You won’t be seeing a cougar.
— Kiefer Sutherland, Entertainment Weekly (13 January 2006)

Terror will be met with terror.
— Terrorist, 24

It’s all connected.
— Martha (Jean Smart, 24)

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) can’t stay dead. He can’t stay quiet, patient. Or out of trouble. By the third episode of the new season, during last week’s introductory barrage of 24 episodes, he was no longer underground, removed from CTU, or living an unofficial life as a construction worker. In fact, he’s caught up in yet another terrorist situation. Or so it seems.

Nothing is ever quite what it looks like in 24, whose writers famously revise and rethink as each season barrels along. According to Sutherland, who spoke with Charlie Rose for the first week of episodes, they’ve shot 14 of the 24, which means, as they say, “anything can happen.” Wild and precise, this is one of the nastiest shows on network tv. And no one says a curse word.

What’s happening as of this season’s first five episodes is typically tense and violent and intricate and ugly, but also not quite like anything the show has done before. For one thing, Jack no longer works for CTU, a point he is fond of recalling for CTU boss Bill Buchanan (James Morrison). Bill tends to give Jack what he wants, despite the presumption by everyone but a chosen few at Season Five’s start that Jack’s dead. Bill, being one of the series’ team-focused, actual class guys, doesn’t even worry that he wasn’t among these chosen. Instead, he bears up under Jack’s trademark raspy delivery — “I’m staying inside. You want my intel, fine, but I’m doing this my way” — and says okay.

Bill’s appropriate, egoless response is hardly the norm on 24. (He even makes nice with the White House’s boy, Lynn McGill [Samwise Gamgee in a suit], sent over to keep tabs on CTU.) Too many characters are like the current president, Logan (Gregory Itzin), whose Season Four insecurity has now devolved into a self-interested myopia that’s equal parts Nixon and GW. When he learns, for instance, that terrorists have taken hostages at the Ontario Airport, threatening to interrupt his photo-oppy anti-terrorism treaty-signing with the Russian president, Logan explodes at his staunchest and most level-headed aide, Mike (Jude Ciccolella), held over from David Palmer’s (Dennis Haysbert) administration: “I want this handled. Do you understand? I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care what it take,” and then, slamming the table with his palm, “Fix it!” That such fixing might involve the loss of hostages, well, the worst thing about that is the terrorists’ commandeering of tv with their self-made demand tapes. They start shooting would-have-been passengers in the head to force the president to call off the treaty signing, claiming they are Russian separatists.

But like other terrorists on 24, these are demanding one thing but have at least one other end in mind, and are using the standard-seeming hostage situation to distract the powers that be. This after the terrorists begin the season with a series of bangs, assassinating Palmer, car-bombing the lovey-dovey-and-so-deadmeat couple Michelle (Reiko Aylesworth) and Tony (Carlos Bernard), and hunting scrunchy-faced Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub). This inspires her, so independent and tetchy, to call in Jack, who’s been hiding under another name in Mojave since last season when he died.

While resurrecting Jack is clearly Chloe’s major function in the first episode, she’s also introduced in memorable fashion, in bed with a man, and not just any man, but an underling at CTU, the bizarrely clueless Spenser (Jonah Lotan). While it’s no surprise that Chloe has control issues, it’s refreshing to see her gnarling her way through them with a one-night sex partner. Even if he does turn out to be a mole planted by wily White House Chief of Staff Walt Cummings (John Allen Nelson).

Which brings us back to Jack, as does everything in the universe of 24. It takes him about five minutes (okay, five hours in 24 time, but Jack’s always 10 steps ahead of everyone else) to figure out that the assassination is cover for the airport business which is in turn cover for the nerve gas which is in turn connected to Walt — whose sneery looks off during his early scenes tip you off that he’s a villain long before he starts making cell phone calls to a scary guy seen only in black space with green, futuristic-computer-screeny readouts floating ambiguously near his face.

Just how all this plotting will fall into a design will hinge on a few more players, including Logan’s excellent wife Martha (Jean Smart), whom he tends to think of as paranoid and crazy. When she learns he’s sending her to a hospital in Vermont, she slips loose from her assistant Evelyn (the exquisite Sandrine Holt), and escapes, much to Walt’s dismay, as Martha has information that probably incriminates him. Though Logan plainly sees Martha as a liability, he does also, on occasion, gaze on her with something approximating affection, confirmed by her apparent trust in him — soon to be demolished, of course.

By Episodes Four and Five, part of their alternative scheme is revealed: they’re moving weaponized nerve gas (Mike’s grim utterance of the words — “nerve gas” — replayed during the week’s trailers for Episode Five, is suitably unsettling). Of course terrorists are involved and a tiered plan, which leaves the yellow-tied airport “hostage” Jack spots alive and on the road with the canisters, following the expected shoot-out at the airport, during which a pack of CTU agents led by the always straight-up courageous Curtis (Roger Cross) destroys the “separatists.”

Jack and Curtis don’t share quite the intimacy that he had with Tony, which almost makes you worry about who will fulfill Jack’s “best friend” role (luckily, Tony “will pull through” and is currently lying in a medical unit bed with tubes in his arms, making infrequent appearances, looking vulnerable and leading the rest of us to anticipate a manly-love, monosyllabic reunion of the two at some point later this season. The possibility was used to lure Jack into a kill zone last week, when an assassin pretended to be Tony’s doctor in order to finish off Jack. Walt — or rather, his associate Dr. Evil — appears extremely determined to make Jack really dead this year. Lots of villains have felt this way over the previous seasons, but they’re not usually affiliated with the president. Granted, Logan is an inept leader and a weasel (when he first hears about the airport takeover, he squeaks, “Terrorists?”), but Walt makes Dick Cheney look like an amateur.

Jack is more than up to the battle with such a pro, of course. He remains a furious and sometimes sadistic character (but only when necessary). This even though (or maybe because) he is now quite surrounded by adoring women — first, his trusting landlord and perhaps-partner, Diane (Connie Britton), who comes equipped with 15-year-old Derek (Brady Corbet), and second, his former love, Audrey (Kim Raver). The tender moments (he takes time out from the nerve gas crisis to be nice to Derek and Chloe, he’s struck breathless by Audrey) only underline the darkness of the violent ones. He essentially executes President Palmer’s killer, blows up a terrorist with a cell phone trigger, and sticks scissors through someone’s neck.

He performs these dreadful acts with bleak efficiency, a victim of so much criminal violence and dutiful loyalty over so many years that he can only come back with cold proficiency, too good at what he does and too used to the costs. A pre-apocalyptic Mad Max and post-9/11 hero (who can never win, because he’s already lost everything), Jack has been reduced to bare-bones bitterness. Perversely, this stripping down makes him more complicated, and more symptomatic. And that makes him compulsively watchable, if only to see what stunning brutality he commits next.