Jack Bauer is not a man much given to displays of emotion. Sure, he’ll let his anger (well, rage) show in a tense situation if he can get some leverage out of it, but when it comes to dealing with actual people, not targets, he gets awkward; desperate, shaky, and completely out of his depth. By now, the cliche of the hero who excels in his professional life only to fall apart when he’s away from the job has become tiresome and trite, a lazy way to create drama by amping up predictable contradictions. But Bauer’s inability to function as a normal human being has gone beyond cliche; it’s not that’s he’s late for his son’s recital or his daughter’s baseball game, or that he forgets his wife’s anniversary. It’s that the only way he seems to know how to live his life anymore is in motion, gun pointed forward, grimace locked in place.
There’s a sadness to that which has only gotten deeper as the show has progressed. The Jack of season one was a bit distant, a bit on edge, but for most of the run of that first day, he at least seemed like a person who was capable of having a home life, of being married and raising a daughter, and enjoying movie night and whatever the hell else it is that normal people on TV do. The pain at the end of that season was Jack learning that he can’t have that, not really; that what he does and who he is means that everyone around him, everyone he even has the slightest bit of feeling for, is at risk. But that pain wouldn’t exist without the possibility that maybe, someday, this might all work out. Maybe Jack could just be a guy who goes home at night, turns off his work phone, and grumbles about having to take his dog for a walk.
Contrast that with Jack now. Watching tonight’s penultimate hour, it’s hard not to wonder how all of this insanity is going to wind itself up; who’ll still be standing in the end, and who’ll be on their way to Hell. And with that wondering comes trying to figure out what kind of happy ending is even possible for our hero anymore. Most of the show’s main characters, even the ones who’ve experienced devastating trauma, you can still see them being part of the world again. Kate will probably have to do some counseling, and I’m sure she’ll carry the scars of what she’s learned this season for the rest of her life, but she could still be relatively okay. Mark is going to probably end up in prison, but Audrey and her father could end up fine. Even Chloe might wash the dye out of her hair and go back where she belongs.
But Jack? Man, you watch that phone conversation between him and Audrey, and you realize that this is probably the person he loves the most in the world, but whatever happens next, they won’t be riding off into the sunset together. Audrey could wind up shot next week; in the biggest twist of the episode, she winds up in the crosshairs of one of Cheng’s snipers, presumably to be used as a bargaining chip next week now that Jack, Kate, and Mark (!!!) have taken out his Russian contact. That doesn’t leave her in the best spot, but while I’m sure being once again in the clutches of a man who held her captive and tortured her isn’t going to do wonders for her mental state, she could walk away from it. But even if she does, can you imagine her and Jack seeing each other again? Him getting a regular job at the White House?
It just doesn’t wash. And that’s scary as we move into the end game. “9:00 PM—10:00 PM” gets shit done with brutal efficiency. Jack and Kate move from being attacked by the Russians to holding their own until back-up arrives; to realizing that Cheng has the override device (thanks to some quick thinking on Chloe’s part); to realizing that Mark betrayed them; and so on and so forth. While Jack and Kate follow the path that ultimately leads them to the assault on the Russians (giving Mark a chance to prove he’s not a complete heel), Heller struggles to prevent war from breaking out with China, and Erik—well, okay, not a lot going on with Erik. But Chloe does manage to escape from Cheng’s clutches, and while it’s pretty convenient the way the whole thing works out, it’s still a relief. Plus, it means we get a scene of Chloe whaling on dudes with a metal pipe, and I’m always for more of that.
Some of the twists this week were too convenient; the fact that Cheng is working with the Russians ties everything into a bow that’s neater than it needed to be. I appreciate how rigorous the season has been at combining all its subplots, but a little messiness at this point would’ve been fine. (I mean, presumably Jack, Kate, and/or Mark will find something useful in the dead Russian’s office, but still.) And the fact that Audrey gets captured so easily is at once inevitable in retrospect, and bordering on the edge of absurdity. How did Cheng know about the meeting? And I’m amazed Audrey would even be willing to leave the building knowing he was out there.
Really, though, the point is to set everything up for the finale next week, and to that end, the episode did its job. Things have moved faster than they ever have on 24, and while that sometimes means sacrificing complexity, it has made for a thrilling, hugely enjoyable ride. And the show has stayed true to its hero. Jack gets the job done, and that’s great so long as there’s a job to do. But every time he pauses or tries to deal with something that can’t be solved by a chase, a shout, and a gunshot, he falters. That faltering gives everything else that happens meaning; not just as an action series, but as the last thing a once good man has left.
Glad the show didn’t go full on turning Kate into Agent Hotness (in that there’s no awkward romance between her and Jack); her “Aim for the propane tank!” in the fight with the Russians was awesome.
Another great Jack moment: when talking with Heller, he mentions how Cheng had him “captive and tortured for a year and a half,” which sounds pretty damn horrible. But Kiefer Sutherland delivers it just like a piece of necessary information to prove his point—what matters isn’t that he suffered, but that the suffering gives him the credibility to make an accurate ID. When he’s on the job, everything in his life is just a tool to do what needs to be done. (Although that’s not a facade you can maintain forever, which is something else the show has been good at demonstrating over the years.)
“But what happens when the bullets start to fly?” “You’re gonna wanna stay low.”
- Jack’s phone call to Audrey sounds like him trying to ask her permission to fuck up her husband without actually asking her permission. He’s great at yelling at people he might need to shoot, not so great at other kinds of confrontation.