On the sixth day, U.S. cities are under attack by terrorist bombers. “We don’t want to start a witch hunt,” a Fox News reporter quoted a government official, “but would rather err on the side of caution.” This caution, it appears, is the detainment of “suspects.” Within two minutes of this news report, another bomb went off, this time in L.A. This just after a bus driver refused an “Arab”-seeming, late-running passenger the chance to get on; other folks looked askance at the would-be rider as he protested he was only trying to get to work — like everyone else. As it turned out, he was like everyone else, and the bomber was an “Asian” fellow, picked out in close-up on the bus as he detonated his device. The frame did not cut to the “Arab” man’s reaction, but instead to a long shot showing the bus in spectacular flames.
At this point, 24 entered into its expected mode, with focus on Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), returning from a Chinese prison, where he was presumably tortured mercilessly by the odious agent played by the most excellent Tzi Ma. Handing him over to U.S. agents, including CTU director Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) and Jack’s erstwhile loyalest fellow Curtis (Roger Cross), Tzi Ma’s character noted with some grudging respect that the victim had held his literal silence, in apparent service to his nation, for two full years.
Thus, this season’s thematic poles were established: security/freedom and loyalty/betrayal. As usual, Jack embodies all elements, with the particular complication during the first hour that he was returned to the U.S. in order to sacrifice his life to stop the Stateside terrorist attacks. He was, as he put it, given a chance to “die for something,” and, after so much abuse (five previous “ongest days of his life”), also looking for “relief.” With Bill, Curtis, and the president (now David Palmer’s brother Wayne [D.B. Woodside]) all expecting him to do what they asked — that is, submit to self-proclaimed terrorist Fayed (Adoni Maropis), seeking revenge for Jack’s torture and murder of his brother — you could see why Jack read the situation this way. With everyone naively imagining his sacrifice would achieve an end promised by the obviously untrustworthy Fayed, Jack’s face revealed his exhaustion: whatever!
The show had to get around this end for Jack, of course, which it did before he could, as CTU operative Milo (Eric Balfour) put it, “[buy] the farm for nothing.” As soon as Jack killed his guard (biting through an artery in his neck: tres gruesome), he called in to CTU, “explaining” as he always does, “We don’t have a lot of time!” And so, with cell phone circuits lit up, the day’s action commenced: Jack eluded Fayed’s vengeance, though not before he saw its effect on the man’s capacity for violence.
Again, torture looks to be the primary means for the working out of 24‘s themes. While Jack was escaping Fayed and meeting a new associate, the terrorist Assad (Alexander Siddig) — who has now, he said, now renounced terrorism in pursuit of entrance into “the political process” — a domestic drama unfolded, involving the well-intentioned high school student Scott (Michael Angarano) and his neighbor and classmate Ahmed (Kal Penn). Seeing that Ahmed’s father was arrested and other white-guy neighbors ran over to beat up on Ahmed, Scott, and then his father, intervened. The mini-plot paralleled Jack’s, who discovered a traitor in Assad’s group, then ran off with Assad to escape a president-directed air strike in L.A. Ahmed was, in fact, a terrorist, and especially pissed off that Scott was allowed to be ignorant and complacent. “It’s like the whole world has gone crazy,” said Scott, by way of commiserating with Ahmed’s seeming predicament. “It’s been for a long time,” intoned Ahmed. “You just haven’t been paying attention.” (He also mispronounced Ahmed’s name, another sign of his American self-centeredness.)
While Scott was held up as typical of the American public and some officials who have vested interests, Jack, of course, was always paying attention, the ideal reader of details and motives. As soon as Fayed told him he was going to die “for nothing,” his face changed. He became Action Jack. The seeming complication this day is that he’s survived torture himself, and so he feels badly about the decisions he makes, though he’s still able to make them, for the most part.
One of the more resonant sequences during the first four hours had Jack and Assad getting to know one another. While they have any number of reasons not to trust one another: Assad, you hear repeatedly, has a 20-year history of terrorism directed against the States and Jack, well, he has a five-season history you know well. As Jack changes his shirt (dirty from the explosion he’s just endured with Assad, as well as Fayed’s torture, as well as the neck-biting), Assad saw him from behind, his scarred back a map of pain. Both men looked for long seconds at one another, each understanding the other’s dedication — to ideals, life, and sides.
When it came time to torture Assad’s traitor (whom they had brought along with them in escaping the U.S. missile attack), Jack stopped short of his usual extraction of intel, claiming that his knife to the shoulder showed the guy didn’t know anything. Assad saw the stop, and went at the suspect harder, twisting the knife until he got what he needed, then killing the traitor to boot. As they agreed to go forward with their pursuit of Fayed, apparently planning multiple attacks on U.S. cities, Jack looked upset: “I don’t know how to do this anymore,” he whisper-muttered. Assad didn’t have time for that: “You’ll remember,” he assured his new friend.
Assad and Jack’s relationship (which could, of course, turn bad at any moment, given 24‘s affection for such turns) was initially compounded by several events. One, Fayed told his own truth about Assad: he was betraying the global jihadist cause for political interaction with the West. Two, Jack was right and the administration — Palmer, his practical-minded national security advisor Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson), and his Cheneyish chief of staff Tom Lennox (Peter MacNicol) — were wrong about Assad and Fayed. Jack went so far as to kick a subway bomber off the train just as his chest exploded, thus saving a train load of passengers who weren’t “paying attention.” The admin folks were, predictably, working off less immediate data. As the lines have been drawn, Tom is pro-detention centers (“People are losing faith in our ability to protect them,” he told the president, meaning, lock up the Arabs, not included in his version of “people”) and Karen is trying to stop him. In this, she remains sane according to the 24 worldview; she’s also now married to Bill, which aligns her with the one man in CTU who believed Jack pretty much right off. (Granted, he was inclined to this position by Chloe [Mary Lynn Rajskub], who showed him evidence of Jack’s rightness via surveillance satellite imagery.)
And three, Jack shot Curtis. This was the toughest part of Hour Four, even tougher than the nuclear explosion that rocked L.A. at the hour’s end. Curtis, never especially voluble, was carrying a vengeance thing himself, regarding Assad and a battle zone encounter some years back. As Jack demonstrates repeatedly, while loyalty to ideals is good (as is loyalty to the dead David Palmer), all other objects and relationships must remain in play. As stalwart and dedicated as Jack may be, he always maintained a remarkable capacity to adapt to situations, moment by moment. Everyone needs to trust Jack, but he only trusts according to the moment. (He even distrusted Audrey [Kim Raver] for a second last season.)
To Jack’s credit, he has also never been much for racial profiling, which puts him in the company this season with the president’s sister Sandra (Regina King), an attorney affiliated with the wrongly interned Walid Al-Rezani (Harry Lennix), a legal counselor for the Islamic-American Alliance. Both Jack and Sandra, in their different capacities, oppose Tom’s efforts to get around the Constitution (she says Tom reads it “like a list of suggestions”). Still, as Jack told Curtis before he shot him, “I spent my whole life defending this country against people like Assad.” Now, however, he “doesn’t know what means anything anymore,” as “people like Assad” is no longer a coherent category, if it ever was. As Assad was (apparently) able to change attitude and strategy, so must Jack.
As 24‘s sixth day takes shape, it looks as though moral certainty isn’t what it used to be. The show has set up that Jack’s torture has changed him, unmade his self-understanding. If the season follows through on this unmaking, Jack will also be rethinking the sort of righteousness that has defined, so subjectively, security and freedom, as well as loyalty and betrayal.