Jack Bauer was supposed to be gone long before this. He was an answer to post-9/11 fear and vengeance, an American hero for the modern age who kicked terrorist’s ass and made us feel safer because he was always willing to go the extra mile, always willing to sacrifice more for his country. Knowing that people like him existed led us to believe that we could be kept safe even as wars broke out all over the world and extremists multiplied where we never dared imagine. Jack was there every Monday night to save us.
As concerns about terrorism (still a very real worry) ebbed towards issues about secret covert actions and government surveillance, 24 failed to adjust to the times and the show was cancelled in 2010. There were rumors of a film, but things never seemed to quite get out off the ground. The country’s love of Jack Bauer though was insatiable. He had become a cultural icon, a mix of Superman, James Bond and Rambo. Even as times change, his appeal doesn’t, and 24: Live Another Day promised to reintegrate Jack into our changing times for at least one more outing, this time in a 12-part series instead of the full 24.
Jack, the always perfectly intense Kiefer Sutherland, stationed this time in London, is attempting to save President Heller, William Devane, from the terrorist Margot Al-Harazi, Michelle Fairley. Along the way, he is helped by his ever trusty sidekick Chloe, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and newcomer CIA agent Kate Morgan, Yvonne Strahovski. This being 24, the plot constantly changes as we transition from Al-Harazi’s daughter to Al-Harazi to drones to Edward Snowden doppelganger Adrian Cross and finally to one of our favorite villains from 24’s past, Cheng Zi. Played by Tzi Ma, he is the perfect villain to bring 24 full-circle, a bridge character connecting Jack, Audrey and President Heller and this version of 24 to previous seasons. His mere presence raises the stakes for the characters as they must confront years of torture and anger at his expense.
There were moments during the season when the show strayed too much towards familiar territory, principally the coordination with a CIA station that does not trust Jack Bauer and their ineptitude costing Jack valuable time. With eight seasons, one mini-movie and now one television short series, the writers may just feel that some things are routine with 24 no matter how overused they are and an inept bureaucracy, unyielding terrorist mastermind and less interesting subplots involving characters we’ve just met are some of them. I could poke and prod the subplots of Kate Morgan, President Heller, Mark Boudreau and Steve Navarro for being unoriginal and contrite in the face of the action going on, but they are simply standards for the 24 series to keep the pace moving. In a way, it is almost a compliment to Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub for being so intense and so involving that it makes everything else seem like a distraction. Perhaps in some future iteration of the show, we will be given some breathing room to just focus on Jack and Chloe principally. The show would be stronger for it.
What this season of 24 did manage to pull off was the transforming of current fears into the narrative. With Edward Snowden, the expansion of spying programs, the carrying out of covert wars in faraway regions and resentment towards the United States globally for perceived war crimes carrying news broadcasts and headlines in recent months, 24 was able to present these issues while still maintaining its original premise. Chloe, Adrian Cross and all of their hacker comrades are disillusioned with a government they see as carrying out actions outside of the public eye that are criminal. They are working to reveal U.S. secrets in order to gain some transparency from a government they feel has breached too far, leading up to Cross’ decision to release the override to the world. The protests of Londoners against drone strikes is reflected all over the world as more and more covert actions replace actual war activities. Margot Al-Harazi is as much a terrorist as she is also a symbol of the fears we share about new technology such as drones ending up in the hands of the wrong people. As causes spread and social media allows cells to connect all over the world, the advancements in war robotics and their spread is cause for concern for all citizens. One of the interesting things about 24 is that it merely presents the issue rather than comments on it. Chloe and Cross are never portrayed as villains or heroes for attempting to reveal government secrets until Cross’ actions endanger people. The protests against drones and the antipathy towards the American government are never resolved so much as insinuated that something must be done. Jack simply stops Al-Harazi rather than makes any declarative statement about what we need to do with our military robotics. The writers are wise to defer judgment to us rather than attempt to write it into the narrative.
The conclusion of 24: Live Another Day reveals heartbreakingly the true soul of the show and its appeal all these years later. If Kate had saved Audrey, Jack had stopped Cheng and prevented the Russians from kidnapping Chloe in order to save himself from being handed over, the season would have ended on a false note, full of too much hope for the world we currently live in. Jack doesn’t get happy endings no matter how hard we may wish him to. Audrey’s death elevated this final episode and the entire season from being just one last go around for Jack to a persistent reminder of what he represents, a man who has to endure pain and suffering to keep us safe. It is what makes his character so compelling to watch after 9/11, after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after covert drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Jack sacrifices everything, his wife, a relationship with his daughter, his sanity at times and even the respect of the government he protects, to keep us safe. In a world that scares us with new threats every day, an ever-changing environment of murderers and wars and destruction, knowing that there is someone out there who will give everything, literally everything, to keep us safe is comforting.
At the conclusion of the mini-series, President Heller is just waiting for his Alzheimer’s to advance so he can forget about his life, Kate turns in her badge and in so doing her honor after failing to keep the President’s daughter safe and Chloe is left in remorse after her best friend gives himself up for her. In a way, all of these characters have suffered so much that the audience can forgive them for just trying to move on with their lives. Jack, however, we know deep down, will still lay it on the line, sacrificing everything we hold dear to keep us safe. There is a line in season four where then Secretary of Defense Heller tells Audrey, “The world needs people like Jack.” This has summed up the show for all these years. Until we reach that apex where we are free from fear whether it be from terrorists, foreign governments or covert spies, we will need to believe in people like Jack Bauer. I hope that we get to see him again. He makes us sleep better at night.