True story: About halfway through this episode, I was trying to figure out what my introductory paragraph would focus on, and I’d decided I was going to do something about how, as much as I’ve been enjoying this season of 24, the “surprise” factor just wasn’t there. Lots of thrilling stuff has happened, and, depending on how the final two episodes shake out, I’d say this has been a successful return for the show, at least from a critical perspective. But we’ve gotten jaded by shocks in the years since 24 left the air, and sudden violent deaths and brutal plot twists don’t have the power to sucker punch us the way they once did. Maybe it’s just in the nature of the series itself. There are very few tricks left to pull that haven’t already been pulled, and it’s not hard to anticipate certain beats before they arrive. This doesn’t reduce the fun of those beats, but it does change the nature of the viewing experience. I’m invested in the story, and I want the good guys to win, but I’m don’t feel vulnerable in the same way I felt watching, say, Breaking Bad. I’m an old-hand by now; most of us are. It’s more comforting than it is harrowing.
That’s where I was halfway through. And truth be told, I still feel roughly the same way now that I did then (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have wasted a whole paragraph describing those feelings). But credit where it’s due: Things got pretty terrifically intense in the last 10 minutes of tonight’s episode, as a series of calamities combined to put most of the show’s major characters in a very bad place. It was bad enough that Chloe was stuck with Adrian (after one doomed attempt to escape him); then Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma) shows up with his gang of baddies, murders all the idiot members of Open Cell off-screen, and forces Adrian to hand over the override device. Jack and Kate may have worked out a way to track the device, but just as they’re closing in, the Russians (with assist from Mark) make their move. Adrian gets a bullet in the head, and Cheng uses the override device to convince an American nuclear submarine to fire on and destroy a Chinese carrier. Which, and I’m speculating here, is probably not going to go over well with the Chinese.
I’ve seen nearly all of 24 (I’ll confess to skimming through parts of season six), but I barely remembered Cheng. Chloe gives a quick backstory brush-up to Adrian to remind us of the history, but there’s a lot of history there, and she only covers the most recent details—namely that Cheng, who no longer works for the Chinese government, kidnapped and tortured Jack for a year, and did the same thing to Audrey when she came looking for him. (Kind of like a reverse The Vanishing.) There’s more, but if the show was hoping the audience would have some strong, immediate reaction to Cheng’s return, I’m not sure they pulled it off. That’s the drawback of being absolutely ruthless with your supporting characters; there’s not a lot of survivors left to turn to when you need that big third act twist.
Still, Cheng’s arrival works on the basic level it needs to work. Adrian was an asshole, but he wasn’t a very scary asshole (as great as Michael Wincott is), and bringing in someone with a history with Jack and an agenda more immediately nefarious than Adrian’s pie-in-the-sky “We’ll end all technological warfare!” dream helps to give us the necessary edge as we head into the final two hours. It looks like Cheng is trying to start a war between the US and China, or else he wants to make a big scene before making money demands, and either option gives Jack the threat level he needs to keep on being Jack. Plus, Chloe is caught up in the middle of it, and Chloe is probably the one potentially expendable character left whose fate seems to actually matter. I don’t think they’ll kill her, but it’s theoretically possible in a way it isn’t with Jack himself, and that’s enough to keep things intense.
As for the first half of the hour that had me so intent on predictability, well, it’s pretty predictable. I don’t mean that as a criticsm, either; the whole thing was enjoyable to watch, even if you could set your watch to some scenes. Like, say, the fact that Adrian betrayed Steve (I mean, he did give him a passport at least), or that Steve, after being brought back to the CIA building, had to face the wrath of both Jack and Kate, who learned the horrible truth that her dead husband had been framed by a man she considered a good friend. After she’s gone through all this agony believing she was a terrible agent who was betrayed by the man she loved, it turns out she was actually betrayed by someone she cared a bit less about, and her husband killed himself partly because she gave up on him. Which is fun for her.
Jack pounding the shit out of Steve’s hand in the interrogation room wasn’t particularly surprising, nor was Steve’s demand for full immunity in exchange for a way to track the override device. This is an old routine; Kate’s apparent decision to take on Steve herself offered a slight variation, but it wasn’t hard to guess that she and Jack were making a play. The best part was watching Benjamin Bratt turn up the smarm as he switched into full heel mode. He didn’t get a ton to do, but he was fun, and that last look on his face as he realizes he’s been played (and the play was pretty obvious) was satisfying. I doubt we’ll be seeing him around in the future.
While most of the hour was a forward rush of plot, the episode did find some time to let the actors remind us that these are people, not just well-animated chess pieces. Jack and Kate have a conversation in the car in which Kate talks about the last time she saw her husband, and Jack tells her (in vague terms) about all the people he killed trying to avenge Renee’s death. (This also serves as some convenient foreshadowing for when a truck full of Russians smashes in to Jack and Kate’s jeep.) Chloe also got her chance to do more than grimace, when Adrian (realizing his number is up) confesses to her that her husband and son actually died in an accident, and that what happened to them had nothing to do with her, or Jack, at all. It’s a conceptually goofy scene, as Adrian talks about finding some sort of convenient, unshakeable proof that he can’t really explain, but Mary Lynn Rajskub makes the moment work. Her read on “Why would you keep that from me?” makes her sound like a small child who has been very badly hurt; and in the midst of all the gunfire, explosions, and catastrophes, it’s an excellent reminder that sometimes the deepest wounds are the ones that leave no visible scar.
- Steve is really bad at his job. Even when he’s a bad guy, he’s bad at it.
- I believe this marks the 500th time I’ve referenced Breaking Bad in a TV Club review. I look forward to my cake.
- Is this the first time we heard Kate’s husband is dead? I mean, it would’ve made sense for that to come up in the first episode, but it’s been so long since then.
- Funniest scene in the episode: Mark leaving voice mails on the Russian’s cell phone. Oh Mark. You are very screwed.
- “Just so we’re being clear: I wasn’t asking. That was me being courteous.” -Jack to Erik. I feel bad for Erik at this point. He’s stuck in a bad spot.
- “I can assure you—full immunity is not on the table. But your hand is.” -Jack I’m not a torture fan, but that made me laugh.
- “How am I supposed to live with that?” “You just do.” Jack Bauer: Grief Counselor