People who like to be alone are witches, my grandfather says.
— Willie (Siyabulela Ramba)
“I need soldiers, not excuses.” It’s a command that might suit any number of situations during the past six seasons of 24. Indeed, at some point in each bad day endured by Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), the need comes for someone — villainous or heroic — to “man up,” to complete a mission whether or not that mission has been accepted or even acknowledged. But in this case, at the start of tonight’s two-hour prequel to Day Seven, the charge is all bad. Colonel Ike Dubaku (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) is in a hurry to kidnap — “recruit” is the word he uses — child soldiers, enough to wield the weapons he has secretly purchased from the U.S.
Jack’s entry into this mess is typically reluctant. He thinks he’s on his way out of the fictional African nation of Sangala, having stopped briefly while on the run from the U.S. government — who means to try him for the “illegal detention and torture of certain suspects,” according to the subpoena read to him by embassy nerd Frank (Gil Bellows), whose black-framed glasses and tie only make his presence in the jungle more odious. Jack’s not about to go along with this edict, but his being found out makes it impossible for him to stay any longer with his old Special Forces buddy Carl (Robert Carlyle), whom he’s been helping to look after a flock of adorable African boys.
Though he appears to be as sullen and fraught as he ever was, Jack has apparently won over at least one of these kids, Willie (Siyabulela Ramba). When he catches Willie trying to steal his knife, Jack offers him a scarf he’s been carrying around for his daughter since his last stop (in India), but doesn’t scold him for wanting the weapon. This moment bodes well for Jack, suggesting that he’s finally able to let go of fetish objects relating to Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), not to mention sympathetic to the boys’ imminent danger: here where children are forced to soldier (told to hate the “Cockroach [who] works for the government and white masters,” fed drugs and ritually abused), Jack realizes, every day is full of terror — not just the 24-hour spates he’s used to confronting. He also realizes that he can’t fix it, indeed, his being there only makes things worse, garnering U.S. official interest and, because it’s the U.S., the trouble that comes with such interest.
And so, Jack sadly packs his bag, even when Carl urges him to “stop running,” as the most effective way to find “some way to make some sense of it all” — by which we understand him to mean the sort of “it” that Jack faces daily, the following orders and completing missions and killing people that never ends, only gets pushed off to the next boss, the next crisis, the next “certain suspect” in need of enhanced interrogation.
Just so, Jack doesn’t get three steps down the road — the camera watching him recede like he’s Bill Bixby in The Hulk — before Carl’s on the phone in need of his special expertise. Dubaku (who is, by the way, working for a warlord who looks like Candyman, General Juma [Tony Todd]) is coming after the boys. Even as the right white guys gather up guns and ammunition, the bad white guy — U.N. representative Charles Solenz (Sean Cameron Michael) — does exactly the wrong thing, following his no-shooting obligation to its illogical end (“Why don’t you go hide in the shelter with the other children?” Jack sneers; in the distance, dust swirls from beneath the wheels of the fast-approaching rebels’ trucks). On his own until Carl arrives, Jack’s caught by the colonel’s brother, who strings him up and starts torturing him with a burning machete.
If ever a situation was set up for Jack Bauer’s redemption, this is it. That’s not to say he’s about to accept someone else’s punishment (“Whatever I’ve done,” he tells Carl, “I’ve paid for in full”) or that he’s even close to breaking down. Facing what might be considered brutal payback for all that torturing he’s done to others, he pretends to cry, pretends to give the answers his own victims actually did. But he remains stoic, protecting those kids as if they were the most important people on the planet. In this dedication to whatever his current mission, however he comes to it, Jack has always been admirable, if fierce and scary.
The context for his dedication is changing as he’s burned and bloodied, for back in the States, President-Elect Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) is about to take the oath of office, much to the visible chagrin of outgoing snivelly President Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe). When he calls her into the Oval Office to hand over the nuclear codes, he also mentions that, oh by the way, a coup is imminent in Sangala (“How imminent? asks Taylor. “Very!” asserts Tom [Peter MacNicol] still messing with Daniels to the last day he’s in office). When Prime Minister Motobo (Isaach de Bankolé) seeks U.S. support, Taylor is inclined to send troops, but Daniels, in charge for two more hours, will not. Taylor is suspicious, a feeling confirmed for you when, unbeknownst to her, a hyperrich guy in a topcoat, Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight), begins covering up some shady dealing — efforts that inadvertently involve Taylor’s son and so create all kinds of tensions for the upcoming Day Seven (which begins in January), including, ending-credits previews show, the return of supposedly dead Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), now working for the other side, whatever that side is.
The apparent contrast between Tony’s and Jack’s responses to their repeated abuses by their government — not to mention the traumas they have suffered and inflicted for that government — underscores Jack’s always-already redemption. Even if he has been on the run from the feds since his last go-round, now that Daniels is out and Taylor is looking more like President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), that is, someone who inspires loyalty rather than revulsion and embarrassment.
The show’s interest this season in child soldiers (check its official link to Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers) is of a piece with its previous tendencies toward topical storylines. And like the focuses of previous seasons, this one tilts between “exotic” and urgent. Jack knows the difference even if the show sometimes seems not to, and schools anyone he feels needs it.
During the emergency evacuation of Americans, for instance, Frank is briefly tempted to let through a young mother who offers him “anything” if he’ll save her baby, then visibly repulsed by his own near-sympathy. When Jack arrives with his crew of children, Frank pauses, and Jack schools him in sensationally Jack-like fashion: “Damn it Frank! They will be used as canon fodder or slaughtered in the stadium for entertainment!” Surrounded by chaos at the embassy gate, Jack and these frightened children become an oasis of narrative structure, granting viewers someone to root for — against the warlords and the Americans and U.N. soldiers who don’t see them as important, or don’t see them at all. The question is: will they remain visible during the coming day?