I think if you take it all too far, it starts to become a little Star Trek.
—Jon Cassar, commentary, “12pm-1pm”
Let me ask you something… Do the actors get sick of wearing the same clothes all the time?
—Shannen Doherty, commentary, “3pm-4pm”
I’m sure that she does not think of herself as an evil woman.
—Shohreh Aghdashloo, commentary on Dina, “8pm-9pm”
“Mary Lynn was upset when she learned she wasn’t in the first scene,” deadpans 24 producer Joel Surnow as he and actor Mary Lynn Rajskub watch the fourth season’s opening episode (“7am-8am”). As a train hurtles through darkness into a deadly bombing-and-crash, and a nefarious fellow decked out in villain-chic shoots one of the accident victims in order to get his briefcase, Rajskub sighs. “Something feels off to me, I wish I had one of those helmets on. Yes, right away: fires, shooting, blood.”
When Surnow gives away that Rajskub’s character, the brilliant and twitchy tech Chloe, does shoot someone in a later episode, she’s (mock) aghast: “You can say that on the DVD?” And yet, he’s not giving up too much info, for if this season is known for nothing else, even to those viewers who have not seen every episode, it is know for its increased violence and the ugly forms it took. Specifically, it’s known as the ““torture season,” owing to the fact that multiple characters take up the practice, most visibly and repeatedly the usually morally inclined Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).
All this torture is variously named, always painful, sometimes inhumane treatments of suspects or folks with info they’re afraid to give up. Most everyone in 24 works in a hurry, owing to the evolving-crisis-a-day structure, and so the torturers this season—including Jack, the terrorists Navi Araz (Nestor Serrano) and Habib Marwan (Arnold Vosloo), the L.A. Counter Terrorism Unit’s Curtis (Roger R. Cross), new CTU head Erin Driscoll (Alberta Watson), even Jack’s new boss, Secretary of Defense Heller (William Devane)—all feel pressured to get their work done now, and so torture is granted a harried and compelling rationale. But, even as the series pitches from one freefalling moment to another, it repeatedly questions such action-movie-standard decisions, not only by characters abused, but also by those who observe and perpetrate.
While the action is jumping throughout the season, the thematic throughline has to do with loss. Everyone from Jack to Marwan to Audrey loses some sense of dignity, certainty, and hope, not to mention faith the state’s capacity to sustain order. Particularly admirable is 24‘s consistent complications of terror and righteousness: though the terrorists seem well defined (even if they do include the palest white guy pilot on the planet), they are also plagued by familial, ideological, and religious imperatives.
So, while everyone knows that Jack’s been through hell over the previous three seasons, having saved the U.S. president, the nation, and the globe, while losing his wife to his psycho-terrorist ex and shepherding daughter Kim through a few too many traumas. This season, he’s stripped of the old familial ties and even, it seems at first, the CTU job. But you know he can’t do his drama without the Unit, and so, it’s only a matter of minutes before he’s back in play, trying to straddle his new job and being new boyfriend to the Secretary’s daughter Audrey (Kim Raver).
While Surnow and Rajskub take some delight in pointing out the 24 conventions (surly man on a cell phone = villain; split screens = tension-unto-commercial-break), they also point out the difficulties of performing on a show that moves so quickly and comes together in the editing room. As Surnow points out, “The computers and cell phones are characters on her show.” The early scenes at CTU (redesigned after being destroyed last season, a process detailed in the featurette, “Breaking Ground: Building the New CTU”), revisit the familiar tight shots; mobile, internal, and obstructed frames; and shadowy corners. While, as director Jon Cassar says during his commentary with production designer Joseph Hodges over Episode Six (“12pm to 1pm”), the show only rarely “establishes the outside of the building,” as a means to mark locations and instead relies on characters as signs of political plot and emotional content.
All this speed—aesthetic and narrative—is enhanced by the show’s format. Cassar notes that the split screens and the technology (the cell phones, the surveillance tech), as well as the swift walks through CTU’s all-basement spaces or the impossibly fast drives around L.A.‘s roadways all ratchet up the tension and insinuate a complex politics. Commenting on the season’s final episode (“6am-7am”), co-creator and writer Bob Cochran says that the “extreme situations” allowed by the basic, repeated plot (terrorism) allows for all sorts of sliding around in shape and technique. He and his co-commentator, editor Scott Powell laugh over Chloe’s sudden violent turn (“That was so bitchin’,” says Powell, adding that Edgar Stiles [Louis Lombardi], the computer nerd whose photographic memory becomes a running theme and irritation for Chloe, will the next to “kick ass”).
Powell and Cochran also note the tremendous range of emotion and design the series permit, especially as these situations create and exacerbate conflicts between powerful authorities and the field agents sent to do their dirty work. “We’ve really come to love, as writers, the upstairs-downstairs aspect,” says Cochran. He adds that the rift with China, over Jack and company’s assault on the embassy, to extract a torturable suspect, reflects the current U.S. balancing act, as “relationships with other countries are affected, sometimes adversely, by the things we do in the war against terrorism.”
Season Four follows the plot model set by previous seasons, but also digs even more deeply into the ways that the fight, however good it seems, drags its heroes into the muck. Jack is as dark this year as he’s ever been, even though he begins looking so hopeful with Audrey. Plot and character turns in 24 are notoriously wild: this season’s first episode begins with a terrorist bombing and ends with Heller and Audrey’s violent kidnapping, but it also sets up the strategy for the next 23 episodes: characters and plots appear and disappear, with no one guaranteed survival.
Just so, Chloe’s geeky friend Andrew (Lukas Haas) starts a ball rolling by noticing the uploading of malicious code from Turkey, and Audrey’s estranged, pasty-faced husband Paul (James Frain) whines to Audrey that he deserves a second chance, endures Jack’s electroshock torture (to extract info he doesn’t have), and eventually proves himself a more earnest comrade to Jack than steely-fragile-alternating Audrey seems capable of being. And, while it’s clear from her first odious sashay into CTU that Marianne (Aisha Tyler, deemed “AIIIEEEE!sha!” by Television Without Pity’s entertaining recapper) is trouble, poor Curtis has to spend several episodes trying to convince his compatriots that she’s coming “from a bad place.” She’s so creepy and bossy in her CTU scenes (especially when she’s bullying Edgar), that you’re glad to see her pay a price.
This bad place idea affects the entire season, in that characters who think they’re doing right (or at least managing their own self-defense) tend not to be, because they’re starting wrong. Audrey’s younger brother Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), long hair hanging in his face and gargantuan rebellious chip on his shoulder, makes repeated mistakes and conjures retarded lies, inciting—you guessed it—torture at the hands of CTU agents (his pain compounded by his father’s condoning of the decision after the fact). Jack’s tactics give Audrey pause; as he’s headed in to question Richard, she warns her brother, “I saw him torture someone today. It’s what he’s trained to do. He won’t stop hurting you until you tell him the truth.”
Or not. The truth throughout the season is compromised and undermined by torture. Richard’s collapse under various “interrogation” techniques (his dad’s berating is awful in its own way) makes him an emblematic torture victim—feeling that his own truth is too terrible to tell, frightened to trust anyone and appalled that his weakness has been exploited to get to his father (or, as Heller sees himself, an extension of the U.S. government). Similarly, torture becomes a domestic problem for the “terrorist family,” the Arazes. Introduced in their sunny suburban home (“Nice warm colors,” says Hodges), Navi, his wife Dina (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and high schooler son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) are in the midst of a squabble over “this American girl” the boy likes. As they sit down to breakfast, the tv in the kitchen reports the train bombing. And with that, their mission is in motion.
As Surnow recalls, the Iranian-born Aghdashloo was not eager to take the part of a sleeper cell adherent, but “after meeting with us and reading the script, she said that it was after watching the beheadings that she was going to do it.” Rajskub adds that Aghdashloo then “got it I the press,” as stories circulated concerning exactly this issue, that she was playing a stereotype. The character turns considerably more complicated and conflicted than the stereotype, in part because of Aghdashloo’s frankly stunning performance (Cassar, like everyone else who talks about her, extols her skill and intensity) and in part because Dina faces all manner of contradictions in her faith, family, and sense of duty. Chief among these is Navi’s insistence that she go along with killing their son, following Behrooz’s apparent betrayal.
Aghdashloo describes Dina as a woman who has no options. Speaking with producer Tim Iacofano for Episode 14 (“8pm-9pm”), she explains that she wrote a short story to create a background for Dina:
The feeling I had for this woman at the beginning is that she’s been commissioned, she’s been trained, she’s been designed for her mission of destruction and would just go ahead and take care of each and every problem one by one like a well-channeled machine. The only thing that could really decode her program was the love for her son: this is where she turns into a female, a prehistoric female sometimes.
This mix of precise and primitive responses emerges most formidably in the scene where Dina says goodbye to Behrooz, imagining that she will not see him again. Her embrace and kisses are passionate but definitive, the communication of a mother who so deeply loves her son that she will turn her back on her faith and her life in order to save him. At the same time, Aghdashloo says, she wonders what Mohammed Atta was thinking of on the morning of 9/11. “Sometimes I feel like these people are like body snatchers, they’ve been put to sleep somewhere, they’re not the real human beings, they are the models.” Putting together pieces of thought, like a jigsaw puzzle, she asks, “What if Dina was Mohammed Atta’s mother?” (Aghdashloo also wonders out loud what viewers wondered, concerning Dina’s fate, which underlines the writers’ famous capacity for flipping expectations into outrageous and often very rewarding twists).
Quite clearly, Dina’s ever-strained position as a dedicated warrior and devoted parent parallels Jack’s (this even though Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is, thankfully, nowhere in sight this year). When the face down, Jack determined to use her concern for her son as a way to get her to help his mission (to stop Navi and Marwan and their malevolent minions) “No one is innocent,” Dina tells Jack, who looks genuinely hurt by the suggestion. And then he turns it around, using her belief to get his way. As writer Evan Katz says during his commentary (“3pm-4pm”), “This show’s really about this series of dilemmas,” none resolved.
(For no clear reason, Katz’s co-commentator is the astonishing Shannen Doherty, a dedicated 24 fan who happened by the studio on a day they were recording commentary. Some of her questions might be those you’d ask [was the shape of the show, with split screens, for instance, hard to pitch to the network?], but she also tends to love the show too much, noting Sutherland’s brilliance and his “deliberate choices”—no kidding.)
Such irresolution seems nearly delirious by season’s end, as Jack takes on still more blame for things going wrong. Loyal to former president David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert, still Sutherland’s very best split-screen/phone partner) in every possible way, Jack displeases the weasely acting president and the shadowy spy-guys who really run the backrooms, and so he’s treated with the sort of disrespect that befits a hero who holds firm to (his version of moral) mission in the face of international fronting.
Jack’s fall only means he’ll be back in Season Five (beginning in January 2006), and underlines his melodramatic self-image. Hard and expert in so many things manly, he’s also he most emotionally beset action hero on tv. His friendship with Tony (Carlos Bernard) reaches a sort of crescendo this year, in all sorts of not-quite-spoken declarations of love, is focused through his inability to be domesticated to suit Audrey. Even if he is a part of what Warren St. John has called “Neanderthal TV,” Jack’s eternally sad, damaged, and yearning (New York Times 11 December 2005). Understanding his torturing of suspects as necessary and yet, too much to let him back into Audrey’s world, Jack steps off. Until he’s back.