[5 May 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
In an alternative universe, Jack Bauer doesn’t know everything. Neither is he bitter and belligerent, tense and terse, deeply moralistic except when he’s forced to make immoral choices, choices he recognizes as such. Calculating according to the greater good, he incarnates the impossibility of his universe, which is to say, the universe of 24, where Jack Bauer is perpetually miserable. This universe, one that reflects your own, has made Jack Bauer this way.
That universe is opened up again in 24: Live Another Day, the ninth season of one-days rendered in realish time segments, premiering on 5 May at 8pm (before its regular time at 9pm begins next week). And as Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). This time, he’s in London, having four years ago abandoned any pretense of loyalty to the US government, which he has come to see is as corrupt and manipulative and self-interested as any of the seemingly evil entities he’s fought over his too-many 24-hour increments.
Until now, he’s remained underground, off the grid, hidden from plain sight, all those spy-world clichés that pepper the dialogue here. He surfaces because he has a reason, of course, though even as you think that to yourself, you know that this reason isn’t what it first appears to be. Jack’s a few steps ahead, again.
The first appearance is that he’s captured by the CIA as he acts out a clumsy effort to get away. It’s no surprise that Jack Bauer means to be acquired, and neither is it astonishing that the reason is Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Now a black-mascaraed, meaningfully tattooed hacktivist working with a Julian-Assangey type named Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott), she’s being held and tortured by the CIA. Specifically, she’s captured and being tortured by the “Special Activities” unit, a torture that is not only ineffective but also grisly.
Strapped to a gurney with needles in her crucifix-styled arms, she screams, awfully, creating one of those uncannily timely moments for which 24 is well known, evoking unseen nightmarish images of Clayton Locket agonizing during his botched execution in Oklahoma. The moment sets up (recalls) immediately the costs of being in Jack’s business: the pain is ever thus.
While you might imagine that the cocktail administered to Chloe produces a desired effect, you’re still aware that Special Activities has no idea what it’s doing, because Jack knows better. To that end, he anticipates pretty much every move made against him, as you might as well, given that they’re made by people designed to remind you of previous people in Jack’s universe.
There’s the CIA London unit head, Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt), who like previous heads of other units (including CTU before it was disbanded), relies on his workers to deliver information and then never quite assembles that information quickly enough. He’s assisted by Chloe-like techs like Jordan (Giles Matthey), who’s actually loyal to someone else in the unit, the recently-and-just-leaving field agent Kate (Yvonne Strahovski): these would be the new Chloe and Jack Bauer.
Just so, Jordan and Kate are repeatedly facing down internal obstruction, here I the form of the ambitious field agent, Erik (Gbenga Akinnagbe), designated to take over Kate’s position, if only she’d actually leave. That she intuits Jack’s plan, or more precisely, guesses correctly that he has a plan when no one else around her does, lets you know that, unlike her colleagues, she’s studied previous seasons and also that she’s an adversary bound to become an ally once she actually spends some time with Jack Bauer.
Kate holds her weapon like Jack Bauer and barks orders like Jack Bauer (following one such barking, “On my authority,” she’s reminded that she’s been relieved of her credentials and has no authority, but oh so what). She’ll probably be willing to abuse people like Jack Bauer, and she also solicits sympathy like Jack Bauer has done, and she may even find herself drawn to her “targets,” and then faced with the sorts of impossible choices he has faced.
For now, she’s framed to be just edgy and vulnerable enough that she solicits from you the kind of sympathy that makes you question yourself for feeling it. Because she’s in a universe where everyone else is worse—slower, meaner, more brutal, less charismatic—you go along. For now.
If Kate and Jordan rhyme a little too neatly with Jack Bauer and Chloe, the return of Audrey (Kim Raver) is less tidy, a reminder that 24, for all its inclination to structural tautness, is also sentimental. Audrey’s dad, Heller (William Devane), is now president, and he’s under threat because his administration has been running drone strikes. As protestors assemble outside his hotel in London, Heller reveals that he’s not crazy about this strategy, and would like not to do it (because Heller has always been what Jack Bauer calls—and calls again here—“a good man”). Still, he’s stuck for now, and so 24 is able to engage the political and moral trauma of drones—automated, soulless, mostly riskless killing, premised on super-sophisticated surveillance technology.
Jack Bauer’s first puzzle has to do with how a drone might be used to assassinate the president, so his universe remains, for the moment, tightly focused. It may be, as Audrey’s husband and her father’s chief of staff Mark (Tate Donovan) believes, that Jack Bauer remains rogue, or somehow means to redeem himself before Audrey (for all that trauma and torture she endured because of him). Or it may be that Mark is the weasel he appears immediately to be.
Or better, it may be that Chloe’s choices here, throwing in with Jack Bauer even when he appears to betray her in their first encounter, will shape the story of who’s redeemed and who’s cast out forever. Or it may be that in this universe, that so resembles yours, there’s no option for being cast out, for remaining out, that choices cannot be made, but are only made for her and Jack Bauer and you, too.