Keifer Sutherland, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Cherry Taylor, Freddie Prinz, Jr., Gregory Itzin, Necar Zadegan, James Boyd, Reed Diamond
Regular airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET
US: 24 May 2010
The eighth and final season of 24 ended on a threnody to selfless friendship and irrational loyalty. As she has done since she first joined 24 in 2003 as a surly comms whizz, Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) lied, stole secrets, expedited information, and defied co-workers, superiors and a President, all for Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland). There were few gripping moments in the series’ two-hour finale, but the closing scenes between Jack and Chloe resurrected the emotional intensity characteristic of the earlier series.
Such intensity occurred far too rarely in the preceding 22 episodes. Although more tightly plotted than the seventh series, Bauer’s final outing lacked the driving complexity of earlier seasons. Despite a surfeit of violence and death, nothing of much significance actually happened until near the end. Katee Sackhoff’s Dana Walsh, for instance, wasn’t quite an amoral counterpoint to Jack’s brutal good guy, but the lack of attention CTU paid to her increasingly ridiculous behavior and constant absences simply made the nation’s supposed front line against terrorism look grossly inefficient. As Dana’s unimportance was revealed, the charade of her secret life as a wanted criminal and spy-for-hire seemed so much wasted air time.
The series did pick up after the re-emergence of former President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) as Mephistophelian éminence grise to the struggling President Taylor (Cherry Jones). This reintroduced what the series always did best, the push and pull of psychological, not physical, pressure between two well-matched adversaries. As Taylor struggled to save her dream of an international peace treaty over the Middle East, her moral uncertainty and stealthy corruption of her honorable presidency was a joy to watch. And as Logan transfixed Taylor at the point where she realized she could no longer turn back without destroying herself, Jones’ performance matched Itzin’s own, her face alternating between presidential façade and human ruin. Unlike other villains in 24, who came to resemble the megalomaniac fictions of the James Bond franchise, Logan was menacing because he was so human: weak, ambitious far beyond his talents, and capable of justifying to himself any thought or action through a sometimes stunning pragmatism.
At the same time, the core of Sutherland’s performance rarely wavered. Even in this most extreme of Bauer’s incarnations, where killing moved beyond operational necessity into personal odyssey, Sutherland communicated the tragedy of long-term psychological destruction courted by professional death-dealers. He took full advantage of a physiognomy that can slip from an adolescent horror at the world to a snarling, ageless hatred within seconds. And so Bauer appealed even when behaving at his worst, reminding viewers that while he is fictional, he has counterparts who are real.
Sutherland even managed to bring a whisper of dignity to the Bourne-like ending, when Jack limps into a Chloe-enabled information blackout. (Chloe’s final line, “Close it down,” had more than a hint of Treadstone about it.) The mechanism of the closing was clever, no doubt, with Jack gazing up at a surveillance drone and Chloe and Cole (Freddie Prinze Jr.) seeing him eye-to-eye on a screen in CTU. But the farewell scene was smeared with a kind of weepy schmaltz that even Disney might abjure, predicated more on profit from a future movie than on the logic of Jack’s final acts.
And yet, in its death throes, 24 still raised discomfiting questions. Logan showed again that the men who lead the world’s only super-power retire now with potentially decades of active life ahead of them. And Jack and Chloe’s relationship—especially his excessive demands on her allegiance and her instinctive support of his decisions—parallels that between a civil society and those it trains and pays to protect it. How does a democracy control those it trains to kill and who is responsible for their actions? Is it with those who decide policies or execute them—or with those individuals who enable the actions taken in their name?
However uneven the plotting of the last two seasons of 24, and however predictable its variations on deception, duplicity, and greed, primetime TV will miss the seriousness of the show’s themes, especially in exposing the confrontations between morality and exigency that government entails. North Americans are quick to claim the rights of citizens. 24 reminded them that citizenship also imposes obligations.