In spite of the Chuck Norris-like heights of manly mythology the character has attained, Jack Bauer of 24 is seemingly unable to please anyone. Bauer’s stoicism and feats of strength precede him. Although as played with a frequent grimace by Kiefer Sutherland, he is a character always drifting in and out of favor with everyone around him. To know too much about what Bauer does is to find oneself in a dangerous position.
Bauer’s rogue, lone wolf approach is therefore necessary to his central mission of keeping America safe. Often, he must “go dark”—communicatively and emotionally—in order to combat various threats to the nation. Each season of 24 presents a daylong, real-time conflict between righteous rebel Bauer, the suits above him, and the criminals beneath him. Over the course of six seasons, Bauer’s family and friends have all but disappeared, many at his insistence.
For some viewers, an error of season six was to force this isolation and introspection to a point that the character became weak. It’s plausible to accept Bauer’s solitude as an essential means of doing his work, but when it manifests itself as a passive thousand-yard stare, the action level inevitably decreases. 24 is after all, a show that depends on an active hero.
Few within the story world of 24 would tell Bauer to be more aggressive, but longtime fans of the show were very willing to offer that criticism, albeit mostly in anonymous message boards. The sixth season also revealed a general tiredness of plot. Romantic entanglements, a recycled nuclear threat, and an uneven, revolving series of antagonists were among the speed bumps that sapped the show’s normally thrilling momentum.
Long-delayed season seven answers these criticisms with a fiery blend of political crises, family dramas and exhilarating action sequences. In this manner, the season represents what some would call a return to form. Yet most interesting is the way Day Seven directly addresses a larger debate concerning the show’s questionable depictions of allegiance, justice and vengeance.
As the first episode opens, Bauer testifies before the United States Senate. He acknowledges and defends his use of torture against suspected terrorists. The Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU)—no longer functioning and now essentially on trial—is what had provided, alternately, both the mandate and the roadblock to Bauer’s actions, depending on his standards for the situation.
By contextualizing torture as a personally determined means of adapting to one’s enemy, regardless of whether it squares with institutional protocol, Bauer’s “confession” risks turning him from antihero to villain. However, his justification for past actions is palpable to viewers with a good memory of the character’s history. He very much bears the scars of making the tough calls—decisions that have saved many lives—so he remains sympathetic despite whatever admissions he now chooses to make.
Lest the season stumble back into the graveness of Day Six right away, the FBI comes calling, as Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) interrupts the proceedings to commandeer Bauer. This development does seem a bit convenient, but it sets into motion a fascinating convergence of crises for Bauer that revitalize the character and the series.
It seems that the late Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), Jack’s friend and former CTU associate, has awakened from the dead. This soap operatic plot twist, a persistent rumor, became a reality in the run-up to Day Seven and was a source of genuine excitement for the show’s return. The writers handle the resurrection of Almeida in a relatively plausible way, subtly introducing him as part of a terror plot designed to thwart President Allison Taylor’s (Cherry Jones) military invasion of the fictional African nation of Sangala.
The unrest in Sangala—and the personal stakes it involved for the exiled Bauer—formed much of the drama of 24: Redemption, which served as a prequel to the season. To briefly review, General Benjamin Juma’s (Tony Todd) coup d’état and its associated genocide resulted in Bauer’s return to the US and now continue to plague the Taylor administration.
As is always the case on 24, these initial plot developments trigger revelations as each episode unfolds. Story arcs travel up the ladder to super-villains pulling strings. Sometimes, as in season six, these associations and conspiracies aren’t believable. But in season seven, the dramatic situations of Bauer, Walker, Almeida and Taylor are all rooted in the dilemma at the heart of Bauer’s testimony as well as the central drama of 24 as a whole—specifically the struggle to reconcile institutional and national allegiance with one’s own moral code and familial obligations. In this manner, the plot cannily proceeds to place all of the principal characters in circumstances similar to those Bauer outlines in his brief statement to the Senate.
Though to force other characters to confront the quandaries normally reserved for Bauer isn’t to minimize him as a protagonist. He remains very much at the center, as most of the successful moments of the season stem from his conflicts being shared in earnest by other complex characters.
Agent Walker originally reaches out to Bauer to aid the FBI investigation into a security issue, but quickly finds herself in several classic Bauer scenarios: Possibly left for dead, playing dead, going rogue, considering the usefulness of enhanced interrogation techniques/ torture, and meting out an individually rationalized form of justice. Moreover, her FBI office resembles the defunct CTU, with intra-office rivalries (most markedly between Walker and Agent Larry Moss), a rigid computer expert (Janeane Garofalo’s Janis Gold), and of course, a mole leaking information to the terrorists.
Additionally, CTU is still operating in an underground form. Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) reveal their ongoing efforts to Bauer, whose friendship with the mysterious Almeida is now colored by mistrust. Almeida’s indeterminate allegiance is intriguing because he is clearly disturbed by past events, especially the murder of his beloved wife Michelle. This is something to which Bauer could certainly relate, having lost his own wife in similar circumstances years earlier.
But Bauer’s admittedly complicated relationship to reprisal never pushed him to the sort of darkness that strongly tempts the now vengeful Almeida. Having gained the trust of O’Brian and Buchanan, Almeida says he wants to stop the current terrorist threat using his criminal connections. Yet Bauer remains skeptical of his former friend and colleague’s shifting loyalties, even as Almeida’s insider information aids the good guys’ and gals’ efforts.
Finally, the story thread of President Taylor, played by the inimitable Jones, synthesizes all of these concerns at the seeming apex of accountability. The stakes are highest for the President because she represents the authority to which all of the other characters must answer. Her decisions are fraught with multiple conflicts at once, and Jones masterfully conveys the anguish of these no-win situations, even if the scripts do require her to tear up a bit too often.
One of the most satisfyingly executed strands of the plot is the fundamental clash between Taylor’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists and the terrorists who will stop at nothing to force her to retreat from Sangala. There is immense tension between these opposing ideologies (themselves dramatizations of timely, real-life conflicts), and the writers build the pressure to a stunning showdown at the White House. More alarming than this show-stopping attack is the suggestion that a larger network of terrorists, much nearer to home, is in fact responsible for the day’s events and capable of much more destruction.
Combined with this international crisis is Taylor’s management of her own warring family and administration. The events of the season reveal Bauer to be one of her few reliable confidants, and her concessions to him allow him to operate outside of the law. But part of Taylor’s complex inner conflict is the awareness that she should not allow lawlessness, especially in those closest to her, and by season’s end her (literal) domestic threat becomes a proving ground for her own righteousness and responsibility.
To reveal more than this would spoil the many pleasures of the show’s elaborate plotting. Suffice it to state that season seven amplifies Bauer’s vulnerability, Almeida’s ambiguity, foreign and domestic villainy, and some government figures’ culpability. Indeed, Jack Bauer’s shrinking circle of colleagues is the result of his need to transcend—to live outside the law in order to enforce the law.
To stay within that circle is to inherit the near-messianic (“I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill”) duty of being totally virtuous and wholly selfless in one’s response to violence and pursuit of peace and justice. The difficult sustainability—for most, the impossibility—of that position is more thoughtfully expressed in season seven than in any previous installment of 24.