24: A Retrospective

by Tom Ingram

24 has been one of the most interesting shows of the past decade. It was presented in real time, with each season spanning a single day and every episode representing one hour. But this was just a gimmick, something to get us hooked. The real reason 24 became so great was that it was a brilliantly written, tightly-plotted, and exciting show.

24‘s last episode aired yesterday, and we waved goodbye to Jack Bauer and his ever-rotating list of colleagues. Since it started in 2001, it’s been a wild ride, with some euphorically high points and stomach-voidingly low ones, and quite a lot in between. Every minute of it was tense excitement, and at the end of the day our questions were satisfactorily answered, unlike in certain competing shows (ahem). Let’s take a moment to reminisce on the good times and the bad times.

The Bad

Anything with Kim Bauer

Jack Bauer had a daughter, and her name was Kim. She occasionally did things that were relevant to the plot of the season, but usually she was off in another state just pissing around. But since the producers paid for Elisha Cuthbert, they wanted to get their money’s worth by giving her more screen time.

The result was several completely irrelevant asides in which Kim gets into all kinds of overblown shenanigans. The most famous of these is, of course, the cougar incident of season 2, where, in the middle of a plot about a nuclear bomb, Kim gets chased by a cougar while hiking in the woods and gets her ankle caught in a snare. This became a symbol for everything that was wrong with the show.

All of Season 4

The first two seasons of 24 were legendary. The third one was competent–exciting in passing, but nothing to write home about. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 24‘s fourth season is some of the worst television I’ve ever seen.

Instead of focusing on one terrorist plot, the season’s villain, Hahib Marwan, does everything: he takes over the Internet, steals a nuclear bomb, causes a meltdown at a nuclear plant, causes a blackout in LA, attempts to assassinate the President, bombs buses, and kidnaps prominent public figures. In the space of a day. Even while dealing with concepts of an epic scope, 24 was usually pretty good about keeping them plausible. That all went out the window for the duration of season four.

Politicians’ Deaths (or lack thereof)

The writers were constantly trying to kill off whoever was the president at the time, but apparently you’re not allowed to show politicians dying on TV in the States. The result was several near-misses, and a few implausible survivals.

David Palmer survived several assassination attempts (though that could also be chalked up to his badassery), and it wasn’t until he was retired from political life that one of them finally took. Secretary Heller sacrificed himself, driving his car off a cliff into the ocean to prevent the terrorists from using him as a bargaining chip. The whole moment is ruined later on when we find out he survived.

The best one, though, is President John Keeler. His plane was shot down, and it was a successful assassination in all but name: he’s never seen or heard from again, and his VP takes over the presidency.

The Walking Dead

This is a trick the show pulled a couple of times: make us think somebody’s dead, and then bring them back. Near the end of the fifth season, series regular Tony Almeida was very clearly stabbed in the heart with a poisonous solution he’d prepared himself (when Tony wants someone dead, they stay dead). He was taken away in a body bag. And yet, two seasons later, he’s back, and he’s pissed off.

It makes me wonder, what was the point of killing him off in the first place? He had perfectly legitimate reasons to just run off and sulk for a few years. If they were planning on bringing him back, why not do that instead of faking his death?

Amnesia

About halfway through the first season, Jack’s wife and daughter really stopped being relevant to the show. This led to Kim’s “cougar plots” described above, and the same thing happened to Teri. When she thinks her daughter has died, she comes down with a sudden case of amnesia, forgetting who she is and everything that had happened so far. Later on, she abruptly recovers, as if nothing happened.

Vampire Jack

At the beginning of the 6th season, Jack Bauer is chained to a chair, with only one guard around. He comes up with one of his trademark sneaky plans: lure the guard over to him and bite him on the neck. He did this, stealing the keys and escaping. Sure, it’s resourceful, but seriously. Ew.

The Good

Teri Shoots Twice

I mentioned that after the first half of season 1, Teri and Kim became irrelevant. What I left out was that before that point, they were badass. The two of them were captured by the terrorist Ira Gaines. One of Gaines’ men came into the room they were locked in to kill them. Teri wrestles the gun from his hand and shoots him before he gets a chance to hurt Kim. Then, coldly, she shoots him again. “They’ll be expecting two shots.”

The President vs a Couple of Thugs

Presidential candidate David Palmer is accosted in a parking garage by a couple of gangstas. They demand his money, and try to hit him with a baseball bat. Palmer calmly catches the bat mid-swing. Then he starts reciting talking points from his campaign at them. In the end, they smash his car window and run away. No worries, though–he has excellent insurance.

President Charles Logan Turns Evil

Hints were dropped during the fifth season. It was telegraphed fairly obviously, but given their usual light tread around the office of the President, we never thought they’d do it.

They did. President Charles Logan was revealed to be behind all the nefariousness in season 5. This was a great moment for the show, but it’s also the thing that killed it. As one writer said, the only place they could take Jack Bauer now is to the moon, and the next season flailed spastically before settling in and becoming boring. 24 should have ended with season 5.

Jack’s Towel Speech / “I’m Gonna Need a Hacksaw”

During the first season, a man who has information Jack needs is being particularly unhelpful. Jack decides he doesn’t have time for this shit, and makes a cold, deadpan threat:

You probably don’t think I could force this towel down your throat, but trust me, I can. All the way. Except that I’d hold onto this little bit at the end. When your stomach starts to digest the towel, I pull it out. Taking your stomach lining with it. Most people probably take about a week to die. It’s very painful.

Needless to say, he talks.

In the next season, in order to get information on a terrorist group, CTU needs a witness to talk. The witness is one Marshall Goren, a convicted murderer child molester. Goren smugly says that all he has to do is talk, he gets off free. Jack’s retort? Without warning, he whips out his gun and shoots Goren dead. As people around him look on in shock, he checks Goren’s pulse just to be sure, and then utters the immortal line:

I’m gonna need a hacksaw.

Jack Bauer Goes into Kill Mode

At the end of season 1, the villain, Victor Drazen, tries to organize a trade: Jack’s life in exchange for Kim’s. There’s only one problem with his plan: he doesn’t actually have Kim. He tries bluffing, but Jack doesn’t buy it. So he does what he knows will work: he gets his mole in CTU to tell Jack that Kim is dead, hoping Jack will break down and do an angry, suicidal attack. When Jack hears the news, he quickly goes through two emotions.

Grief and primal, murderous rage.

Drazen gets more than he bargained for. Jack drives a van through Drazen’s warehouse, kills all his men, and then coldly guns down Drazen and his son.

George Mason’s Sacrifice

Midway through season 2, a nuclear bomb has been smuggled into LA. Jack tracks it down, but the NEST team gives him bad news: there’s no way to disarm it. He immediately formulates a plan to detonate it in a deep depression in the Mojave desert, flying it in by plane. Jack doesn’t trust anyone else with the operation. He flies the plane himself.

Earlier in the season, Special Agent George Mason, the prickly CTU director who has had more than a few disagreements with Jack, led a SWAT team in a raid on a terrorist nuclear lab. During the raid he was exposed to lethal amounts of plutonium. Doctors gave him a day to live.

Mason suspected that Jack was trying to “take the easy way out” by going down with the bomb. He stowed away on the plane, and talked Jack into bailing out.

You still have a life, Jack. You wanna be a real hero? Here’s what you do. You get back down there and you put the pieces together. You find a way to forgive yourself for what happened to your wife. You make things right with your daughter, and you go on serving your country. That’d take some real guts.

George then flew the plane in himself, while dying from radiation sickness. This is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on TV. When I rewatched this episode to get the screencaps, a lump came to my throat. George Mason’s death remains the greatest moment in 24‘s long run.

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