Who's Straight, Who's Lying
This show is a tragedy in the most classic sense of the word, littered with dead bodies.
—Producer/Writer Howard Gordon, commentary, “3-4pm”
I’m not the man you knew before.
—Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), “10-11pm”
Something’s not right here. This is all too easy.
—Sherry (Penny Johnson-Gerald), “12am-1pm”
“What happens next is on you, Jack!” So what else is new?
At the start of 24‘s third season, Ramon Salazar (Joaquim de Almeida) is mad at Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Ramon has just murdered his lawyer, just as he was supposedly signing an agreement with the U.S. government, locked inside a high security L.A. prison. One of two big dealio Mexican drug lord brothers, Ramon was busted by Jack, incarcerated and infuriated. Now he has found a way to get his revenge.
Ramon’s threat is most profoundly premised on his assertion that he and Jack are alike, an idea that fills the dedicated Counter Terrorism Unit agent with rage and revulsion. “We are connected now,” smirks Ramon just after the murder. “I don’t know. Maybe we always have been.” The nefarious intricacies of Ramon’s plot unfold over the next 24 hours, that is, the season. The scheme involves, among other things, a deadly weaponized virus (called, ostensibly ominously, the Cordilla), which Ramon’s brother Hector (Vincent Laresca) has had delivered into L.A. via a well-intentioned white kid, Kyle (Riley Smith), in need of fast money to pay for his mother’s dialysis treatments. It also involves the dismantling of Jack’s life, initiated by the fact that his undercover work to catch Salazar led to a heroin addiction (Jack, you know, will do anything to achieve his ends).
In other words, Jack’s worst-day-ever pattern is this season even worse, as he’s battling, for about three episodes, anyway, very sweaty DTs. As explained by producer Joel Surnow on his commentary for Fox’s new Season Three DVD set, this storyline became repetitive early, so they dropped it (file this under: the flexibility of writing episode to episode). Throughout the season, Jack’s serial travails are complicated by multiply layered loyalties and deceits, some obvious (no good can come of Nina’s [Sarah Clarke] reappearance) and some less so (for instance, the shifting positions of the CTU mole, Gael [Jesse Borrego]). In addition to harrowing effects of his addiction, he’s beset by tensions with his new assistant (the phenomenal Mary Lynn Rajskub as Chloe, whose commentary for “1-2am” is sharp too), a re-encounter with Nina, and—no surprise—more trouble with daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert). This time, she’s working as a tech at CTU and sleeping with Jack’s shiny new partner Chase (James Badge Dale). No cougar, thank god.
And oh yes, as Sutherland notes during the commentary for producer/writer Howard Gordon on the third episode (3pm to 4pm), Jack is also forced to wear an awesomely uncomfortable hazmat costume: not only are you perspiring for hours on end, he says, “You look like a smurf with a visor.” (Sutherland’s insights as to process and politics on the show are always welcome, and sadly, for this DVD and for this set, he only speaks on one track.)
24 now seems an efficient thrill machine that repeatedly threatens to veer off in cockamamie plot torques: in taking such risks, it’s not always perfect, but it is consistently admirable and frequently excellent fun.
The third season begins with a quadruple whammy: following a brief recall of the cliff-hanging assassination attempt on President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, whom Sutherland praises for his dignity, and for making a black president appear “possible”), the camera cuts—at 1pm, “Three years later”—to a black van blasting through a wall at L.A. health services, as it delivers a corpse infected with the lethal virus. Here, the next two strands appear: Ramon’s violence, committed for Jack’s benefit, and then Kyle, nervously checking his large baggie full of white powder, which he believes to be cocaine.
As before, the storylines come together and apart with smart editing, elliptical writing, and charged up split screens. These points are reinforced by the DVD set’s impressive extras, including cast and crew commentaries on selected episodes, documentaries (”24: On the Loose” [about filming a prison sequence], “Boy and Their Toys” [the tech crew shows off], and a frankly alarming piece called “Bio Threat: Beyond the Series” [about the real-world threats of weaponized viral strains]), as well as new scenes and a multi-angle study of an elaborate “midnight shootout.” Again, 24 delivers lots of plot and info in compressed form. Or, as Gordon compliments his star, Sutherland is good at “regurgitating mushroom soup and information,” at which point the actor explains it’s a matter of “speed: do it fast and really care about it.” As a performer, he says, he’s learned to convey that “Everything that’s happening at any given moment is more important than anything else in the world.”
Just so, the show imputes urgency to every moment, with short scenes and jigsaw cuts. Each second looks to count, whether it’s Jack’s effort to break Ramon out of prison by instigating a riot that leads to a game of Russian roulette (so corny, though arguably “urgent”), or Michelle’s (Reiko Aylesworth) building dread, when she learns not only that her husband Tony (Carlos Bernard) has been shot in the neck during a failed attempt to take Kyle into custody, but also that she’s been exposed to the virus in a hotel, where she has to keep infected guests quarantined with her. The show repeatedly tricks viewers with plot twists; as Sutherland observes while watching Jack decide to break out his seemingly sworn enemy Ramon (telling Palmer that it is his last assignment—which we already know is not true, as the series is returning in 2005), “This is the beginning of what our show is, the beginning of questioning Jack’s motives, the beginning of questioning who’s playing what side, who’s immoral, who’s for real, who’s straight, who’s lying. The first couple episodes are a set up, and this is the one where we really get going.” In other words, you see you can’t trust anyone.
Among the most untrustworthy and frankly unruly characters “in play,” as Gordon puts it, is Nina (and Clarke joins Gordon in a commentary track for the episode, “10-11pm”). During his commentary (“1-2am”), Surnow rightly asserts rightly that Clarke’s performance in this and earlier incarnations (steely terrorist or “nice office girl”) registers at an “amazing” level of intensity. Nina’s on a perpetual collision course with anyone who happens by, but especially with her erstwhile lover and now arch-enemy Jack. By the time they meet up and kiss (!) at the end of the “10-11pm” episode, it’s not so much shocking as inevitable, a performance that hardly tells you what you need to know about either of them.
Just so, as Gordon insists, the season’s primary theme is a question—“What’s a cover and what’s real?” On one level what Gordon calls an “old-fashioned soap opera,” the show also develops immediate-seeming themes concerning terrorism, espionage, and, as Clarke points out, “torture,” just as Chase (who has followed Jack to Mexico in order to “rescue” him following the jailbreak) is hung up, dragged, strangled, knifed, and beaten by Hector. Indeed, it’s “almost a cathartic ritual on 24,” remarks Gordon, just before you see Chase, just freed by Hector’s passionate young wife Claudia (Vanessa Ferlito), cauterize the huge hole in his palm with a hot poker, à la Rambo. “Ewwww,” says Clarke as she watches the scene. “Don’t look.”
By way of less bloody sorts of corruption, the show offers the President’s struggles, at first having to do with a new girlfriend, Anne (Wendy Crewson), hoisted on the petard of her hardcore principles, and later having to do with his own chief of staff and brother, Wayne (D.B. Woodside). When Wayne’s past comes back to haunt Palmer during a smeary Presidential debate at USC (Wayne had an affair with Julia (Gina Torres, also known as Jasmine, evil spawn of Cordy and Connor), wife of a vengeful DC insider (Albert Hall), David does the only thing he can. He calls Sherry (Penny Johnson-Jerald). And yes, with Sherry’s reappearance, the Palmer storyline kicks back up into high gear, as she’s quick to get involved in threats, double-crosses, and murder, all, as she insists, because she “still believes” in David’s presidency.
It’s not long before David must face the consequences of this presidency, as he’s put into what co-creator Robert Cochran calls (in his commentary for “5-6am,” with Aylesworth and Bernard) “an impossible position.” That is, he’s got to choose between evils, even as Jack and his crew are working behind scenes to make these options both more complicated and less rigid. Once the virus is released inside that hotel, Palmer must deal with bioterrorist/ex-MI-5 agent Stephen Saunders (Paul Blackthorne), who is, as the president announces, “insane!” Tony uses Saunders’ daughter, Jane [Alexandra Lydon] in order to get Michelle back, and oh yes, stop the release of the virus into L.A. In other words, lots of manly melodrama.
At its best, which is frequent, 24 provides multiple tensions, ranging from soapy excess to exquisite visuals, taut story structures to lunatic twists. So principled that he’s scary, Jack Bauer makes impossible choices (this much is underlined in the season’s stunning final minutes, when he must perform an appalling violence in order to save the world, again). During a final tête-à-têtes, daddy Jack tells his daughter’s lover and potential life partner, “It took me a long time to understand that if you want to do this job well, you have to stay detached.” He’s wrong: at his most effective, dramatically and tactically, Jack is a crazy man, not detached at all, but wholly committed in 12 directions at once.