[11 January 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Look Jack, I read your file. I know you have a propensity for not trusting people.
—FBI Special Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching)
The government poisons everything in its path. You should know that better than me, Jack. Look what they did to you.
—Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard)
A few minutes into the second hour of Jack Bauer’s seventh very bad day, he’s stuck inside an FBI vehicle with an agent assigned to guard him. Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) gazes out the window, moping or maybe pondering his next move. The young agent turns to him and speaks solemnly. “Mr. Bauer, I just wanted you to know, what they’re making you go through at that Senate hearing, it’s wrong.”
Jack nods, accepting the support but also corrects this upright whippersnapper. The hearing, which serves as the brief first scene of this season of 24 (which begins with a four-hour block on 11 and 12 January), pits Jack against self-righteous Senator Myer (Kurtwood Smith) to defend his “extreme interrogation” techniques. Having been subpoenaed by the FBI to find terrorists who have hacked into U.S. air traffic control, he now sits and waits, uncowed and again, a step ahead of everyone else. He tells the agent the hearing will bring “everything” out in the open. “We’ve done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country,” he sighs, “We’ve created two worlds, ours and the people we promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth and they can decide how far they want to let us go.”
As usual, Jack’s self-evaluation sounds reasonable. Ever the passionate patriot, he has long rationalized his abuses of the law and suspects as means to a most important end (saving the nation, innocent civilians, his family, and his president when that president is Dennis Haysbert). Also a dark-sidey product of his post-9/11 moment, Jack has engendered and articulated multiple debates concerning the morality, legality, and politics of torture. Amid the arguments, Jack has appeared increasingly conflicted: even though he may feel justified, he also feels bad—about seeing his wife (Leslie Hope) killed, torturing his girlfriend’s ex (James Frain) or his own weaselly brother (Paul McCrane), shooting fellow CTU agent Curtis (Roger Cross), and especially about watching Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) die in his arms.
Jack’s anguish—usually revealed in close-ups of his fuming, frustrated, or stoically suffering face—makes visible the costs of torture for the torturer. Even though his efforts tend to pay off (thus repressing one of the major contentions against torture, that it yields precious little useful intel), he has increasingly lost faith in the process of government and especially the officials who direct his actions. Even as he speaks to the young agent looking for affirmation of law-breaking, life-saving violence, Jack’s rationale sounds implausible or at least incomplete. (This point is underlined in the fourth hour, when he uses the same line about exposing the “truth” as a way to convince an enemy that he’s trustworthy during an undercover operation: this guy, a former Special Forces officer in Beirut, Mogadishu, and Afghanistan, turned private contractor, seems to take Jack’s word that he shares his disdain for civilians who don’t know what it’s like to go “to the edge and look over.” Jack phrases it slightly differently, asking, “That’s the question, isn’t it? Where do the rules of engagement end and the crimes begin?”).
For the contractor, going to the “edge” grants experience and insight mere mortals lack; it makes him believe in himself and his training, confirms his self-identity as a soldier while allowing him to reject orders by know-nothings. For Jack, going to the edge repeatedly reaffirms his commitment to “country” (those “people we promised to protect”). But it also makes him question methodologies and motives, and outright despise representatives of that same country (say, President Logan). For Jack, the most crucial question always concerns trust—in goals, systems, and especially, individuals.
This makes Jack’s weekly (hourly) dilemma intensely melodramatic, as he makes decision after decision based on personal relationships. For all the split-screened action in 24 (the stunts, shootouts, and ticking time bomb torture sessions), the focus on Jack’s personal stakes (his friendships, family tensions, and romances) makes him sympathetic and perversely familiar, even if his crises are outsized, like, say, a presidential assassination or nuclear devastation.
The new season’s crisis, jumpstarted with Jack’s prequel adventure in the fictional nation of Sengala, 24: Redemption, involves genocide and terrorism; a new, progressive-minded U.S. president, Alison Taylor (Cherry Jones); and the FBI, presented here as rule-bound, in contrast to Jack’s old Counter-Terrorism Unit, now disbanded and disgraced (see: the Senate hearing). As the season opens, Taylor is stuck between hard places: she’s promised the former/exiled prime minister of Sengala, Motobou (Isaach de Bankolé) to send U.S. troops to stop the genocide being perpetrated by General Juma (Tony Todd) and his vengeful ally Dubaku (Hakeem Kae-Kazim). The latter, mad because Jack killed his brother in Africa, is working inside the U.S. with terrorists who, during the first hour, seize control of the nation’s infrastructure (including ATC, power grids, water supplies), displaying their power quite spectacularly by nearly crashing two passenger jets at JFK.
The development of these plotlines and others similarly premised on questions of trust (enemies working inside the White House and the FBI) makes Jack’s day increasingly difficult. As usual, the show is setting up a series of parallels to complicate his/your moral universe. An FBI agent, Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) first distrusts, then trusts, then feels betrayed by Jack, her emotional trajectory bound up in a weird relationship to his renowned use of torture. When they’re working together on a suspect, she tells him to do “whatever it takes” to extract information, then, when the interrogation is cut short, afterwards asks how far he would have gone. (The suspect, for his part, has a sense of humor about Jack’s reputation: “Is this how it starts?” he asks as Jack steps to him. “You get in my face, tighten your jaw, and then, if I say something you don’t like, you slam me against the wall?” You know, of course, this is exactly what happens when Jack enhances his interrogations.) Jack puts her off, but she later follows his lead on her own suspect, her particular method even more brutal than his, which suggests she’s becoming a next-step-in-Jackness, an FBI agent breaking rules (as opposed to a CTU agent, who had little respect for the laws the FBI keeps saying it adheres to).
At FBI headquarters, full of cubicles and monitors and multiple security levels, Renee even has her own Chloe (Mary Lyn Rajskub) in Janis (Janeane Garafolo), Nerdish, brilliant, and concerned with moral and legal niceties, she appears in one sequence in split screens with Chloe, as both work the FBI security system to monitor Jack’s efforts to break out of the building. It’s an amusing moment, making several points: repetition structures weekly television series as much as it does bureaucracies; terrific women techs make this action-packed world turn; and, perhaps most important, tech fails just when you need it most, meaning, you have to fall back on instinct and again, trust. Jack’s nearly complete trust in Chloe and Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) allows him to reclaim his roguish status (after turning himself over to the ignorant Senate and the wussy FBI) and become the Jack Bauer he used to be, in startlingly short order. That his, his decision to expose all the “secret things” he did is quickly left behind so he can do some more of them.
Of course, the most profound component in this decision—and the most compelling reason to watch the new season—is Tony. Resurrected for this season, Tony appears to be the leader of that terrorist cell with control of the infrastructure. When Jack apprehends Tony for the FBI, their longstanding intimacy is tested severely. Where before they shared everything—action sequences, questions of loyalties, dead wives—now they seem at odds. Jack’s interrogation of the suspect Tony, on behalf of the Bureau, is vintage 24, full of close-up grimaces and slams into walls. As Renee observes, the two men push each other’s buttons, each convinced he knows the other well enough to win the contest.
This scene, so familiar and excessive, suggests a few things about this new season of 24. One, it is returning to its own past, that most effective masculine melodrama. Two, it is making that return meta, arranging plot points to emphasize official repetitions and narrative redundancies. And three, it is yet again making torture its most salient focus. With their long histories together and apart, as torturers and victims of torture, Tony and Jack are simultaneously same and opposite, mirror images and soulmates. Their intimacy—desperate and devoted—is wholly manifest in the interrogation scene, in Tony’s whispered words, in Jack’s contorted face. These guys know what it means to look over the edge, into each other.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/68894-twenty-four/