conflicts makes these clashes of ideology as believable as they are frustrating; at its worst, you just have people who are assholes for no better reason than we have 24 episodes to fill, dammit, and Jack can’t shoot someone in the knee in all of them. (I mean, he could, but it would probably get old after a while. Maybe.)
I mention all this because the reason “3:00 PM—4:00 PM” works so well is that there’s no real contrivance in it. There are characters who disagree, and often those disagreements prevent the “real” heroes (i.e. Jack, Chloe, and Kate) from getting the job done, but those disagreements all come from rational, even reasonable places. President Heller doesn’t immediately agree to release Jack, but even while all of us in the audience realize he’ll have to eventually, it’s not like Jack’s offer is exactly reassuring: “Let me go find this guy and I’ll do a thing, and then I promise I’ll come back” isn’t a promise that inspires a lot of confidence.
Even more importantly, Heller is provided with another option mere minutes after his confrontation with Jack, an option which means he can seemingly sidestep the issue entirely. Of course, this option (an apparent flaw in Margot’s video security that ultimately leads a bunch of CIA guys into a trap) backfires horribly, but it looks pretty legit at first; and when everything goes wrong, that just paves the way for the next hour, when Jack will presumably be let out of his cage. Or else Kate will break him out. We’ll have to see on that one.
This kind of solid logic pervades the episode, with people consistently making decisions that are rational, understandable, and which raise the stakes throughout. If the administration ignored Jack’s warnings and the confirmation Chloe finds in the flight key, they’d look like idiots, and the tension of Margot’s threat would diminish; the easier the show makes it for her to achieve her goals, the less impressive it will be when Jack and the others finally defeat her. When Heller learns about the flight key data, he immediately orders the drones grounded. There’s no real debate, no hemming and hawing about wanting confirmation. The potential for danger is so critical that the smart decision is to proceed as if everything Jack has said is true.
There have been seasons in the past when the show wouldn’t have done this—when the people in charge would’ve been needlessly stubborn, to buy a few more precious hours of plotting. Not this time. We’ve yet to see any dropped hours (this is apparently how the series plans to handle the 12 episode run), but the effect of a shortened running time is already evident. The story is streamlined in comparison to classic 24. No cougars here, at least not so far.
Even the the one plotline I was less than thrilled about—Naveed’s doomed attempts at rebellion—delivers. Last week, I praised the show for taking a slightly different direction than I was expecting, as Margot used her daughter as leverage to force Naveed to do her bidding. This week, the show flips again, and goes back to what I’d originally assumed was always going to happen: Naveed tries one last desperate attempt at rebellion (which also serves as a decent narrative fake-out), and Margot decides she’s had enough. With her other helper (Ian) willing to take over as drone pilot, Margot has Naveed hauled out of the room. She waits to make sure that Ian is up to the task, and once he proves himself, she shoots Naveed in the head.
It’s brutal, and I’m surprised at how good a job the actor (Sacha Dhawan) and the script do at making the character’s final moments legitimately upsetting. I was sorry to see him go. Just as important, Margot manages to be both ruthless and smart. She’s not shooting an underling for failing her; she’s eliminating a problem from a system that can’t afford any mistakes. And she makes sure she doesn’t need Naveed around anymore before she eliminates him.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that Jack spends this entire episode trapped in a room, and this never comes across as a bad idea. In effect, the hour throws the action and suspense on the shoulders of the rest of the cast, and while I’m not sure I’d want to watch an entire series focusing on any of these people (except for Chloe, naturally), there isn’t a dud moment in the bunch. Even Mark makes a few stabs at decency, apologizing to Heller and then to Audrey about his choices. Of course, we find out almost immediately after that how Mark kept information about civilian casualties in a drone strike hidden from Heller, but hey, if he’s a gonna be a douchebag, it helps if he’s a complicated one.
Still, as fun as it is to watch Kate and Chloe team up, Jack gets the heavier stuff of the hour, and it’s as terrific as you might hope. His conversation with President Heller is all curt confidence and barely restrained threats; it doesn’t break out into a fight, but it has the feel of two men being very careful not to start yelling. But Jack’s scene with Audrey is devastating, in a way that can only come from characters with this much history and time between them.
It doesn’t matter how convoluted Audrey’s story got by the end. What matters is how the intensity of the emotion feels entirely legitimate. In the midst of the constant rush of expository dialogue, of people rushing to beat the clock and explaining to each other over and over and over again just what the stakes are, it’s gratifying to have a scene where nothing of consequence happens, but in which every second matters. Jack has a lost a lot humanity over the years. It’s nice to see he still has some left, no matter how much it hurts.
- Open Cell decides to pick up stakes and move when the drone threat breaks wide. I kept waiting for Adrian to pull another dick move and try and use Chloe’s access to Kate to break into the CIA servers. He hasn’t yet, but there’s still time.
- Tanner’s been exonerated! But we don’t see him this week.
- That Marine really didn’t like Kate. Screw that guy.
- Margot first tells Simone not to “blame yourself,” and then tells Naveed, “She’ll recover. No thanks to you.” The woman’s heart is just bursting with love.
- Chloe: “If I saw it, I wouldn’t have said ‘what’.” (Transcription can’t really capture the delivery, sadly.)
- New drinking game: take a shot every time someone mentions Kate’s husband. Take two shots if they waste time reminding her what her husband did.
- Steve mentions Kate’s husband and “what he did to this country.” Drink!
- “It was complicated, but I killed those people. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” and “You need to go. You need to go now. Audrey, you need to go now,” aren’t poetry (and the first line is borderline laughable if you try and imagine what it would be like if Jack actually explained those complications), but they work damn well. Kiefer Sutherland and Kim Raver nail the hell out of that scene.