Last night’s season finale was not a total disappointment although you could say that of the five previous finales, this one was the worst. There were no real shocks, no big surprises, no deaths of major characters. But in my opinion, the last 10 minutes of the second hour redeemed the entire night and perhaps the entire season.
Jack’s soliloquy at the end, addressing Secretary Heller and letting loose all of his frustrations, his pain, and his doubts about himself and what he has become actually tied up some loose ends from the last 4 seasons. Jack Bauer is not unaware of what he has had to do to protect the United States and what the rivers of blood he has had to wade through have made him. He hates himself for what he has become.
As I have noted since the season started, his obsession with Audrey is based on the fact that she is his last link to the world of the normal, the sane. When Jack almost tearfully tells Heller that he wants his life back, he is referring to the first season when life included family, a home he could find refuge in, the support of his wife, the love of his daughter. This veneer of normalcy (despite the problems with both wife and daughter) gave him a psychological grounding that allowed him to justify his work to himself as necessary. He clearly saw himself as a patriot doing good works. Was it pathetic of him to believe that all of that could be recaptured if only he could be with Audrey? Heller thought so as I think we were to believe as well.
As his life darkened in succeeding years and he immersed himself more and more into his work, it became harder to justify what he was doing in the name of the United States alone. In the end, his fanatical determination to get the job done – to win – overrode any personal considerations or doubts about the methods he was using. And his accusations against Heller during that excellent acting turn by Kiefer Sutherland revealed a Jack Bauer who knows that he was used by politicians and policy makers as the bluntest of instruments to save their own rotten hides when the security of the United States was on the line. All they had to do was appeal to his patriotism and point him toward the terrorists. Jack did the rest and made them all look good.
More than two years ago, I asked the question is Jack Bauer a patriot or a thug? To answer that question, I hearkened back to a time when America was young and worshipped the legends of Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett. Those two “hunter heroes’ epitomized American exceptionalism – lone figures set against he backdrop of the American frontier, fighting wild animals and Indians, independent, self-reliant, willing to go against the grain to get the job done.
Much has happened to Jack in two years. I think in a very real sense, he has become an anti-hero, related more to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” gunman whose latent violent proclivities are used to protect the weak and innocent rather than an unsullied hero who selflessly sacrifices himself for his country. No matter what you think of his methods, justified or not, the fact is that Jack Bauer has blood on his hands. No real hero would allow his personal feelings of revenge to affect his work. And this year, more than any other, the palpable feeling imparted to the audience was that Jack had turned his mission into a personal quest for payback. Not necessarily only against the Chinese but against anything and everything that had made him what he is.
I wish the writers had fleshed out this resentment a little more during the course of the season. It would have made Jack’s confrontation with Heller that much more dramatic. As it was, coming after Jack had basically left his father to die, it was emotionally charged drama – especially for longtime viewers of the show who recall how Jack almost worshipped the ground that Heller walked on, looking upon him as a surrogate father. Seeing him as one of the main authors of his pain and suffering had to leave Jack feeling bereft. And when Heller hammered home the point that whoever Jack touches ends up dead or ruined, Bauer must have realized that he could never go home, that the road he must travel from here on out would be a lonely one, a road to nowhere. And the only solace he will find, the only peace available to him, perhaps the only thing that will redeem him in his own eyes, will be his own death.
That, I believe, will be the basis for next year’s show. It will almost certainly be the last given the fact that Kiefer Sutherland’s contract runs out in 2008. And the disappointing ratings this year probably mean that the show has run its course with TV viewers. As has been pointed out by critics, they’ve done just about everything as far as existential threats to the United States – nukes, gas, bio-terror, assassinations. About the only place they haven’t gone is inside Jack Bauer.
Can a character-driven season like that succeed? Sutherland is certainly a good enough actor to carry it off provided the writing is crisp and the underlying story a little more plausible than we’ve seen recently. Rumor has it that the show will leave the confines of CTU which makes sense given the fact that Karen and Bill will be retired and Chloe will be on maternity leave. If they make next year’s season a personal quest for Bauer, those characters and their special abilities and connections could probably function as Jack’s technical back-up on whatever mission he will be on.
The real question is do we still care enough about Jack Bauer to watch him week in and week out? My personal answer is yes although I have doubts that the show will ever be able to recapture the kind of audience (17 million two years ago compared to about 10 million today) that it had in its heyday. No matter. The core fanatics like me will watch anything with Jack Bauer in it and thus give the show a nice send off into TV history.
And when that history is written, it will note that 24 changed TV drama for good and Jack Bauer will go down as one of the more unforgettable television characters ever.
The show premiered two months after 9/11. At the time, the country was ready for a TV drama to take the American people into a world where terrorism was more than something you simply read about but rather was a bona fide threat to our safety and security. Five years out, we forget that basic fact at our own peril. And eventually, we won’t have 24 around to remind us.
NOTE: My recap of last night’s finale will be up around 11:00 AM Central.